DESMOND DEKKER and Laurel Aitken are two Jamaican vocalists who, in earlier musical incarnations, helped lay the ground for the eventual acceptance of reggae music into British mainstream musical thought.
Though for lesser or longer periods of time both experienced great glory they each found little financial gain. Both have uprooted themselves from the Caribbean and settled in England where in recent years they’ve each turned to singing in supper-clubs.
In this musical territory Laurel Aitken is obliged to deliver Perry Como songs and Desmond Dekker to perform Tom Jones’ standards like ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’. Neither complains: on the contrary, like most older Jamaican musicians they view themselves as Entertainers rather than as Artists. Even though they may have their own personal preferences they place few limitations on how to fulfil the task of Entertaining. Both, indeed, claim to enjoy their MOR material.
Following years in the wilderness, both Dekker and Aitken have recently been given another turn: Desmond Dekker has just released an LP, Black And Dekker, for Stiff; Laurel Aitken, after having been sighted by Ian Page singing in a Leicester night-club where he had a residency, signed to Secret Affair’s I-Spy label. His first release, ‘Rudi Got Married’, reached No. 60 in the spring and he too is readying material for an album.
I MEET Desmond Dekker in the pub across the road from the railway station in Forest Hill, South London. “I like the hills of Jamaica. That’s why I like living in Forest Hill,” jests Desmond as he sips an orange juice and lemonade.
A tall man, Dekker has large, pellucid eyes and a face that appears open and honest but conceals a hidden ultimate reserve. In contrast with the tired, aged-looking faces of many Jamaican youths, Desmond looks much younger than the mid-30s he must be at the very least. There are no wrinkles around his eyes.
Yet when asked his age, his answer is quite fatuous. “Well, I tell you true, that is another thing I want to keep my fans in suspense about. I want to keep them guessing.” He chuckles uncertainly. “I must say, though, I’ve been given a bit of youth, and young looks.”
Indeed, Desmond Dekker is really a very showbiz figure, veering as awkwardly as any white rock star between what he really believes and what he thinks he ought to feel. Paradoxically, also, he’s far more open discussing profound matters, and at his most cautious dealing with trivia – though maybe that’s a healthy sign.
In his denims and fatigue hat he cuts a faintly ludicrous figure, though no more absurd than the white-suited cool ruler, with his leashed sextet of dalmatians, he’s portrayed as in the Black And Dekker ads. He looks a little bit lost, really. Probably he is: though he won’t confirm this, it’s said that continual financial rip-offs, coupled with dwindling live audiences, had wreaked a hopeless wincing depression in Desmond Dekker by the late Seventies.
Questioned as to the extent that his career was sagging, his replies smack of polite euphemisms. He says of his association with Stiff: “I wanted to be with a company who is interested in my career, not just in grabbing-grabbing-grabbing money-money-money.
“So I just cool it. I thought that one day I will meet someone who thinks like I do, and wants to make people happy, and put out good records all over the world, instead of thinking about themselves all the time. Stiff happens to be one of those persons,” he emphasises, optimistically. “It’s happened in an automatical way – you have two great team just meet together. I never knew Stiff was a person like that until I meet him.”
DESMOND Dekker’s string of British hits that began in 1967 with ‘007’ and picked up again two years later with success for ‘Israelites’, ‘It Mek’, and the Jimmy Cliff-penned ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ – the only one of Desmond’s hit songs he didn’t write himself – were all originally cut for Lesley Kong’s Jamaican Beverleys label. Dekker attributes further cause of his financial hardship to Kong’s early Seventies death: “After he died things were in a terrible financial mess.”
Not only was ‘007’ the first major reggae hit ever in Britain, it also accustomed white English ears to the consistently militant tone of reggae lyrics – if you could understand them, that is.
The song celebrated the riot that took place when the police and military moved in to break up the shanty towns along the Marcus Garvey coast road close by Trenchtown in downtown Kingston. In what Desmond claims to have been the first example of large-scale civil disobedience in JA, the shanty town dwellers retaliated with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on.
“Everyone shooting, everyone get shot. Shots were everywhere. I never experienced anything like that. So I had to write the song which was a very big hit, even though at the time in England a lot of people didn’t know what I was meaning with the lyrics. Like: Them a-loot, them a-shoot, them a-wail, them a-burn down shanty town – them not too understand…Though as time goes on they get to understand more the way we Jamaicans pronounce.
“With ‘Israelites’ some people think I sing: Get up in the morning/Ate beans for breakfast. Some think Same thing for breakfast. But the real words are: Get up in the morning/Slaving for breads – ‘breads’ means money.”
