In 2014 one of reggae’s most beloved and enduring singers and songwriters left us. In August that year John Holt collapsed on stage during a show and two months later he succumbed to cancer. His musical legacy is vivid and almost difficult to grasp. But reggae powerhouse VP has decided to give it a try on the massive John Holt anthology Memories by the Score, a set collecting 100 (!) songs across five CDs.
John Holt came up via the Jamaican talent circuit in the late 50s and early 60s still in his teens. He soon joined The Paragons – an outfit that became almost the epitome of rocksteady – and together with his bandmates Howard Barrett and Tyrone Evans, John Holt enjoyed massive success with timeless classics like Happy Go Lucky Girl, Only a Smile and The Tide is High, all recorded with rocksteady mastermind Duke Reid.
The Paragons split in the late 60s when Howard Barrett and Tyrone Evans relocated to the U.S. Now John Holt started a long and fruitful career as one of Jamaica’s premiere balladeers with many sultry, often orchestral, love songs. He was an expert at covers – especially interpreting romantic songs – and skilled at penning three minute pop masterpieces. He was also recording lovers rock before the term was even coined. Never saucy or risqué. Always charming and positive.
From the early 70s and onwards he freelanced, but always returned to Bunny Lee; an acclaimed producer and a close friend to John Holt. And Memories by the Score is a Bunny Lee affair – which means no lush string arrangements – with Striker producing around 80 of the cuts. Other producers represented are, for example, Phil Pratt with the eerie Strange Things, Hugh “Redman” James with the digital scorcher Why I Care, Henry “Junjo” Lawes with several roots busters, including the immensely popular Police in Helicopter, and the monumental self-productions Got to Get Away, aka Man Next Door, and Left With a Broken Heart.
Over the years John Holt was blamed for recording bland music. Middle of the road stuff targeted at housewives. And there are some truth to that. But I can’t think of any singer or group that have produced albums praised by critics and fans alike for five decades. Every artist has his or hers poorer moments, just as John Holt had on an album like John Holt Goes Disco.
I’m not a huge fan of John Holt’s most sugarcoated side and his velvety covers, but those albums – like 1000 Volts of Holt – and singles – such as the Kris Kristofferson cover Help Me Make it Through the Night – sold like hotcakes in the 70s.
But John Holt wasn’t just the Luther Vandross of reggae. He had several sides and managed to reinvent himself two times. First time was in the mid-70s with the militant Up Park Camp and then again in the early 80s when he suddenly became a cultural warrior working with dancehall renegade Henry Lawes.
During his long career John Holt worked with almost every prolific Jamaican producer – Coxsone Dodd, Alvin Ranglin, Harry Mudie, Prince Buster, Leslie Kong, King Jammy etc – and his own compositions were also covered successfully by other artists. UK punk band The Slits enjoyed a chart triumph with their version of Quiet Place and Blondie conquered the charts in both the U.S. and the UK with their interpretation of The Tide is High. And in the year 2000 – 20 years after Blondie’s version – Atomic Kitten’s cover of The Tide is High climbed to the number one spot on the UK National Chart.
Memories by the Score isn’t the ultimate John Holt experience since it lacks tracks from a few important parts of his career. However, it certainly has enough striking cuts to make it the best John Holt collection on the market as well as a solid overview of how reggae developed from the 60s up until the late 80s.
In 2004 John Holt was well-deservedly awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government for his contribution to Jamaican music. He has been one of only a few Jamaican artists that have enjoyed lasting success for over five decades and with his timeless music John Holt’s legacy will forever live on.