Lost Chapter of Ska: An Oral History

For those who have read my book, Ska: An Oral History, you may notice there are two significant artists who are omitted. In fact, the subject of ska history is so large that there are many artists who are not in this book because it is a cursory introduction to the music, many artists have died and therefore cannot be interviewed, and there are some who were unwilling to participate. One of these artists was Prince Buster who granted me an interview for my book, but then when I went to obtain permission in writing, asked for monetary compensation. It was disappointing, to say the least, to receive such a response after being granted the interview, which I still have on tape. I do respect Prince Buster though and know that as a producer, money is the name of the game. Unfortunately, in publishing a book for an academic press, there is no money to be made for authors at all. When I explained this reality, he said this was another reason why he would not want to grant me permission. I also explained that journalism ethics prevented me from offering those I interviewed any money, as that would taint the interview and bias the material. Thus, I maintained my integrity and rewrote the chapter in the eleventh hour.

Another artist who was omitted was Desmond Dekker. I had obtained an interview with Dekker’s manager and close personal friend Delroy Williams and was unable to publish it in the book at the time due to some publishing obligations that Delroy had at the time, but five years have passed and so now I offer this chapter here. Delroy is a sweet man, a kind soul, and an artist in his own right. He still carries the legacy of Desmond Dekker forward and his words here are full of love and friendship. Enjoy.

Delroy Williams (left) and Desmond Dekker (right).

Delroy Williams (left) and Desmond Dekker (right).

My Brother’s Keeper, by Heather Augustyn
Featuring Leon Delroy Williams on Desmond Dekker

