Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres, on July 16th 1943 in Kingston, Jamaica, he spent his early childhood on the family farm in Danvers Pen, St Thomas where he was raised by his father. During his youth, he regularly sang in the local church choir, although his desire to become a singer was sparked by an altogether different kind of music, as he recalled in an interview with respected Jamaican music historian, Laurence Cane-Honeysett in 1999:
'The person who really used to inspire me was Nat 'King' Cole, he was my idol. I heard him sing 'Stardust Melody' on the radio one time and I fell in love with his voice. Later, I used to watch the 'Alan Freed Rock & Roll Show' on TV and see people like Brook Benton Jackie Wilson and The Platters, who I used to like. But still, it was really Nat 'King' Cole who inspired me'
Around the age of fifteen, he moved to Kingston, where he completed his education at the famed Alpha Boys School. Upon graduating, he worked as a trainee engineer/welder at the South Camp Road Yard, where he met and befriended a certain young Robert Nesta Marley:
'I sometimes used to hang out with Bob at the yard. I used to watch him play football from the roof. I didn't play, 'cos cricket was more my thing. We kept in touch even after he made it big with The Wailers. Right up to the end, we remained friends.'
Throughout this time, music remained Desmond's over-riding passion, although a career as a singer still seemed a long way off:
'I also used to go to concerts and watch artistes like Derrick Morgan, Jimmy Cliff, Owen Gray, Count Prince Miller and The Blues Busters and I learnt a lot from seeing them in action...but I never thought I was good enough to put my words on record until I was learning engineering and welding. My friends there told me that I sounded good and after a while I began to take them seriously and they said to me I should give it a try, what did I have to lose?'
Despite his newfound confidence, initial attempts to record proved unsuccessful, as Desmond recently recounted:
'I heard about Leslie Kong at Beverley's [Records] was auditioning for new artistes. So I took one afternoon off work to go down and audition for him, but he couldn't see me. So I tried again, but again he wouldn't see me. And my boss was getting really fed up with me. So when I went down again to Beverley's and he still wouldn't see me, I got very annoyed, because I knew my boss wouldn't let me have any more time off, so I forced my way into Beverley's and I said to Mr Kong, 'Do you want to hear me or not?' So he stopped the rehearsals and said, 'Alright, sing'. So I sang him some of my songs, including 'Honour Your Mother And Father' and Madgie' and he liked them. The next thing, I was recording them for him'.
Desmond's initial recording session was held at Jamaica's leading studio, Federal, where he was backed by some of Kingston's leading session players, including Theo Beckford (piano), Dennis Sindrey (guitar), Lloyd Mason (bass), Stanley Ribbs (trumpet) and 'Deadly' Headley Bennett (alto sax). Issued on the Kong's Beverley's imprint, 'Honour Your Mother And Father' (backed with 'Madgie') became a number one hit on the island and marked the beginning of a hugely successful relationship between singer and producer, which was to last into the seventies.
Desmond's follow-up singles, 'Parents' (b/w 'Labour For Learning') and 'Dracula' both sold well,
but despite his success as a solo performer, the growing popularity of vocal groups in Jamaica convinced him the form a group of his own. He later explained:
'There were a lot of vocal groups coming through in Jamaica at that time. You had Alton Ellis and The Flames, The Paragons, The Wailers...so I thought maybe I should get together with a group. At first I cut 'King Of Ska' with a group of guys called The Cherry Pies. Then I teamed up with a group called The Four Aces. They had already recorded a song for Beverley's called 'Hoochy Koochy Kai Po', which had sold quite well. So I heard them and I asked if they wanted to sing with me, and they said, 'Sure'. So that's how we got together. There was Clive (Campbell), Barry (Howard, aka Al Barry), Carl (Winston James Samuel) and a guy named Patrick (Johnson). Our first song together was called 'Get Up Edina' and that was a big hit. We then did some other tunes, like 'This Woman' and 'Mount Zion'. Then Patrick left and the group became just 'The Aces'.'
Soon after Johnson's departure, Desmond and the group became one of the first Jamaican artistes to achieve international success with a homegrown recording, when '0.0.7 (Shanty Town)' breached the UK charts in July 1967. The record's popularity in Britain came something of a surprise to Desmond:
'I was amazed when '0.0.7' became a hit in England, because I thought people wouldn't understand the lyrics. It was actually about the troubles that were happening in Jamaica at the time. There'd been student riots and the police and soldiers had been called in to break them up. It was like in the movies, '0.0.7.' and 'Oceans Eleven' [the television programme]. But I think people here [in Britain] liked the tune even if they didn't really understand what the song was all about.'
To promote the record, Graeme Goodall, who had issued the single on his Pyramid label in the UK, invited the group to London, and while Desmond, Barry Howard and Carl Samuel readily accepted the offer, Clive Campbell refused to travel due to his fear of flying. After a successful tour, the trio returned to Jamaica and quickly resumed the task of making hit records, with singles such as 'Unity', Sabotage', 'Beautiful And Dangerous' and 'It Pays'. The group also saw the release of two collections of their work; '0.0.7' (in the UK) and 'Action' (in Jamaica), while their standing as the island's most popular vocal group was confirmed with their triumph in the 1968 Jamaican Festival Song competition:
'I wrote 'Intensified' [aka 'Music Like Dirt'] because the year before, we'd only come second with 'Unity', behind The Jamaicans' 'Ba Ba Boom', which won it. So when the competition came around again, I made sure we won it. After that, I thought 'I've won it, let someone else win it next time', so I didn't enter after that.'
