Friday, May 26, 2006

REGGAEOBIT: DESMOND DEKKER

The sudden death of Desmond Dekker has been announced by his manager, Delroy Williams:

"It is such a shock. I don't think I will ever get over this," he said, adding that Dekker led the way for reggae stars such as Bob Marley.

"Desmond was the first legend, believe it or not. When he released Israelites nobody had heard of Bob Marley - he paved the way for all of them."


Dekker was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1941, and nearly didn't manage to make the leap from welder to reggae legend: audtions for both Coxsonne Dodd and Duke Reid were both coolly received; the third time - with Leslie Kong at the Beverley label - proved the charm, but even so, it was nearly two years before he'd get to cut a record.

The wait was part of Kong's strategy, though: Leslie believed that Dekker needed to be matched to the perfect song, and when, in 1963 Honour Your Father and Mother came his way, he realised that would be the song. With the song, and a new name (he'd been born with the less skanktastic surname Dacres) Dekker started a series of singles which would soon see him eclipse the stars of the Studio One and Treasure Isle.

His fourth single - King of Ska - saw him backed by a band then known as The Cherrypies; they would go on to reform themselves into the Maytals, but it was clear that Dekker needed something more permanent. The four Howard brothers were formed into a more-than-makeshift backing unit, and it was as Desmond Dekker and The Aces that the sound would go global.

In 1967, and influnced by the new rude boy culture, Desmond recorded 007 (Shanty Town). Finding its way to the UK, it was picked up by the mod movement which was enough to shoot Dekker into the Top 20 and provided the basis for the first of what would be many British tours over the next forty years.

The following year, Dekker released the wonderful, wonderful Israelites, a track which would give him his sole UK number one and the distinction of being the first Jamaican track to achieve any level of success in the American market. As well as its April 1969 topping of the UK chart, it would also go to number one in The Netherlands, South Africa, Canada, Sweden and West Germany. Naturally, it would also lead the Jamaican charts.

The Israelites would have a long afterlife - a re-release following a record label takeover in 1975 took it back into the top ten; less gloriously, Dekker's impassioned song about freedom was reworked to flog Vitalite butter-replacement gunk in a TV commercial.

Dekker relocated to Great Britain in the early 1970s, recording and touring. Despite his reservations about Jimmy Cliff's You Can Get It If You Really Want, he was persuaded to give it a go; the slightly softer sound helped him gain back some of the ground he'd lost in terms of sales.

The 1971 death of Leslie Kong was a setback, both personally and in career terms, and while a new production partnership with Bruce Anthony spawned 1974's Sing A Little Song generated a top ten hit, Dekker found a follow-up difficult. Changing times - and too long away - also saw his popularity in Jamaica start to wane.

His saviours came from Coventry. The Two-Tone movement knew genius when it heard it, and while some musical movements are happy to just take the sound, The Specials, Madness and the others loved the opportunity to work with their heroes. Dekker ended up alongside Lene Lovich and Deaf School on the Stiff label. Not everything he did in this period was that inspired - he re-recorded a lot of his old material with The Rumour (as in Graham Parker and...) and while this spawned a Belgian chart hit from the new version of the Israelites, it's not perhaps the best way to remember him.

The work didn't really pay well, either, and in 1984 Dekker was forced to declare bankruptcy. He still toured, though, and continued to rework his (and other people's) old songs - 1992's King of Kings with The Specials, for example, and the more recent umpteenth version of the Israelites with Apache Indian.

Reports from his live shows last year suggested that Dekker was in poor health - the sets he played were short and fans spotted that he "looked like death."

Desmond Dekker was 64. He died at his Surrey home.


2 comments:

Richie said...

That's the best obituary I've read yet - very knowledgeable and a fitting tribute to Desmond Dekker.

Josie Hill said...

Hi,

Would you like to join our global phone in program www.bbcnews.com/worldhaveyoursay
We are talking about the death, and life of Desmond Dekker. What did he mean to you? What did he mean to reggae music? What is his legacy and so on?
If you are available today and would like to contribute to the show, please get in touch:

priya.shah@bbc.co.uk
Write: Josie in the subject

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