John Holt...long live his music

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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His voice has been associated with some of the sweetest songs to have been produced in Jamaica, and perhaps not enough has been said of the greatness of his songwriting skills. As a performer he stood head and shoulders above the great majority of Jamaican vocalist with a career spanning more than 50 years.


He made his entry into the Jamaican music world via the (then) popular Vere Johns Opportunity talent contest in 1958 and went on to win this series multiple times, notching an astonishing 28 titles among all singing contests he entered over a four-year period. His voice would become familiar to a broader island audience as these contest finals were broadcast on Radio Jamaica. For his final victory in 1962, Holt performed the Solomon Burke classic Just out of reach. The win resulted in his picture being published in the newspaper from which producer Leslie Kong was able to track him down. Kong negotiated a contract with Holt's mother, as he was under age, and through this Holt would write and record his first single, Forever I'll Stay, which went to #1 on the RJR charts and for which Kong paid him £33. He later released a second single with Kong's Beverley's label, I cried a tear.


From there Holt went to work with producer Clive Chin for whom he recorded Rum Bumper, a duet with Alton Ellis. It was this connection which greatly assisted his music as Ellis taught him to play the guitar. The period was relatively uneventful as his output failed to get much attention. This changed in 1964 when he was invited to join the vocal group the Paragons after the migration of two of the group's early members. The group was completed by veteran members Bob Andy, Howard Barrett and Tyrone Evans. They recorded Good luck and goodbye for Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd. Immediately after the single was released the membership of the group changed. Holt was entrusted with the dual role of composer and arranger, positions for which he turned out to be ideally suited. And the timing couldn't have been more perfect. The ska era was winding down and the more easy-paced rocksteady beat had steadily risen to take its place. Its slower tempo was perfect for vocal groups and Holt's writing seemed especially cut for the easy oing beat and pop flavour that the style embraced. The group soon linked with Duke "The Trojan" Reid, the legendary producer at Treasure Isle Records, through RJR's Desmond Chambers.


From there Holt went to work with producer Clive Chin for whom he recorded Rum Bumper, a duet with Alton Ellis. It was this connection which greatly assisted his music as Ellis taught him to play the guitar. The period was relatively uneventful as his output failed to get much attention. This changed in 1964 when he was invited to join the vocal group the Paragons after the migration of two of the group's early members. The group was completed by veteran members Bob Andy, Howard Barrett and Tyrone Evans. They recorded Good luck and goodbye for Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd. Immediately after the single was released the membership of the group changed. Holt was entrusted with the dual role of composer and arranger, positions for which he turned out to be ideally suited. And the timing couldn't have been more perfect. The ska era was winding down and the more easy-paced rocksteady beat had steadily risen to take its place. Its slower tempo was perfect for vocal groups and Holt's writing seemed especially cut for the easy oing beat and pop flavour that the style embraced. The group soon linked with Duke "The Trojan" Reid, the legendary producer at Treasure Isle Records, through RJR's Desmond Chambers.


Despite his membership with the Paragons, Holt continued to record for other producers and stated that at one time he was referred to by Coxsone as one "who prostituted his voice to any producer who would pay him". Despite the criticism, Holt released some seminal work including these two singles with Joya Landis I'll be lonely and Maybe someday, as well as the big Treasure Isle hit Ali Baba.


In 1970, both Barrett and Evans emigrated to the USA to join their relatives, a move which literally dissolved the group. Holt stepped up the pace as he now fully launched this segment of career as a solo artiste. Working with producer Bunny Lee, Holt released Stick by me, a cover of a 1963 song by the US R&B group Shep & The Limelighters, which flew to #1, becoming a massive hit in Jamaica and foreshadowed the massive success that awaited him. In 1973, his album 1000 Volts of Holt was released by Trojan Records in the UK, where it sold extremely well. The album broke into the British mainstream charts where it reached #42 driven by Holt's cover version of country singer Sammi Smith's Help me make it through the night. This particular song reached #6 on the pop singles chart and served as a lesson to up-and-coming reggae artistes as the original acetate had to be overladen with Trojan's trademark strings orchestration to drive the crossover success they sought in the pop market.


Impersonation they say is one of the best demonstrations of flattery and although some may rue the remark in the context of the music, one of the groups whose material was and continues to be sampled have been the Paragons. The simplest explanation of this has to be that the quality of the lyrics that comprised those songs simply has been "timeless". If this view is accepted, then John Holt, as a writer, has been a special gift to Jamaican music. John Holt would continue to share this gift with Jamaicans at home and abroad as well as the international popular music community long after the dissolution of the Paragons.


Sir Coxsone and Holt resumed a recording relationship in the 1970s as Holt ploughed ahead with his solo career. His work with Coxsone was particularly exemplary, boasting a slew of his most classic solo recordings, including Tonight, Stranger in Love, and A love I can feel, the latter song being the title of his 1971 album. In the same year he released another album titled Like a Bolt. With Prince Buster he did a cover of Adam Wade's Rain from the skies and with Phil Pratt Holt did a re-cut of the popular My heart is gone, a song he had done originally for Coxsone.


