Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres, Desmond Dekker spent much of his orphaned childhood near Seaforth in St. Thomas before returning to Kingston, where he worked as a welder. His workmates encouraged him to seek a recording audition and, after receiving rejections from leading producers Clement Dodd and Duke Reid, he found a mentor in the influential Leslie Kong. In 1963, the newly named Dekker released his first single, 'Honour Your Father And Mother', which was also issued in the UK courtesy of Island Records. During the same period, Dekker teamed up with his backing group, the Aces (Wilson James and Easton Barrington Howard). Together, they enjoyed enormous success in Jamaica during the mid- to late 60s with a formidable run of 20 number 1 hits to their credit, including 'King Of Ska', 'This Woman' and 'Mount Zion'. The emergence of rocksteady in the latter half of 1966 propelled Dekker's James Bond-inspired '007 (Shanty Town)' into the UK charts the following year. A catchy, rhythmically infectious articulation of the 'rude boy' street gang shenanigans, the single presaged Dekker's emergence as an internationally famous artist. In 1967, Dekker came second in the Jamaican Song Festival with 'Unity' and continued his chart-topping run in his home country with such titles as 'Hey Grandma', 'Music Like Dirt', 'Rudie Got Soul', 'Rude Boy Train' and 'Sabotage'.
In 1969 Dekker achieved his greatest international success. 'Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir, so that every mouth can be fed', was a patois-sung opening line that entranced and confused pop listeners on both sides of the Atlantic. The intriguing 'Israelites' had been a club hit the previous year, and by the spring of 1969 had become the first reggae song to top the UK charts, a considerable achievement for the period. Even more astonishing was its Top 10 success in the USA, a country that had previously proved commercially out of bounds to Jamaican performers. Back in Britain, Dekker's follow-up was the Top 10 hit 'It Mek'. It was originally recorded the previous year under the title 'A It Mek', which roughly translates as 'That's Why It Happened'. 'It Mek' was inspired by Desmond's sister Elaine, who fell off a wall at her home and cried 'like ice water'. Dekker enjoyed translating everyday observations into sharp, incisive lines. 'Israelites' similarly articulated the plight of the downtrodden working man, while 'Problems' was a rousing protest number featuring the refrain 'everyday is problems'. Dekker's success in the UK, buoyed by consistent touring, spearheaded the arrival of a number of Jamaican chart singles by such artists as the Harry J's All Stars, the Upsetters and the Pioneers. Until the arrival of Bob Marley, Dekker remained the most famous reggae artist on the international scene.
Dekker took up residence in the UK in 1969, where he was a regular club performer and continued to lay down his vocals over rhythm tracks recorded in Jamaica. A further minor success with 'Pickney Gal' was followed by a massive number 2 hit with the Jimmy Cliff composition 'You Can Get It If You Really Want', from the film The Harder They Come. When Dekker's long-term manager/producer Kong died from heart failure in 1971, the artist joined the Cactus label. A reissue of'Israelites' restored him to the UK Top 10 in 1975 and was followed by the pop/reggae 'Sing A Little Song', which reached number 16. During the 2-Tone ska/mod revival in 1980, Dekker recorded Black And Dekker with Graham Parker's Rumour, but the experiment was not commercially successful. A follow-up, also on Stiff Records, Compass Point, was his last major attempt at chart action, though he remained a perennial performer of old hit material and was frequently featured on compilation albums. In 1984 he was found bankrupt by a British court, and publicly complained that he had failed to receive funds from his former manager. It was a sad moment for one of reggae's best-known personalities. In 1993, during another 2-Tone revival, Dekker released King Of Kings with four original members of the Specials. A disappointing new album, Halfway To Paradise, followed at the end of the decade. He continued to tour regularly before dying suddenly of a heart attack in May 2006.
Dekker's unmistakable falsetto vocal remains one of reggae's most memorable, while his pioneering importance as the first major reggae artist to achieve international success deserves wider acknowledgement.
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