If there was anyone able to sing about the virtues of patience and hard work at this time, it was Desmond (nee Dacres) Dekker. By this time he was one of reggae’s biggest stars, due to a combination of streetwise ‘rude boy’ anthems ("Tougher Than Tough" and “ Shanty Town” being the first) and more pious songs (“Honour Your Mother and Father” which started his career back in ’63). He had to wait two years for his producer, Leslie Kong, to find the right song for him – and it was his fellow welders who encouraged him to take up singing in 1961 in the first place. At first he was only known in Jamaica, but once the rude boy anthems started to appear, his popularity everywhere else increased (Mods, in particular, took to him faithfully and he moved to the UK correspondingly). Before Bob Marley, there was, among others, Desmond Dekker*.
This song was written by Jimmy Cliff and produced by Leslie Kong; from what I can figure out Dekker recorded it first, and Cliff then did his own version for the soundtrack of The Harder They Come in ’72. (It is a measure of how quickly this decade shifts that by then the song sounds naïve; it’s the first song on the soundtrack, when the hero has aspirations to make it in the music business.) But for now it is a mixture of that toughness in Dekker’s voice – he knows very well how hard you have to wait, how many times you have to try (he had been rejected twice by the major producers before Kong accepted him) and how it is a relief when you succeed, the efforts to reaching that success – the energy expended – being almost more important than the success itself. The song is mid-tempo, reasonable, rational almost; not cold rationalist though, as Dekker smiles as he sings “try, try and try” as he knows how hard things can be, how the struggle can seem endless…
By this time Dekker was living in the UK and reggae was getting into the charts more and more (Jimmy Cliff’s "Wild World" and Horace Faith’s "Black Pearl" are in the same chart as Dekker) and in half a year one of the best #1s of the 70s, "Double Barrel" by Dave and Ansil Collins will show that this is reggae’s time, a special time when – and I know I am being idealistic here – the music from one island is appreciated by another, when the appreciation of this music crosses all sorts of lines – particularly in the UK, which of course had a huge influx of immigrants from the Caribbean in the late 50s – though it crossed lines in different ways, of course**. Dekker remained in the UK, recorded and toured with UK musicians and even though he only had one hit after this – “Sing A Little Song” in 1975 – by now he had more than done his part in bringing reggae to prominence in the UK and his sharp, compassionate singing is part of the joyful realism of this time – a new decade is here, new ideas and enterprises can start, but as always, success does not come overnight.
This song sounds like a sturdy but young plant, determined to make it no matter what; and that determination is exactly what will be needed in the years to come. Persecution, rejection, slow starts – these are the roots of victory, Dekker sings, and because he knows this, he extends a metaphorical hand to the listener to encourage, to help, to cheer up. Reggae has well and truly broken through, and is only going to get bigger as the decade continues, and in effect this is reggae’s own anthem to itself, put on record.
Up next: metal with a sense of humor and history.
*”Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace” from “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a reference to him, and if The Beatles knew about him then, everyone else caught up with him in ’69 for the epochal single “The Israelites.”
**”In Jamaica, where reggae originated, it served as the soundtrack to a tense political climate. In England, reggae was a profound inspiration to punk rockers. Here in North America, inspired by innovators like Bobby Bloom (“Montego Bay”) and the Guess Who (“Follow Your Daughter Home,” 1973), reggae was a kindred spirit to Fleetwood Mac and Pablo Cruise – perfect beach-volleyball music.” (I Wanna Be Sedated, Phil Dellio & Scott Woods.) (Note: “Montego Bay” was also in the top ten at this time in the UK.)