Desmond Dekker

In one of his numerous hits, Desmond Dekker urged everyone to 'Sing A Little Song' (indeed, that came perilously close to being this album's title.) That's exactly what he himself has been doing for over 40 years now: singing infectious, outrageously catchy songs in his unique light, springy and biting voice. He's one of very few Jamaican-born singers whose style is instantly recognisable - two bars into the vocal, and you know that it's him. This sumptuous anthology, the most complete chronicle of his career ever assembled, brings together a whopping 59 of those 'little songs', many of which were far from little in terms of their sales figures.

Born Desmond Dacres in St Andrew's in 1941, he moved to Kingston as a boy then, after the death of his mother, moved with his father to St Thomas. After leaving school, he started to work as a tailor but, like many youths, his main preoccupation was with music. "The interest was there from day one, from when I was old enough to walk and talk", he told Trojan's Laurence Cane-Honeysett in a recent interview, "and over the years I just get to love it more". His early favourites included many of the R&B artists who were all the rage in Jamaica in the Fifties, such as Jackie Wilson, Brook Benton and The Platters. Perhaps surprisingly, though, his favourite was the smooth-toned Nat King Cole.

By the early Sixties Desmond had moved back to Kingston. Here he worked as a welder at the Standard Engineering Co. - where one of his workmates was a youth called Robert Marley - and here, at last, he could absorb copious draughts of music. On Saturday nights he'd be in the Maxfield Avenue area, listening to the top sound systems of the day: Duke Reid, Prince Buster And Sir Coxsone Downbeat. On Sundays you'd find him at the genteel-sounding Martini Dances at the Silver Slipper Club, not dancing much but intently listening to and absorbing the music. He also went to concerts that were held at theatres such as The Carib in Kingston, where he could watch Jamaica's first generation of recording stars in action. "I used to watch Derrick Morgan, Owen Grey, Jimmy Cliff, Count Prince Miller and The Blues Busters", he recalls. "I liked to hang around them guys because I learned a lot from them".

By 1963, Desmond was beginning to figure out that anything they could do, he could do: not necessarily better, but differently. After all, both Owen Grey, who was about the same age as him, and Jimmy Cliff, who was several years younger, were already established hit-makers. He began composing songs and encouraged by his workmates, sought an audition with Leslie Kong, the Chinese-Jamaican ice-cream parlour owner who had become a hot record producer with a string of hits on his Beverley's label.

Desmond's boss, Mr Millward, allowed him time off work to attend a Beverley's audition, he duly went along and joined the queue of hopefuls, but Kong didn't have time to see the young welder. The same thing happened the next time he tried, and he sensed that Mr Millward, whose nickname of 'Tower' suggests a powerful physical presence, was losing patience with him. So he virtually gate-crashed the third audition that he attended. It was a risky move, but one which worked. "I forced my way into Beverley's and said to Mr Kong, "Do you want to hear me or not?" so he stopped the rehearsal and said "all right, sing" explains Desmond. So I sang him some of my songs, including 'Honour Your Mother And Father'. Theophilus Beckford was playing piano, and halfway through the song he stopped and started to laugh and said that it was a really good song".

Leslie Kong, who had been in the record business for only about a year at that time, had the nous to heed the words of the seasoned 'Snappy' Beckford. Within a week he whisked the young singer down to Federal Studios to record 'Honour', which opens the first disc of this anthology and its original B-side 'Madgie' ("Her real name was Madge, we were friends" explains Desmond), at a session attended by several other young hopefuls. "Frank Como, Andy & Joey and a singer called Eric (Adam) Smith recorded for Leslie Kong that day, but mine was the only song which became a 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?" With its catchy tune, its moral message and of course Desmond's bright delivery, 'Honour' did indeed become a hit, so much so that he soon gave in his notice at Standard Engineering. The accommodating Mr. Millward told him that if his singing career didn't work out, he could have his old job back - but he hasn't returned yet! So began a fruitful eight-year collaboration between Kong and Dekker; most unusually in the label-hopping Kingston music business, the singer remained faithful to Beverley's and, except for occasional sessions for Graeme Goodall's Doctor Bird label and a few spots for BBC radio in England, recorded for no-one else until after the producer's untimely death in 1971.