His tassels swing from the length of each arm, punctuating the rocksteady rhythm. He electrifies the stage with his charisma, Desmond Dekker in his slanty black beret while people in the crowd who are half his age, even younger, sway to his voice which has become more mellow, more soulful with age, and he still nails every note in the wide vocal range of the hit song “Israelites.” Behind him stands his manager and fellow musician. He echoes the chorus, strums the guitar. But Leon Delroy Williams is much more than a mere manager or performer to Dekker. They are life-long friends, standing together on stage, and standing together through life, and now death. They are brothers.
Desmond Dekker was born Desmond Adolphus Dacres on July 16, 1941 in Kingston. He had a talent for singing, even as a very young child, performing the tunes of artists popular in the U.S., such as Little Richard, Bill Haley, Nat “King” Cole, and Sam Cooke. He attended the famous Alpha Boys School as an orphan since his mother died and his father was unable to raise him. Later in life, Dekker began working as a welder apprentice, but after his fellow employees heard his singing, they encouraged him to seek a career in music. He performed at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour like so many of his contemporaries and he took time off from work repeatedly to audition at the leading studios of the day. He auditioned for Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, but both turned him down. However, Leslie Kong saw Dekker’s immeasurable talent, and after a couple of auditions, in front of Derrick Morgan and Jimmy Cliff, accompanied by pianist Theophilus Beckford of “Easy Snappin’” fame, Dekker impressed them all and Kong signed him to the Beverly’s label in 1961.
Dekker was excited to have the promise of a new life and he shared his experience with a fellow welder at his work, encouraging this worker to give Kong another try. This worker, a young Bob Marley, had previously been rejected by Kong, but with Dekker’s support, Marley visited Kong’s studio again, met Jimmy Cliff, and went on to overwhelming fame.
But for Dekker, it would be two years before Kong’s label recorded and released a song. Derrick Morgan recalls, “Desmond Dekker used to be my backup singer because he was with Beverly’s for two years before he sang a song called ‘Honour Your Mother and Father,’ so while he was there, he was doing backup with me.” Dekker’s brother George Dekker, of later Pioneers fame, also sang back up for Morgan on the song “Tougher Than Tough.” For Desmond Dekker, “Honour Your Mother and Father” was an immediate hit in Jamaica. It was recorded under the artist name, “Desmond Dekker & Beverly’s Allstars” since Kong suggested Dacres change his moniker to Dekker. Dekker recorded two more songs before “King of Ska” was another huge hit in 1964, backed up by the Cherrypies who would go on to be known as the Maytals with Toots Hibbert. “King of Ska” put Dekker “right there on top.” He assembled his own group, Desmond Dekker and the Four Aces, backed by Clive Campbell, Easton Barrington Howard, Wilson James, and Patrick Johnson. Dekker continued to put out hits in 1965, including “Get Up Edina” and “Generosity,” among others.
The topics of many of Dekker’s songs were finger-pointing prescriptions for good behavior and finger-wagging admonishments for bad behavior. But in 1967, Dekker added another topic to his repertoire that would endear him, not only to Jamaican youth, but to the British who craved the Jamaican style. The rude boy culture was commemorated in Dekker’s huge hit “007 (Shanty Town)” which reached number one on Jamaican charts, as well as number 15 in the U.K. The tune even became a hit in the U.S. and it was also featured in the movie The Harder They Come. Dekker wrote the song about the violence among the Jamaican youth in the late 1960s. “Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail in Shanty Town,” said it all. And for the British youth who glamorized such stylish culture, the song sealed Dekker’s position as an icon.
The next year, Dekker won the 1968 Jamaica Festival song contest with “Intensified” and in the same year Desmond release perhaps his greatest song that established Dekker even further as one of the greatest Jamaican artists of all time. The song, “Israelites,” was such a huge hit in Jamaica that Commercial Entertainment, a management company, brought him to the U.K. to tour where he met Leon Delroy Williams. “I first met Desmond when he came over to do ‘Israelites’ and ‘Israelites’ was number one. And we were with the same management company at the time and I was the only black artist they have on their book, and Desmond was the next black artist to get on the books. So the first tour Desmond did, I had to go around with him. He didn’t know nobody,” says Williams.
Leon Delroy Williams was an artist in his own right, and still is today. Raised on a farm in Bamboo St. Ann, Jamaica, Williams moved to England when he was just nine years old. Always having a great love and talent for music, Williams became involved in a soul band and they signed to the Commercial Entertainment management company. “I was doing my own thing with my band at the time,” says Williams. This involved recording for Bell Records in 1968 with reggae renditions of Ben E. King and Billy Joe Royal tunes since Williams had a love for both reggae and soul music.
After the tour with Dekker, the two remained friends, which Williams says was hard for others, but not for him. “Desmond wasn’t the kind of guy that . . . it’s not easy to be his best friend. Desmond did not really trust people. I’m more English and he just arrived from Jamaica and I used to speak the truth to him and I wasn’t a yes man. Because he was a big star, all he had around him was yes men. Nobody was really telling him the truth or trying to educate him about the English ways and the music business,” says Williams. Williams left his management company and signed with another, but he and Dekker would join forces again later, for good.
Until then, Dekker continued to be a popular artist in England as the 2Tone era kicked off in the late 1970s. Dekker signed with Stiff Records, a label that embraced punk and ska music with a slogan, “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck.” Bands like Madness, The Belle Stars, The Damned, The Pogues, and Elvis Costello also called Stiff Records home. Dekker’s work inspired the reggae of the Clash, and he produced hit after hit over the years. When the 2Tone movement waned though, Dekker found himself looking for new work.
