Desmond Dekker, the Kingston singer whose haunting, strident “Israelites” was the first Jamaican reggae hit to cross over to international success, died May 25 of a heart attack in his Surrey, England, home. He was 64, and was to begin a European tour the following week. “He had a nice spirit — very soulful and a very good songwriter,” says Toots Hibbert of the Maytals, who befriended Dekker while recording in Kingston in the ’60s. “Of course, he should have gotten a lot more credit, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Born Desmond Dacres in Kingston, Dekker was an orphan who found early work as a welder. He passed an audition with the Beverley’s record label in 1961 and had a string of regional hits, such as “King of Ska,” before reinventing himself as a rebel “rude boy” in 1967. His hits in that vein, including “007 (Shanty Town)” and “Tougher Than Tough,” made him a key influence on the Sex Pistols and the Clash. “Punkers identified with that. When they used to go dancing, there were no punk-rock records. They were listening to King Tubby and early Jamaican toasters — Desmond Dekker, for sure,” says Moss Raxlen, a Montreal reggae expert and dub producer.
Flush with the success of 1969’s “Israelites,” Dekker moved to England and signed with influential new-wave label Stiff Records, putting out the “Black & Dekker” album with Graham Parker’s band, The Rumour. Dekker was divorced with a son and daughter, returning to Jamaica only sporadically to see his family. He went bankrupt in 1984, but toured regularly until his death, playing festivals all over the world; his last show was May 11 at Leeds University in England. “He was pushing himself really hard. It just kind of caught up to him,” Raxlen says. “To me, that’s not such a bad way to go — you’re 64 years old, touring the world and doing what you love doing.”