Those were Desmond Dekker's glory years. His early Ska hits like the furious 'King Of Ska'. on which he's backed by the Cherry Pies and maybe a Maytal or two, and the soaring 'Mount Zion', one of his first recordings with his long-serving backing vocalists The Aces, propelled him to star status and by 1966 he was way up there alongside Prince Buster and Beverley's label-mate Derrick Morgan as one of Jamaica's most popular solo singers. His records sold quite well in England too, to ex-pat West Indians and Mods, but in that year, he cut the song that would take his career to a higher plane: '007', also known as 'Shanty Town'. "It was about the troubles that were happening in Jamaica at the time" says Desmond. "There had 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 11 (a TV cop series). I was amazed when it became a hit in England, because I thought people wouldn't understand the lyrics. But I think people there liked the tune even if they didn't understand the song".

People sure did, including this writer: it was the first West Indian record I ever bought. And yes, I thought that Desmond was singing "Them a losing their shoes and their way", rather than the grimier "Them a loot. them a shoot. them a wail". The record didn't lose its way, though - heavily promoted on pirate radio, it crashed the Top 20 in July 1967 and reached no. 14. Like most of his singles, the song was self-composed, as were most of the classic Rocksteady releases that followed it over the next couple of years: enduring numbers like 'Rudy's Got Soul' and 'Rude Boy Train' which are still part of Desmond's stage act today, forgotten but fine sides like 'Beautiful And Dangerous', and the 1967 Jamaican Song Festival entry 'Unity'. Unexpectedly. the song didn't win, as Desmond remembers: "We only came second with 'Unity', behind the Jamaican's with 'Ba Ba Boom', I must admit that was a better song than mine. So when the competition came around again (in 1968) I made sure that we won it; I wrote 'Intensified'. I thought, well, I've won it, let someone else win next time, so I didn't enter after that".

Later that year, however, he cut the song that was to move him up to the next, much higher, level. '(Poor Mi) Israelites' was one of his first recordings in the new developing Reggae style, and like many of his compositions it had a serious message. "It's about how hard things were for a lot of people in Jamaica - downtrodden, like the Israelites that Moses led to the Promised Land. I was really saying... don't give up, things will get better if you just hold out long enough."

The record is so familiar now, it's hard to remember the tremendous impact that it had on listeners the first time that they heard it. After heavy underground sales over a long period, it finally entered the UK charts at No. 40 in March 1969. that's when this writer first heard it: then an impoverished student, I was knocked out by the powerful, propulsive rhythm as well as by Desmond's spring-in-their-step vocals. I had the choice of buying lunch or buying the record, and it was no contest: late afternoon saw me, hungry but happy, emerging from Birmingham's wonderful Diskery shop with a brown paper bag containing THAT record, a record which went on not only to become the nation's No.1, but to crack the US Top Ten as well.

It's typical of our man's versatility that his follow-up hit was a complete contrast: after the universal message of 'Israelites' came 'It Mek', a ditty about the misfortunes of his little sister! Record buyers in Britain were interested enough in her adventures to send that one into the Top Ten as well: the singer's live appearances in Britain no doubt gave it a leg up too. About that time, he recorded the BBC session from which the medley that closes our first disc is taken.

Disc two kicks off with yet another chart hit, 'Pickney Gal', which was the last of some 20 of Desmond's singles to be released on the aforementioned Graeme Goodall's Pyramid label that represented Beverley's in the UK for some three years. Leslie Kong then pacted with the up-and-coming Trojan label who were burning up the charts with artists like The Upsetters and Jimmy Cliff; and it was Jimmy who wrote 'You Can Get It If You Really Want' which went almost all the way to the top in 1973, becoming the only one of Desmond's hits which was written by somebody else.

