(Click above for full image.) Desmond Dekker publicity photo for Stiff Records, 1980.
British issue of Dekker's first single, 1963.
(Listen to 1966's "007 (Shanty Town)", 1968's "Israelites" at Ochblog, or 1969's "Reggae Recipe" at getupedina for a soundtrack to this article.)
Desmond Adolphus Dacres had to literally force his way into the Jamaican music business in 1962. At the top of a flight of stairs in the back of Beverley's Record and Ice Cream Parlor, on Orange Street in Kingston, Dacres was blocked from entering the rehearsal studio of producer Leslie Kong by two tall and established Beverley's stars, Jimmy Cliff and Derrick Morgan. The aspiring singer had already tried out for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, and for Duke Reid at Treasure Isle, but without luck. He had been taking half-days off from his welding job at Standard Engineering on South Camp Road to audition for "the Chinaman." But Kong kept telling him to come back another time.
"I just said, 'Look--I want to see Leslie Kong and one way or another I'm going to see him,'" Dekker told Chuck Foster in Roots Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music from Ska to Dancehall (Billboard Books, 1999). "But they close the door. And when they open the door I just hold it and push everybody aside and just go in. And when I go in the room it was 'Hey, hey, why?' So I went to Leslie Kong and I said, 'Look, you told me to come back a couple of times and I did and nothing. So if you want to hear the songs I've got fair enough, and if you don't want to fair enough.' And he said, 'All right, let me hear what you've got.'"
Dacres sang "Honour Your Mother and Father," a song he wrote himself, and the only undisputed fact of this story is that the man performing the tune had lost his own mother at a young age, and that the song became the first of 20 Jamaican hit singles he recorded for Kong as Desmond Dekker. (Though even here, we must add that Island Records issued the 45 in the United Kingdom under the name "Desmond Decker.")
Beyond that, the historical details blur. According to Stephen Davis's Bob Marley (Doubleday, 1985), a stray piece of iron caught in Dekker's eye at work, and the singer used his sick leave to pester Kong. Morgan claims that Dekker auditioned for him at Beverley's, and in 1961 (though that would put Dekker's arrival at the label within months of his own). "I 'ave Desmond Dekker in a Beverley's fi two years straight before 'im sing a tune," he told Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton in The Rough Guide to Reggae: the Definitive Guide to Jamaican Music, From Ska through Roots to Ragga (Penguin Books, 2001).
But Dekker remembered going into the recording studio the following week. Then again, he also remembered being 15 or 16 at the time, when he was more likely in his early 20s, not much younger than Morgan, or older than Cliff, whose rehearsal he'd crashed to get his audition.
The three singers had something else in common besides youth and an ear at Beverley's. Dacres was born in the parish of St. Andrew on July 16, 1941 (or 1942, or 1943), and grew up in Kingston, where he attended the legendary Alpha Boy's school. "Then my mother was taken ill and died and my father took me to St. Mary's," he told journalist Laurence Cane-Honeysett in 1999. They soon moved again, to the rural town of Seaforth in St. Thomas, where other Dacres relatives lived, and Desmond recalled spending his youth on a farm, working as a tailor and singing gospel in a church choir before moving back to Kingston and apprenticing as a welder, going to the various sound systems on Maxfield Avenue every weekend (see "Obituary: Desmond Dekker," by David Katz, the Guardian May 27, 2006; and "Chance of a Dekker Trek Back in Time," by Martin Longley, Birmingham Post, February 21, 2001).
Morgan was from Clarendon, while Cliff (who claimed Dekker auditioned for him at Beverley's) hailed from St. Catherine (see Lloyd Bradley's This Is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica's Music, Grove, 2000). They were all, in other words, part of a migrant wave to the city:
And still they come to town, gangling teenage runaways from the canefields and five-acre farms, all looking for something faster than chopping cane and humping bananas all their lives. Not sure... what they're really looking for at all--except they all know about Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker and the rest of them. They were all just country boys running with the Rude Boys until they bluffed their way into Leslie Kong's record store with a little tune they'd written...
