It is with sadness that Foundation Ska pays homage to John Holt today as he passed away on October 19th. Today’s post is by no means an exhaustive look at the life and career of this legendary vocalist, as that would prove almost impossible since he was a prolific performer, but instead it is a snapshot of a few articles from the archives.
Let us first start with Roy Black, contributor to the Jamaica Gleaner, who wrote the following this week:
Jamaica has lost another stalwart in the field of popular music with the passing of John Holt in England last Sunday, October 19. His passing has left an irreplaceable void in the Jamaican recording industry. Going the full gamut, from rocksteady to reggae and dancehall, Holt proved to be one of the most enduring singers in Jamaican music, packing a voice that has lasted for 51 years.
Taking a different route to success than most of his contemporaries, who began in groups before going solo, Holt did quite the opposite when he recorded for producer Leslie Kong, his debut solo recording, Forever I’ll Stay, on the Beverley’s record label in 1963. Like many others before him, Holt’s earliest exposure came by way of The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour Talent Show, where he won an award in 1962. The win led to an association with record producer Leslie Kong, resulting in his debut recording. Concurrently, Holt recorded for producer, Vincent ‘Randy’ Chin, a cut titled Rum Bumbers.
His next move was perhaps the most important one of his career: That of linking with the Paragons vocal group, which was already in existence. The group actually began with Bob Andy and Tyrone Evans at the back of the Kingston Parish Church, sometime in 1962, before they added a third member, Howard Barrett. In an interview I had with Holt, he explained: “I was on King Street one day with my friend Lloydie Custard, and he told me there were some guys up by the Parish Church doing some singing. So we took a walk there, and that’s where I really got in touch with The Paragons”.
With Holt assuming the role of lead vocalist, the quartet of Andy, Evans, Barrett and Holt, first recorded as The Paragons, for late Studio One owner Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, debuting with I Was Lonely (Love at Last) and Play Girl in 1963-64. The group soon came to their differences and Andy left, reducing them to a trio. A temporary hiatus followed as the group searched to recapture their ‘quartet sound’.
However, the break seemed to have re-inspired and rejuvenated them, and they re-emerged at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle Studios in 1966, with crisper notes and tighter harmonies, and Holt gradually emerging as the star, with his mellifluous tenor.
Although he had not yet gone solo, many musicologists consider this the brightest period of his career, as he crafted some never-to-be-forgotten gems, beginning with Happy-Go-Lucky Girl, a recording that chided carefree women with the words: “Everyone in town knows about you, happy-go-lucky girl, the life you live isn’t too good, happy-to-lucky girl”
On The Beach, which followed, triggered the ‘hops’ fad, and generated beer sales all over the island. Wear You to the Ball was used to good effect by deejay U-Roy to lay the foundation on which many present-day rappers built. The Tide Is High gained worldwide recognition after a 1980 number one cover by the group Blondie, while Only a Smile, was a big favourite among Jamaicans. All number-one hits, they owed a lot to Holt’s lead vocals. The group tasted further success while working with other producers, including a return to Dodd’s Studio One with several top-class reggae hits.
The departure of Evans and Barrett via the migration route left Holt in limbo, and it is believed that this played a part in his decision to go solo. He was headed in that direction by early 1967 with his solo efforts, Stick By Me, Strange Things and My Heart is Gone, before making his third entry at Studio One with the very successful album Love I can Feel, which contained the hits Fancy Makeup, Do You Love Me, Stranger in Love and the title cut.
Now a solo artiste in his own right, Holt, by the turn of the decade, was one of the biggest reggae stars, making appreciable inroads on overseas charts while continuing to make hits during the 1970s and 1980s. Up to this point, Holt’s voice seemed unscathed by the passage of time. Earlier in 1968, he returned to Treasure Isle Studios with some of his best reggae cuts, which included, Ali Baba, Tonight, I’m Your Man, and the romantically charged ‘I’ll Be Lonely, in duet with Joya Landis.
By the mid-1970s, Holt was in the United Kingdom working with overseas producers who introduced string arrangements to his recordings. Help me make it through the Night, from the cover collection 1000 Volts of Holt, gave him his first UK hit. Returning home, he continued his hit run with Up Park Camp and others while proving his versatility and contemporariness with the dancehall song Fat She Fat. In 1982, he had chart success with If I were a Carpenter and Police Inna Helicopter. Although showing signs of ill health in recent years, Holt continued to compose, record and perform up to the time of his death.
The next interesting bit of John Holt history comes from a Daily Gleaner article, November 21, 1974 with the headline, “John Holt Entrances Cabaret Audiences.” The article reviews his performance at the Top-O-The-Sheraton in Kingston, and the author provides a brief history as well as an interesting projection from Holt on the future of reggae worldwide. The article states:
John started his singing career in the traditional way that so many other Jamaican singers started with the Vere Johns’ Opportunity Show in 1962. Since that John has not looked back but has made hit after hit. Who can forget such memorable songs as On the Beach, Happy Go Lucky Girl, Wear You To The Ball, one that U Roy later did over and many more rockers that placed John Holt in the Hall of Fame of Jamaican Music. . . . John sees Reggae as constantly improving and feels that it will be breaking big internationally any day now. He says Reggae is firmly rooted in England and that the English people as well as Jamaicans are big purchasers of Reggae records. This he feels makes England more encouraging to artistes singing Reggae because there is more, to gain there financially than in Jamaica. To improve the local situation, John suggests that our Radio Stations play more Reggae so that money sent abroad to pay performing rights for foreign artistes could be paid instead to our own local artistes. This, he feels, would allow for a better standard of living for local performers and above all there would be more recognition by foreign stations for our music, especially in the U.S.A. John Holt feels that Bob Marley and the Wailers, Ken Boothe, and Nicky Thomas are making the biggest contribution to our music for they have brought Reggae to the attention of people throughout Europe and the United States and have been constantly bringing about improvement to our music by setting a very high standard, forcing other artistes to do likewise.
The Daily Gleaner on Wednesday, January 28, 1998 stated, “The history of Jamaican music is replete with some fascinating stories of how some artistes came, into the limelight. One such story is that of two of the major players of Jamaican music, U Roy and John Holt. The story is told that it was Holt who heard U Roy ‘kicking up a storm’ at the controls of King Tubby’s Hi Fi and told legendary producer, Duke Reid, about the young ‘toaster’ who was packing in the crowds. The rest is history.”
Add your memories and thoughts about John Holt in the comment section below. Let’s continue the dialogue about this iconic artist whose music will never die.
Here are a few of my favorite John Holt/Paragons tunes:
The Tide is High
On the Beach
Stick By Me