By now, Clive Campbell had left the Aces permanently to work on a cruise ship, but his departure failed to dent the popularity of the group. In the wake of their Festival Song winner, Leslie Kong released another album of their material, suitably entitled 'Intensified', which featured some of the trio's hits, along with a number of new recordings, among which was a song called 'Poor Me Israelites'. The track was selected as the group's next UK single and while it quickly became a firm favourite among Britain's West Indian community and the country's growing 'Skinhead' fraternity, the BBC claimed it was poorly mixed and refused to play it on air. As a result, Graeme Goodall slightly re-mixed and retitled the song and re-submitted it to the all-powerful Corporation. The second time around, the BBC offered no objections to the quality of its production and the record swiftly began to climb the charts. On April 16th, 1969, 'Israelites' became the first Jamaican-produced single to hit the number one spot in the UK, and the feat was repeated soon after in West Germany, Holland, Sweden, South Africa and Canada. In the USA, the record proved almost equally as popular, breaking into the Billboard Pop chart in May, before eventually peaking at the highly respectable number nine position. Yet again, Desmond was astonished by the popularity of the song:
'When 'Israelites' hit, I was surprised because nobody really could understand what it was about. People thought I was singing, 'My ears are alight' and that when I sang, 'I get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir', they thought I was saying, 'Get up in the morning, baked beans for breakfast'! But still, people loved it and of course it became a big, big hit for me.'
The follow-up single, 'It Miek', was also lifted from the 'Intensified' album and like 'Israelites' was re-mixed and re-named (it had originally been titled 'A It Mek') by Goodall prior to release in the UK. Although the record failed to reach the heights of the group's previous hit, it became a hit across Europe and peaked at number seven in the UK charts in the summer of '69. Early the following year, Desmond and The Aces enjoyed their third successive British chart entry with 'Pickney Gal', which reached number 45 early the following year. By this time, Desmond had returned to the UK to promote his recordings in Europe, although it would be some months before Barry Howard and Carl Samuel would make the journey across the Atlantic from Jamaica.
By 1970, Desmond had signed for Trojan records and decided to make London his permanent base of operations. An arrangement was made whereby Leslie Kong would produce rhythm tracks in Kingston, which he would then send to England for Desmond to over-dub his vocals. One of the first songs recorded in this manner was the singer's hugely popular version of the Jimmy Cliff song, 'You Can Get It If You Really Want', which in the summer of 1970 was just pipped to the UK number one spot by Elvis Presley's, 'The Wonder Of You'. But just as Desmond's long-term future as a major recording artiste seemed guaranteed, his career began to stutter. For all its merits, his next single, 'The Song We Used To Sing' failed to dent the UK charts, while the follow-up, 'Licking Stick' b/w 'The More You Live' received a similar cool response from the British public.
Then, in August 1971, Desmond's producer and mentor, Leslie Kong, suffered what proved to be a fatal heart attack. Without Kong's business acumen, Desmond was ripe for exploitation and there was no shortage to individuals ready to take advantage. Their gain was Desmond's loss and the singer's career went into free-fall. A five-year hit-free period ensued and when his career did finally get back on track, it was an oldie that provided the catalyst. Re-released by popular demand, 'Israelites' once again broke into the British charts in the spring of 1975 and eventually peaked at number ten. Its success returned Desmond to the limelight and paved the way for another hit in 'Sing A Little Song', which reached number 16 that autumn. But the change in Desmond's fortunes proved short-lived and further hits failed to materialize.
For the next five years, Desmond's career remained in the doldrums. He continued to perform on the club circuit in Britain and on the continent, but became increasingly detached from the contemporary music scene. The Ska revival of the late seventies led renewed interest in Desmond as an artiste and in 1980, he signed to one of the UK's leading independent labels, Stiff. For his initial recordings with the company, Desmond was paired with the British New Wave group, Graham Parker And The Rumour, but the resulting 'Black And Dekker' album proved commercially unsuccessful. As a result, Robert Palmer was brought in to oversee Desmond's next set of releases that were gathered on his second LP for the company, entitled 'Compass Point'. Unfortunately, despite containing some fine material, sales of the album were poor and Desmond was unceremoniously dropped from Stiff's roster. Worse was to come in 1984, when a British court declared him bankrupt. It was a terrible comedown for a man whose talent should have ensured a long and glorious career. But while many would have been unable to lift themselves from such depths of despair, Desmond showed enormous determination and strength of spirit by returning to the road to try and revive his fortunes.
His perseverance was finally rewarded in 1987 when he was offered a new contract with Trojan Records, for whom he recorded until 1999. While never recapturing the glory days of the sixties and early seventies, his skills as a performer remained undiminished and he remained popular on the live music circuit right up until his untimely passing from a heart attack on the morning of May 26th 2006.