269. Desmond Dekker & the Aces – Israelites (1969)

The Representation of the People Act was voted in on 17 April, which would lower the voting age from 21 to 18 with effect from February 1970. It also allowed candidates to include a party label on the ballot paper, and removed the right to allow convicted prisoners to vote.

In other electoral news that day, Bernadette Devlin became the youngest ever female MP when she won the Mid Ulster by-election at the age of 21.

Three days later, British troops arrived in Northern Ireland to reinforce the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Two days from then, Robin Knox-Johnston finished his solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe via sailing. He was the first person to achieve this feat.

That week, Marvin Gaye had been knocked from the top of the pops by Jamaican reggae and ska pioneers Desmond Dekker & the Aces. Two black acts at number 1 in a row… clearly, far from the Rivers of Blood that Enoch Powell had predicted, the immigration to the UK in the 60s was opening the UK charts up like never before. The bestselling act of the week didn’t always have to be four white men with guitars.

Desmond Adolphis Dacres was born in Saint Andrew Parish, Jamaica on 16 July 1941. He spent his formative years in Kingston, regularly attending the local church with his grandmother and aunt.

As a young adult, after his mother died, Dacres was working as a welder there, and would impress his colleagues with his singing skills. They encouraged him to go into music. After several failed auditions, he signed with Lesley Kong’s Beverley’s label, but it would be two more years before his first fruits were released.

In the meantime, he had spotted another talented singing welder, and took him to meet Kong, who duly signed him up. In 1962, that singer, Bob Marley, released his debut single. Marley never forgot what his workmate did for him.

Dacres’ first single Honour Your Mother and Father was released in 1963, and he chose the stage name Desmond Dekker at the same time. Fourth single King of Ska established him as one of the island’s biggest stars. His backing band on this were the Cherrypies, better known now as the Maytals. Dekker then picked four singing brothers – Carl, Patrick, Clive and Barry Howard – to become his permanent backing vocalists, and named them the Four Aces, then the Aces.

Desmond Dekker & the Aces’ music at this time was the more respectable end of Jamaican culture, extolling the virtues of going to church, education and respecting your parents. However in 1967 he began recording material that commented on the rude boy subculture, where money was hard to come by and ways to get ahead in life were limited. That year they released the rude boy rocksteady anthem 007 (Shanty Town), the title track of their debut album. Its success reached the UK, where it went to number 15.

Around this time, Dekker became inspired to write Poor Me Israelites, as it was known in Jamaica. In The Metro newspaper on 18 April 2005, he recalled, ‘It all happened so quickly. I didn’t write that song sitting around a piano or playing a guitar. I was walking in the park, eating corn. I heard a couple arguing about money. She was saying she needed money and he was saying the work he was doing was not giving him enough. I relate to those things and began to sing a little song – “You get up in the morning and you slaving for bread.” By the time I got home it was complete. And it was so funny, that song never got out of my mind. It stayed fresh in my head. The following day I got my little tape and I just sang that song and that’s how it all started.’

Although reggae and ska were making inroads, and elements of both were in the Equals’ Baby, Come Back, Israelites became the first full reggae UK number 1, climbing the charts following its release the previous year. This pure form of a fast-rising form of music, with its syncopated vocal melody and offbeat sound, was a taste of another way of life for mainstream record buyers. It helped that the melody was incredibly catchy, because the vocals, sang in thick Jamaican patois, were at times inpenetrable to white audiences. It didn’t matter, though, when the music was this good.

I have to confess that I have only just begun to grasp the meaning of Israelites. It doesn’t help that my introduction to the song came from a television advert for the margarine Vitalite. As a boy I loved it whenever the animated sun and accompanying sunflowers came on our TV. And then I became confused by an advert for Maxell cassettes, in the late 80s, in which Dekker (I’ve literally just found out it was him) holds up incorrect lyrics to the song in the style of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video. So for a while, I thought it was called My Ears Are Alight. I was only young, to be fair.

No, Israelites is not about a margarine that’s high in polyunsaturates and low in saturates, and it’s not about your ears being on fire. It’s about, as Dekker described above, a poor guy struggling to feed his family, but the title stems from the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement’s association with the Twelve Tribes of Israel from the Hebrew Bible. Rastafarians were ostracized from the more conservative traditional church of Jamaica in the 60s.

So, Israelites is Jamaica’s version of the blues. Its their answer to Sixteen Tons. Dekker is slaving away to put bread on the table, yet his wife and kids ‘pack up and leave’ him. Despite reading that this is the lyric, I remain certain he’s actually singing that they ‘fuck off and leave’ him. ‘Darling she said, I was yours to be seen’ suggests he hasn’t been as appreciative of her as he could have been. He doesn’t want to end up like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, I’m assuming, is a reference to robbing and stealing, and not wanting to be shot dead like the infamous duo, back in the public eye after the blockbuster film.

Israelites was not only a success in the US, it made him a name in the US too, reaching the top ten. Dekker decided to leave Jamiaca and took up permanent residency in the UK. It Mek went into the top ten, and then he dropped the Aces, signed with the legendary Trojan Records and very nearly achieved a solo number 1 with his cover of Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want in 1970. Dekker was initially reluctant, but was persuaded by Kong.

Unfortunately, his producer and co-writer died in 1971, and some say Dekker never really recovered, but 1972 saw 007 (Shanty Town) featured on the soundtrack to classic rude boy film The Harder They Come, which increased reggae’s exposure and may have helped pave the way for the success of Bob Marley. In 1975 Israelites was re-released and entered the top ten in the UK once more. His last hit here was Sing a Little Song in 1975.

Dekker signed with cult UK ska/punk label Stiff and released the album Black & Dekker. I don’t know whose idea it was to make a pun on the Black & Decker power tool company, but they have earned my eternal respect. His backing band on the LP was Graham Parker’s backing band the Rumour (featuring Roland Gift, later the singer in Fine Young Cannibals), and they ran through his hits, including Israelites. His next album Compass Point (1981) was produced by Robert Palmer, but he was struggling, and in 1984 he declared bankruptcy.

The Maxell advert brought Dekker recognition once more, and in 1993 he recorded the album King of Kings with the Specials, featuring material by Dekker’s heroes. It sounds like a great idea, but apparently it was a disappointment. His final album was 1999’s Halfway to Paradise.

Dekker continued to perform live right until the end. He was preparing to headline a world music festival in Prague when he died of a heart attack in 2006, aged 64.

Written by: Desmond Dekker & Leslie Kong

Producer: Leslie Kong

Weeks at number 1: 1 (16-22 April)