Desmond Dekker – Rockin’ Steady: The Best of Desmond Dekker

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Desmond Dekker was born Desmond Dacres – say that last name out loud, and the stage name makes sense. He had hits in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even released a couple of albums in the ‘80s (one with Graham Parker’s backing band, the Rumour). He mostly worked with the influential Leslie Kong (a Chinese-Jamaican producer who recorded Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, and Toots and the Maytals, and helped form Island Records, and also had a bit part in The Harder They Come). It is almost certain that he was the inspiration for the “Desmond” character in the Beatles’ stab at ska in “Ob La Di, Ob La Da” (which itself was taken from the name of the band that backed Jimmy Scott). He is referenced in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “Desmond Dekker’s Doing Fine,” and he recorded with the Specials in 1993. Dekker died in 2006.

What I Think of This Album

This is old school shit, ya’ll, and it’s fairly awesome. Dekker has a sweet voice, and all of these songs go down easy. If you’re coming at this from the perspective of third or second wave ska, you may be surprised at how gentle these tracks are. I really can’t find any fault with the collection. Twenty tracks in chronological order (thank you!), with pretty good liner notes and very good sound. But then, I trust Rhino to get these things right.

The big hits like “A It Mek,” “Israelites,” “007 (Shanty Town)” (which was covered by the Specials), and his version of Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want” are all here. The deeper cuts are all eminently worthy of repeated plays. In my somewhat uneducated opinion, some of this is not purely ska, venturing into the slower beat of rocksteady and even reggae, but that’s fine.

I can’t endorse either the message or the religiosity of “Honour Your Mother and Father,” but it sounds amazing and is catchy as hellfire, with a great horn part and some nice piano. Dekker unleashes a soulful vocal on the sublime “This Woman.” The references to “Oh Oh Seven” and Ocean’s Eleven are sort of shoehorned in to the ambivalent, half-anthem / half-cautionary tale “007 (Shanty Town),” but whatever – it’s a classic ska track for a reason. Dekker’s voice slices through “Keep a Cool Head,” which also finds him (or more accurately, perhaps, producer Leslie Kong) embracing the slower rhythms of post-ska Jamaican music.

“Unity” floats by on a marvelous melody, with some fine bass work by whoever played bass for Kong’s Beverley’s All-Stars and excellent harmony work by back-up singer the Aces, while “Wise Man” bubbles with celebratory joy, with a doo-wop influenced vocal by Dekker. “Fu Man Chu” is probably a bad idea, but it is compellingly sinister sounding, again with a great bass line. The Aces ably support Dekker’s wonderful vocal on international hit “Israelites.” It’s difficult to deny the charms of “It Is Not Easy,” where the vocals take on a Frankie Lymon tinge.

I think this is the original single version of “A It Mek,” but I am not sure; the remixed one was the hit, so I don’t know. In any event, it’s another fantastic tune, again more rocksteady than ska. “Rude Boy Train” covers the same ground as “007 (Shanty Town),” but when the results are this fun, you can’t blame Dekker (or Kong) for going back to the well. “Pickney Gal” is fabulous, with possibly the best use of a children’s choir ever (which in all other circumstances, I fucking hate), and surprisingly gritty passages from Dekker. This album is basically a must-own for any ska fan.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Pickney Gal,” for having the only children’s choir I like.

Release Date

1992

The Cover Art

I am a fan. I love the use of color and while the graphic of the dancing white couple is sort of a head-scratcher, I like the style of the drawing. The musical notation is nice touch and the arrangement of the letters at the bottom is a winner. Also, the composition of the red, black, grey, and white rectangles is on point. 

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