"Israelites" is a song written by Desmond Dekker and Leslie Kong that became a hit for Dekker's group, Desmond Dekker & The Aces. Although few could understand all the lyrics, the single was the first UK reggae number one and the first to crack the United States Top Ten. Lyrically paralleling ancient travails with the overwhelming toil of modern-day poverty, Dekker composed a "timeless masterpiece that knew no boundaries".
It was one of the first reggae songs to become an international hit, despite Dekker's strong Jamaican accent which made his lyrics difficult to understand for audiences outside Jamaica. In 1969 it reached the Top Ten in the United States, peaking at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. It hit number one in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Jamaica, South Africa, Canada, Sweden and West Germany. The song came almost two years after Dekker first made his mark with the rude boy song, "007 (Shanty Town)".
"Israelites" brought a Jamaican beat to the British pop fans for the first time since Millie's number two hit "My Boy Lollipop". But 1969 was the right time for reggae to make a breakthrough in the United Kingdom. The Beatles, as always the trendsetters back then, had recorded their own reggae-influenced song, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", which the pop group Marmalade subsequently took to number one. The disc was released in the UK in March 1969 and was number one for two weeks, selling over 250,000 copies. A global million sales was reported in June 1969.
Years later Dekker explained how "Israelites" was written. "It all happened so quickly. I didn't write that song sitting around a piano or playing a guitar. I was walking in the park, eating corn. I heard a couple arguing about money. She was saying she needed money and he was saying the work he was doing was not giving him enough. I relate to those things and began to sing a little song - 'You get up in the morning and you slaving for bread.' By the time I got home it was complete."
Desmond Dekker had two more UK Top Ten hits over the next year, "It Miek" and his cover of Jimmy Cliff's song, "You Can Get It If You Really Want".
Dekker recorded on the Pyramid record label, and when its catalogue was acquired by Cactus Records in 1975, "Israelites" was re-issued. The song again reached a Top Ten position in the United Kingdom a little over six years after the original release. Dekker re-recorded the song later in the decade, and almost accomplished the same feat in Belgium, where it just missed the Top Ten.
"Get up in the morning / Slaving for bread sir / So that every mouth can be fed / Oh, oh, the Israelites".So begins one of the most seminal songs ever released by a Jamaican artist. The impact of "The Israelites" can never be overstated. It was the first of the island's releases in history to achieve an international breakthrough, the first to ever top the British chart, and the first to break into the U.S. market, where it soared into the Top Ten.
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