by Tony Morrison
November 5, 2014
The 1970’s were, in many ways, a rough and turbulent time in Jamaica. Fuelled partially by cold war geopolitical intrigue, political violence ravaged the streets of Kingston and beyond, to peak relentlessly by the end of the decade.
Simultaneously, despite years of “downpression” by Babylon, the 1930’s-born Rastafarian movement was finally in some ascendance, and in addition to heavily influencing the ever-evolving Jamaican dialect, its message of rebellion paired perfectly with the infectious one-drop reggae beat and the lyrics of resistance which inspired freedom fighters as far afield as Zimbabwe and Angola. It was a time of rude boys, radicals, rebels, political firebrands, propaganda, polarization, hysteria, aggression, and guns. Lots of guns, and lots of blood.
It was an era that truly needed a softer, ‘flip’ side to salvage some sanity, or at least a soothing soundtrack to counterbalance all the frenetic mayhem. Like the better ‘B’ side of a vinyl 45, and like Johnsons’ baby powder for an infant’s discomfort, the escape provided by John Holt’s voice was the soothing response to that demand.
Holt rose to stardom in the 70’s, but apart from the radical tone of “Police in a Helicopter,” which demonstrated the growing influence of Rastafari in his life and thinking, there was little radical or aggressive about him, and he was the vocal antithesis of the era he dominated so gently. The cult classic The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff hit movie screens in 1972, the same year in which Holt’s “Stick by Me” was the biggest selling single in the island. The former was to reinforce the notion that a wild west-inspired “bad man” lurks in the psyche of every Jamaican male, while the former crooned the broad hint that a soft-hearted lover boy lives there too.
Bob Andy tells Rolling Stone that Holt’s voice was “a velveted tone like Nat King Cole,” and that “…he has the most unique balladeer voice in Jamaican music. Across the board, he was the voice of our era.” GQ magazine says “…ultimately, Holt’s legacy isn’t one track or album – it’s his unmistakable, high-voltage vocal that manages to be both narcoleptically soothing, prodigiously uplifting and quintessentially Jamaican…” As Britain’s The Guardian points out, only John Holt could pull off a song based on a silly and convoluted dream involving Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, a princess, three blind mice, Tom the piper’s son, Alice in her personal wonderland, and a duke and a duchess doing reggae. His writing and arrangement made it credible poetry, and his sweet, measured vocals made it beauty.
Holt was born in the Greenwich Farm, Kingston, in 1947, and by age 12 he was a regular at the then popular talent contests staged in a local theatre house and produced by radio personality Vere Johns.
Strangely enough, Holt described himself as initially shy and scared to sing, telling British journalist Carl Gayle in 1974, “School really wasn’t my thing…I preferred singing. I never attended singing class, though, I was scared. I was actually forced to sing in school by my friends; I didn’t have the nerve, y’know, to really go out and do it…”
After overcoming his fear, he would go on to temporarily torment another young hopeful whose stardom would eventually eclipse his own.
“I used to whip Jimmy Cliff’s ass, y’know…he was afraid. If he knew I was gonna sing tonight, for instance, he wouldn’t turn up.”
Holt sang his way to an incredible 28 awards in 4 years, and after being featured in the Star and the Gleaner, then the only two local newspapers, he was approached by then fledgling producer Leslie Kong, who negotiated a contract with Holt’s mother, since Holt was not yet of legal age. In 1963, when he was only 16, he recorded his first single for Kong on the newly launched Beverly’s label, “Forever I’ll Stay” with “I Cried a Tear,” on the flip side. “Forever I’ll Stay” reached number one on the RJR chart, and Kong paid him the “princely” sum of 33 pounds. Believing a top-selling record should yield much more, the young Holt walked away from Kong in disappointment. Holt then teamed up with Alton Ellis, who taught him to play the guitar, and together they recorded the best-selling “Mouth a Massie Liza” and “Rum Bumper” for Vincent Chin of Randy’s Records. Once again, Holt was disappointed with the money he received, and by now was disillusioned enough to think of giving up singing altogether, and actually “retired” for all of a year.
Then in 1965, he joined Junior Menz, Garth “Tyrone” Evans, and the not yet legendary Bob Andy in a group first called the Blinders. Menz left and was replaced by Howard Barrett, and the group was renamed the Paragons. This was the turning point, and with Holt ably taking on the role of writer and arranger in addition to vocalist, the Paragons quickly made a mark on the local music scene, producing a string of Doo Wop-influenced hits for Coxsone Dodd throughout 1965, and becoming a high-demand act for the island’s club and hotel circuit. The demise of ska and the rise of the slower-paced rock steady at the time was perfectly suited for Holt’s writing and singing style and paved the way for his solo career as a reggae crooner. This period saw hits like “Live and Love You,” “Love Dream,” and “Good Luck and Goodbye.” By 1966, however, Andy left the group to go on his own, and a period of turmoil followed before the group reinvented itself as a trio and secured a new record deal with Arthur “Duke” Reid and Treasure Isle Records.
One of the first recordings with Reid was “Happy Go Lucky Girl,” which was an instant hit, and in the coming months, hit after Paragons hit was to follow, including the violin infused “The Tide is High,” “Wear You to the Ball,” and the title track of their debut album, “On the Beach.” The group dominated the charts in 1967, and opened 1968 with two number one hits, “Silver Bird,” and “My Best Girl.” The nagging problem remained, however. For all this success, very little money was coming to them. The group attempted to start their own label, Supertone, in an effort to take control of their work, but with a music industry as corrupt as anywhere else in the world, the label never got off the ground, despite recording a handful of enduring classics, including “Memories by the Score” and “I’ve Got to Get Away.” It was the beginning of the end for the group, which did not see the seventies. Evans was the last to go, moving to New York in 1970, where Barrett had already gone.
