Remembering Desmond Dekker, Croydon’s should-be famous reggae star

By - Tuesday 31st May, 2016

Marley was the name, but Dekker opened the door. As the tenth anniversary of his death on 26th May passes, Gareth Endean commemorates the reggae star who chose to live in Croydon

On 31st March this year, Croydon mourned the passing of Ronnie Corbett, one of its most famous adopted sons. And we have just passed the tenth anniversary of the loss of another: Desmond Adolphus Darces, better known as Desmond Dekker, who died in 2006 at the age of sixty-four in Thornton Heath, leaving behind him one of the greatest legacies of reggae music.

Bob Marley may be the household name, but it was Dekker who opened the door to the world for Jamaican music. In 1968, Dekker’s song ‘Israelites’ became a global smash, reaching number one in the UK charts and breaching the top ten in the US, the first reggae song to manage such a feat. Sung in patois, at the time unheard of by the masses, it was a fresh, alien music that has stood the test of time: admit it, you’re singing it in your head right now, aren’t you? Its catchy refrain belies its strong social-political message, likening the Israelites’ ancient struggles to the modern day poverty that Dekker saw in his home country.

Following his success, Dekker moved to England and lived in South London. finally settling in Thornton Heath

Dekker was no overnight sensation though, nor was he a one-hit wonder. By the time he released ‘Israelites’ he had already established himself as ‘The King of Ska’ in his homeland, shedding his early clean cut persona to become a prominent figure in the edgy, more political Rude Boy scene. It was here that his star began to ascend, giving voice to the Jamaican youth and starting to come to the attention of music lovers outside of the Caribbean. His single ’007 (Shanty Town)’ became a minor hit in the UK in 1967, paving the way for his later success with ‘Israelites’ and introducing reggae to the masses.

Following this success, Dekker moved to England, living in various parts of South London before moving to Addiscombe and finally settling in Thornton Heath. He followed up his breakthrough single with further hits ‘It Mek’, which reached number seven in the UK, and ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ from Jimmy Cliff’s seminal soundtrack to The Harder They Come, which reached number two in the UK.

Dekker continued to record and release music, although without the same chart success. However, to judge his career on record sales alone does him a disservice, for while they are nothing to be sniffed at, it is Desmond Dekker’s far reaching influence that is his true legacy. Following him out of the Caribbean came the likes of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, who certainly had their paths smoothed by Dekker’s pioneering music. But his sway reached far beyond the boundaries of his homeland. The Beatles song ‘Ob La Di, Ob La Da’ is said to have been inspired by Dekker’s music; Madness recorded a version of ‘Israelites’ for their Dangermen Sessions album and The Clash, whose brand of punk was a direct descendant of the Rude Boy scene, also played the song live. The Specials, perhaps the natural heirs to Dekker’s ska throne, went one step further and recorded an entire album with him, 1993′s King of Kings.

A blue plaque in his honour is deserved at least

Now look at that list again: The Beatles, Madness, The Clash, The Specials. That’s British pop and rock royalty right there, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In these days where the epithet ‘legend’ is thrown around without thought it’s rare to see someone who truly embodies the word, but Desmond Dekker does, and with ease.

A consummate professional and dedicated father, Dekker continued to play live right up until his death a decade ago. He was, in fact, due to start a European tour when he passed away at the age of sixty-four, leaving behind him a son, a daughter, and a legacy that can still be felt to this day. It would have been nice to think that ten years on from his death his adopted hometown of Croydon would have commemorated his achievements: a blue plaque in his honour is deserved at least, surely? But if not, perhaps as individuals we go can rediscover the music that he made, then celebrate one of the true greats who chose our town to make his home. Let’s not let another ten years go by before we do.

Gareth Endean

Gareth Endean

Gareth was born and raised in Croydon, and aside from a brief period of exile in Canterbury, has lived in the borough his entire life. He is currently raising his own brood of Croydonites and trying to find time in between to write crime novels. Follow him on Twitter @garethendean.

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  • skamui

    Not to detract from his accomplishments but, Desmond Dekker called himself a Ska King. But Derrick Morgan was the real Ska king.

  • gend

    all this time he was living up the road from me