--Michael Thomas in Jamaica: Babylon on a Thin Wire, 1977 (cited by Dick Hebdige in Cut 'N' Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music, Comedia, 1987)
The "rude boys" were Jamaican street toughs who dressed to impress, taking their fashion cues from Hollywood gangsters and Western outlaws, and joining those figures as the glamorous subjects of Jamaican popular song as early as 1963. Yet Dekker was far from being the rude boy icon he would become. In his interview with Foster, he remembered ska pioneer Theophilus Beckford (of "Easy Snappin'" fame) accompanying him on piano during his Beverley's tryout. The older veteran cracked up halfway through the song--maybe Dekker's sweetness and biblical literalism was a bit much even by ska standards.
The soft-spoken young man had a striking high voice, however, and soon he was heading into Federal studio on Marcus Garvey Drive with Cliff, Morgan, Beckford, and the other Beverley All Stars to cut his 1963 debut single (with "Madgie" as the b-side) in a matter of hours. Timothy White's Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley has Dekker recording with sound-system legend Count Boysie, but others claim Australian-born Graeme Goodall engineered the session.
As he waited for the release of "Honour Your Mother and Father," the singer went back to welding, even learning underwater techniques before Byron Lee offered him a show. Back on the job, Dekker met a young trainee from St. Ann's named Robert Nesta Marley, who had been brought to the shop by his mum. Dekker encouraged his new pal to pursue his own musical fortunes at Federal and Beverley's.
"We were very, very good friends," Dekker later said of Bob Marley. "I called him Robbie, he called me Iley One--it means a person who don't have no girlfriend, just eat and sleep and work" (see "Desmond Dekker, voice of Jamaica's slums, dies at 64," by Cahal Milmo, London Independent, May 27, 2006). The two would go up to the roof of the plant overlooking Sabina Park and watch the cricket games (by day) and football games (at night), eating buns and drinking Fantas.
"Bob loved to play football and I sometimes used to watch him play," Dekker told Cane-Honeysett. "I didn't play, 'cos cricket was more my thing."
Today, Bob Marley is the figure most associated with Jamaican popular music in the world. But as the old Maytals song put it, "Desmond Dekker Came First." With that chorus, Toots Hibbert merely and literally credited his fellow Beverley's singer with taking first place in 1968's third annual Jamaican Independence Festival Song Competition. But the words became true in less trivial ways. With Trinidadian-born guitarist Lynn Taitt strumming the lilting rock steady riff of 1966's "007 (Shanty Town)" (a.k.a. simply "007"), and close harmonies from backup men the Aces (formerly the Four Aces, with Carl Winston Samuel, Clive Campbell, and Barry Howard--minus departing vocalist Patrick Johnson), Desmond Dekker became the first patois-singing Jamaican to rush the British charts with a song recorded on the island.
The first international ska hit had actually been 1964's "My Boy Lollipop," a cover of Barbie Gaye's 1957 R&B number by one Millie (born Millicent Small in Clarendon), another Beverley's singer, whom Island Records founder Chris Blackwell brought to London to record with a local band (led by arranger Ernest Ranglin) catering to the pop audience (see Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music, by Chris Salewicz and Adrian Boot, Abrams, 2001). But "007 (Shanty Town)" was different. Otherworldly and indecipherable, the hypnotic track blended imperial movie iconography (the James Bond of 1962's Jamaican-set Dr. No--with an un-credited Bryon Lee singing "Jump Up" at the club "Puss Feller's"--and the Rat Pack of 1960's Ocean's 11) with the exploding Jamaican street, making pop figures of the rude boys in a major key. Dekker's rolling lines, transcribed below (with help from Dick Hebdige's Cut 'N' Mix, this Dekker site, and a comment below), described an unfolding civil war (listen to the track here):
"007 (Shanty Town)" (Dacres/Kong)
Oh oh seven
Oh oh seven
At Ocean's Eleven
An' now rude boys a go wail
'Cause them out of jail
Rude boys cannot fail
'Cause them must get bail
Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail (a Shanty Town)
Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail (a Shanty Town)
And rude boys out on probation (a Shanty Town)
And rude boy bomb up de town (a Shanty Town)
Police get taller (a Shanty Town)
Soldier get longer (a Shanty Town)
De rude boys a weep an' a wail (a Shanty Town)
Whether or not you hear "a go wail" as "are for real," the song was an arresting freeze frame of Kingston cool on the edge of disillusionment and a ganja trance. Jamaica had achieved independence on August 6, 1962, but had since spiraled into an economic crisis not yet troubling the conscience of Daily Gleaner editors or the wealthy exporters of bauxite. As the ruling Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) (aligned with the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and the island's oligarchy of so-called "21 families") touted a new tourist economy, the rural unemployed filled Kingston to create a new, hungry underclass.
