Trojan
 
 

In the late sixties, the British music scene was rocked to its core by an exciting new style emanating from a small island in the Caribbean. The place was of course Jamaica and the music, Reggae. And at the very forefront of this phenomenon was an unassuming young performer whose unique style enraptured listeners across the UK and beyond. His name? Desmond Dekker. And this is his story...

Desmond came into this world on July 16th 1943 in St. Andrew's, Jamaica, but it was in Kingston, the island's bustling capital that he spent his early years. As a youth, he attended the famed Alpha Boy's School, but the sudden death of his mother led to his relocation to the countryside, first moving to St. Mary's then on to Danver's Pen in the parish of St. Thomas. Throughout this time, he regularly performed with the local church choir, although it was an altogether different kind of music that sparked his desire to become a singer, as he recently recalled:

"At Alpha there was music there, but I always loved singing from an early age, but the person who really inspired me was Nat 'King' Cole, he was my idol. One time, I was coming home and I went to see a friend named Clinton. And he was playing this Nat 'King' Cole record called 'Stardust (Melody)' and I went into a trance. I spent hours listening to it, over and over again - I just fell in love with his voice. Later, I used to watch the 'Alan Freed Rock & Roll Show' on TV and see people like Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson and The Platters, who I used to like. But Still, it was really Nat 'King' Cole who inspired me."

Upon completion of his schooling at the age of fifteen, Desmond needed to find a trade and after working for a couple of years as an apprentice tailor, he returned to Kingston where he found gainful employment as an engineer and welder at the Standard Engineering works. It was here that he first met and befriended another Standard employee who also had ambitions as a performer, Bob Marley. Desmond recently revealed how these two future giants of popular music came to meet:

"I was there when he (Marley) first came to Standard engineering with his mum. Mr. Millard, my boss asked me to look after him and we often used to work on the same jobs together. I sometimes used to hang out with Bob at the yard. Where we used to work, if you went up on the roof, you could see right over Sabrina Park, so sometimes, me and Bob used to go there with some buns and Fantas and watch them playing. It was cricket in the day and football at night. bob loved to play football and I sometimes used to watch him play. I didn't play cos cricket was more my thing. We kept in touch even after he made it big with The Wailers and we played at the Sunsplash once. Right up to the end, we remained friends."

But in the early sixties, as now, there was no shortage of venues to hear the latest sounds in Kingston and Desmond was no stranger to the hippest venues:

"Every Saturday night I used to go along to Maxfield Avenue, where all the big sound systems used to play, Duke Reid, Coxsone, Prince Buster... and every Sunday I used to go to the Silver Slipper Club, where they used to have a Martini Dance, but I never used to dance, really. I just stood and listened to the music, taking it all in."

Incredibly, despite Desmond's undoubted talents as a singer and songwriter, he lacked the confidence to fulfill his aspirations, but his work mates had no such doubts about his abilities:

"I used to sing after school and in the church choir, but I never thought I was good enough to put my words on record until I was learning engineering and welding and my friends told me that I sounded good. After awhile, I began to take them serious and they said to me, why don't you give it a try, what have you got to lose? So anyway, I heard about Leslie Kong at Beverley's (Records) was auditioning for new artists. So I took one afternoon off work to go down and audition for him, but he couldn't see me. So I tried again, but again he wouldn't see me. And my boss - we called him Tower -  was getting really fed up with me. And when I asked to go again, I could see he wasn't very happy - as though he'd given up on me. But I really loved my job, so when I went down again to Beverley's and Leslie Kong still wouldn't see me, I got very annoyed, because I knew my boss wouldn't let me have any more time off, so I forced my way into Beverley's and I said to Mr. Kong, 'Do you want to hear me or not?' So he stopped the rehearsals and said, 'Alright, sing'. So I sang him some of my songs, including 'Honour your Mother And Father', and I remember, Theophilus Beckford was playing piano and halfway through the song, he stopped and started to laugh. And Leslie Kong asked him why he was laughing. Then Theophilus said, 'This is a really god song.' So Leslie Kong sort of just smiled and afterwards, he asked me to record the song, so the next week, I went down to Federal and recorded the song and another one called 'Madgie'. There were other singers who recorded for Leslie Kong that day - Frank Cosmo, a singer called Eric Smith, Andy & Joey... but mine was the only song which became a hit."

Issued on Kong's Beverley's imprint. 'Honour your mother And Father' (backed with 'Madgie') became a number one hit on the island., but despite its success, Desmond was still not convinced of his long term future as a singer:

"Well, after 'Honour your Mother And Father' was a big hit, I went back to see my boss and I asked him if the singing didn't work out, could I come back and start working for him again? And he said. 'Of course' and that was the moment I decided to become a singer full time, because I knew if it didn't work out, I could go back to my old job."