Perhaps not unsurprisingly Desmond Dekker has a high opinion of the ska revival: “It goes around in circles all this music until it eventually comes back to you again. The same thing is always happening with rock’n’roll music. Maybe next pieces of rock steady will be taken out and spliced together with bits of other music.”
In the great, and rather uncreative Jamaican tradition of The Do-Over – of re-cuts – Black And Dekker features, among other newer songs, all Desmond’s old hits re-recorded with different rhythms – “the up-tempo rhythm, the rhythm that is happening now,” Desmond points out, sounding like a Caribbean K-Tel radio ad.
Of course, with not the least suggestion of any red, gold and green about him, and with no dreadlocks tucked away in his gauche fatigue hat, Desmond Dekker can hardly be made out as a strict Rastafarian. However, he reminds, “You don’t have to have locks to be a Rasta. It is just where your head and heart is.
“What the doctrine is about is just really love and peace – why fight, why not unite? Rastafarians believe in peace and not war, but there are many people – both black and white – who look on life like that, in the same way as a Rastafarian.
“What I’m spreading,” he explains, “is Love, Peace and Unity – we must all try and make this world a better place to live in. Put them on the right track, and if they want to make a mess of it then it’s up to them.
“It gives me a happy feeling when I play my part. What I’m doing I enjoy and love and it’s my duty. And if I’m on a stage entertaining and the people are satisfied and I drop dead, then I’m happy, because I know that I’ve done what I’m here to do.
“And that’s it – that’s me. I can’t do any better. I’ve just done my part. That’s it.
“You know,” he says, “I think I’ve made millions of people happy, and that’s what makes me happy – even though,” his tone verges on hysteria, “they don’t give me my money.”
THOUGH TODAY Desmond Dekker appears well removed from the reggae mainstream – he admits to being hardly familiar with the music’s output of recent years – the 52-year-old Laurel Aitken is a familiar figure in London’s roots record stores, notwithstanding the fact that his home for the past eight years has been halfway up the M1, in Leicester.
A slight, dynamically lethargic figure, Laurel Aitken bursts with infectious enthusiasm and an ingenuous, boyish roguishness that is highlighted by the gleam of the many gold teeth displayed by his frequent smiles.
Whereas at times throughout his interview Desmond obviously feels a need to sell himself, Laurel is old enough, and has gone through enough hell, to know that it’s sufficient to be himself.
Laurel moved to Leicester after marrying a white woman from that town. He lives in a modern council house where we sit and talk in his equipment-cluttered lounge.
Ask Laurel Aitken what he thinks of today’s reggae music and he has no hesitation about his reply: “Well, there’s two kinds of reggae these days, but the black buying public…they don’t buy the kind of reggae that The Specials does.”
As the Father Of Ska music – a point his sparkling voice reiterates many times – Laurel Aitken obviously feels pleased at the development of the sound of 2-Tone and its offshoots. His logic doesn’t appear tempered by the possible commercial benefit to himself, either, when he asserts that reggae music and associated JA musics could only be fully understood by the white UK population when other influences – by which he seems to mean players of other races – ensured it broke out of its rigid form. He feels that reggae has become too hidebound within that form, and that it’s drawing ever and ever closer in upon itself.
“All these musicians,” he proclaims, leaning forward on his seat and wagging a forefinger, “want to sound like Bob Marley. But Bob Marley has had half a million pounds put behind him, and besides” – he taps his skull – “Bob Marley’s got it up here. His songs aren’t like all these records that just chant ‘Jah-Jah-Jah’. Every time Bob Marley makes an LP it is totally different to the one he made before.”
LAUREL Aitken wasn’t born in Jamaica but in Cuba, where he lived until he was 11 when his parents moved to Kingston.
After becoming a plasterer, Laurel decided in the mid-Fifties to try his singing luck in the ‘Opportunity Hour’ talent competitions that were held at the Majestic Theatre in Greenwich Town, Kingston. Other name vocalists who rose to fame through the ‘Opportunity Hour’ included Jackie Edwards, John Holt and Owen Gray.
“The winner used to get £2, but,” grins Laurel impishly as he pours another glass of the sherry that he drinks all afternoon, “there wasn’t much left after you pay the guys who clapped for you.”
Laurel may not have cleaned up from those weekly Friday night events but, after he had won ten in a row, they led to his cutting his first disc, ‘Roll Jordan Roll’, in 1957. Not, though, until a little later when he recorded ‘Little Sheila’/’Boogie In My Bones’ for one Chris Blackwell and his Island Records company did he score his first big success. The record topped the Jamaican charts for some two months.
Then he started to cut records for Duke Reid, some of which featured a young trombonist called Rico as well as assorted versions of a group that later became known as The Skatalites.
