Israelites – Desmond Dekker & The Aces
Get up in the morning slaving for bread sir
so that every mouth can be fed
poor me Israelites
We didn’t really know what he was on about ’til we were older, but Israelites reached Number One in the hit parade in Britain in May 1969, the first Jamaican ska song to reach that lofty pinnacle. (Milly Small’s cover of My Boy Lollipop reached Number Two in 1964). Desmond Dekker had irresistible syncopated rhythms and cool rude boy threads – and an extremely visceral way of shaping his words (whatever they were!) – I was eleven years old and transfixed. So was my mum. We were living in a house in the deep Sussex countryside between Lewes & Eastbourne just north of Bo-Peep Hill in Selmeston.
view from Bo-Peep Hill towards Selmeston
Dad had left some 3 years previously and was living in Eastbourne, we saw him once a week – I think – maybe once a fortnight – on Saturdays, walking up to Beachy Head, coming back in time for the football results. Paul and I did anyway, Andrew was only 3 years old then. The whole country went Desmond Dekker crazy though. It was a phenomenon.
Ska had been around in Jamaica since at least 1961, some say earlier. Prince Buster, Ernest Ranglin, Laurel Aitken, Jimmy Ciff, Duke Reid, Derrick Morgan, Toots & The Maytals, The Skatalites were all there at the beginnings. Laurel Aitken had the UK’s first single release on Blue Beat Records, a song called Boogie Beat which was a kind of loose R&B shuffle with the guitar on the off-beat, embryonic ska. The more choppy sound we associate with classic Jamaican ska came later with singles like Guns Of Navarone by The Skatalites and Al Capone by Prince Buster.
Desmond Dekker signed with Leslie Kong‘s Beverley label in Kingston Jamaica in 1961 but didn’t release his first single until two years later: “Honour Your Father and Mother”, and a string of hits followed – all morally and culturally decent christian songs – until he recorded a song with Derrick Morgan. Tougher Than Tough was part of the rude boy trend – the court was in session, judgement was being passed, but Rudies Don’t Fear. This was ghetto life in Kingston writ large – and Dekker’s next song 007 (Shanty Town) made him an icon in Jamaica, was a hit in England in 1967 amongst the mod crowd as well as the West Indian population, and is rightly considered a classic. Despite it reaching #14 on the charts (the first Jamaican-produced song to reach the top 15) it wasn’t until 1969 that the mighty Israelites took the country by storm.
We had a cousin, Wendy, who was older than us and who would come and stay now and again. She must have been seventeen or eighteen when Mum invited her up from Portsmouth for a week, and they decided to go into Eastbourne one night to see Desmond Dekker & The Aces live on the Pier. Mum only told me about this quite recently. Amazing what you find out if you actually ask !
Mum had also decided that it was high time that Wendy made out with a man – she claims now that Wendy had never been kissed. I think they took the bus into Eastbourne along the A27, had a few drinks, then got onto the pier and saw the electric Desmond Dekker & The Aces in the flesh (I never did manage to see him!) then danced the night away to all the latest hits. I think they both found some willing snogging partners and stayed out so late that they had to take the milk train back to Berwick – about 3 miles from Selmeston. It was dawn when they started walking back, hitching a lift from the hugely embarrassed milkman, and getting a discreet worldly wink from Cedric the postman as they finally reached home. We were all asleep upstairs, none the wiser. I think Mum remembers that night now as one of the great nights of the 1960s for her, and I’m rather hoping that Wendy does too.
It was many years later when I finally truly established what the actual lyrics to the song really were :
Wife and a kids they buck up an a leave me
Darlin’ she said I was yours to receive
Look – me shirt dem a tear up, trousers a go
I don’t want to end up like Bonnie & Clyde
After a storm there must be a calm
if they catch me in the farm you sound your alarm….
Poor Me Israelites
It became like a magical spell cast across the radio, across the dance floor, bouncing out of car radios, in shops, a mantra of phrases that ring around your head. The rest of 1969 found us listening to The Liquidator by Harry J & The All-Stars, Return Of Django by The Upsetters (Lee Perry) and apparently (I never heard it at the time but older kids did ) Wet Dream by Max Romeo. Songs like Israelites reaching Number One in Britain is one of the reasons why I love the UK. It’s not all bad, however it may seem.