In the last couple of months before his death, as a newly energized John Lennon ended a five-year sabbatical from recording, everyone seemed to ask the former Beatle what he had been listening to during his hiatus in the disco, punk and smooth Southern California rock era.
His answer: a cover of a reggae song originally written and recorded by Jamaican vocalist John Holt in 1967 with his group, The Paragons.
The song, The Tide Is High, became a global No. 1 hit in 1980 thanks to New Wave rock act Blondie.
Holt, who died in a London hospital Sunday at 67 of complications from cancer, according to friend and concert promoter Devon Brown, was revered in the industry and among fans of his more than 40 albums. His solo classics included Stick by Me, the top-selling single in Jamaica in 1972, his album Time Is the Master in 1973, which added orchestral strings to reggae’s insistent percussive tempo, and the 1974 covers album, 1,000 Volts of Holt. The last provided Holt with a hit in the United Kingdom with a remake of Kris Kristofferson’s sensual Help Me Make It Through the Night.
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“When John walked across the stage to sing any song, you just got to stop. He was the Frank Sinatra of reggae. He was unbelievable,” said Wes Clarke, who came to know Holt in the 1980s through his newspaper distribution route in Cutler Bay in South Miami-Dade where Holt had a home.
“We lost one of the golden voices of reggae,” said Brown, who has been friends with Holt since he was 14. Holt’s influence on the music was profound, he said, because Holt lived through and composed ska, rocksteady and reggae.
“He pioneered the music to where it is today. Reggae has lost Bob Marley and Dennis Brown and John and they’ve done a lot to form the music and had taken it to the four corners of the world. John is known as ‘Sir John’ in London. Prince Charles loved this man endlessly,” Brown said.
Holt for many years was a fixture of Miami Reggae Fests, often performing with fellow reggae acts including Jimmy Cliff, Pato Banton and Barrington Levy.
Decades earlier, Clarke, while growing up in London, had the opportunity to hear 1,000 Volts of Holt as a work-in-progress in a Wembley recording studio as Holt cut his vocals on tracks including the Kristofferson song, Barry Gibb’s Bee Gees tune Morning of My Life, and popular easy-listening AM radio tunes of the day done in velvet-toned reggae like Touch Me in the Morning, Killing Me Softly With His Song and Baby I’m-a Want You.
“As a vocalist, John epitomized what reggae was all about. It was all about rebel music. Police in Helicopter went from the orchestra and ballroom to the ghetto to the streets,” Clarke said of Holt’s roots reggae hit in 1983. From roots’ edge to smooth crooning, according to Rolling Stone, Holt was the first Jamaican artist, along with Freddy McGregor, to sing with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Born in Kingston on July 11, 1947, Holt took to music at talent shows at age 12. Soon, he’d join The Paragons in 1964, and the four-member group’s profile rose with ska and rocksteady tunes like Holt’s Ali Baba, Tonight, Wear You to the Ball and I See Your Face. The group had its collective ears tuned to American and English hits of the 1960s.
Contemporary pop, dance and reggae acts like Maxi Priest, Atomic Kitten and, of course, Blondie covered Holt’s music. Some of these musicians took to Twitter to express admiration for the songwriter.
“We have lost a legend,” tweeted Jamaican rapper Shaggy. “Very instrumental part of our reggae history.” Jamaican R&B star Sean Paul added: “You have served your culture well.”
One of Sean Lennon’s lingering memories of his father settles on that Blondie cover of Holt’s The Tide Is High.
"My father had an old Wurlitzer in the game room of our house on Long Island. The one modern song I remember him listening to was The Tide Is High, by Blondie, which he played constantly. When I hear that song, I see my father, unshaven, his hair pulled back into a ponytail, dancing to and fro in a worn-out pair of denim shorts, with me at his feet, trying my best to coordinate tiny limbs,” he told Rolling Stone in 2006.
On January 31, 1981, Blondie’s The Tide Is High would bump Lennon’s comeback hit (Just Like) Starting Over from the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100.
Holt is survived by his wife, Valerie, and children Matthew, David, John-Charlie, Garth, Brian, John Jr., Natalie, Carol, Opal and Debbie; 20 grandchildren; two sisters and two brothers. He will be buried in Jamaica and a memorial in Miami is under consideration, Brown said.
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