Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres, July 16, c. 1941, in Kingston, Jamaica; died of a heart attack, May 25, 2006, in London, England. Singer. Musical pioneer Desmond Dekker dominated Jamaica's pop charts in the 1960s, and became one of his country's first recording stars to achieve wider renown. Dekker's trademark falsetto, singing lyrics in a Jamaican patois, helped make his 1969 song "Israelites" an international hit. "The song, an ode to the troubles of the poor, sold millions of copies, became the first purely Jamaican song to top the charts in the United States, and opened the ears of the world to the music of the island," wrote Los Angeles Times journalist Jocelyn Y. Stewart.
Dekker was a native of Kingston, Jamaica's capital, where he was born in 1941 or 1942. Orphaned at an early age, he was sent to live in a more rural part of the island, but returned to Kingston and by his late teens had found work as a welder. He often sang on the job, which prompted his co-workers to dare him into auditioning for a record label. Two producers turned him down before Leslie Kong signed Dekker to his label in 1961.
It took two years before Kong let Dekker record a song, and when he did, "Honour Your Father and Mother" reached the No. 1 spot on the Jamaican charts. Several more hits followed, and Dekker became a major celebrity on the island and throughout the Caribbean. Many of his best-known songs celebrated the "rude boy" culture, the name given to Kingston's tough urban youth who modeled themselves on the gangsters they saw in Hollywood films. "It was an exciting time in Jamaican music, and Dekker was at its cutting edge," his Times of London obituary noted. Jamaica's post-colonial "independence in 1962 had bestowed a new cultural confidence, expressed in the growth of ska, a mix of imported rhythm and blues and jazz elements, combined with such local forms as calypso and mento and characterised by a fast, metronomic tempo and a strongly accented offbeat." Dekker became associated with bluebeat, a more uptempo version of ska.
Dekker soon garnered a wider audience with his songs, which were recorded and performed with his backing band, the Four Aces. The music began migrating across the Atlantic along with a growing West Indian expatriate community, and in 1967 his song "0.0.7 (Shanty Town)" reached No. 15 on the British charts. The most successful track of his career, "Israelites," was released in December of 1968 and made it into the Top Ten on the U.S. singles chart the following year. The lament, whose lyrics Dekker had written in his head while walking in a park one day, was a homage to Jamaica's underclass, who were still suffering even after independence from Britain. His lyrics drew comparisons between Jamaica's poor and the beleaguered Israelites of the biblical era.
"Israelites" was Dekker's only real hit in the United States, but it reached No. 1 in Britain and made him a household name there. His fans included the Beatles, who namechecked him in the lyrics to their ska-inflected hit "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." He was considered the genre's first genuine star, but his fame would later be eclipsed by another Jamaican, reggae artist Bob Marley. The two had met years earlier, when both worked as welders in Kingston, and Dekker introduced Marley to the record label executives who shaped his own career.
By 1970 Dekker was living in England, but still worked steadily with Kong. He had another hit in 1969, "It Mek," and a year later released the song "You Can Get It If You Really Want." A few years later the track became the signature song for the groundbreaking 1972 film The Harder They Come . The movie's hero, played by Jimmy Cliff, sang it this time, and the film introduced Jamaica's vibrant musical culture to the rest of the world.
When Kong died in 1971, Dekker's career faltered, and the hits stopped. Later that decade, however, there was a revival of interest in his music thanks to the resurgence of ska in England, and top-selling bands like Madness and the Specials considered him their musical hero. With a younger generation of musicians and producers Dekker cut two more albums, Black and Dekker in 1980, and Compass Point a year later. The comeback failed to save him from bankruptcy in 1984, which Dekker admitted was the result of a swindle by his former manager.
Dekker still performed regularly, and gave what would be his final concert in Leeds just two weeks before his death. He suffered a heart attack and died on May 25, 2006, in London, at the age of 63 or 64. Survivors include an ex-wife and a son and daughter, but Dekker was mourned by several generations of fans. His impact on music, record-company veteran Roger Steffens told Stewart in the Los Angeles Times tribute, was evident in a sold-out show Dekker played at a Hollywood hotspot in 2005, "which was almost completely people under 30," Steffens said. "They know all the words to his songs, even the most obscure ones."
Chicago Tribune , May 27, 2006, sec. 2, p. 11; Los Angeles Times , May 27, 2006, p. B17; New York Times , May 27, 2006, p. A11; Times (London), May 27, 2006, p. 70; Washington Post , May 30, 2006, p. B7.