Trojan
 

As March 1969 drew to a close, a 7" single featuring a vocal group little known outside Jamaica, crept into the Top 40 of the UK pop chart. The record's popularity had in fact been growing on the British club scene for months, enjoying steady sales despite lacking radio support from the country's only official nationwide radio station, BBC Radio One. When the disc finally punctured the listings, the organisation had little option but to finally relent and consent to it receiving air time, so allowing the British public at large to discover the recording's compelling new sound. Its exposure to a wider audience led to a surge in sales that within weeks pushed the single to the top of the national listings: on 22nd April, 'Israelites' by Desmond Dekker & the Aces was the nation's new Number One.

It was an immense achievement that was soon repeated in other countries around the globe, yet little was still widely known at this time about the style of music of its creators, despite the group's chart success two years earlier with a similarly perplexing title '007'. It was clear, however, that their popularity had been largely due to the talents of their named frontman, Desmond Dekker, whose rise to global stardom had been anything but straightforward...

Born on 16th July 1943 in St Andrew's, Jamaica, Desmond spent his early years living with his family in the island's bustling capital, Kingston, where he briefly attended the famed Alpha Boys School for boys before abruptly relocating to the countryside following the sudden passing of his mother. After initially settling in St Mary's, in the northeast of the island, a more permanent home was made in Danver's Pen in the parish of St Thomas. A naturally shy and introverted youth, he was encouraged throughout this time to perform at school and with the local church choirs., although it was an altogether different kind of music that initially sparked his desire to become a singer, as he later recalled:

"At Alpha there was music there, but I always loved singing from an early age, but the person who really inspire 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' 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 the completion of his schooling at the age of fifteen, Desmond sought a trade and after working locally as an apprentice tailor, 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 ambitious youth who shared his aspirations in making a name for himself in the music business:

"I was there when (Bob 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 Sabina Park, so sometime 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."

Throughout this time Desmond furthered his musical education by listening to the latest sounds on the local dancehall scene:

"Every Saturday night I used to go along to Maxfield Avenue, where all the big sound systems used to play - Duke Reid, Coxson, 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."

By now, Desmond had honed his singing and song-writing skills, yet despite impressing his work colleagues with his musical talent, he initially doubted his abilities:

"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 a while, 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. 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 ad 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 good song'. So Leslie Kong just sort of smiled and afterwards, he asked me to record 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."

Released early in 1963 on Leslie Kong's Beverley's imprint, 'Honour Your Mother And Father' c/w 'Madgie' became a huge seller on the island, yet despite its success, Desmond remained unconvinced of his long-term future as a singer:

"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."

Any such caution was all but abandoned when subsequent singles, notably 'Labour For Learning' and 'Parents' led to the ambitious young singer-songwriter being widely hailed as one of the island's most promising talents, but by the mid-60s, a developing trend on Kingston's music scene convinced him of the need to adapt or run the risk of returning to working 9 to 5:

"There were a lot of vocal groups coming through in Jamaica at that 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... I did just two songs with them. 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, as '007' slipped into the UK Top 50 on 18th July 1967 before racing up to the number 14 position just two weeks later. Its popularity in Britain, some 8 months after its Jamaican issue, came as a complete surprise to the singer:

"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's been student riots and the police and soldiers had been called in to break them up. It was like in the movies, '007' and (the popular TV series) 'Ocean's Eleven'. But I think people here (in Britain) liked the tune even if they didn't really understand what the song was 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 UK tour, the trio returned to Jamaica and quickly resumed the task of making records for the local market, swiftly reaffirming their hit-making credentials with a series of bestselling 45s, one of which was '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 line just came to me... 'sabotage, sabotage, you tying to hurt me with sabotage...' so Leslie Kong came over and said 'I like that, remember it next time you come to record'."

By this time, Campbell had left the Aces permanently to work on a cruise ship, but his departure failed to dent the group's popularity, either at home or in the UK, where the trio returned early in 1968. In between their live dates, they also recorded a number of sides for Doctor Bird boss, Graeme Goodall, at the former Federal Studios engineer's compact studio in West London. Backed by local band, the Rudies, Desmond and the Aces cut a handful of sides, most notably 'My Precious Love', 'To Sir With Love' (aka 'My Lonely World') and the haunting rock steady number, 'Fu Manchu'.

Meanwhile, Kong gathered a dozen of the group's most popular tracks from the preceding year or so for their first Jamaican long player. 'Action!'. While the collection proved a popular showcase locally, it failed to see issue in Britain, where Goodall had recently issued a similar collection of their work entitled '007 Shanty Town'.

As the year unfolded, Desmond and the Aces enjoyed further significant success at home with a series of exceptional rock steady 45s, most notably 'Beautiful And Dangerous', 'Bongo Gal', 'Mother Pepper', 'Hey Grandma' and their Jamaican Festival song contest entry, 'Intensified' (aka 'Music Like Dirt').

"In '68, I wrote 'Intensified' because the year before, we'd only come second (in the song contest) 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 it next time', so I didn't enter after that."

Numerous tours dates followed, while their next single, 'Ah It Mek' ensured their continued presence in the Jamaican charts throughout the summer, although it was their next 45, issued that autumn, that would ultimately take Desmond Dekker & the Aces to the top of pop charts around the globe: 'Poor Me Israelites'. Initial sales of the discs were relatively modest and when, around the close of 1968, Kong included the track on a second collection of the trio's work, for its title he preferred 'Intensified' - by far their most successful of their recordings that year.

Yet again, Graeme Goodall, who since 1966 had enjoyed exclusive rights to Kong's Beverley's productions outside Jamaica, chose not to issue the LP in the UK, but did recognise in 'Poor Me Israelites' all the ingredients for another major hit. After retitling the song as simply, 'Israelites', he issued the recording on his Pyramid subsidiary and witnessed significant demand not only among the country's Afro-Caribbean population, but also substantial numbers of young, white and predominantly working class youths, drawn to its compelling rhythm, hypnotic delivery and largely unintelligible (to our ears at least) lyrics.

