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Dekker finds genesis in 'Exodus'

Published:Sunday | November 25, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Desmond Dekker (left) and the Aces performing their 1968 Festival Song, 'Intensified Festival'. - File

'Honour your Father and your Mother that your days may be long in the land' - an excerpt from Exodus 20 verse 12, is one of the commandments handed down on tablets of stone to Moses by the Almighty. It must have occupied a very special place in the heart of a young Desmond Dacres, for him to choose that verse as the title and theme for his first recording in 1963.

As for the present, the song serves as a stark reminder to youths in this Youth Month, of the respect due to parents, something that is sadly lacking in present-day Jamaica. The emergence of the song in 1963, may have inspired Dacres' future career. It came as the buoyant and throbbing ska beat was in full swing, and it had to compete with others like One Hand Wash The Other and They Got To Come by Prince Buster, In My Heart, Housewives Choice and Forward March by Derrick Morgan and Money Can't Buy Life and Humpty Dumpty by Eric 'Monty' Morris. Honour Your Father and Mother, not only stood the test, but became a top 10 hit in Jamaica in 1963 and initially served to introduce Dacres (who was later to be known as Dekker) to the Jamaican musical populace.

His passage was, however, not as smooth as he would have wished, as he had to contend with a very meticulous auditioner named Derrick Morgan, the A&R man for his would-be producer, Leslie Kong. At first, Morgan didn't think that Dekker was ready, "I have Desmond Dekker inna Beverley's fi two years before him sing a tune. We do everything together, even cook and eat, but him never have no tune". After finally finding one that was acceptable to Morgan, it then became 'smooth sailing' with others like Sinners Come on Home and Labour For Learning.

Dekker was in fact born in Kingston on July 16, 1942, and history has it that he grew up in Seaforth and Danvers Pen, St Thomas, attended Font Hill Primary School there, before returning to Kingston where he worked as a welder. It was with the encouragement of friends that he ended up in the recording studio, and his never-ending relationship with producer Leslie Kong, until Kong's sudden death in 1971.

Joining with Wilson James and Easton Howard as Desmond Dekker and the Aces, they crafted songs that were pregnant with local slangs rooted in Jamaican everyday realities. They enjoyed enormous success in Jamaica during the mid to late 1960s with these songs, having a formidable run of some 20 top 10 hits for Kong, including Mother Long Tongue, Mother Young Gal, Keep A Cool Head and Wiseman. In addition, they had the second place Festival song of 1967, Unity, and proved it was no fluke by winning the competition the following year with Intensified Festival.

Real turning point

The real turning point in Dekker's career, came with the release of the enduring archetypal rude boy song, 007 (Shanty Town) in early 1967. Dekker, the writer of almost all his songs, claimed he wrote the song because of the social climate that existed at the time: The years following Independence saw the escalation of crime in the City, perpetrated by rachet-knife-flicking youths termed 'rudeboys'. They operated mainly from inner-city ramshackle dwelling areas in west Kingston, called Shanty Towns. Many were influenced by the James Bond celluloid adventure movies, 007 and Ocean 11, that were popular at the time, hence the title of the song. In the song, Dekker sums up the action in dramatic fashion.

'Them a loot, them a shoot, them a wail inna Shanty Town,

rudeboy de pon probation, inna shanty town,

rudeboy a bomb up the town inna shanty town.'

Possessing one of the most infectious rhythms to come out of a Jamaican recording studio, 007 (Shanty Town) rose to No.1 on the Jamaican charts in 1967, and peaked at No.12 on the UK charts, making it the first Jamaican-produced record to reach the Top 20 in the UK In the process, it presaged Dekker's emergence as an internationally famous artiste. He continued his incredible run with A It Mek which peaked at No.7 on the UK, charts, and the Jimmy Cliff composition You Can Get It If You Really Want, at No. 2.

In 1969, the year Dekker is reported to have migrated to the UK, he again hit the British charts with the biggest hit of his career - Israelites, first recorded as Poor Me Israelites. A promotional tour to the UK, for the song, nearly met with disaster when one member refused to fly on an 'iron bird', while the other exited via the migration route. Although recorded with the Aces, Dekker was by then, forced to go solo with the promotion and his career. Israelites was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, was the first Jamaican reggae recording to reach No.1 on the British charts and the first to reach the Top 10 of the US charts - unprecedented occurrences in the history of Jamaican music.

Achieving gold record status, it suddenly transformed Dekker into the biggest star and standard bearer of Jamaican music, bringing to it (Jamaican music), a popularity and international recognition that it had hitherto never enjoyed. The success of Israelites is amazing, when due consideration is given to the almost unintelligible enunciation of its lyrics. It's the age-old lament of a man struggling to stay alive by honest means:

'Get up in the morning, slaving for breads sir.

so that every mouth can be fed, poor me Israelites,

shirt dem a tear-up, trousers a go,

I don't want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde'.

Dekker's career was dealt a severe blow in 1971, when his long term manager Leslie Kong died, but restored himself to the Top 10 in 1975 with a reissue of Israelites. His popularity which was declining by the mid-70s, was somewhat revived by two albums in the 1980s. And 1993 saw his last major work with the album Kings Of Kings. Until the arrival of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, Dekker remained the most important and influential reggae artiste on the international scene. He died of a heart attack on May 25, 2006, at age 63.