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)

268. Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1969)

Eurovision 1969 took place on 29 March, and the UK, represented by Lulu with the song Boom Bang-a-Bang, shared first place with not one, not two, but three countries – France, the Netherlands and host nation Spain.

April Fool’s Day saw the Hawker Siddeley Harrier (‘Jump Jet’) entered service with the RAF. Eight days later, Sikh busmen in Wolverhampton won the right to wear their turbans while on duty.

Ruling the charts after four weeks of Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? was a stone-cold soul classic. I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Motown legend Marvin Gaye was one of label’s greatest, and yet boss Berry Gordy, usually so sharp at spotting hits, just couldn’t see it.

Gaye was born Marvin Pent Gay Jr on 2 April 1939 in Washington DC. The Gays had it tough, and he was raised in Public Housing Project the Fairfax Apartments in the Southwest Waterfront neighbourhood. Most buildings lacked electricity and running water.

Gay developed a love of singing from the tender age of four, where he would perform in church while his father backed him on piano, and he was encouraged at school to pursue a singing career after singing in a school play when he was 11.

Sadly, poverty wasn’t Gay’s only problem, as his father ruled with an iron fist, and would often subject Marvin to beatings, which went on well into his teenage years, and of course ultimately led to a tragic end.

In the early 1950s the Gays moved to DC’s Capitol View neighbourhood, where Marvin would stay until 1962. He joined a glee club in junior high, and then several doo top groups. As his relationship with Marvin Sr grew worse, he dropped out of high school and joined the United States Air Force. Gay’s relationship with his father clearly affected his dealings with authority figures, and he clashed with his sergeant.

Back in in DC, Gay formed the group the Marquees. They worked alongside none other than Bo Diddley, who helped them get signed and wrote their only single, Wyatt Earp. Although they were soon dropped, it inspired Gay to start writing. They changed their name to Harvey and the New Moonglows, and Gay recorded his first lead vocal in 1959. They also backed Chuck Berry on Back in the USA.

In 1960 Gaye became a session drummer for Tri-Phi Records, but that Christmas he performed at Berry Gordy’s house and earned himself a contract with Motown subsidiary Tamla. Before the release of his first single, Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide, in May 1961, he decided to add the ‘e’ to the end of his surname, to stop jokes about his sexuality and distance himself from his estranged father.

His single and album, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye failed to make an impression, but 1962 was an important year for the struggling singer, with second album That Stubborn Kind of Fellow featuring three hit singles. The next few years saw his star rise, with singles such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) in 1964.

Gaye became well known for his duets. He had made an album with Mary Wells, and early in 1967 It Takes Two with Kim Weston became one of his most famous songs. But he gelled best with Tami Terrell, recording classics including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Gaye suffered with shyness on stage, and helped to bring him out of his shell. Unfortunately, that October she collapsed in his arms on stage, and it was discovered she had a brain tumour. Although she continued to record, it spelled the end of her live career. Gaye was devastated, and became disillusioned with the music industry.

It had been in February that year that Gaye had recorded I Heard It Through the Grapevine. The song had been started by Motown’s Barrett Strong, writer of Money (That’s What I Want), in 1966. He had heard the phrase ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ in Chicago. Its origins came from black slaves during the Civil War, who had developed their own human telegraph system relay messages – the ‘grapevine’.

Working with producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield, they developed their classic tune of suspicion and betrayal. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded it first, but Gordy vetoed its release as a single (it eventually surfaced as an album track in 1968).

Gaye’s recording followed, but wasn’t straightforward either. With Paul Riser on board arranging the strings played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the track also featured the Funk Brothers and the Andantes supplied backing vocals. Production took two months, and an argument ensued between Gaye and Whitfield when the producer told the singer to try in a higher key than his normal range.

As the whole world now knows, Whitfield was right. Gaye’s performance, taken out of his already formidable comfort zone, really hits the point home. The singer has been hit with an emotional bombshell. He feels disbelief. He is wounded, angry, paranoid, confused. Gaye’s performance is the reason his version is remembered long after Robinson’s. If aliens landed tomorrow and asked me what soul music was, I’d play them this. And that intro is simply one of the coolest in soul and pop.

