May 26, 2006 10:00 AM

Jamaican-born reggae giant Desmond Dekker – best known for his 1969 hit “Israelites” – died of a sudden heart attack Wednesday at his home in Surrey, England. He was 64.

“He died peacefully, but it still hurts,” Dekker’s best friend and manager, Delroy Williams, told the BBC, adding that the singer appeared fine only the day before.

Dekker was born Desmond Dacres in the Jamaican capital of Kingston on July 16, 1941, Reuters reports, and grew up listening to such 1950s crooners as Nat “King” Cole and Jackie Wilson. After working as a welder alongside Bob Marley, he began composing songs.

Dekker’s propulsive reggae classic “Israelites” became the genre’s first worldwide hit, four years before Marley brought reggae to the pop-culture mainstream.

“It’s about how hard things were for a lot of people in Jamaica – downtrodden, like the Israelites that led Moses to the Promised Land,” Dekker later said about the song. “I was really saying, don’t give up, things will get better if you just hold out long enough.”

In 1970, he had a U.K. hit with his cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” and moved to England around the same time.

Dekker, who was divorced, is survived by a son and daughter.

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