(The Wailers: Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh, 1964)
("Love, prosperity be with us all": Bob Marley joining the hands of the People's National Party's Michael Manley and the JLP's Edward Seaga at the One Love Concert in Kingston, April 22, 1978. Read "The Mystery of Edward Seaga" at complicatedfun.com for more background.)
Years later, when Prime Minister Michael Manley (of the opposing People's National Party, or PNP, and the National Workers Union) attempted to address the poverty problem by nationalizing some industry, he was met with American economic sanctions, capital flight, and a flood of Central Intelligence Agency M-15s into the Jamaican criminal underworld, a campaign of destabilization that ended only after Manley had been eased out of power in the 1980 election--with surrender to the International Monetary Fund foregone. (Henry Kissinger, who pushed the operation forward in 1976 as a sequel to his Chile success, was incensed by Manley's support of Cuban intervention in Angola against South Africa. See Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, by William Blum, Common Courage Press, 2003; "Murder as Usual," by Ernest Volkman and John Cummings, Penthouse, December 1977; and Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, by Jeff Chang, St. Martin's Press, 2005.)
(Sidebar: Viewed in CIA communications as pro-PNP, Bob Marley himself was shot in the left arm on December 3, 1976, by gunmen led, according to Vivien Goldman's new The Book of Exodus [Three Rivers Press, 2006], by JLP-affiliated gang leader Lester "Jim Brown" Coke. Marley had attacked the CIA in 1976's "Rat Race"--Rasta don't work fe nuh CIA!"--so you can imagine why conspiracy theories flew once it became known that filmmaker Carl Colby, son of the CIA director replaced earlier that year by George Bush, William Colby, had been part of a film crew following Marley before the assassination attempt. Carl Colby denied any involvement with either the CIA or Marley's death--including the wild story that he gave Marley cancer with a pair of boots--in a 2002 issue of The Beat. Brown died in a Jamaican jail in 1992. See Charles Aaron's column in Spin, June, 2006. For more conspiracy mongering, see a 1998 article from Conscious Rasta Report, "The CIA and Reggae", though it's probably telling that the sentence "The CIA employed Charles 'Little Nut' Miller as a political thug attached to Edward Seaga's JLP Party and later as a member of a vicious Jamaican 'posse' drug gang in the U.S." is misleadingly inserted into an otherwise faithfully quoted passage from the L.A. Times--it appears nowhere in the original article.)
In 1966, the very real response of the Jamaican ruling class to its new poor was to arm itself to the teeth. When tens of thousands of Dreadlocks and Rastafarians overtook the Kingston airport to worship visiting Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie as a god in April, elites were spooked (see Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica, by Stephen Davis and Peter Simon, Da Capo, 1992). Both major political parties began carrying firepower, with the JLP taking the lead, and a police raid of a legendary JLP-controlled club (Chocomo Lawn on Wellington Street in Denham Town, West Kingston) for weapons in 1966 was seen as a sign of the times (see "Turf Wars Tear Island: Gang, Political Rivalries Fuel Jamaican Violence," by Tim Collie, Sun-Sentinel, July 15, 2001). By 1967, Kingston had come to resemble a series of military garrisons, with political parties strategically allying themselves with any of the four largest downtown street gangs and drug posses: the Vikings, Park, the Spanglers, and Salt City.
(James Bond's and Felix Leiter's real-life counterparts were complacent about, if not complicit in, the changing Jamaican landscape: "We've got everything in our back pocket," said CIA director Richard Helms to a Washington staff meeting in 1968, returning from the island after meeting with local CIA station staff and members of the Jamaican Security Service, according to Ernest Volkman and John Cummings. British intelligence also reportedly maintained a steady presence long after independence.)
