John Holt: a treasure in our isle
Ian Boyne, Columnist
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
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
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
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."
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
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
"I am so glad I met
This is the start of something
Come to me, oh,
For I need you right
then when John would
"I waited so
Just for this
The love gods been true to
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
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
I want to be always so close
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
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.
My top 10
John Holt songs:
- Memories by the
Score (his favourite, too, which he doesn't
- Stranger in
- My Best
- Only a
- I'll Be
- The Tide is
- A Love I Can
- Write Her a
- It May Sound