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Desmond Dekker, the 'King of Ska'

It's unlikely reggae music would have emerged from the island nation of Jamaica without its precursor, a musical style called ska. And ska would not have been such an international success if it hadn't been for Desmond Dekker.

The Kingston native, who died last week in London, was one of the first popular artists to perform his island's local sounds for a world audience.

By 1963, the former welder had a handful of hits topping Jamaica's charts. But the 21-year-old singer aimed for more. Just a year after the island won its independence from the British crown, Dekker declared himself a new kind of patriarch, with the now-classic tune "King of Ska."'

Dekker and his backup singers, a group of brothers dubbed The Four Aces, produced a string of hits, mostly love ballads and songs with hints of religion or advice to parents. In 1967, Dekker's song "007 (Shanty Town)," detailing the island's "rude boy" gangster ghetto culture, topped charts in Great Britain and became a trans-Atlantic anthem for Britain's growing mod scene.

Dekker headed to England, where the self-proclaimed King of Ska was received like royalty. In 1968, he penned "Israelites" -- a song as epic, troubled and hopeful as the era in which it was created, and the one song he's most often associated with.

The singer's fortunes waned in the 1970s until a British ska revival briefly resuscitated Dekker's career. When that scene sputtered in the mid-1980s, he got by mostly through touring and re-recording his classics for new, younger audiences.

Dekker was planning another international tour when he died last week of a heart attack in London. Records of his exact birth year are sketchy, but he was believed to be 63 years old.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Johnson