There was of course no real need for such caution, with subsequent singles, such as 'Labour For Learning' and 'Parents' proving hugely popular with Jamaican audiences. By the mid-sixties, Desmond was widely considered to be one of the island's most promising young performers, but for all his popularity, Desmond was far from content to rest on his laurels and when, in the mid-sixties, a trend developed in Jamaica for vocal group recordings, he decided to take action:

"There was a lot of vocal groups coming through in Jamaica at the time. You had Alton Ellis and the Flames, the Paragons, the Wailers... so I thought maybe I should get together with a group. At first I cut 'King Of Ska' with a group of guys called the Cherry Pies. They recorded 'Cherry Pie' for Leslie Kong and he gave them their name. I did just two songs with them (the other being 'Jeserene'). Then, the Four Aces came to Beverley's and they made about three records for Beverley's. Their big one was called 'Hoochy Koochy Kai Po', which had sold quite well. Anyway, the Four Aces asked me if I'd like to sing with them as they didn't really have a lead singer, so I told them 'sure', but they'd have to ask Leslie Kong as he was my manager at the time. So they made an agreement with Leslie Kong so that they could sing with me. So that's how we got together. There was Clive Alphonso (Campbell), Barry (Howard, aka Al Barry), Carl (Winston James Samuel) and a guy named Patrick (Johnson). Our first song together was called 'Get Up Edina' and that was a big hit. We then did some other tunes, like 'This Woman' and 'Mount Zion'. Then Patrick left and the group became just the Aces."

Soon after Johnson's departure, Desmond and the group became one of the island's first acts to achieve international success with a Jamaican produced recording. '007 (Shanty Town)'. When the record breached the UK charts in July 1967, it's popularity in Britain came as a complete surprise to Desmond:

"I was amazed when '007' became a hit in England, because I thought people wouldn't understand the lyrics. It was actually about the troubles that were happening in Jamaica at the time. There'd been student riots and the police and soldiers had been called in to break them up. It was like in the movies, '007' and 'Ocean's Eleven' (the television programme). But I think people here (in Britain) liked the tune even if they didn't really understand what the song was all about."

To promote the disc, the group was invited to London, but while Desmond, Barry Howard and Carl Samuel readily accepted the offer, Clive Campbell refused to travel due to a fear of flying. After a successful tour, the trio returned to jamaica and quickly resumed the task of making hit records and over the ensuing months, enjoyed further success with a series of best-selling 45s. Among these was a song called 'Sabotage':

"I remember writing 'Sabotage' one time at WIRL (recording studio), after we turned up to do some recordings, but the bass player never showed. So we were all standing around the studio and I just sat down at the piano and started playing and the chorus just came to me... "sabotage, sabotage, you're trying to hurt me with sabotage..." So Leslie Kong came over and said 'I like that, remember it next time you come to record'. Then, in '68, I wrote 'Intensified' (aka 'Music Like Dirt'), because the year before, we'd only come second with 'Unity', behind the Jamaicans 'BA BA Boom', which won it. I must admit, that was a better song than mine. So when the competition came around again, I made sure we won it. After that, I thought 'I've won it, let someone else win next time', so I didn't enter after that."

By 1968, Clive Campbell had left the Aces permanently to work on a cruise ship, but his departure failed to dent the popularity of the group. In the wake of their Festival Songs winner, Leslie Kong released another album of their material, suitably titled 'Intensified', which featured some of the trio's hits, along with a number of new recordings, including a song called 'Poor Me Israelites'. The track was subsequently selected as the group's next UK single and it quickly became a firm favourite among Britain's West Indian community and the country's growing 'Skinhead' fraternity. Unfortunately, the BBC in their wisdom claimed the disc was poorly mixed and refused to add it to their play-lists. As a result, the song was remixed and re-submitted to the all powerful Corporation with a different title, 'Israelites'. second time around the Beeb offered no objections to the quality of its production and over the next few months, sales of the single steadily grew. In March 1969, it finally breached the UK charts and a month later, 'Israelites' became the first Jamaican produced single ever to hit the number one spot in Britain. The feat was subsequently repeated in West Germany, Holland, Sweden, South Africa and Canada, while in the USA it broke into the Billboard Pop chart in May, before eventually peaking at number nine. Yet despite the astonishing success of the song, its meaning was completely lost on most non-Jamaican listeners:

"Well it (the song) is really about how hard things were for a lot of people in Jamaica. Downtrodden, like the Israelites that Moses led to the Promised Land. And I was really saying that no matter how bad things are, there is always a calm after the storm, so don't give up on things. things will get better if you just hold out long enough. Anyway, when 'Israelites' hit, I was surprised because nobody could really understand what it was about. People thought I was singing 'My ears are alight' and that when I sang 'I get up in the morning slaving for bread, sir', they thought I was saying 'Get up in the morning, baked beans for breakfast'! But still, people loved it and of course it became a big, big hit for me."

The follow-up single 'It Miek' was also lifted from the 'Intensified' album and like 'Israelites' was remixed and re-named (it had originally been issued as 'A It Mek') prior to its UK release. Although the record failed to reach the dizzy heights of the group's previous release, it was still a major hit across Europe and peaked at number seven in the British charts in the summer of '69. Yet again, the song meant little to those unfamiliar with Jamaican patois and to clarify the issue, Desmond recently explained the meaning of its lyrics:

"It's about my little sister, who was a real tomboy. She was always joining in all the games with the boys and one time, I came back from work and I caught her, so she ran away to hide and jumped into a gully, but fell and hurt her leg, so she cried out for iced water to put on it. 'It Mek' means 'That's why'."

