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DESMOND DEKKER: SHANTYTOWN’S HERO!

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL
Observer senior writer

 

In 1969, Israelites, a sufferer’s tale about life in the ghetto, soared to the top of the United Kingdom pop chart. It was sung by Desmond Dekker and The Aces.

Desmond Dekker

Desmond Dekker

It was the group’s second hit in the UK, following 007 (Shantytown) two years earlier. Both were written by the reedy Dekker, a former welder and protégé of producer Leslie Kong.

Recorded during the rocksteady era, the songs had a different feel from those recorded by their contemporaries. Produced by Kong, they featured The Jets, an all-star band led by Trinidadian guitarist Lynn Taitt.

Dekker (christened Desmond Dacres) and his two backup singers had a good run prior to their UK success. Songs like Honor Your Mother and Father, Mother Young Gal and It Mek were outstanding songs that confirmed Dekker’s songwriting talent in a period when most Jamaican acts were covering songs by American soul singers.

A young Dekker

A young Dekker

In between his international hits, Dekker shone in the new Festival Song Competition with UNITY (second to Ba Ba Boom in 1967) and Intensified which won the following year.

007 (Shantytown) and Israelites solidified the popularity of Jamaican music in the UK. They followed Millie Small’s breakthrough My Boy Lollipop in 1964 and earned Dekker an enduring following in that country.

To capitalize on his fame, he moved to the UK in the late 1960s. In 1972 he won new fans when 007 (Shantytown) appeared in the sensational movie The Harder They Come.

Dekker was considered a hero and inspiration to white British bands, such as The Specials and The Mods, whose members grew up on ska and rocksteady.

He never stopped performing, playing the UK and European festival circuit until his death from cancer, at age 64, in 2006. Dekker died at his home in London, the city that first embraced his songs over 40 years before.

In 2011, Trojan Records released 007 — The Best of Desmond Dekker to salute his impact on UK music.

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