“About a year after I left, Desmond fell out with his management company so he just went down the road a bit and one time he just say to me, ‘Why don’t we just join together. You do the management. We’ll work on stage together and you be the manager.’ And I just thought about it for a while. I said, ‘Okay, let’s go for it,’ and it lasted for 27 years,” Williams says. It was the longest business partnership that Dekker had. “The longest time he had a manager before I came around was Leslie Kong, which only lasted a few years, and then Commercial Entertainment, he only lasted a few years with them as well. But we were 27 years, traveled the world. We had a good time together,” he says. The two joined forces in 1981.
That business partnership took time, says Williams. “It took him about a year to really put his trust in me. Of course, he had a rough time. All the people he work with before, the managers, they really kind of took him to the cleaners financially. That was the nature of the business. If I was there from day one, he would have made a lot of money. And I could understand why it took him a year to really put his trust in me,” he says. Williams was good for Dekker, both personally and as a business partner. His career grew. “Even when ‘Israelites’ was number mine in the Billboard charts in America, he never get to go there to promote it. Because this company was owned by two people. One don’t like to fly, and one wouldn’t let the other one go with Desmond alone because they know that in America when you go there, next thing they are left behind and they’re out of the picture, so Desmond didn’t get to America until I take over and we did a tour or America. The first tour was five weeks and every couple of years we do five weeks tour and we’ve been all over America,” says Williams who also sang back up for Dekker as a member of the Aces.
One listen to Dekker’s awe-inspiring vocals tells anyone that he was an incredible talent, far surpassing the skill of most all others. So why then isn’t Dekker held up by the masses as one of the greatest artists of all time? Says Williams, “There’s nobody else, no reggae artist, that’s got Desmond’s voice. There are people like Bob Marley and all them who was marketed in a big way. Desmond Dekker wasn’t marketed in a big way. He just got his fame by doing his thing. You don’t read about Desmond in the paper going out with Miss World, or Desmond smoking, and you don’t read those things about Desmond, you understand? You don’t see Desmond on no television game show. He would go on TV just to sing. Desmond was happy to go on stage to sing but he wasn’t happy with being a star, you understand? He just wanted to sing. He didn’t want nothing else, and a lot of people don’t understand that. But that was Desmond. And because people didn’t read a lot of propaganda, people trying to build him up in the papers and things like that, when they see him, they just love him. Of course he wasn’t blasted all over, going out here, doing this, doing that. When you come to a tour, that’s when you see him. And when he’s coming and touring to your part of the world, that’s when you read about him. But apart from that, Desmond wasn’t one of them people that you find in the nightclubs. Desmond, when he’s on tour, he’s on tour. When he home, he’s hard to get out of his house. He love his home. It’s hard to get Desmond out of his house when he’s not working. He just love to be home,” Williams says, speaking of his friend, flipping between past and present tense because he knows he is gone, but yet he is somehow still very present.
Williams speaks of Dekker’s death with great pain. Even though Dekker died of a heart attack at his London home, where he loved to be, on May 25, 2006, the hurt is still so strong for Williams, as well as Dekker’s many fans. “When Desmond died, he was at his fittest. And I say fit because about two weeks before he died we were getting ready to go on this long tour and he left my house on Wednesday at seven o’clock in the evening. At first we were going around looking, he was trying to move from London and he want to go out to the country. For about a week we’ve been driving around looking at different property and we went looking at property on Wednesday and I drop him off and I came home about three o’clock and then at seven o’clock he came round by me because he had to see his kids on Thursday to give them the places of where we were going to be on tour, where we could be contacted and all that. But when he came in, my computer was down so, my printer was down, so I had to write it off. That took a while and he left and the last thing he said to me, we were supposed to meet up at 10:30 the next morning. The last thing he said to me was, ‘Make sure. Make sure. Don’t be late,’ and I laugh, he laugh, and he got in his car and drove off. Four o’clock in the morning, he was dead. So fast. Four o’clock in the morning he was dead. And that was one of the worst times of my life. The worst time of my life. A heart attack came on through high blood pressure and that was it. He was gone,” says Williams.
It is still difficult for Williams to perform, having been used to performing together with his best friend for nearly three decades. “Now I’m back on the road and it took me a year and a half to muster up the strength and the courage to go up there and stand there on my own. The only difference, why we weren’t brothers, was because we weren’t from the same mom and dad. But we were brothers and the whole world knows that,” he says.
As it was in life, now it is in death, that Williams is Dekker’s brother and his keeper. “It still hurts. He’s buried not far from here. I walk down there about once every two weeks. He’s got a beautiful tomb. Some people say I shouldn’t go down there so often, but I have to go, and the reason why I have to go is because he has fans that go down there, and they go and see it in terrible condition, they’re not going to say it’s his children, they’re going to say it’s me. How can you let Desmond’s tomb get in that condition, so that’s why I do it,” says Williams.

 

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