And yet, Gordy still couldn’t see it. Once more, he refused to allow it to become a single, but it did make it onto Gaye’s album Into the Groove in 1968. In the meantime, Motown’s head honcho did allow Gladys Knight & the Pips to release theirs as a 7″. And fair enough really, as it’s excellent in its own way. Inspired by Aretha Franklyn’s Respect, Whitfield sped things up, added some funk, and Knight sang it with real anger. In contrast to Gaye, Knight is really pissed off, and her man is going to rue the day he messed with her. Leftside Wobble’s techno update in 2011, Grapevine Boogie, is a real banger.

Gaye’s version began to be heard on the radio, and eventually Gordy relented. In 1968, to his surprise, it went to number 1 in the US, and propelled Gaye to superstardom. The UK is just one of many other countries in which it subsequently hit the top spot. In the Groove was even renamed I Heard It Through the Grapevine!. And yet, Gaye was still reeling from Terrell’s condition. She died from brain cancer in 1970.

Follwing a battle with depression, he returned that year with a new, politicised approach. Gordy didn’t want the single What’s Going On released, considering it too controversial. This time Gaye didn’t back down, and after going on strike, he won out. It was a huge hit in 1971, and the album of the same name is a landmark in music.

Despite signing a lucrative deal to remain on Motown, Gaye’s outspoken political views caused further ructions with Gordy. He was forced to shelve the 1972 album You’re the Man, which was finally released earleir this year. The carnal classic song of sensuality Let’s Get It On became his second US chart-topper in 1973. For me, I Want You, the title track of his 1976 album, is just as hot, if not better.

As 1975 drew to a close, Gaye was mired in lawsuits with former bandmates and he was going through a divorce with his first wife Anna, elder sister of Berry Gordy. Disco was big, and he was under pressure to adopt the sound. He responded with Got to Give It Up, a funky floorfiller with a supersmooth falsetto from Gaye. It went to number 1 in the US in 1977, and if you want to hear its influence on 21st-century pop, just listen to 2013 number 1 Blurred Lines.

As the 70s came to an end, Gaye’s personal problems had become too much again. He had money problems and was battling addiction to cocaine. He owed so much in taxes he feared a prison sentence, so he relocated to London following a European tour in 1980. While working on a new album, the master tapes were stolen and were given to Motown. Gaye was furious when the sessions surfaced in January 1981, edited and remixed without his knowledge, as (Far Cry). His time at Motown was over.

Relocating to Ostend in Belgium, Gaye quit the drugs, returned to the church, and was reborn. He signed with CBS in 1982, and released Sexual Healing. Another steamy, sexy classic, but with an updated sound (check out that 808), it became his biggest-selling hit ever, earned him two Grammy Awards, and the album it spawned from, Midnight Love, was also huge. It would be his last recorded work.

In 1983 he made his last TV appearances, most notably on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special. But his return to making hits brought back old problems, and his drug issues resurfaced. He was becoming increasingly paranoid, and that summer he returned to live with his parents. It would be a fatal choice.

The world was left stunned on 1 April 1984 when the news came out that Marvin Gaye had been shot dead by his own father. He was only 44. Years of bad blood had come to a head and ended in the worst possible way. Marvin had intervened in an argument between his mother and father, and Marvin Gaye Sr shot his own son twice. He was initially charged with murder but his sentence was reduced to voluntary manslaughter when it was discovered he had, of all things, a brain tumour. He died in a nursing home in 1998.

It’s likely my first exposure to I Heard It Through the Grapevine was in 1985, when Gaye’s version was copied and used in a Levi’s advert. One of the most famous commercials of the decade, it made Nick Kamen, the man who strips down to his boxers, into a star. It also propelled Gaye to number eight in the singles chart. Carling Black Label spoofed the ad the following year, which starred Steve Frost and Mark Arden.

Gaye’s life reads like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster, without the fairytale ending. But scrape away all the personal problems and you’re left with that versatile, beautiful voice. He was soul music.

Written by: Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong

Producer: Norman Whitfield

Weeks at number 1: 3 (26 March-15 April)

Births:

Sporting executive Karren Brady – 4 April