Now on his own, Holt produced several hits for several producers, and by 1972 was firmly established not only as a soloist, but as one of Jamaica’s best, winning a procession of Best Male Vocalist titles to accompany his hits, which included “Stealing Stealing,” “Stick by Me,” “Strange Things,” and “Ali Baba.” International success and a big payday still eluded him, but that was about to change. Holt had met British sound system operator turned producer Tony Ashfield on Holt’s first trip to Britain in 1968. They met again when Holt returned to the country for a show two years later, and subsequent discussions led to the start of a joint project. Ashfield embellished Holt’s voice tracks with over-dubs of strings, horns, and flutes, and added the first rate background vocals of Blue Mink vocalist Madeline Bell and US Soul singer Doris Troy. By 1973, the Trojan LP “The Further You Look” was released, and topped the UK Reggae album charts. Some critics attacked the approach as a creative sell out, but the mix of raw, authentic Jamaican beats and slick British studio production struck the right crossover note with the British public, and the partnership persisted. Soon after, “A Thousand Volts of Holt” did even better than the previous album, and spawned the first of Holt’s major hits, a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through The Night,” which peaked at number 6 on the UK charts in early 1974, and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks. By 1975, however, with the release of “2,000 Volts of Holt,” the partnership with Ashfield fell apart. Some purists actually rejoiced, and applauded the demise of what they viewed as an unfortunate flirtation with “Pop Reggae.” Holt was ahead of his time.
Two albums with producer Bunny Lee followed; “Superstar,” and “World of Love,” which was released in the UK by Trojan Records as “3000 Volts of Holt” in 1977.
During a hectic touring schedule in 1978, Holt reunited with his former Paragons partners, Howard Barrett and Tyrone Evans, in the US. That meeting was fortuitous, as two years later, The Paragons were back in international music news as the group Blondie covered their 1967 hit, “The Tide is High.” The cover was a pandemic monster of a hit, and catapulted to number one in both the US and UK as well as in Canada and New Zealand, in addition to charting in Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland. As writer of the song, Holt therefore has the distinction of writing the very first reggae song to top the US Billboard charts, and one of reggae’s first multinational hits.
Assuming his publishing rights were in order, this song should have been one of, if not the absolute biggest of his musical cash cows, as in addition to its initial global chart success with Blondie, it was also eventually covered by a plethora of artists, including UB40, Gregory Isaacs, and Dennis Brown. Notably, the British girl-group Atomic Kitten took the song back to global success in 2002, including making it number one in the UK and New Zealand in 2002 and making it a chart hit as far as in Turkey, where it peaked at number 4. In 2008, the cover by Canadian rapper Kardinal Official failed to crack the top 20 at home, but nonetheless sold gold, made it to number one in Germany, and hit the top 10 in both Israel and Turkey.
All this renewed attention and acclaim for the Paragons led to the 1980 Island Records release of an album of newly recorded material from the group, titled “Sly and Robbie present The Paragons.” Despite positive reaction to the effort, Holt resisted the temptation to reform the group and stuck with his solo career. In 1982, he teamed up with the top reggae producer of the day, Henry “Junjo” Lawes, who by then had already unleashed dancehall phenomenon Yellowman.
Of this union came the major Jamaican hits “Sweetie Come Brush Me,” and “Fat She Fat,” both a tad more hard-core than his usual style, and also the banned and seemingly out of character but well rendered “Police in Helicopter.” The latter was an indignant chastisement of Babylon’s persecution of the planters of the good ganja weed, and became an anthem of marijuana advocates all over Europe.
After dominating the 70’s and holding his own in the 80’s, Holt eventually had to leave the spotlight to a procession of new, younger acts, and to the emerging dancehall offshoot of roots reggae, but his stature as an elder statesman in the industry never waned, and so he never really left the radar. Jamaicans are nothing if not sentimental about their music, and so in addition to being a Sunsplash and Heineken Startime regular during the 90’s, he continued to the end to be an in-demand act for retro and vintage shows at home and abroad.
Holt never changed much over the years, never compromised his style, and maintained his trademark manner of being slower and more romantic than most of his contemporaries in rock steady, and those who would follow through reggae to dancehall. As a result, he probably has more claim than most to being the artiste who most deserves the title of being the chief forerunner of the lovers-rock sub-genre of reggae made so popular in modern times by the likes of Beres Hammond.
In October, 2000, Holt enjoyed the enviable distinction of performing three sold out concerts in England (two at the Apollo in London and one at the Symphony Centre in Birmingham) under the patronage of no less than Prince Charles, and backed by not only Lloyd Parkes and We the People Band, but also none other than London’s finest, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The union was as unforgettably flawless as it was unprecedented. Holt did 22 specially arranged songs each night plus 10 a cappella, and as a bit of Jamaican “brawta,” lovers rock ace Freddie McGregor appeared as special guest for the third show.
Fittingly, John Holt was awarded the Order of Distinction (Commander Class) by the Jamaican government in 2004, for his sterling contribution to Jamaican music. He was not to see the end of 2014, and after being diagnosed with colon cancer in June, he collapsed on stage at the One Love Concert at Milton Keynes in England in August, and then passed on October 19 in London at age 67.
He is survived by his wife Valerie, ten children, twenty grandchildren, over 40 albums, a global legion of fans, a reputation as a gentleman in a fickle business, and a legacy that will shine as long as music lives.