R.I.P.: John Holt, 1947-2014

October 20, 2014


Reggae (and, perhaps equally, rocksteady) lost one of its great voices this weekend, in the late, great John Holt. Holt had at least three distinct eras in his career, and chances are you know his work from one, if not all of them.

The singer, who began working with producer Leslie Kong as a teenager in the early 60s, came to prominence as a member of Jamaican vocal group the Paragons, which he joined in 1964. The group (which also included a young Bob Andy) recorded some of the most seminal hits of the rocksteady era, working with producer Duke Reid at Treasure Isle, including “The Tide Is High,” which Holt wrote, and which was later made into a worldwide hit by Blondie. In the ’70s, Holt became known as something of a covers specialist, recording several popular cover albums with names like 1,000 Volts of Holt, and turning tracks like Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” into lite reggae gold. Embracing Rastafari, in later years he would take on a more defiant tone with his music, as exemplified in his 1983 protest “Police in Helicopter.” Here’s a look at a very small handful of Holt’s most notable tunes.

“The Tide is High” (1967)

The original rocksteady version–before Blondie covered it.

“Ali Baba” (1969)

Unmatched vocals here from Holt, stepping solo on this early reggae classic: “My dream last night was about Ali Baba with the 40 thieves/Tom Tom, the piper’s son, he was there with me/I rode through the valley with the princess by my side…”

“Wear You To The Ball” (1967, 1970)

The Paragons had a hit with this one in 1967, but it was made even more classic with a version by U-Roy in 1970.

“Stick By Me” (1972)

Another classic that’s been covered by everyone from Dennis Brown to UB40 (who’ve covered several Holt tunes, in fact)

“If I Were a Carpenter” (1979)

Holt had a knack for turning US AM radio fare into romantic reggae classics, and this is one of the shining examples. “If I Were a Carpenter” was a song written by Tim Hardin, made famous by Bobby Darin, and also sung by Johnny Cash and June Carter.

“Police in Helicopter” (1983)

Holt took on a more rebellious stance in the 1980s. On “Police in Helicopter,” a 1983 anthem recorded in solidarity with Jamaica’s besieged weed growers, he sang: “If you continue to burn down the herb, we gonna burn down the cane fields.”