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Desmond Dekker, the 'King of Ska'

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Desmond Dekker, the 'King of Ska'

Desmond Dekker, the 'King of Ska'

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ED GORDON, host:

There probably would be no reggae without its precursor, a music style called Ska. And chances are, Ska wouldn't have enjoyed such huge international success if it hadn't been for Desmond Dekker. The Kingston, Jamaica native was one of the first big artists to present his island's local sound to a world audience.

Soundbite of Ska music)

Mr. DESMOND DEKKER (Musician): (Singing) Honor your mother, your father (unintelligible) that your days may be long on the land. Children obey your (unintelligible) this is the law of the prophet.

GORDON: After more than 40 years of performing, Dekker died last week in London. NPR's Christopher Johnson has this tribute.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON reporting:

Desmond Dekker wanted everyone to be clear. The guys at the welding shop where he worked already knew he had a golden voice; and by 1963, he had a handful of hits topping Jamaica's charts. But the 21-year-old singer aimed for more. So just a year after the island won its independence from the British crown, Dekker declared himself a new kind of patriarch with the now classic tune King of Ska.

(Soundbite of song “King of Ska”)

Mr. DEKKER: Don't worship, man. You will surely lose it. I am going to build a (unintelligible) like a blazing fire. King of Ska. King of Ska.

JOHNSON: Dekker soon pulled together his own backing group, a quarter of brothers called the Four Aces. They made hit songs that lit up Kingston's dance halls. Mostly, they were A-political tracks, advice to parents, love songs, and tunes with hints of religion. But in 1967, the group now called Desmond Dekker and The Aces wrote 007 Shantytown.

(Soundbite of song “007 Shanty Town”)

JOHNSON: The rock-steady song detailed the Jamaican ghetto's rude-boy gangster culture. It topped charts on the island and in the U.K., and became a trans-Atlantic anthem for Britain's growing mod scene.

(Soundbite of song “007 Shanty Town”)

Mr. DEKKER: (Singing) Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail. A Shanty Town. Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail. A Shanty Town. Dem rude-boys get a probation. A Shanty Town. And rude-boy bomb up the town. A Shanty Town.

Mr. DERRICK MORGAN (Musician): He was the first international hit man from Jamaica.

JOHNSON: Music pioneer Derrick Morgan is one of the original artists who helped create Ska in the late 1950s. He discovered Dekker, and worked with him on some of the singer's earliest tracks. Although others later took reggae around the world, Morgan - speaking from Kingston - says Dekker was one of the first to give his country's music massive international exposure.

Mr. MORGAN: He was the (unintelligible) even before Bob Marley. So we have to give Dekker all the praise for all he has done for Jamaican music, I think so.

JOHNSON: Dekker rode the tide of his success and headed immediately to England. The self-proclaimed King of Ska was received there like royalty. He wrote more rude-boy hits that scored on both islands. In 1968, Dekker broke into the golden market, when he finally made the U.S. charts. In the same year Dr. King was killed, and Apollo 8 went around the moon, Dekker penned Israelites, a song as epic, troubled, and hopeful, as the era in which it was created.

(Soundbite of song “Israelites”)

Mr. DEKKER: (Singing) Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir. So that every mouth can be fed. Poor me, the Israelite. Aah. Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir. So that every mouth can be fed. Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

JOHNSON: After moving to London, Dekker continued to crank out great music. But his success waned after his producer, Leslie Kong, died in 1971. A British Ska revival called Two-Tone briefly resuscitated Dekker's career. When that scene sputtered in the mid-80s, he got by mostly through some touring and re-recording of his classics. Labels continued to re-issue huge collections of Dekker's work that spanned Ska, rock-steady, and reggae. Just last year, he was performing in the U.S. to young, packed crowds.

Dekker was planning another international tour when he died last week of a heart attack in London. Numbers conflict, but its believed he was about 63.

Looking back over the late artists 40-year career, Derrick Morgan says Dekker was truly an innovator, and more.

Mr. MORGAN: We used to get along so well. He was an amusing guy to be around with; might drink a little liquor, but he always be so polite and nice (unintelligible). I really do appreciate that with Dekker. I hold him as a good friend, you know?

Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of Ska music)

Mr. DEKKER:(Singing) We're having a party. I hope you are hearty.

GORDON: You can hear full-length cuts of some of Dekker's biggest hits on our website, at npr.org.

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