I always thought they called him Easy Snappin’, not because his song was arguably the first ska song, but because Theophilus was too hard to say! Kidding of course, but I would like to take some time to look back on Easy Snappin’, or Theo, or Theophilus Beckford, that talented pianist to whom we really owe a debt of gratitude. He helped to launch a genre.
Theophilus Beckford was born in 1939 in Trench Town, the same neighborhood that gave us Bob Marley, Alton Ellis, Hortense Ellis, and even DJ Kool Herc! His father was a skilled pianist but Beckford learned to play piano in school and was also self-taught. He performed in the style of the popular artists of the day—American R&B like Roscoe Gordon and Fats Domino. But he didn’t start recording in this style since the only real recording being done on the island at this point was from Stanley Motta who recorded calypsos. So Beckford recorded for Motta on a number of calypsos and as the recording industry developed when Ken Khouri established Federal Records, Beckford was able to develop the style he loved—American R&B which evolved into ska.
Many will argue that “Easy Snapping” was a boogie shuffle tune, and there is something to be said for that. But Easy Snapping features a more punctuated piano rhythm that is less slippery than the shuffle beat, and it also features brass, so it can easily be argued that it is the first ska song. Some say that it is neither R&B nor ska, it is somewhere in the middle, so it a way it is the Lucy of evolution, the missing link. Whatever your take, it is evident that this song, and this artist, are essential to the creation of ska and the genres that follow.
“Easy Snapping” was recorded for Coxsone at Federal Records in 1956 for Studio One’s first ever recording session. Michael Turner writes in Beat magazine in 2001, “The song was recorded for Coxson Dodd in 1956 at Federal studio, but at the time recordings were pressed onto soft acetate for sound-system use only. Three years later the commercial release of records in Jamaican began . . . ‘Easy Snapping’ was released late in the year and its lazy intonation and emphasis on the offbeat made it a massive hit, and presaged the development of a unique Jamaican sound.”
The song was an immediate hit and stayed on the charts for 18 months. It was also released in the UK on the Blue Beat label. Of course, Beckford received no royalties from this song even though it was used in a European jeans commercial later on. The song on Coxsone’s Melodisc label is credited to Theophilus Beckford, Clue J and His Blues Blasters while the Blue Beat version is credited to Theophilus Beckford, Clue J and His Blues Blasters, Trenton Spence and His Orchestra. The B side of both releases was the tune “Going Home.” He recorded others for Coxsone as well as Simeon Smith who was better known as “Hi-Lite.” He performed piano as a studio musician for hundreds of recordings. According to Mark Lamarr, “As pianist in Cluett Johnson’s Blues Blasters and as a session musician, he played on countless cuts for Prince Buster, King Edwards, Leslie Kong, Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd.”
Growing frustrated with receiving no pay from Coxsone and others, Beckford established his own label in 1961, King Pioneer, and he released many of his own tunes—perhaps the first DIY guy! He became producer on his label for artists such as Frank Cosmo, Daniel Johnson, Keith Walker, Lloyd Clarke, Wilfred Brown, the Greenbusters, the Meditators, the Pioneers, Toots & the Maytals, and Eric Monty Morris & Patsy Todd on the duet “Don’t Worry to Cry.” Michael Turner writes, “Approximately 50 songs came out on this label between 1962-66, and most of these were strong works exhibiting the many styles and flavors of ska.”
In later years, after ska and rocksteady and reggae was considered “oldies music” or “granny music” by Jamaican youth when dancehall took over, Beckford was able to eke out a meager living by performing at gigs anywhere he could find. “Things are rough on my side and I am surviving through the will of God and the love for the music,” said Beckford in a Jamaica Gleaner article in 2000. “Today as I listen to music on radio and sound system and recognise that I created some of these tunes. I feel strongly that I am not given full recognition for my work.” A year later, Theophilus Beckford was dead.
On February 19, 2001, Beckford went to resolve a dispute with a man in Callaloo Mews. After leaving the residence, the assailant “chopped” Beckford in the back of the head with an axe, according to the Jamaica Gleaner, and he was killed. His son Lloyd stated, “What kind of society is this where a 65-year-old man can be so brutally murdered and to think that it is someone who is well known and has contributed to the development of his country.” Certainly, Beckford has left a legacy. He is to be respected for his contribution to the development of the Jamaican music. The Guinness Book of Who’s Who in Reggae credits Theophilus Beckford with creating “the feel and soul of ska.” Let’s give credit too.