Eventually interest in the record proved so overwhelming that the BBC reluctantly added it to their playlists, resulting in its rapid and relentless rise up the charts. On 22nd April 1969, just five weeks after breaching the Top 50, 'Israelites' became the first Jamaican-produced single ever to hit the British Number One spot. The extraordinary feat was subsequently repeated in West Germany, Holland, Sweden, South Africa and Canada, while the single broke into the US Billboard pop chart in May, before eventually peaking at number nine. Yet despite the astonishing popularity of the song its meaning was completely lost on most non-Jamaican listeners.

"Well, (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 really could 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."

For the follow-up, Goodall revived 'Ah It Mek', re-mixing the track before reissuing it as 'It Mek', and while the record was unable to attain the dizzy heights of the group's previous 45, it sold well enough to become a significant hit in mainland Europe and the UK, reaching 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 later explained its meaning:

"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 ice water to put it on. 'It Mek' means 'That's why'.

The immense popularity of the trio's chart hits persuaded them to make London their primary base, although by this time they rarely worked together as a unit, with Howard and Samuels initially declining to accompany their lead singer to the UK. Consequently, Desmond reluctantly resumed his solo career, promptly tasting mainstream success with 'Pickney Gal' before making it all the way up to Number Two in the charts in the late summer of 1970 with 'You Can Get It If You Really Want'.

Now signed to the county's leading reggae company, Trojan Records, the singer's future as Jamaica's most popular performer seemed assured, but in August 1971, his career suffered a crushing blow when his producer and mentor, Leslie Kong, suffered a fatal heart attack. It was a tragedy that was to have a devastating effect on his career.

Meanwhile, once in the UK, the Aces worked primarily under the auspices of Bruce White and Tony Cousins, the promoters-turned-producers who, in the spring of '72, launched Creole Records Ltd. Soon after, the ambitious London-based entrepreneurs acquired Desmond's signature, although, still shocked by the recent passing of his friend and mentor, the singer struggled to reverse his declining fortunes.

Eventually, some three years after signing with White and Cousins, providence smiled on him once more, as the ever-popular 'Israelites' secured his long awaited return to the Top Ten. Just a few months later, the jaunty 'Sing A Little Song', cut a few years earlier, provided the singer with another major hit, but after further mainstream successes failed to materialise there followed a prolonged period in the musical wilderness. As for the Aces, they too had faded from the spotlight and following a one-off single for EMI in 1975, all but called it a day.

Desmond, on the other hand, was due to enjoy another renaissance, as the ska revival of the late seventies resulted in renewed interest in his work and a new recording deal with respected London-based independent, Stiff Records.

But unfortunately, the good times would not last and dogged by personal problems, he endured another downturn in his fortunes, hitting an all-time low in 1984 when he was declared bankrupt. Yet all was not lost and when fellow Jamaican expat, Delroy Williams took on the role of his manager, Desmond's situation improved slowly but surely. There followed numerous live dates and, in '87, a contract with Trojan, which over the next dozen years resulted in five new albums, but tragically, with his problems apparently banished, he suffered what proved to be a fatal heart attack at his London home in the early hours of Thursday 25th May 2006.

This collection, comprising his two Beverley's albums, along with the remainder of Desmond's rock steady recordings with the Aces from the late sixties, demonstrates just what was lost to the world that day. Many of the tracks featured herein are today widely regarded as being among the finest produced in Jamaica during the period. At the time of their original release their irresistible appeal not only ensured their popularity at home, but also attracted scores of British record buyers to the national sound of Jamaica, and in doing so were instrumental in lighting the fuse that ultimately resulted in the reggae explosion of 1969.

Laurence Cane-Honeysett

MOTHER PEPPER
DON’T BLAME ME
YOU’VE GOT YOUR TROUBLES
PERSONAL POSSESSION
UNITY
007
IT PAYS
YOUNG GENERATION
MOTHER LONG TONGUE
SABOTAGE
MOTHER YOUNG GAL
KEEP A COOL HEAD

RUDY GOT SOUL
PRETTY AFRICA
SHING-A-LING
WISE MAN (ALTERNATE VERSION)
BEAUTIFUL AND DANGEROUS
IT’S A SHAME
HANGING TREE (ALTERNATE VERSION)
DANCING TIME
BONGO GAL (ALTERNATE VERSION)
WRITING ON THE WALL
SWEET MUSIC (ALTERNATE VERSION)
HEY GRANDMA
FU MANCHU
GIMME GIMME

AH IT MEK
TOO MUCH TOO SOON
COCONUT WATER
SWEET MUSIC
MY LONELY WORLD (TO SIR WITH LOVE)
RUDE BOY TRAIN
POOR ME ISRAELITES
IT IS NOT EASY
INTENSIFIED (MUSIC LIKE DIRT)
NINCOMPOOP
TIPS OF MY FINGERS
WISE MAN

IT PAYS (ALTERNATE VERSION)
BONGO GAL
RUDY GOT SOUL (ALTERNATE VERSION)
UNITY (ALTERNATE VERSION)
SUGAR AND SPICE
PERSONAL POSSESSION (ALTERNATE VERSION)
HANGING TREE
YOUNG GENERATION (ALTERNATE VERSION)
MOTHER LONG TONGUE (ALTERNATE VERSION)
SENTIMENTAL REASON
KEEP A COOL HEAD (ALTERNATE VERSION)
FU MANCHU (ALTERNATE VERSION)
007 (ALTERNATE VERSION)

Trojan
© Doctor Bird Records