“The difference,” he points out like a musical benevolent patriarch, “between those guys like Don Drummond and Jackie Mittoo and Roland Alfonso and those Youths who call themselves musicians in Jamaica today is that all the people I played with really were musicians. They could all read and write music. They could play something by Charlie Parker or by Muddy Waters just as easily as the stuff we were recording.
“They were very bluesy all those records we were making. Everyone used to listen to the radio stations in New Orleans and after a while we went into the studio and just started to record the same sort of sound but with a different, more Caribbean sorta beat.” Laurel’s right hand strums a set of ska chords on an imaginary guitar.
IN 1960 Laurel moved countries yet again, to England this time. Melodisc’s Blue Beat label had released his Jamaican-recorded material in the UK, and, picking up a deal with the label as both artist and producer, Laurel decided to try his luck recording here. Between 1960 and 1963, when he signed to Rio, he had 20 singles out on Blue Beat, all of which were hits of varying degree in the West Indian community.
Prior to signing with Rio, Laurel returned to Jamaica to record with The Skatalites again. This time, however, the fits of insanity suffered by the brilliant trombonist Don Drummond were at one of their periodic peaks, and Laurel was obliged to steer clear of the hornman’s unpredictable beligerence. “Don was okay, you know, a nice cat,” smiles Laurel. “As long as I knew him he would have periods when he was fine, perfectly alright, and then he’d start to go mad again.
“So they’d take him off and put him in a home and then after a few months somebody would go up and see him and he’d be alright again, and he’d come back down the studio. He killed his girl-friend once. Nice little girl – he stabbed her to death.”
In 1969 Don Drummond died in a lunatic asylum. What did he die of?
“They say lots of things about that. Some people say he was killed, that they give him some poison or something. But they didn’t: he just died of madness, that’s all. It was the madness that killed him.”
Laurel Aitken knew Prince Buster well, too: “I knew him before I left Jamaica. Four years before he was making ska records I was already playing that music. Four years. Write that down,” insists Laurel excitedly. “When I knew him he was still a heavy character – he’d be walking down the street with maybe four or five guys walking either side of him. He always looked good, though.
“Prince Buster was a heavy for Clement Dodd’s Downbeat Sound System – and he worked for Duke Reid, too. He used to guard the system and help set it up.
“Dodd, you know, just to look at him you wouldn’t know he runs Studio One. He’s the richest man in the Jamaican music business, yet he looks scruffy all the time – just drives around in this beat-up old car. Always has a whole heap of heavy characters with him.”
CONSIDERING the extent to which he has been ripped off, Laurel Aitken is remarkably philosophical about the Jamaican music business tradition of duff deals. Actually, Laurel claims to have fared okay financially whilst working in JA: “Even if they’re paying you you don’t get that much because even big hit records don’t sell that many. I always got what was owed to me, though.”
In England, though, he’s consistently received minimal financial returns. Following bad experiences with small labels, Laurel resisted the considerable advances of Harry, Carl and Jeff Palmer to sign with their Pama label.
Unfortunately for Laurel, at that time, a romantic dalliance some time previously resulted in a paternity suit that had been settled with him agreeing to payments of £1.50 a week. When Laurel fell behind with the payments he was arrested just before he was due to go onstage at a gig in Birmingham.
Though he was allowed to play the show he was taken to prison immediately afterwards and remanded in custody until his court appearance two days later. He was given the choice of a £200 fine or six weeks in prison. The only way he could think to raise that amount of money was to take up Pama’s offer.
In fact, acting again as both artist and producer, Laurel Aitken’s time with Pama was his most prolific. Cutting rude classics like ‘Pussy Price’ and ‘Rise And Fall’ along with more socially aware tunes like ‘Landlords And Tenants’ and ‘Jesse James’, his Pama period coincided with the first emergence of skinheads and the first mass white acceptance of reggae. Later he released a few records on Trojan.
With his move to Leicester, though, his recording activities came temporarily to an end. Now, though, Laurel Aitken has his deal with the Arista-distributed I-Spy, and is working live again in venues more suited to the Father of Ska. He’s appeared onstage with The Beat, whose similarly aged Saxa is an old pal. Once again Laurel Aitken’s name carries musical weight amongst more than just a handful of cognoscenti.
Laurel Aitken, in fact, is one of the few people I’ve met who derives happy satisfaction from the skinhead resurgence. As he re-winds his tape recorder to play me ‘Skinhead Girl’, a new song he’s written for his forthcoming album, Laurel remarks, “The skinheads never cause me no trouble in the past. In fact, I get lucky with them.
“Now that they’ve come back again maybe I get lucky again.”
© Chris Salewicz, The Face, September 1980