Desmond Dekker was the first. The very first Gold record in Jamaica. The first reggae song to be a #1 radio hit in the UK. The first official Jamaican reggae song to gain prominence in the US radio charts. As a welding apprentice in his teens, Dekker met co-worker Bob Marley who had also sought the attentions of Beverley's label head and producer Leslie Kong. The first of the two to get a record put out by Kong, Dekker then hooked Bob Marley up with Kong and his first record deal. For the bulk of the 1960's Desmond Dekker was one of the premier voices of rock steady music. With his first single "Honour your Father and your Mother" he showed his more traditional side. "It Mek" shouted down his rebellious younger sister and her antics, a popular theme that would rise again as he chastised upstart young Jamaican women with more mid 60's singles. But as the beautiful island of future tourism commercials swelled with disfunctional rage following its independence swipe from England in 1962, politics entered the musical fray and in 1967 "007 (shanty town)" became a rude boy anthem. When the growing violence in mid-century Jamaica was directed at colonial power, the rude boy was a hero. But as this violence entered day to day life in the ghettos and shanty towns the tolerance for bad men waned. Duke Reid, head of Treasure Isle studios, an ex-policeman and undeniable tough guy, ignored the rude boy trend entirely. On the other hand, Leslie Kong followed the sales charts and continued on with rude boyisms until the late 60's. All of these recordings would become truly popular once again with the Two-Tone set in early 1980's England, and cool college enclaves beyond.
1968, a seismic shaking year for much of the western world in one way or another, saw the release of "Israelites" by Desmond Dekker and the Aces. "Israelites" muses on the continued political strife in Jamaican day to day life; perhaps many listeners outside of the island understood little of the song's political character, but followed the irresistible shakin' beats all the way to #1 on the UK charts.
Born July 16, 1942, and orphaned as a teen, Desmond Dekker is one of the best known ambassadors for Jamaican music, introducing the world to the rich music that is far larger than its geographical footprint.
Personal aside: I grew up listening to reggae on the radio, Providence RI was that kind of place. I saw Bob Marley perform there, the fall before he succumbed to cancer. The next spring I was living in Switzerland when I found out Bob Marley had died. I spoke French and lived in a bi-lingual canton. The best radio station was in Swiss-German, which I understood not a nod of. The day of Bob Marley's death I was listening to lots of his music on the radio, only to discover when I went out onto the streets, and saw a French newspaper, what had happened. Friday afternoon I was listening to Monica's show when I heard "Israelites". I was so happy to hear it, as always, and mentioned to my 5 year old, Desmond, that he was sort of named after Desmond Dekker, in that his dad and I both loved reggae and came to his name through our love of Jamaican music. When Monica came on and back announced that cut, I found out that Desmond Dekker had died. And for sort of this reason do I always announce that an artist has not died, when I play more than one cut in a set or show.
For more reading on Desmond Dekker and all things reggae, ska, rock steady, dub go to the best book:
Bass Culture: When Reggae was King, by Lloyd Bradley
Here's a video of Desmond Dekker perfoming "Israelites" (you tube).