In response to this climate, Dekker merely observed and described. When police moved in with bulldozers to clear mostly-Rastafarian squatters from the Back-O-Wall slum in Western Kingston on July 12, 1966, leveling their huts, residents resisted. "The students had a demonstration and it went all the way around back to Four Shore Road and down to Shanty Town," Dekker told Foster. "You got wild life and thing like that there because it went down near to the beach. And the higher ones wanted to bulldoze the whole thing down and do their own thing and the students said no way! And it just get out of control."
(Where the shanties had stood, the JLP built Jamaica's first housing project, the notorious Tivoli Gardens, which became a sort of JLP fortress against PNP-dominated Trench Town. The JLP recruited a new gang, the Phoenix, to police the development and make war on PNP rivals. See Can't Stop Won't Stop.)
Calling the Back-O-Wall rebels "rude boys" cashed in on a waning trend (though Dekker kept flogging with the pre-reggae "Rude Boy Train"--"Double-Oh Seven is back on the scene," he sang--and "Rudy Got Soul"), and Dekker's pop free-associations had an element of the cavalier (he later referenced 1965's The Face of Fu Manchu on 1968's spellbinding reggae "Foo Manchu"--listen here--for no other apparent reason other than he'd recently seen it).
But Jamaican record-buyers loved the well-pressed and deadly British Secret Service agent 007, whose John Barry-composed theme song (lifting a guitar line from his own "Bea's Knees") was covered by Roland Alphonso. So the identification of superspy with insurgent made perfect commercial sense, however ironic. James Bond's fastidious creator, longtime Jamaican resident Ian Fleming, had helped imagine the CIA into existence in the first place, with a 1941 advisory memo to Roosevelt's general in charge of espionage, Co-ordinator of Information "Will Bill" Donovan. JFK, who listed From Russia With Love as his ninth favorite book in a 1961 Life article, led a campaign of terror and assassination against Cuba that owed an apparent royalty to Fleming's imagination (exploding cigars for Fidel Castro, etc.), before the federal cult of secrecy and violence turned back on the young president. (See "Bottoms Up," by Christopher Hitchens, the Atlantic Monthly, April, 2006; Corruptions of Empire, by Alexander Cockburn, Verso, 1987; and The James Bond Films, by Steven Jay Rubin, Arlington House, 1981.)
Today, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who built his fortunes in part on the export of Dekker's records, and on Bob Marley's subsequent career, owns Fleming's Goldeneye estate on Oracabessa Bay in Jamaica, among his many hotels. His mother, Blanche Blackwell, had sold the property to Fleming in the first place, and remained a neighbor for years before her son bought it back for her in 1977. The longest love of Fleming's life, Blanche was the model for Adela, heroine of Noel Coward's unpublished play Volcano, and sold Coward his property as well. Meanwhile, Fleming unwittingly helped launch young Chris Blackwell's career by recommending him to be a production assistant on Dr. No, shot in Jamaica in 1962. With money earned from the film, Blackwell created Island Records (see "Jamaica: Where it all began," by Veronica Gould Stoddart, USA Today, January 19, 2003; and "Fleming's 'Bond' With Women," New York Post, May 23, 2000).
Singing about cool bomb-throwers transformed the smiling and soft-crooning Dekker into a pop god for the violent, stylish British mods and skinheads (more here), who adopted his fashions several years before "007 (Shanty Town)" appeared on the soundtrack of the violent, stylish 1972 reggae film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff and other Beverley's greats, and executive-produced by Chris Blackwell. Suddenly Dekker, an unabashed fan of Nat "King" Cole, was seen as a new balance of elegance and macho, vocal lightness and the weight of the world. (In retrospect, to my ears, he was a unique link between Sam Cooke and Youssou N'Dour.) Paul McCartney name-checked "Desmond" on the Beatles' belated 1968 stab at ska, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," and Dekker's records began selling across Europe as well.
(Sheet music for 1968's "Israelites," adding the widely misheard "The," a mistake reinforced by the titling of Dekker's 1969 album, via Dance Crasher.)
(UK issue of Dekker's 1969 album The Israelites on Pyramid.)
(Click above to watch Desmond Dekker lip-synching "Israelites", announced as "The Israelites," on British television's Top of the Pops, 1969, via Youtube.)
