"Israelites" was one of the first truly international Ska hit singles, peaking at #9 in the US and #1 in the UK. There were fears that Dekker's heavy Jamaican accent on the recording would limit international appeal as listeners would find it difficult to understand the lyrics, and indeed jokes abound about the many mis-hearings of the lyrics of the song. "Get up in the morning, slaving for bread sir" was misheard as "Get up in the morning, baked beans for breakfast" for example, and comedian Lenny Henry famously joked about how many people thought the "ooh, mi Israelites" line was actually "oooh, mi ears are alight"! Despite this and indeed because of the humor from the misheard lyrics, the song became a huge hit single.
When he was working on his Some Time in New York City album, John Lennon apparently demonstrated to the American musicians he was working with how to play reggae correctly by playing this song's bassline to them.
Some of the artists to cover this song include Madness, Jeremy Oates & the Music Makers, Apache Indian, Max Romeo and Millencolin.
The UK Punk band The Clash were huge fans of the song, and would often play it in rehearsals and soundchecks. When they appeared on the Alright Now TV show in March 1979, they ended the broadcast with a live cover of the song.
Dekker wrote this song with his producer, Leslie Kong, who ran a record store in Jamaica before expanding into production work. Kong also produced Jimmy Cliff and The Upsetters before his untimely death from a heart attack in 1971 at age 38.
When this song was first released, it was credited to Desmond Dekker & The Aces. In 1975, it was re-released in the UK, making #10 in a version credited to just Desmond Dekker.
The Israelites were the inhabitants of Israel descended by Jacob. The word can also be used to describe one of God's chosen people. Dekker uses the meaning in this later context, as he sings about his struggles while repeatedly invoking the term.