Composer, singer, and pianist Theophilus Beckford has been immortalized as "Easy Snappin'," a nickname given to him after the epochal song he composed in the late '50s. This groundbreaking hit has resonated throughout reggae, with many critics considering it to be the first quintessentially Jamaican pop song. However, Beckford failed to capitalize on the song's success, both monetarily and musically; he never scored another major hit and died still struggling to collect his due. While he always stayed active in the island's music industry, either as a session musician, arranger, or mentor, he is still remembered simply as "Snappin'."
Theophilus Beckford was born in 1935 in Kingston, Jamaica. Although his father played in the Jamaican Military Band, the younger Beckford was chided for playing the family piano, and he was forced to learn music first at Kingston's Boys Town School and then with two private tutors. By the mid-'50s, he purchased his own piano, and played backup on calypso tracks for Count Lasher and Lord Flea, with Stanley Motta producing.
In 1956, Beckford was working with Clement "Sir Coxsone Downbeat" Dodd, spending long hours in the studio rehearsing and experimenting. Despite his classical training, Beckford took inspiration from the jump blues of Rosco Gordon, as well as the music of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and Patti Page. Out of these sessions came "Easy Snappin'," the laid-back boogie shuffle whose emphasis on the off-beats has led many critics (including Beckford himself) to argue that ska and consequently Jamaican music began with this song. While the more conservative would argue that it is somewhere between ska and American R&B, its influence is indisputable.
For three years Dodd only played the acetate at his sound-system dances, despite Beckford's pleas to release the record to the public. When the single was finally issued in 1959, the song became an instant hit, skyrocketing to number one and remaining on the charts for an unparalleled 18 months.
But Beckford saw little tangible evidence of "Easy Snappin'"'s success, receiving royalties for neither the song's initial Jamaican release nor its re-release on the English Blue Beat label. He continued to release more tracks for Dodd, including "Georgia and the Old Shoes," "Jack and Jill Shuffle," and "Tell Them, Little Lady," but in the early '60s he severed his ties with Downbeat, as immortalized on the song, "Mr. Downpressor."
Beckford then recorded vocal tracks for King Edwards, Duke Reid, and Prince Buster, and provided piano backing for many popular ska acts. Seeking broader financial control over his music, he formed the King Pioneer label in 1963, for which he released some of his own Jamaican folk material, as well as records by Basil Gabbidon, Lloyd Clarke, and the Tennors. Most records achieved little success, however, except for the moderate hit "Boller Man a Come."
Throughout the rocksteady and reggae years, Beckford continued life as a session musician, recording for Lee Perry, Bunny Lee, and for Leslie Kong as one of Beverly's All Stars. He also backed such vocalists as Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and Eric "Monty" Morris; would later arrange music for Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs, Bunny Lee, and Leslie Kong; and, in 1978, played himself in a cameo for the film Rockers. By the mid-'80s, however, studios were relying more on digital effects for their sound, making session men virtually obsolete. With the field drying up, Beckford could only find sporadic piano work. Things gradually grew worse, and by the end of his life he felt he was only surviving "by the grace of God and the assistance of a few friends." His poverty stung especially hard in the early '90s when his old hit "Easy Snappin'" achieved renewed success as part of a European ad campaign. Once again he received no royalties.
Despite the lack of monetary success, the island's music community recognized Beckford's influence on Jamaican music. In 1991, he was featured in Studio One's The Beat Goes On: 35 Years in the Business concert, and, in 2000, he was honored in King Omar's annual Tribute to the Great show. He could not revel in the appreciation for long, however. On February 19, 2001, Beckford went to the Callaloo Mews section of Kingston to settle a dispute, and after an altercation was killed by a hatchet wound to the head. He was 65. ~ David Colon