Then 1968's "Israelites" transformed Dekker from foreign pop mystery into something more universal--a crier of suffering, with a startling falsetto and even gentler, more spacious new music (reggae, this time). Still one of the more beautiful and powerful songs ever to grace the pop charts, "Israelites" (not "The Israelites," and not "(Poor Mi) Israelites") invited confusion from its title on downward. As released in 1968, at any rate, the single was "Israelites" (with "The Man," or "My Precious World (The Man)" as the b-side) on Beverley's Records in Jamaica, Pyramid in the UK, and on Uni in the U.S.A., in 1969. Neither a reference to Israel, African repatriation, nor Rastafarian faith (Dekker was a Christian), "Israelite" was merely a biblical allusion to the status of the African Diaspora in a world of have-nots, in which the haves hire men with guns.
"It's really about how hard things were for a lot of people in Jamaica," Dekker told Honeysett. "Downtrodden, like the Israelites that Moses led to the Promised Land. And I was really saying that no matter how bad things are there is always a calm after a storm, so don't give up on things." (See my "Rivers of Babylon in Liberia" for more twists in the Jamaican-African-Moses waterway.) Decades after Dekker lip-synched the tune on Top of the Pops in 1969 (watch it here) with that strange flopping mouth of his, he was still explaining himself to fans: No, the opening line was never "Ketchup in the morning, baked beans for breakfast." (Though Dekker, never one to argue much with fans, appeared to change the chorus to "the Israelites" in later years--see this video from Jools Holland at Youtube.)
"Israelites" is so misquoted that even its "misheard lyrics" page and published sheet music get it wrong. (I'm guilty of misquoting as well.) Given that Dekker is on the record as saying that the opening lyric is "Get up in the morning slaving for breads, sir" ("Breads is money," he told Foster), there's no correct version of the lyrics online. So here's a new transcription drawing on a number of sources, and probably still wrong:
Get up in the morning, slaving for breads, sir
So that every mouth can be fed
Poor me Israelite
Get up in the morning, slaving for breads, sir,
So that every mouth can be fed
Poor me Israelite
Wife an' ma kids, dem pack up and a-leave me
Darling, she said, I was yours to receive
Poor me Israelite
Shirt dem a-tear up, trousers a go
I don' wan' to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.
Poor me Israelite
After a storm there mus' be a calming
You catch me in ya palm, you sound ya alarm
Poor me Israelite
I'm working hard to
A poor, a poor, a poor
I look a-down on a-me, sir
(Click above to read NME article on reggae from 1969 at Dance Crasher)
"Israelites" was the first native Jamaican recording to reach No. 1 on the British music charts, or to crack the U.S. Top 10, and it gained enough nostalgic power in America to turn up on the soundtrack of 1989's '70s-set Drugstore Cowboy.
Dekker toured the UK in 1969, and soon, like so many other reggae singers, took up residence there, settling in Surrey. Yet his career lost momentum in 1971 with the death, from heart attack, of longtime producer and manager Leslie Kong, who had stuck with him since 1963. "That kind of knock the stuffing out of Desmond," says his friend Delroy Williams, in a May 26, 2006 interview with myself--see the full text below. "It took him a long time to recover. Because Leslie Kong was in charge of all his finance."
Dekker had never recorded with anyone else: According to legend, he left Kong briefly in the mid-1960s, following Bob Marley, but on the day he was to record with Duke Reid, Kong showed up and begged him to return.
Dekker reached the UK Top 20 one more time without re-recording "Israelites," with 1975's cheerful "Sing a Little Song." But his answer to the 2-Tone ska revival of the late '70s, the album Black And Dekker (recorded with Graham Parker's Rumour for Stiff Records) quickly went out of print (watch this wonderful 1980 video for "Please Don't Bend" at youtube, via musiclikedirt), and in 1984 he was declared bankrupt. A collaboration with the Specials on Trojan followed in the '90s, and Dekker kept touring as a reggae oldies act right up until his death last week, on Thursday morning of May 25, after suffering a heart attack onstage during sound check on Wednesday in Dublin, Ireland. Dekker had European shows planned through next month. His final concert appearance was at Leeds Metropolitan University on May 11, 2006.