Arguably, though, Holt's best work produced in the early 1970s was done with producer Bunny Lee including the classic Tonight. However, their biggest success was a cover of Stick by me, which remained on the Jamaican charts for an amazing 23 weeks and became the biggest selling single in Jamaica that year. The song was deliberately arranged at the time to take advantage of the latest dance craze, the John Crow.


The Trojan label became a valuable vehicle for moving Holt's work into the UK and the connections released a number of albums to capitalise on the success that his hit singles were having in Jamaica. The 1973 album Still in chains helped in establishing Holt as a reggae artiste extraordinaire and have since been repackaged on one CD by the British label.


In 1974, he released three albums The further you look, Dusty roads, and Sings for I showcasing a huge volume of self-penned work as well as Holt's penchant for ballads. He toured the UK that same year and, courtesy of Trojan, worked with Tony Ashfield who had arranged the strings work on Time is the master, producing the first in the "Volts" series 100 Volts of Holt which featured the monster hit Help me make it through the night, and which brought Trojan the crossover success that they had been searching for. Two follow-ups were recorded -- 2000 Volts and 3000 Volts -- but neither were not as successful as the first, and Holt headed back to Jamaica in time to face a rapidly changing social and political landscape.


Dancehall was now transforming the music, especially with newer, more adventurous producers such as the Hoo-Kim brothers at Channel One Studios on Maxfield Avenue with their house band the Revolutionaries. With them Holt, in 1976, recorded the title song to his album, the seminal Up park camp. The album's title track was a fabulous take on the Heptones' Get in the groove, with new cultural lyrics, and set the singer on the path for dancehall success. For the rest of the decade, Holt would continue making the studio rounds, including reuniting with Bunny Lee. In the period 1977-1983 he produced a number of works that suggested that he was losing his way as well as the attention of his audience. To some, John Holt was now a dinosaur and unable to operate in the ruthless world of dancehall. Most, it appeared, had forgotten the singer's collaboration with U-Roy a decade before, not to mention the results it had produced. According to Holt, he had attended King Tubby's dance then, and was blown away with U-Roy's toasting over his then hit Wear you to the ball. He had taken U-Roy to Duke Reid and the rest is for another 'Birth of Legends' series. John Holt drew on these resources, including collaborations he had done with Dennis Alcapone as well as the high riding King Yellow Man, the #1 DJ at the time whose weapon was Henry 'Junjo' Lawes. Junjo's reputation for producing deep earthy rhythms turned out to be the perfect accompaniment for Holt's songs, from the lightest pop to the heaviest hitting roots cuts. Sporting his newly cultivated dreadlocks, after admitting to his Rastafarian beliefs, Holt shed his family entertainer image and with the album Police in helicopter. Holt had reinvented himself as a cultural hero. The title song tackled the controversial subject of American-funded effort to destroy ganja fields across the island; a source of deep resentment among many Jamaicans especially those whose livelihood depended on the illicit cultivation. Holt would continue to produce hits, but not with the regularity of previous years, and certainly none that would resonate as much. He would continue to collaborate with artistes including Dennis Brown with whom was raised the album Wild fire.


Dancehall was now transforming the music, especially with newer, more adventurous producers such as the Hoo-Kim brothers at Channel One Studios on Maxfield Avenue with their house band the Revolutionaries. With them Holt, in 1976, recorded the title song to his album, the seminal Up park camp. The album's title track was a fabulous take on the Heptones' Get in the groove, with new cultural lyrics, and set the singer on the path for dancehall success. For the rest of the decade, Holt would continue making the studio rounds, including reuniting with Bunny Lee. In the period 1977-1983 he produced a number of works that suggested that he was losing his way as well as the attention of his audience. To some, John Holt was now a dinosaur and unable to operate in the ruthless world of dancehall. Most, it appeared, had forgotten the singer's collaboration with U-Roy a decade before, not to mention the results it had produced. According to Holt, he had attended King Tubby's dance then, and was blown away with U-Roy's toasting over his then hit Wear you to the ball. He had taken U-Roy to Duke Reid and the rest is for another 'Birth of Legends' series. John Holt drew on these resources, including collaborations he had done with Dennis Alcapone as well as the high riding King Yellow Man, the #1 DJ at the time whose weapon was Henry 'Junjo' Lawes. Junjo's reputation for producing deep earthy rhythms turned out to be the perfect accompaniment for Holt's songs, from the lightest pop to the heaviest hitting roots cuts. Sporting his newly cultivated dreadlocks, after admitting to his Rastafarian beliefs, Holt shed his family entertainer image and with the album Police in helicopter. Holt had reinvented himself as a cultural hero. The title song tackled the controversial subject of American-funded effort to destroy ganja fields across the island; a source of deep resentment among many Jamaicans especially those whose livelihood depended on the illicit cultivation. Holt would continue to produce hits, but not with the regularity of previous years, and certainly none that would resonate as much. He would continue to collaborate with artistes including Dennis Brown with whom was raised the album Wild fire.


Across the decade of the 1990s Holt made numerous acclaimed appearances at Reggae Sunsplash, as well as becoming a favourite on the Michael Barnett produced Heineken Startime in Kingston. Holt would continue these concert appearances through the close of the millenium.


Rest in peace, John Kenneth Holt for your work here is done. Long may your music live


Richard Hugh Blackford resides in Coral Springs, Florida, USA. Comments: richardblackford@gmail.com




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