Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Theophilus Beckford, Easy Snappin'.
Laurel Aitken, Boogie in My Bones.

Ska's first steps:

Theophilus Beckford recorded "Easy Snappin'" sometime in 1956, but the track didn't get released until three years later. You could call it, as some have, "year zero" for modern Jamaican music. And you can hear, in its birth spasms, the skanking rhythm, Jamaica's pulsebeat.

Beckford was attempting to imitate Rosco Gordon, a bluesman who made a number of great, raw records for Sun in the early '50s. Tracks like Gordon's had become hugely popular in postwar Kingston, featured at "sound system" dances, essentially open-air discos at which a DJ played the latest American discs for hours. Wynonie Harris' "Blood Shot Eyes" was played year after year, for example.

By the late '50s, homegrown records had begun to replace Yank imports, in part because the hard R&B records that Jamaicans loved were falling out of fashion in the U.S. (and Jamaican audiences had never taken to rock & roll or electric blues, among other styles).

So at some point in '56, Theophilus Beckford sang and played piano at a session manned by a young DJ named Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd. Beckford, imitating Rosco Gordon's piano style, a rolling shuffle that heightened the second and fourth beats of every bar, further emphasized the afterbeat, giving the track its drive and unusual rhythmic sense.

Dodd realized he had something tremendous on his hands, and played the track exclusively at his "Downbeat" Sound System dances for years, much to Beckford's irritation, as Beckford naturally wanted the single released to the general public. When "Easy Snappin'" at last came out in 1959, it hit number one in Jamaica and spent a year and a half on the charts. (And, unsurprisingly, Beckford never got a dime in royalties.)

Beckford, who kept performing and recording as ska gave way to reggae in the '60s and '70s, was murdered in Kingston in 2001, slain by a hatchet blow to the back of the head.

"Easy Snappin'" featured Rolando Alphonso (ts), Rico Rodriguez (tb), Cluett Johnson (b), Ken Richards (g) and Ian Pearson (d). Recorded at Federal Studios in Kingston and released as a Worldisc 7" single; on It's Ska Time.

Laurel Aitken, born in Cuba in 1927, had moved to Jamaica by the late '30s. Aitken began as a calypso singer, working the Kingston docks and getting by singing for tourists. In 1957, he began recording R&B records for a small label called Caribou, and attracted the attention of a British expatriate named Chris Blackwell, who was looking to record local Jamaican music.

"Boogie In My Bones"/"Little Sheila" was the first-ever single issued by Blackwell's label, which would become Island Records, and was reportedly recorded after hours in the Radio Jamaica studios and using primarily white Canadian backing musicians. Rosco Gordon was again a primary influence, as Aitken's singing was modeled on Gordon's phrasing.

"Boogie" is far less radical than "Easy Snappin'"--the off-beat is less pronounced, and the feel is much like an early '50s American R&B record, while the sax and guitar solos are far more polished than those in "Easy Snappin'"--but for Jamaican audiences, it was exactly the type of record that they couldn't get from the U.S. any longer, and it became a huge hit.

In the early '60s, Aitken relocated again, moving to the UK, where he became ska's greatest ambassador, and a major cultural presence in the expat Jamaican community. He died of a heart attack in Leicester in 2005.

"Boogie" was initially released as R & B GRC 5935-A in October 1959 and later released on Starlite in the UK. On Ska's the Limit. Both tracks are also found on the box set Tougher than Tough, the greatest overall ska/reggae compilation ever made, and which inexplicably has gone out of print.

PS--After a long time, the links section has been overhauled. Some newcomers, and some longtime faves that I never included for some reason or other, have been added, while most sites that hadn't been updated since last spring or summer got the hook. (If anyone was unjustly booted, please let me know.)

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