It is America's loss that Dekker waited until 1992 to tour the United States, when the CD boom made his Jamaican sides widely available to a new cult audience. Rhino's choice compilation of that year, Rockin' Steady: The Best of Desmond Dekker, is still the best place to start, though the mastering of "Israelites" is inferior to that on the classic 1993 genre box Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music (which also contains Dekker's backup singing on Derrick Morgan's jubilant proto-"_ _ _ _ Tha Police," "Tougher than Tough"). The recent Trojan Dekker two-disc, You Can Get It If You Really Want: The Definitive Collection, fills in such 1970 orchestral gems as the b-side "Perseverance." (Though the mastering is questionable throughout--most songs sound slower than on other compilations--this set includes some wonderful rarities, including a medley of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and "Wise Man" recorded at the BBC in 1969.) Beverly's All Stars were a musical marvel in more ways than one, with Theophilus Beckford's ramshackle piano making "Mother Pepper" (appearing on both compilations) a thing of pure, ragged loveliness--Dekker's second greatest recording of 1968. Of that track, unless you're Jamaican, you probably won't understand a word.
(Click above for full image.) Program from Wembley Reggae Festival, 1969, previously posted at Dance Crasher, adding "The" to "Israelites."
"Single of the Week," Sounds, May 17, 1980, via thespecials.com message board.
(Desmond Dekker at his final concert in Leeds, 2006, photographed by Danielle Millea.)
Delroy Williams on Desmond Dekker: an interview
Born and raised in St. Ann, Jamaica, Leon Delroy Williams was brought to England by his parents at the age of nine, and began dancing and singing with the Soul Explosion revue in the mid-1060s, when he was still a teenager. As a sound system DJ, he organized one of the first open-air reggae festivals in London's Brockwell Park. As a singer, he signed to Bell Record in 1970, releasing his version of Billy Joe Royal's "Down in the Boondocks" on Trojan. An aspiring screen actor, he's had bit parts in The Saint and Batman Begins. But Williams's main profession since 1981 has been managing and singing with Desmond Dekker, whom he met during Dekker's 1969 tour of the UK. Speaking over the phone on May 26, Williams asks me to call back, at first: Between speaking with reporters and making funeral arrangements, he had not had time to shower in two days. When I call him back, he's eager to discuss the man he calls his best friend.
How did you meet Desmond Dekker?
I was on his tour in 1969 for about two months. I wasn't performing, but I was just going with Tony and Bruce, the managers, because I was Jamaican, like Desmond. Just for company. I wasn't even onstage with him. Just for company.
What was Desmond Dekker like?
He was very shy, very quiet. When he got onstage, he was a different person. Onstage there was no one else like him. Offstage, when he's home, he's a gentleman, and when I say gentleman, I mean gentle. He wouldn't step on a fly. He was private, and when I say private I mean very private. He wasn't one of those artist who, when he's not working, he needs to be out there among the scene. No, that's not him. You won't see him in no nightclubs or no bars or no nothing like that. He love his home. And when he's on his own, he enjoy his own company.
Were there many other Jamaicans around him when he first came to England in 1969?
No, because the management company that he was with, they kind of was in total control, and they just let him work and take him back to his hotel. Because the song "Israelites" was a hit all over the world, especially Europe, he find that traveling from Jamaica to do all this work was a strain. So he kind of settle down in England because it was easier to get to the rest of the world from England than from Jamaica. So he sent for his wife and child and settled down here and stayed.
What were your duties when you were working with him?
Well, 26 years ago I took over as manager. At first I was a solo artist on my own. Then we decide to join up together. At first I would go out there and do a half-hour show, and then he would do his show. And then I decided I would just do one show. I sang backup vocals.
I wasn't just a manager. He was, you know, he was my best friend. We were like brothers. Anywhere you see Desmond, you see me. Anywhere you see me, you see Desmond.
What was it like singing with him?
Oh my God. You see, the reason why I enjoy singing with Desmond is because he's got a voice that nobody else in the reggae world have. Nobody can beat him when it comes to falsetto. And the way he can curve some of his notes, sometimes you think he's going out of key, and the way he go and come 'round it, he just amaze you. He was one of the nicest vocalists, one of the most energetic entertainers that I know.
Back in 1969, England must have seemed almost an alien world to him.
Well, I'll tell you what. One time we went over Hampton to do a show. And when we got there, there was a queue of about a thousand people outside, and we drove up and everybody saw him in the car. And they all start shouting, "Desmond!" And he just get out the car and start walking over to them. And then a thousand people come. We had to jump out the car, grab him, and throw him in the car, and drive off. He didn't realize how dangerous it was. They weren't going to harm him, but they were going to swarm him in such a way that he would get hurt.
