John Holt: a treasure in our isle
North American and European media have treated the passing of rocksteady icon John Holt for what
it is: a major loss to music lovers globally, particularly connoisseurs of vintage music.
The respected British Guardian newspaper eulogised Holt as "the honey-voiced Jamaican singer and songwriter who was responsible for some of the greatest moments in reggae during a career that spanned more than 50 years". The Guardian went on to say that his 1,000 Volts of Holt album proved that he could "sweeten his music without resort to saccharin", adding that "given the horribly chequered history of cover albums in any genre, it has the right to be acknowledged as one of the most critically successful ventures of its kind; 1,000 Volts stood the test of time and it is as popular now as it ever was".
The Guardian was not finished: "If anyone was going to pull off such a trick, it had to be Holt. A gifted songwriter possessed of the sweetest voice of any reggae singer bar Dennis Brown, he had been producing hits in Jamaica and the UK since his teenage years in the 1960s ... ."
Music writer Jo-Ann Greene wrote of Holt in an online profile that "on an island renowned for its superb vocalists and composers, John Holt still stands head and
shoulders above the rest as one of Jamaica's sweetest singers and enduring songwriters. He has voiced and penned so many of the country's classics that in
a way he has defined the island's sound."
I have had a long
"relationship" of sorts with Holt - longer than I have personally known him. In my early teens, I remember being totally mesmerised with his song Strange Things:
Strange things are happening on a Friday night
Girls meet boys and a lot of hugging and kissing
Under the golden moon
That shines the silver light
Oh, oh, oh
I'd like to be one of them ...
I was known in high school for singing that Holt song, along with Fancy Make-up and My Heart is Gone. Interestingly, while I would later go on to worship Alton Ellis -
in a galaxy by himself - I was turned on to Holt much earlier. Strange things! At the
parties, it was Left with a Broken Heart, The Tide is High, Wear You to the Ball,
On the Beach, Happy Go Lucky Girl, Man
Next Door, A Love I Can Feel and Stick By Me that would rock the place in the 1970s when I was a teenager. Those parties! Memories by the score!
In those days, captivated by Studio One and Treasure Isle music, I eyed the music industry. I even formed a group called the Inspirers and went to Clancy Eccles for him to produce us. I would go to all the Christmas morning concerts at Carib, the stage shows at the Ward Theatre and Sombrero Club.
My relationship with John Holt was a complicated one. There are the experiences with John Holt as a performer. On more occasions than I liked, I would leave a John Holt performance totally dissatisfied. John too often could not get his repertoire together.
It was fascinating to hear his manager, Copeland Forbes, say in last week's On Stage interview that John was always pacing up and down backstage before his performance, not quite sure which of his vast catalogue of hits to do. John was downright frustrating to a music lover like me who wanted to hear his finest. I sometimes wished he could be like Johnny Clarke, Gregory Isaacs, Ken Boothe and the Godfather himself, Alton Ellis, who knew how to go hit after devastating hit. But John had so many, and often, he would simply stop the band and do a few lines from the many songs that people would be constantly bellowing out to him. 'How you feeling? Yeah."
And he used to annoy me by wasting time singing other people's songs when he had so many tantalising hits of his own.
It is Reggae Sunsplash 1993 and I am determined that tonight I must influence John's song selections. Commanding performances have been delivered on this vintage night, with Ken Boothe, Leroy Sibbles and the master Alton himself mashing up the place. I am backstage and John is soon to be called onstage. I tell him what went on before: "John, the people waiting for you! You haffi mash dung the place tonight. Just go hit after hit after hit, John. Don't waste nuh time."
John is smiling graciously as usual, his good-naturedness
and humility always a striking feature. "Yes, mi bredren, me a hear yuh." John himself would later recall my conversation with him that night in a subsequent Profile interview I did with him - one of the few interviews he has ever granted probing his life. It was there that he revealed that he started university to go on to do medicine, but the great Alton influenced him into a full-time musical career.
I tell you, John went on stage that night - rather, early morning - and he ripped that place apart. I can't count the number of times I have seen John in performance over the years. Some of my most ecstatic moments in music have been spent with him, for when John was good on stage, he was breathtakingly good.
Today, the reason why Stranger in Love is my most sung John Holt song is because my most intense musical experiences have been listening to him perform that song. I remember almost fainting one particular night, so overcome by ecstasy, when John's indescribably mellow voice caressed that song.
"I am so glad I met you
This is the start of something new
Come to me, oh, please
For I need you right now"
And then when John would say:
"I waited so long
Just for this moment
The love gods been true to me"
And the instrumentals - sheer ecstasy!
The other song that never I mean never failed to tug at my heartstrings as though to rip them out is My Best Girl.
And when he would reach these lines, my heart would be in Heaven:
I want to be always close to you
To give a helping hand if ever you're in need
I want to be always so close to you.
I love John's slow, deeply romantic pieces. Only a Smile would always delight me, as well as Tonight and The Tide is High. But there are some lesser-known songs that I absolutely adore and that are known only to the aficionados like Douglas Webster, who, in his letter to the editor on Wednesday, unveiled one of John's absolutely greatest songs ever done: Write Her a Letter. You must go to YouTube and introduce yourself to that one. Do yourself a favour. Among the other thrillingly great songs that are not usually numbered among his finest hits are I Am Your Man (Awesome), Let's Linger a While, and My Number One. You have to treat yourself today by gong online to hear these songs.
The Paragons, led by John Holt, was arguably the finest harmony group that emerged from the rocksteady era. I don't take away anything from other great groups like The Heptones, The Techniques, The Uniques (with the great Slim Smith) and The Melodians, but in terms of hits and sheer artistry, The Paragons, under John's
leadership, was incomparable.
In the 1960s when some were promoting 'rude bwoy' songs, Holt stuck to love. He showed that inner-city people could produce beauty and harmony, not just senseless, nihilistic garbage. John told me in that 1993 Profile interview that he wrote Queen of the Ghetto in the 1970s on a day when he went to studio and saw everyone signing about negative stuff and prompting the dark side of the ghetto. He always highlighted the best in us.
John Holt, a Treasure Isle star for Duke Reid, was our treasure in this isle of musical excellence. I shall miss seeing him on stage. No more seeing him render Stranger in Love and My Best Girl. Inconsolable Heartbreak.
My top 10 John Holt songs:
n Memories by the Score
(his favourite, too, which he doesn't perform)
n Stranger in Love
n My Best Girl
n Only a Smile
n I'll Be Lonely
n The Tide is High
n A Love I Can Feel
n Write Her a Letter
n It May Sound Silly