A key figure in the history of reggae Desmond Dekker popularised the real authentic sound of Jamaican music worldwide from 1967 through to 1975.

Desmond Adolphus Dacres, born Kingston, Jamaica, 16th July 1941, lost his mother at an early age and moved to Seaforth in the parish of St. Thomas to the east of Kingston where he was raised by his father. On returning to Kingston he began to apprenticeship as a welder, on South Camp Road, in the same engineering shop as Bob Marley and Eddie 'Tan Tan' Thornton where he would sing along as the radio played songs by Nat King Cole, brook Benton, Jackie Wilson and the Platters. Encouraged by a workmate he auditioned unsuccessfully with a number of Kingston's record producers before arriving undeterred at Beverley's Ice Cream Parlour & Record Shop at 135A Orange Street in 1962.

"A friend made me try several auditions without success whilst the boss was getting fed up with all the time I was taking off... eventually I was given an appointment to see Mr Kong of Beverley's Records. I waited all afternoon, until overcome with impatience and worry about work, I broke through the door and forced my way in."
Desmond Dekker

In the back of the shop he was met by Leslie Kong rehearsing two of Beverley's hottest acts: Jimmy Cliff and Derrick Morgan.

"I confronted Mr. Kong and insisted that he tell me whether he was interested or not. 'After all you called for me to come' I told him. 'So you want to hear me or not?'"
Desmond Dekker

Rehearsals were suspended long enough for the precocious young welder to perform four songs including, his own composition 'Honour Your Mother And Father', which he sang six times. They were so impressed with the song that Leslie Kong and Derrick Morgan, "Derrick Morgan was the man at Beverley's", agreed to give the young man a chance and he recorded the song the next week at Kingston's Federal Studios. 'Honour Your Mother And Father' was released credited to 'Desmond Dekker'/Decker', a stage name given to him by Leslie Kong, on Beverley's Records in Jamaica and on Chris Blackwell's Island Records in the UK backed with another of Desmond's own songs 'Madgie'. The record was a big seller, at home and abroad, but Desmond continued working as a welder and managed to persuade his boss to give him some more time off work to record the follow-up single, 'Labour For Learning', backed by 'Parents'.

Desmond next recruited four singers known collectively as The Four Aces, Clive Campbell, Easton Barrington Howard, Wilson James & Patrick Johnson, who together recorded the soaring 'King Of Ska' as Desmond Dekker and his Cherry Pies also released on Beverley's in Kingston and Island in London in 1964. Patrick Johnson and Clive Campbell left the group not long afterwards and the trio of Desmond Dekker, 'Barry' Howard and Wilson James became Desmond Dekker & The Aces.

The group now embarked on creating a superb series of hit records including 'Jeserene', 'This Woman', 'It Was Only A Dream' and 'Wise Man' and, like so many other singers and songwriters, 'rock steady was the key', to the group's big breakthrough. They won the Best Group Award for 1966 and The Sonny Bradshaw Cup when they performed with Byron lee and The Dragonaires in Kingston's National Arena. But the seminal '007', structured around one of Lyn Taitt's best ever guitar patterns, eclipsed all of Desmond Dekker & The Aces' previous achievements. Using cinematic references, '007 at Oceans 11' to describe the conflict between the forces of law and order and the rude boys in Kingston's 'shanty town' ghettos, the song was a total triumph.

"It was actually about the troubles that had been happening in Jamaica at the time. There had been student riots and the police and soldiers had been called in to break them up. It was like in the movies... I just wrote what I saw happening, but people in the UK liked the tune, even if they didn't really understand what the song was all abut."
Desmond Dekker

Jamaican music had already struck a chord with mod audiences in London and when '007' was released on Graeme Goodall's Pyramid label in the UK it was played incessantly in the capital's clubs. The record was playlisted on the offshore pirate radio ships too and fully reached Number 14 in the UK National Charts in the summer of 1967. It was the first Jamaican produced record to ever achieve this level of success and "Desmond Dekker & The Aces went on a short, chaotic tour of England to support the song". They returned to Kingston soon afterwards and their entry in that year's Festival Song Contest, 'Unity', was the runner-up to The Jamaicans victorious 'Baba Boom'. Desmond and the Aces collected £100 as winners of the 'Desnoe & Geddes Sparkling Beverage Award' and continued to regularly scale the Jamaican charts with songs such as 'Mother Young Girl' and 'Rudy Got Soul'. Next year their 'Intensified Festival '68', partly inspired by the Intensified Tide detergent ads", won the song contest. It was backed by the sublime 'Coconut Water' and, to be able to relegate a tune of this power and beauty to a b-side is an indication of Desmond Dekker's untrammelled creativity during these heady times and an avalanche of hits followed including 'It Mek', 'Sabotage' and 'Hey Grandma'. As the decade drew towards a close rock steady transformed into the faster rhythms of reggae and Desmond Dekker & The Aces struck again with 'Poor Me Israelites' which portrayed Kingston's sufferers enduring the same tribulations as the lost tribes of Israel in the Old Testament.