Were these people mostly...?
All white. All white. The white people really take Desmond as their own. 'Cause all the shows, everywhere we go to, even in a black area like Brixton in England, Birmingham, you can count the black people on one hand.
Weren't there a lot of Jamaican immigrants in England at that point?
Oh, yes. Because in the '60s, when Desmond had his hit, he was working the black clubs and the white clubs. But black folks are not loyal fans. If you're current, yes. But if you're not current, anymore, then that's it. But with white folks, like for instance, jazz. There was a time when jazz was a black thing, but then white folks just take it as their own. It becomes a white thing. There was a time when rock and roll was a black thing. Of course, a lot of people think white folks create rock and roll, which is amazing. You understand?
Yeah, I suppose you had first-hand experience with reggae becoming not just a white thing, but a skinhead thing.
Oh, the skinhead just totally capture, I wouldn't say "reggae," I would say "Desmond's music." The skinheads, Desmond is their god. And then they discovered Laurel Aitken. But Desmond was their god. Because we been to places where people said it was all National Front skinhead.
Did you talk to any of these people?
Oh, yes. I mean, me, personally, when we go to some places that we know that they're National Front. But they just love Desmond's music, I said, "On Saturday night they jump to reggae music, and on Sunday they go kick head in." [laughs]
Were these guys racists?
People used to say they're Nazis. But as far as Desmond was concerned, they were fans. They loved Desmond. I don't know if they like black people, but Desmond was theirs.
Was his fashion style influential? It seemed like the skinheads were copying the way he looked.
Yes, and the mods with the short pants, and the rude boys in the short pants. You know, Desmond's trousers used to be three-quarter length, above his boots. And you look at the rude boys and skinheads today, their trousers stop above the boots. That's Desmond.
Were you familiar with his singles before he came to England?
Well, at the time I was singing, I used to buy all the music. I had a room for just music. You know, soul music, reggae music. Then that got raided. They broke in when I was touring in Germany. I left my house for six months, and left somebody to take care of my house, and when I got back, somebody break in and stole all my records. And the funny thing about it, I was down in Brixton one day, and a guy came up to me and said, "Delroy, you're into music, you want to buy some LPs?" I'm a say, "Yeah, man. I'll take what you got." He said, "Come with me." And I went 'round to his house, and there was all my records, what you got left after he sell. I said, "Jesus Christ, how much you want?" And at the time he said about 800 and something pounds. An' I said, "Wait here, I'll go get the money and come back." And I came back with the police. The guy I left in charge of my house was the guy that rob it with him.
So did you buy "Honour Your Mother and Father"?
I buy all those things because I was also DJing in a sound system as well.
Where were your sound systems?
Oh, London, Birmingham, Manchester, just in the black places.
Did you like his music right away?
Desmond Dekker's music? "Honour Your Mother and Father" was his first recording that I had, and another song that he won the Jamaican Song Festival, "Music Like Dirt" [a.k.a. "Intensified Festival 68" listen here] that won the festival. When I put that on my sound system, that used to mash up the dance. You know? I've got all of his music, because I'm a collector.
Did he do any recent recordings that people might have missed?
There's 20 tracks that we went into the studio and re-recorded about three years ago because he said, "Before I die, I want to hear my music in stereo." [laughs] That's on Secret Records. The only difference between the new recording and the old recording is that it's in stereo.
You knew him by the time Leslie Kong died.
Yes. When Leslie Kong died, that kind of knock the stuffing out of Desmond. It took him a long time to recover. Because Leslie Kong was in charge of all his finance, because Leslie Kong set up a company for him where all his money was going. And then Leslie Kong died and he didn't know where his money was. And that died with Leslie Kong.
Did he get money from his music?
No, for a while he wasn't getting his money. But when we decided to go to court, it was settled on in court, and he got enough money to live on for the rest of his life.
What was his life like in the past few years?
