Singer Desmond Dekker, who died aged 63, on May 25 at his home in Thornton Heath, London, predated the great Bob Marley in bringing reggae and ska to a global audience.
Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres in St Andrew, Jamaica on July 16, 1942, Dekker initially worked as a tailor and then a welder, singing around his workplace. With the encouragement of his fellow workers he auditioned for Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid at Studio One and Treasure Isle respectively.
They rejected him but he found better luck at Leslie Kong’s Beverley record label where he auditioned before Derrick Morgan, the company’s biggest star. Morgan was impressed and Kong agreed to mentor Dekker, waiting for the perfect song with which to show off his young charge’s falsetto vocals.
Recorded in 1963, that song was Honour Your Father and Mother – issued in the UK under the influential Island Record label resplendent with Dekker’s newly changed name. He went on to have an unprecedented string of 20 No 1 hits in Jamaica in the mid to late sixties including the still much lauded King of Ska.
But it was the release in 1966 of 007 (Shanty Town) that established Dekker as an international star. Reaching number 15 in the UK charts its infectious rhythm and tales of rude boy antics heralded a more earthy lyrical style for Dekker, inspired by his appearance on Derrick Morgan’s Tougher Than Tough and was followed by songs such as Rude Boy Train and Rudy Got Soul.
In 1969, though, came his greatest hit, Israelites, which spent 14 weeks in the UK culminating in a No 1. Even more significant, it became the first record by a Jamaican artist to reach the top ten in America.
Building on his UK success he released It Meik months later, which reached number seven. His constant touring paved the way for many other Jamaican performers and he remained the most famous international reggae artist until the arrival on Bob Marley.
He took permanent residency in the UK in 1969 and achieved minor success with Pickney Gal, reaching number 42, before scoring another massive hit with Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want, which reached number two in 1970.
Kong died in 1971 and apart from a reissue of Israelites and Sing a Little Song in 1975, Dekker had no more hits in the UK.
He attempted a comeback during the 2 Tone ska revival at the end of the seventies but his recording of the album Black and Dekker with Graham Parker’s backing band the Rumour was not a commercial success. A follow up on Stiff Records was his last attempt to break the UK charts again.
In 1984 he was declared bankrupt but remained a popular performer on the club scene.