Reggae Pioneer Desmond Dekker Dies

Desmond DekkerThe music world lost one of its greats last Friday: Reggae and ska pioneer Desmond Dekker died suddenly from an apparent heart attack at his home in Surrey, England. The loss of a still-vital performer comes as a crushing blow to his appreciators: The 64-year-old Jamaican artist, still thrilling audiences as recently as May 11, was just about to embark upon a European tour.

Dekker’s manager Delroy Williams told the UK’s Guardian that he had seen the singer-songwriter the night before and that he had appeared to be well. “It is such a shock, I don’t think I will ever get over this,” he said. “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.”

Indeed true: When noting the architects of the Jamaican sufferahs’ music, the names you hear most often – even from people in the know – are Marley, of course, Peter Tosh, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Bunny Livingston, Jimmy Cliff, Jacob Miller, Studio One chief Coxsone Dodd, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney. But yes, before all these unquestionable greats became well known, there was Desmond Dekker and the Aces and the sizzling 1969 ska hit, “Israelites.”

“It was an amazing song,” Marley and reggae archivist, Reggae Beat magazine founder and Reggae Grammy Committee chair Roger Steffens told me in a 2000 interview. “There are only a few occasions in life where you experience a moment where everything changes. That moment in 1969 was it for me, and nothing’s been the same ever since.”

When “Israelites” hit the airwaves, it filled the air with sounds and stories new to most in the UK and the US. Intrigued listeners knew little about the crippling poverty and discrimination experienced by many in Dekker’s world and had no clue about the Jamaican patois liberally sprinkled through the lyrics. Still, they rewarded Dekker with huge pop-chart success: The single hit number 10 in America, and in Britain, the song went straight to number one. It became, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the first purely Jamaican song to top the charts in the United States, and opened the ears of the world to the music of the island.”

Dekker, who gave up a welding job to sign with Jamaican music impresario Leslie Kong and follow his musical dream, explained his success in a 1996 Boston Globe piece: “I just got lucky. It was the right song at the right time… Many people didn’t understand it, but it had a nice vibe.”

It’s a vibe not easily ignored. Ska is one of the most infectious subgenres of reggae. With the music’s vibrant, colorful horns, its breakneck pace, and its roots in old-school American R&B, it was irresistable. When newbies caught a taste of Dekker’s “Israelites,” they were captivated and compelled to listen and to dance.

Written while walking through a park in Jamaica, [the song] speaks to the problems of the nation’s poor trying to make ends meet. Like the biblical Israelites, they are downtrodden and wandering.

Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir,
So that every mouth can be fed.
Poor me, the Israelite.
Shirt them a-tear up, trousers are gone.
I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.
Poor me, the Israelite.”

As a lyricist, Mr. Dekker viewed himself as a “newscaster,” a reporter with an eye for what resonates with everyman – and a good singing voice. …

[H]is success helped open the door for fellow countryman Marley, who had worked with Mr. Dekker during his days as a welder. Mr. Dekker introduced Marley to the record company that would produce his first record.

Dekker enjoyed other success rful discs, including “007 (Shanty Town)” and “Rude Boy Train,” and became the first star of Kingston’s 1960s rude-boy scene, which featured wild ska and dancehall sound systems and parties often marked by gunfire and unruly behavior by violent gangs of sharp-dressed teen boys. After moving to Britain in the 1970s, Dekker scored another hit, a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” By the early 1980s, he had his last big hurrah during England’s two-tone ska craze. And by 1984, Marley was a dead hero – and Dekker was mired in bankruptcy.

The financial woes only pushed him to work harder in the live-show arena. A dedicated musician known for putting on high-energy performances, Dekker’s shows continued to electrify crowds up until his final May 11 performance in the UK’s Leeds.

His manager wants music fans to remember Dekker as a pioneer who was a dedicated professional and reggae’s first international superstar. “He wasn’t out there like other stars partying all the time, he just did his job,” Williams said. “He lived for his music and his children.”

He will be missed, but there is good news: Desmond Dekker’s still relevant music will live forever.

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