Well, Desmond like his home. He like to be at home when he's not working. And he never get tired of being at home, in his garden, and sitting down with his guitar, writing and playing music. He enjoy his own company. He like his own space. Because getting dressed to go to a nightclub is like going to a factory. His home was his refuge. Because it was private. He was private, man, and he was laid back. He was so laid back, man, sometime I think he's going to fall down. He was, you know, you have to kind of know Desmond like I do, and live with Desmond like I do, to know how funny Desmond can be. Honestly, he can make you laugh until your stomach fly away, man.
What did he say?
Just jokes that he'd tell. But nobody outside his home, or outside his little circle, would hear dem jokes. Nobody outside his circle could see how funny he was. He was a-sweet, he was loving, he was kind. When he decide to, like when we're together around his house, myself, his daughter, and his son, and we play music and laugh, and Desmond was the party, what you would call it. You can't be down when you're there, because he was always life. He cook. He like to cook. And we eat. And he don't want you in the kitchen when he's cooking. And when you finish eat, it don't even make sense to help to wash up. He don't want you in his kitchen. [laughs]
What was your favorite dish by him?
Fish. And beef. Desmond was a really good cook. But again, only myself and his daughter and son can say that.
Did his neighbors in Surrey know who he was?
On the whole street, I think there was only the two people next door and the one in front of him [who knew him]. Because he would get there in his car, get out his car, and go inside his house, leave his house, get in his car and leave. You won't see him walking up and down his street. That is Desmond. He say hello to his neighbors and that's it. [laughs]
What do you think his contribution was to music?
Well the thing is, you used to hear people saying that Bob Marley is the first reggae superstar, and [Desmond] used to just kind of give that little funny look. It never bother him, because he know. He know that when "Israelites" was number one, nobody ever heard of Bob Marley. But Desmond opened the door for all reggae artists that you hear of today.
Did he ever do anything besides music after "Israelites"?
There was no time to do anything else. I can't think of anywhere in the world that we haven't been. Next Friday we supposed to be in Czechoslovakia, and then Saturday we supposed to be in Vienna, and Sunday we supposed to be in Ireland. A lot of the dates aren't on the web site because a lot of them are private society shows.
Are you helping with preparations?
I'm sorting out all the funeral arrangements and everything, because he lived his life as a private person, and I'm going to give him private funeral just for families and friends, just because he wouldn't like no stampede. So that's what I'm going to do.
What religion was he?
He's a Christian. What country you calling from?
Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A.
We just toured there last year.
I wish I could have seen him.
Yeah, all the shows were sold out. But that is life, man. Don't be disappointed because at the end of the day, we're all going to see him again.
Desmond Dekker links:
Complete Desmond Dekker links at Complicated Fun
Desmond Dekker official webite
Desmond Dekker tribute site
Desmond Dekker tribute blog at Trojan Records
Desmond Dekker Wikipedia entry
Delroy Williams site
Lynn Taitt site
Video: Recent collaboration between Desmond Dekker and Apache Indian, remaking "Israelites" (or view it at Apache Indian's official site), via the Pietasters forum
Video: Hilarious 1980 video for "Please Don't Bend" at youtube, via musiclikedirt
Video: "Israelites" live in the disco '70s
Video: "Israelites" live in 1969?
Video: Desmond Dekker lip-synching "Israelites", announced as "The Israelites," on British television's Top of the Pops, 1969, at youtube
Video: Complete Desmond Dekker concert at Google Video
Audio: Fresh Air tribute to Desmond Dekker on NPR--repeats at least one myth (according to Dekker, the Cherrypies, a.k.a. the Cherry Pies, weren't the Maytals, though members might have overlapped or collaborated)
Audio: 1968's "Israelites" at Ochblog
Audio: The Clash covering "Israelites" live at Retro Clash
Audio: 1968's "Foo Manchu" at DJ Durutti
Audio: 1968's "Intensified" at DJ Durutti
Audio: 1970's "Reggae Recipe" at getupedina
Audio: 1967's "007 (Shanty Town)"
Audio: The Skatalites' "Doctor Dekker" at undomondo
Audio: New Sam Cooke reggae mashup at piccadillyrecords.com
Audio: Desmond Dekker Live in London at Ochblog
1969 Top Pops British music newspaper interview
1999 interview with Laurence Cane Honeysett
2005 interview in Undercover Magazine
Desmond Dekker tribute on Johnny Spencer's page
Jamaican and Caribbean music links, A-Z, at Complicated Fun