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Theo Beckford

Related: reggae - ska


The one element that makes Jamaican music instantly recognisable is its "off-beat". It is the lazy strum of the guitar on the off-beat that gives reggae its loping, hypnotic feel. Ska is virtually defined by the staccato after-beat riffing of the horn-section.

The off-beat pattern can be traced back to the early 1950s and the development of a colloquial Jamaican style of American Rhythm and Blues. Jamaican-Shuffle took the after-beat tendency inherent in certain forms of R&B and exaggerated it. The primary exponent of the new method was Theophilus Beckford.

Beckford had tried to replicate the back-to-front piano style of Memphis bluesman Rosco Gordon. His use of chords to emphasis the up on the second, third and fourth beats in the measure was, in turn, imitated by others.

Theo Beckford's 1956 tune, "Easy Snappin'", is recognised as the earliest recorded example of modern Jamaican music. It is neither R&B nor Ska but something in between. For all intents and purposes, it marks "Year Zero" for the Reggae scholar.

The man who organised the session was the young DJ, Coxsone Dodd. "Easy Snappin'" was hugely popular at Dodd's "Downbeat" Sound System dances. Dodd ignored Beckford's pleas to make the single available to the public. When it was belatedly released 1959, the song went straight to number one despite the record was a full three years old. It spent 18 months on the charts and remains one of the biggest hits in the pantheon of Jamaican music.

Beckford composed, sang and played piano on the record. However, he never received any royalties either for its initial release nor its re-issue on the London-based Blue Beat label. There followed a string of proto-Ska smashes for Studio One including 'Georgia and The Old Shoes', 'Jack and Jill Shuffle' and 'Lazy Miss Daisy'. On these outings Beckford was backed by Clue J and the Blues Blasters, later to evolve into The Skatalites.

Soon thereafter, he disassociated himself from Studio One. In typical Jamaican fashion, he made his displeasure known with a thinly-veiled attack on Coxsone Dodd.

"Oh Mister Downpressor,
what a wicked man you are,
Oh yeah, well I tell you,
Please you better pay me my due".

In an unprecedented move for any Jamaican artist, Beckford then established his own record company, King Pioneer. He used the label as a vehicle for his own work and emerging talents such as Lloyd Clarke, Basil Gabbidon and The Tennors.

"Snappo" was fiercely independent, "that's just born in me you know", he explained. Growing up in the badlands of Trenchtown may also have been a factor. Despite being an accomplished musician himself, his father discouraged the young Theophilus from playing "when I was fooling around on the piano he would chase me away". Beckford taught himself to play piano and read music at Kingston's Boys Town School.

During the Ska, Rock Steady and early Reggae eras, when he wasn't recording under his own name for King Edwards, Prince Buster and Clancy Eccles, he found constant work as a keyboardist. In that capacity he can be heard on the output of Justin Hinds, The Maytals, Demond Dekker and Slim Smith.

Beckford's skills as an arranger-for-hire were much sought after by the producers of the day including Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs, Bunny Lee and Leslie Kong.

"I used to teach a lot of artist fe sing, back up dem tune, rehearse them, fix dem tune in the studio, arrange them out ? me do everything."

"Easy Snappin'" became popular all over again when it was used in a UK jeans advertisement in 1990. For a second time, Beckford was denied his rightful remuneration. His son was pursuing those royalties when Theophilus Beckford was killed on the 19th of February this year. His death was brought by a hatchet blow to the back of the head following an altercation with an unidentified man.

When the writer interviewed him in May last year, Beckford spoke with good humour about the old days. Somewhat unusually for a forgotten artist, he was cognisant of the importance of his work to the evolution of one of the great musical traditions. He was equally aware that he had not been properly rewarded for that contribution. That was perhaps the unkindest cut of all.

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