In January 1970 'Pickney Gal' provided Desmond And The Aces with their third successive British chart entry, with the single peaking at number 45. The basis for the song's lyrics had been an incident Desmond experienced while in London:

"I wrote 'Pickney Gal' when I came over in 1969 and was staying at this hotel near Regent's Park. I had some money, which this girl stole, but she denied, but it had to be her, because nobody else was around."

Around the summer of 1970, Desmond signed for Trojan Records and decided to make London his permanent base of operations, although it would be some time before Barry Howard and Carl Samuel would join him. Although he occasionally still returned to the country of his birth to record, from now on most of Desmond's vocals were recorded in London over rhythm tracks Kong had produced in Kingston.

One of Desmond's first solo recordings was unusual in that unlike the bulk of his work to date, it was not an original composition. Written by Jimmy Cliff, 'You Can Get It If You Really Want' soon became Desmond's second biggest selling record, and was just pipped to the UK number one spot by Elvis Presley's 'The Wonder Of You'. Subsequent singles, 'The Songs We Used To Sing (Where Did it Go)', followed by 'Licking Stick' b/w 'The More You live' sold well but failed to dent the UK charts. Then tragedy struck. In August 1971 Desmond's friend and mentor, Leslie Kong died from a sudden heart attack, with the effect upon the singer's career proving catastrophic, as Desmond later explained:

"He (Leslie Kong) was the first person I worked with in the music business. I hadn't worked with anyone else, so you know it really hit me hard. Not long before he died, I went over to Jamaica and recorded quite a few songs and he was going to pick the next single when he next came over to England, but when he came over, he didn't choose which song to put out. He said he'd pick the single next time he came over, but then he died, so it was never chosen. Eventually Trojan put these songs on a double album called 'Double Dekker', which I was very disappointed with, as there was some strong material."

Without Kong to guide him, Desmond became an easy target for those willing to take advantage. Their gain was Desmond's loss and the singer's career went into free-fall. A five-year hit-free period ensued and when his career did finally get back on track, it was his 1969 hit 'Israelites' that provided the catalyst. Re-released in 1975 by popular demand, the song once more again broke into the British listings, where it eventually peaked at number ten. Its success returned Desmond to the spotlight and paved the way for another hit and that Autumn, 'Sing A Little Song', reached number 16 in the UK charts. But the change in Desmond's fortune was short-lived and further hits failed to materialize.

Over the next five years, Desmond's career suffered a series of setbacks, and while he continued to perform on the club circuit in Britain and on the continent, he became increasing detached from the contemporary music scene. The Ska revival of the late seventies led to renewed interest in Desmond as a performer and in 1980, he signed to one of the UK's leading independent labels, Stiff. His initial recordings for the company saw him united with the British New Wave group, Graham Parker and The Rumour, but the resulting 'Black And Dekker' album proved commercially unsuccessful. To rectify matters, Robert Palmer was brought in to oversee Desmond's next LP, 'Compass point', but while the end product proved far more rewarding, sales were once again disappointing and he was dropped from Stiff's roster. But worse was to come, when in 1984, a British court declared him bankrupt. It was a terrible comedown for a man whose undoubted talents should have ensured a long and prosperous career in the music business. Such setbacks can make or break a man and in the wake of these terrible events, Desmond showed he was made of sterner stuff. Over the next few years, he worked hard to revive his fortunes and in 1987, perseverance was finally rewarded when he was offered a contract with Trojan Records, Desmond had finally come back home.

In the years since, he has recorded a series of well-received albums for the company, which along with his electric live performances have earned him a whole new generation of fans. Although the recordings on this anthology span some 36 years, they all have that unique Desmond Dekker style stamped on them, with his skills as a performer unaffected by the passing of time. Whether or not he will be able to repeat those heady days of the past, only time will tell, but one thing is certain, there will definitely never be another quite like Desmond Dekker, the original King of Reggae.

LAURENCE CANE-HONEYSETT

Honour Your Mother And Father
Parents
Labour For Learning
Jeserene
King Of Ska
Get Up Edina
This Woman
Mount Zion
Wise Man
007 (Shanty Town)
Rudy Got Soul
Unity
Mothers Young Girl
Sabotage
Pretty Africa
It Pays
Mother Long Tongue
Young Generation
Beautiful And Dangerous
Fu Manchu
Mother Pepper
Don't Blame Me
Hey Grandma
Music Like Dirt
A It Mek
Israelites
Nincompoop
It Miek
Too Much Too Soon
Problems
Pickney Gal
Generation
You Can Get It If You Really Want
The Songs We Used To Sing
Archie Wah Wah
Hippopotamus
Reggae Recipe
Look What They Are Doing To Me
Licking Stick
Live And Learn
Sing A Song
Dance The Night Away
This Woman
Baby Come Back
King Of Ska
Jamaica Ska
Moving On
Young Generation
Happy Birthday Jamaica
Jamaica Farewell

Trojan
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