One of the greats
A Desmond Dekker Playlist
1. “Honor Your Mother and Father” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Dekker’s got this mythical reputation as both the king of early Jamaican ska and as a gritty street-poet type, but his actual career was more complicated than either of those quick-and-easy archetypes would lead you to believe. For one thing, he did most of his best and most popular work when ska slowed down and became rocksteady and then reggae; the whole king-of-ska thing probably stuck around just because one of his first joints was called “King of Ska.” And the street-poet thing didn’t come until later; when he first started making hits in Jamaica, Dekker’s image was more polite-kid than anything else, a sort of Jamaican Frankie Lymon with the chiffon coo to match. This was his first single, and it’s a warm tribute to obedience, not exactly fire-and-brimstone stuff. Like a lot of early ska, it’s sort of endearingly clumsy; you get the impression that the session musicians are falling into the one-drop lope by accident, trying to play American R&B but not quite managing. And Dekker’s vocal is soft and comforting, not as high as the flitting Marvin Gaye thing it would eventually become. There’s a wrinkle, though. I don’t know when Dekker wrote the song, but he was an orphan when he recorded it, and it’s almost unbearably sad in this context. Dekker used this song to audition for the producer Leslie Kong; before that, he’d been a welder. He didn’t start his recording career until his early twenties, which was way later than a lot of other Jamaican stars.
2. “0.0.7. (Shanty Town)” Preview/Buy at iTunes
By 1966, Dekker had been churning out ska singles for a few years, and he’d begun working with the vocal group the Aces, whose deeper doo-wop stuff worked as a foil to Dekker’s increasingly high-pitched vocals. Ska had slowed down and become rocksteady, and Dekker wrote this song about the rioting that was going on in Jamaica at the time, students clashing violently with police. Dekker said in interviews that it reminded him of movies, which explains the title and the Ocean’s 11 references. The song became his first hit in England, hitting #14 on the UK charts and building his rep overseas. He kept doing “Honor Your Mother” stuff after this, but he also started to dig deeper into more political stuff, not quite doing protest music but letting a certain weight-of-the-world sadness creep into his work, which totally transformed it. This song was one of his biggest ever; it later ended up on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come.
3. “Rude Boy Train” Preview/Buy at iTunes
After “0.0.7. (Shanty Town),” Dekker became a big favorite of the mod and skinhead kids in England. He toured the UK with gangs of mods following him around, which I imagine must have been pretty bewildering. It’s not hard to hear what those kids heard in a song like “Rude Boy Train,” an easy, mellow, tossed-off thing with simple call-and-response vocals about rude boys, exactly the sort of thing that always ends up becoming a subcultural anthem. I don’t know whether Dekker was playing to his British base with this song, but he’d certainly do that later, when he moved to England and said stuff like “All you skinheads come on!” on the intros of his later songs.
4. Derrick Morgan: “Tougher Than Tough” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Dekker and his brother George sang lilting backup vocals on this ridiculously great song, offsetting Morgan’s hardass toast. This is one of those courtroom songs where a judge and a rude boy argue about whether or not the rude boy was out of line when he went off acting like a knucklehead. For some reason, there were like a million songs about that.
5. “Israelites” Preview/Buy at iTunes
This is the song that towers over the rest of Dekker’s catalogue, with good reason. For one thing, it was the first reggae song to hit in America, unless you count “My Boy Lollipop,” which you probably shouldn’t. Until Bob Marley came along, Dekker was the most recognizable reggae star outside Jamaica, and this song was the reason. For another, the song is an absolute masterpiece, a deeply sad but hopeful song about hardship, Dekker’s voice bouncing off the Aces’ baritones and finding room to play around in the deep grooves. This was his “A Change is Gonna Come.” If it overshadows everything else he ever did, it only seems fair; not too many people ever get to write a song this perfect.
6. “You Can Get It If You Really Want” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Jimmy Cliff’s version of this song is the one everyone remembers now because of The Harder They Come, but from what I’ve been reading today, Dekker’s was considered the definitive version at the time. Musically, both songs are virtually identical, sparkling and gorgeous. But Cliff’s vocal is all boisterous enthusiasm, and Dekker’s is more reserved and comforting. I prefer Cliff’s take, but it’s still a powerful song in Dekker’s hands. This was the only one of Dekker’s major hits that he didn’t write.
7. “Live and Learn” Preview/Buy at iTunes
In a catalog full of sad and contemplative songs, this might be the saddest, Dekker singing scraps of his older songs and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” over a deep reggae lope, jumping one song to another with a depressed sort of listlessness (although it ends with a Louis Armstrong impression, so maybe it’s not really all that sad). This is one of the last songs Dekker recorded with Leslie Kong, the only producer he’d ever worked with before Kong’s 1971 death. After Kong died, Dekker moved to the UK and never had a major hit again.
8. “Moving On” Preview/Buy at iTunes
When the whole 2-Tone ska-revival thing was popping off in the UK in the late 70s, Dekker signed with the punk indie Stiff Records and recorded a few albums with Graham Parker’s backing band and a pre-“Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer producing. “Moving On,” from the 1981 album Compass Point, is a great little song. Palmer backs him up with gurgling synths and a ragtime piano solo, and Dekker hits a breezy stride, floating over all the immaculate studio-craft.
9. Desmond Dekker & the Specials: “Carry Go Bring Home” Preview/Buy at iTunes
In 1993, Dekker teamed up with whatever version of the OG British ska-revival band the Specials was still kicking around at that point to record King of Kings, an album of old reggae covers, including this Justin Hinds song. The collaboration should have happened years earlier, when the Specials were young and hungry and Dekker wasn’t too far removed from public memory. The King of Kings stuff has a distracting smooth-jazz production sheen that keeps it from ever becoming really great, but Dekker’s voice is still in fine form, lithe and smoky. He kept touring constantly until his death last night; his website still has all the dates he was supposed to play this year in unlikely spots like Prague and Zurich.
10. Rancid: “Roots Radicals” Preview/Buy at iTunes
This is an iTunes mix, and a lot of interesting Dekker-related curios like the Bodysnatchers’ cover of “0.0.7. (Shanty Town)” and the Apache Indian remix of “Israelites” aren’t available on iTunes. But “Roots Radicals” seems worth mentioning just because the lyrics name-check Dekker, and that was probably the first time I ever heard his name. “Roots Radicals” was Rancid’s biggest anthem, the one they’d usually use to start shows, the one every punk kid in America knew by heart. After this song, a whole lot of us started digging through used racks for Dekker best-ofs. (There’s also apparently a Dekker name-check on the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” but fuck that.)