"I was telling people not to give up as things will get better... It's about how hard life was in Jamaica... how we were all downtrodden. Just like the Israelites who Moses led to the promised land."
Desmond Dekker

"Desmond Dekker was probably the biggest star in Jamaican music then and the man everyone looked to as reggae's standard bearer abroad."
Kevin O'Brien Chang & Wayne Chen

And, as always, Desmond Dekker did not disappoint. The record remixed by Graeme Goodall and re-titled 'Israelites', reached Number 1 in the UK in the spring of 1969 and Desmond Dekker & The Aces then hit the upper echelons of the American charts that summer. The record "also topped the charts in West Germany, Holland, Sweden, Canada and South Africa" where it was pressed on a 10" shellac 78rpm disc. These were momentous, unprecedented breakthroughs and Desmond Dekker became "the man who brought the sounds of reggae's golden age to the world's attention". 'A It Mek', previously a hit in Jamaica and an underground sensation with England's Jamaican community, was re-released to become their third UK hit reaching Number 7 that summer. After the Aces "chose not to participate in a European promotional tour" of clubs and ballrooms Desmond Dekker relocated to London but maintained his other all important Jamaican connections. The entertaining 'Pickney Gal', with Desmond Dekker accompanied by a children's chorus, made it to Number 42 early in 1970 and, that summer, Desmond's interpretation of Jimmy Cliff's 'You Can Get It If You really Want' hit Number 2 in the UK National Charts.

Leslie Kong had continued to build rhythms in Kingston while Desmond wrote lyrics and promoted the songs live on stage in the UK but tragedy struck when Leslie Kong died from a sudden heart attack on 9th August 1971 aged 37. they had been described as more like father and son than artist and producer and Desmond Dekker was devastated by Leslie Kong's untimely demise. He had been Desmond's mentor throughout his career and instrumental in guiding him on the road to success. Their professional relationship was unique in the annals of reggae music for, from his recording debut in 1962, Desmond had never, ever recorded for another producer.

"His death really cut me up. When Les died, I didn't know what to do or what to say. Once he wasn't there to make decisions for me I was afraid to make them on my own, for fear that they would be the wrong ones."
Desmond Dekker

Beverley's Records had been an unstoppable force in Jamaican music for the best part of a decade but Leslie Kong, a Chinese Jamaican, has rarely received the respect that is rightly due for his pivotal role in its development. The polished, perfection of his productions differed to what would later become the clichéd sound of "roots, rock, reggae" music. He was one of the island's first record producers to make meaningful inroads into the international scene where, following Desmond Dekker's worldwide breakthrough, 'Wonderful World, Beautiful People' by Jimmy Cliff, 'Rivers Of Babylon' and 'Sweet Sensation' by The Melodians, 'Monkey Man' by The Maytals and 'Long Shot Kick De Bucket' from The Pioneers all entered the UK National Charts. During the late sixties and early seventies Beverley's Records, driven by Hux Brown's dynamic guitar work, became the immediately recognisable sound of crossover reggae. The Gaylads' 'There's A Fire', Bruce Ruffin's 'Dry Up your Tears' and Ken Boothe's 'Freedom Street' all proved just a popular in the reggae market but inexplicably failed to make the National Charts.

Graeme Goodall and Warrick Lyn had both played a part in Leslie Kong's productions of Desmond Dekker's last set of recordings for Beverley's but Desmond now turned to Bruce White and Tony Cousins. they had formed a London based artist management company and booking agency, Commercial Entertainments, in 1964 which handled the bookings for Jamaican acts touring the UK and their roster included Millicent 'Millie' Small, The Maytals, The Melodians, Bob (Andy) & Marcia (Griffiths), Byron Lee & The Dragonaires and Desmond Dekker. the pair began producing records for their own Creole Records label and also licensed material to Trojan Records under the production alias of Bruce Anthony. Adding a distinct pop flavour to their London reggae recordings they would enjoy considerable success with Alex 'Judge Dread' Hughes purveyor of a string of risqué hit records at home in the UK and the first white reggae artist to ever hit in Jamaica. Desmond was confident and upbeat that he had found a suitable replacement for Beverley's.

"When I first came over here, no-one could understand how to do the reggae stuff properly. Since then, things have changed a bit... I've taught a lot of people myself."
Desmond Dekker

"Obviously I want to progress but I'm going to do it little by little, get it over gradually. I'm in no hurry... everything is working out just fine."
Desmond Dekker

Desmond's final appearance in the UK National Charts came in the summer of 1975 when 'Sing A Little Song' on the Creole subsidiary, Cactus Records, reached Number 16. His "music was firmly rooted in the everyday realities of Jamaican life" and his recorded work sadly began to lose much of its focus and he never troubled the charts again. Styles and fashions inexorably changed and Desmond Dekker, despite being one of Jamaica's greatest, most accomplished singers and songwriters, was now regarded as an anachronism. There was no crossover audience for Jamaican music until Desmond Dekker created it but reggae's new adherents wanted some supposed seriousness with their music and felt that a man who regularly appeared on 'Top Of The Pops' in a suit was not able to provide it. How wrong could they be? Desmond Dekker's copious and consistent catalogue of hits, free from any commercial compromise, delved deep into the roots of Jamaica and dealt with moral, cultural and social issues through the language of current street talk, Biblical references and folk wisdom... and all were superb songs that you could dance too.

He continued to record for a variety of labels and producers over the ensuing decades doing far more than revisiting past glories notably on 1980's 'Black & Dekker' album for Stiff Records where he was backed by The Rumour, the Robert Palmer production 'Compass Point' the following year and 'King Of Kings', a run through of original ska hits, with The specials in 1993. And, despite declining sales, his live shows never ceased to be a huge attraction on the UK and European club and concert circuit. His versatility and on stage charisma remained undiminished and his appeal never faded. On 25th May 2006, while preparing to headline a world music festival in Prague, he died of a heart attack at his home in Thornton Heath to the south of London. He is sadly missed and how and why he has yet to receive his long overdue accolades remains one of the mysteries of the music. Inexplicably, and despite his amazing achievements and considerable crossover success, Desmond Dekker has yet to be regarded as a genuine giant of the genre.

"'Israelites' was the first reggae music to get to No.1 in England. All over the world, it opened the door for reggae music. At the time, I said reggae music would never die. People enjoyed the music so much that you knew it was going to last."
Desmond Dekker

Harry Hacks - February 2018



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