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Late Nite FDL: Desmond Dekker, RIP

Per Crooked Timber, we learn that Desmond Dekker died this week. The Israelites was his only top 10 hit in the US but it was just a amazing song.

From the LA Times:

The fans who pushed Desmond Dekker’s "Israelites" to the top of the pop charts in 1968 and 1969 had no firsthand experience with the social conditions in Jamaica that gave rise to the lyrics.

They did not quite understand the island patois Dekker used in the song. And the musical style, ska, a precursor of reggae, was foreign to them.

Yet, the song, an ode to the troubles of the poor, sold millions of copies, became the first purely Jamaican song to top the charts in the U.S., and opened the ears of the world to the music of the island.

"I just got lucky," Dekker told the Boston Globe in 1996. "It was the right song at the right time…. Many people didn’t understand it, but it had a nice vibe."

Dekker, the revered king of ska, whose international success set the stage for Bob Marley and other artists, died Thursday of a heart attack at his home in London. He was believed to be 63, though accounts of his age vary.

"He was a breakthrough artist," said Roger Steffens, chairman of the Reggae Grammy committee and former co-host of "Reggae Beat" on KCRW-FM (89.9). "He was one of the very earliest local artists in Jamaica in the ska period and was a pioneer in using patois in his lyrics."

Writer Laurence Cane-Honeysett called Dekker "reggae music’s first superstar" and described him as a pivotal figure "in the successful globalization of reggae."


Between 1967 and 1970, Dekker produced a series of records that helped introduce the music of Jamaica to an international audience.

Dekker was amazed that "O.O.7 (Shanty Town)," about troubles in Jamaica, became a big hit in Britain.

"There’d been student riots and the police and soldiers had been called in to break them up," he said in 1999. "But I think people here [in Britain] like the tune even if they didn’t really understand it."

"Israelites" was the crossover hit, reaching the Top 10 in Britain and the U.S. in 1969, notwithstanding the fact that some fans misheard the lyrics.

Written while he walked through a park in Jamaica, it speaks to the problems of the nation’s poor trying to make ends meet. Like the Biblical Israelites, they are downtrodden and wandering.

The lip-synching on the YouTube clip isn’t all it could be but it’s a delight nonetheless.

In other cultural news of note, we learn that the cream of the right wing intellectual crop, Jeff Goldstein, has revealed that it was in fact Michelangelo who painted the Mona Lisa. Many thanks to Lindsey Beyerstein for pointing this out to us. See what you miss when you don’t scour the wingnut blogs?

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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