Born Ewart Beckford in Jones Town, Saint Andrews Parish, Kingston, Jamaica, he was raised within a religious and musical family; his mother was an organist for the choir at a local Seventh Day Adventist church. The sobriquet U-Roy originated from a younger member of his family who found it difficult to pronounce his first name. Beckford attended Denham Town High School in Kingston. As a young man Beckford listened to the music of Louis Prima, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Fats Domino, Rufus Thomas, Smiley Lewis and was especially influenced by the vocal phrasing of Louis Jordan.
Inspired by Count Matchuki he started his professional career as a DJ in 1961 on Dickie Wong’s sound system (originally called Doctor Dickies later changed to Dickies Dynamic) moving later to the Sir George the Atomic sound system. Beckford then worked on Sir Coxsone Dodd’s sound system where he ran the number two set while King Stitt “The Ugly One” ran the main set. This was followed by a period with Sir Percy before he moved to King Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi sound system. Beckford’s first single “Dynamic Fashion Way” (1969) was a Keith Hudson production. It was followed by the Bunny Striker Lee production “Earth’s Rightful Ruler” with Peter Tosh.
In 1970 Jamaican singer John Holt (lead vocalist of The Paragons) heard Beckford toasting over a Duke Reid track at a dance. Holt told Duke Reid about the performance and on his recommendation Duke Reid asked Beckford to come and see him and an informal recording deal was arranged. Beckford’s first two singles released on Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label, “Wake the Town” (1970) and “Wear You to the Ball” (1970), were Jamaican hits and established his reputation as one of Jamaica’s most popular toasters. Beckford then went on to work with other major producers on the island including Bunny Lee, Phil Pratt, Sonia Pottinger, Rupie Edwards, Alvin Ranglin and Lloyd Daley. 1971 saw the release of Beckford’s DJ version of The Paragons’ “The Tide Is High”. Beckford’s first tour of the UK in 1972 (the tour also featured the artists Roy Shirley and Max Romeo) was organized by Rita and Benny King who ran a label called R & B Records based in Stamford Hill, London.
In 1975 the album Dread in a Babylon (produced by “Prince” Tony Robinson) was released on Virgin. The album’s skank hit “Runaway Girl” propelled Beckford onto the international stage establishing his reputation with reggae fans world-wide. The album also garnered significant acclaim and sales in the United Kingdom which was due in part to the ongoing expansion of the Virgin label and stores. The success of Dread in a Babylon led to a series of Tony Robinson produced albums: Natty Rebel (1976), Rasta Ambassador (1977) and Jah Son of Africa (1978). Beckford’s international popularity led to the album Natty Rebel being released in 1976 on Virgins’ imprint Front Line label in Nigeria as well as in France on Virgin and Polydor.
In 1978 Beckford started his own sound system which he named Stur Gav after his sons; the sound system would launch the careers of a younger generation of toasters and singers including Ranking Joe, Jah Screw, Charlie Chaplin and Josey Wales. In 1980 the pop group Blondie had a world-wide hit with the reggae track “The Tide Is High” which prompted Virgin to re-release the original Paragons’ track from 1967 and the 1971 U-Roy version as a single that same year. His most recent album is Pray Fi Di People which was released in 2012.