Ska to Soul: Remembering Desmond Dekker

Desmond Dekker in 1990
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Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Born July 16, 1941, Desmond Dekker was one of the finest musicians and songwriters ever to emerge from Jamaica, with a unique voice (both as a singer and writer) that was among the first from his country heard outside its borders.

In the early 1960s, he worked as a welder while trying to get a record deal (a period when he discovered a fellow welder who likewise had a passion for music - a young man named Bob Marley). Once he got one, Dekker almost immediately became well known on the island for early hits like “King of Ska.”

“King of Ska” found Dekker making some wondrous ska music, of course (thus the title), with a particular accent on the American R&B that has always been foundational to the genre. That R&B influence was apparent again on Dekker’s most famous song, 1968’s “The Israelites.”

“The Israelites” was a global hit, cementing Dekker as a leading performer from a place with which not many listeners were familiar, but artists like Dekker and his friend Jimmy Cliff were making a name for themselves outside Jamaica, mostly in Europe. In 1970, Dekker released a Cliff composition, "You Can Get It If You Really Want," and watched it scale the British singles chart.

The first watershed moment for Jamaican music’s global discovery came in 1972, when the film The Harder They Come was released and became a midnight-movie cult classic. Cliff starred in the film, a crime drama, and the movie’s soundtrack introduced a whole generation of listeners to reggae, dancehall and ska - strange but buoyant sounds that ignited interest the world over. One of the songs featured on the album was an older Dekker hit, his 1967 Jamaican single “007 (Shanty Town).”

In the late 1970s, ska found an audience in various British underground music scenes, particularly what was known as 2 Tone music, which combined elements of Jamaican ska, punk rock and new wave. In 1980, Dekker signed with Stiff Records, a label that produced a lot of punk and 2 Tone, and released his version of another great Jimmy Cliff song, "Many Rivers to Cross."

Declining sales and financial problems took Desmond Dekker out of the spotlight in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but he kept performing right up until his death in 2006. He was a legend, and is remembered as such to this day.

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