Desmond Dekker just died; I had to do a quick rip on his Greatest Hits so he’d qualify for the 5-✭ treatment. A lot of people under 45, and a lot of Americans of all ages, won’t know about Desmond, and you’re missing some pretty good music. You might only have heard Israelites and that’s an outstanding song, but there are lots more, and a greatest-hits disc is a no-brainer investment. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)
The Context · Desmond Dekker was the Jamaican music scene’s first shot across the world’s bow; a precursor of the broadsides from Cliff, Marley, Tosh, Rodney, and all the rest.
I was living in Lebanon in 1969 and our pop-music scene was pretty well Europe-driven. 1969 was a good year for music, but on our radios, Israelites was absolutely that year’s biggest hit by any artist, any genre.
It was kind of hard to make Desmond out. His voice was high, sweet, and melodic, and lots of his songs were romantic love croons. At the same time, some of the other songs were Trenchtown snarls about struggle and poverty (albeit in a patois so heavy that you couldn’t make out the lyrics) and he started appearing in leathers and rude-boy getup, including what looked like a belt full of rifle shells slung around the hips.
He had a string of second-rate hits in the years following Israelites, but never really made much money and went through bankruptcy. He was still out there touring to pay the rent right to the end; when I checked his Web site a few days after his death, it still had links saying “click here to book Desmond”.
The Music · The only Desmond-Dekker disks I’ve ever seen have been greatest-hits compilations, all basically with the same songs. There are two kinds of Dekker song: sweet crooners and proto-reggae funk. They say that what he played was “Ska” but it just sounds like pop music to me. Back then, Kingston rhythm sections sounded fresh, new, and surprising; today, pop music has so wholly absorbed those idioms that it just sounds like a good, if a bit unpolished, studio band.
This is basically party music, dance music, and even the weaker songs are OK because the band is tight and Desmond was a good singer with a good voice; they could make any plausible tune into something worth hearing.
Wake up in the morning, working for bread, sah
so that every mouth may be fed;
Oooh, ooh, Israelites.
That’s probably still the song that most people come back to; dark-brown funk harmonies wrapped around a killer rhythm and one of those melodies Germans call “ear-worms”, Desmond’s voice so on the beat it’ll give you shivers. Best played loud. The other Desmond Dekker song that’s most like Israelites is Ah It Mek and it even has words you can understand, except for the title which is Greek (well, Jamaican Greek) to me.
If you want seduction, to be crooned at, check out I Believe or Rudy Got Soul. (Er, doesn’t “Rudy” mean gun-totin’ Trenchtown hoodlum?)
Perseverance sounds like not unlike a Neville-Brothers crazed jungle gospel outing: Why can’t we live in unity with our Lord? There’s also a nice cover of Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want. But my fave is Intensified, a pure empty-headed party rave-up: take it out on the floor and shake it baby. The chorus goes Ram baba looba bam bam ba louie/Ram baba loo bam bam... Intensified! You could lay Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell and as many other sensitive singer-songwriters as you wanted end to end, and could they come up with that? I think not.
Sampling It · Sixties Kingston sound is strong and honest and true, but it’s not that subtle, so getting these on MP3 might be forgivable. Me, I don’t pirate music, but those who do might point out that whatever you pay, Desmond ain’t getting any of it any more. On the other hand, those greatest-hits CDs are pretty darn cheap; mine has twenty tunes on it, all competent and cheerful, some great, which seems like a good deal for the $11.99 or whatever I paid for it.