Desmond, now domiciled in England, stayed with Trojan for a couple of years, either periodically returning to Kingston to record, or recording in London over Kong-produced backing tracks. He didn't have any more hits, but he was by now a well established artist, and could always be relied upon to come up with a good song. Some of his lesser known offerings appear on disc two, numbers such as the late Beverley's production 'Licking Stick' (check out his amazing Louis Armstrong impersonation on it's original B-side 'Live And Learn'). Just before Leslie Kong's death in 1971, Desmond recorded extensively, but few if any of those tracks came out as singles. Instead Trojan issued them as the double LP 'Double Dekker' from which such tracks as 'Archie Wah Wah', 'Warlock' and 'Life Of Opportunity' are taken; as the LP wasn't a big seller, these tracks have tended to go unnoticed until now.

In 1972 he signed a recording contract with Bruce White and Tony Cousins' Creole organisation and had several strong releases on their Rhino label, but even such catchy Dekkerisms as 'Busted Lad' and 'Sing A Little Song' didn't return him to the charts. However, when the company reissued his original recording of 'Israelites' in 1975, it became a hit all over again, reaching No.10 in 1975. Creole then reissued 'Sing A Little Song', on their Cactus label this time, and it too was successful, peaking at No.16. Desmond was a hit maker once again, but he has mixed memories of Creole: "They really didn't push my career. 'Sing A Little Song' could have got higher in the charts, eventually I got really fed up just sitting around waiting for things to happen, so I left them."

After a period of relative inactivity on the recording front, his next major port of call was the then-trendy Stiff label, home of such hit-makers as Madness, in the early eighties when the Two-Tone Ska revival was in full swing. If Stiff had recorded him with Madness, or maybe The Specials, he might well have found favour with record buyers again. However, they chose to send him to Compass Point studios in the Bahamas, to work with American musicians. This adventurous approach, which spawned the 'Black And Dekker' LP and a number of singles, was far too ahead of its time to find commercial success, although, as tracks like the aptly titled 'Moving On' show, some good music came out of it.

As it happened, Desmond did get to record with The Specials, but not until 1993, when, back at Trojan, he made the fine and zestful 'King Of Kings' LP with them. Consisting of new versions of Ska classics, like Byron Lee & The Dragonaires' 'Jamaican Ska', which rounds off this anthology, it's the best album (as distinct from collection of singles) that Desmond has ever made: he's in sparkling form as he pays affectionate tribute to classics of the sixties, and if you haven't got the album, it is still on catalogue. What are you waiting for?

He has progressed from cutting cloth to cutting hits, from welding steel to forging an enduring career. Now in the 21st century, Desmond Dekker continues to perform live around Britain and Europe, still delighting packed audiences. As far as his music goes, they really want it, and he makes sure that they can get it - as you can with this sparkling selection.


Honour Your Mother And Father
Labour For Learning
King Of Ska
Get Up Edina
This Woman
Mount Zion
It's A Shame
Wise Man
0.0.7. (Shanty Town)
Rudy Got Soul
Rude Boy Train
Mother's Young Gal
Young Generation
Keep A Cool Head
Mother Long Tongue
Pretty Africa
It Pays
Beautiful And Dangerous
Mother Pepper
Don't Blame Me
Intensified '68 (Music Like Dirt)
Fu Manchu
(Poor Mi) Israelites
It Mek
Ob-la-di Ob-la-da / Wise Man (Medley)
Pickney Gal
You Can Get It If You Really Want
You Got Soul
Polka Dot
(Where Did It Go) The Song We used To Sing
Get Up Little Suzie
My Reward
Archie Wah Wah
Licking Stick
Live And Learn (The More You Live)
Life Of Opportunity
It Gotta Be So
First Time For A Long Time
Mother Nature
Sing A Little Song
(I'm A) Busted Lad
Money And Friends
Moving On
Book Of Rules
Hot City
Dance The Night Away (Live)
Jamaica Ska

All material © Trojan Records