Jamaican ska and reggae pioneer Desmond Dekker, best known for his 1969 hit “Israelites,” died of a heart attack at his home in England on May 24. He was 64.
“Israelites,” a Top 10 hit in the United States, introduced the nascent sound of reggae to Americans, but Dekker was already a star at home and in the U.K. by the time he made inroads here.
Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres on July 16, 1941 in Kingston, Jamaica, music was already in the family before Dekker set foot in a recording studio: His brother George was in the Jamaican group the Pioneers, and his sister had scored a hit in Jamaica dueting with Derrick Morgan on “You Never Miss Your Water.” But when the siblings’ parents died, Dekker was orphaned as a teenager. He took a job as an apprentice welder but soon became a singer and songwriter and began seeking a recording contract.
In 1961 Dekker began auditioning for top Jamaican producers such as Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, but he met with no success. He had better luck Leslie Kong, who signed Dekker to the Beverley’s label and released his first single in 1963, “Honour Your Father And Your Mother.”
In 1966, Dekker’s release of “007 (Shanty Town)” vaulted his reputation on the island. Now considered a classic of the pre-reggae rocksteady genre, it also gave Dekker his first hit in England, reaching number 14 there in 1967. That same year, his song “Unity” came in second at the Jamaican Festival Song Competition.
In 1968 Dekker cut the song originally known as “Poor Me Israelites.” A huge hit in Jamaica, it was released—its title now shortened to “Israelites’’—in the U.K. where it reached number 1 in early 1969. A couple of months later, it raced up the charts in the U.S., one of the first Jamaican recordings to do so.
Dekker never had another hit in the U.S., but he remained extremely popular in the U.K., following up the chart-topper with “A It Mek” (sometimes spelled “It Miek”), which went to number 7 there. Dekker even relocated for a while to England, as he was already spending so much time touring there.
A 1970 cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get it If You Really Want” went to number 2 in the U.K., and the following year Dekker’s “007” was featured in the landmark Cliff-starred film The Harder They Come, the 1973 soundtrack of which is still considered an all-time reggae classic.
With the 1971 death of Leslie Kong, Dekker’s career faltered. He made a comeback of sorts in the 1980s, recording albums such as Black And Dekker and Compass Point, but he could not regain his early popularity and declared bankruptcy in 1984. In 1990 he teamed up with ska revivalists the Specials for King Of Ska. He continued to tour regularly until his death.