Date of Birth: 11 July 1947, Kingston, Jamaica
Birth Name: John Kenneth Holt
Nicknames: John Holt
John Holt was one of Jamaica’s best-loved singers. Though chiefly known for romantic ballads and reggae renditions of pop and soul tunes, Holt was also an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter. He scored dozens of hits during a career that lasted more than 50 years, becoming a leading reggae star, enjoying success in the British pop charts in addition to having countless hits at home.
John Kenneth Holt was born in Kingston on July 11 1947. His vocal talent was nurtured by his mother, who encouraged him to sing at weddings and parties from the age of seven . Later, at Calabar High School, his friends coaxed the reluctant youngster into performing at school concerts .
At the age of 16, Holt entered a talent contest held by the journalist Vere Johns at the nearby Majestic Theatre, winning first prize with a rendition of Solomon Burke’s Just Out of Reach. As a regular in the contests, he formed a rivalry with Jimmy Cliff and other young hopefuls, taking first prize on 29 occasions.
As word of Holt’s talent spread , the aspiring producer Leslie Kong brokered a deal with the singer’s mother to record him for an upfront payment of £30. His debut single, recorded with the leading show band the Vagabonds, featured the original compositions Forever I’ll Stay and I Cried a Tear, the latter co-written with Winston Samuels. Holt then left school to concentrate on music full-time.
In 1964 he formed a short-lived duo with Alton Ellis, recording the chart-topping ska hit Rum Bumpers for Vincent “Randy” Chin, and providing harmony on Moutha Massy Liza. He was then invited to join the Paragons vocal quartet by Tyrone Evans, as a replacement for Leroy Stamp, reaching the group just in time to contribute to their Studio One recording Love At Last, which stayed at the No 1 chart position for five weeks. After Bob Andy left the group, the Paragons remained a vocal trio, with Holt as lead singer and chief songwriter .
The group reached Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle stable just as the slower-paced rock-steady style became the rage in Jamaica, and hits such as Happy Go Lucky Girl, On the Beach, Only a Smile, Wear You to the Ball and The Tide Is High made them one of the defining reggae acts of the era.
Holt returned to solo work in 1968 (though he also continued with the Paragons until 1970), scoring an instant hit with the sensuous Tonight for Duke Reid. He began working for rising producers such as Rupie Edwards and Keith Hudson, but a more significant partnership was brokered with Bunny Lee in 1969, yielding the broken-hearted Sometimes and It’s a Jam in the Street.
After cutting the A Love I Can Feel album for Studio One, My Heart Is Gone and Strange Things were exquisite singles for producer Phil Pratt. Another breakthrough came with his successful cover of Shep and the Limelights’ doo-wop classic Stick By Me, recorded for Bunny Lee in 1972.
Greater international exposure came after the English producer Tony Ashfield began orchestrating Holt’s material, helping to break him into mainstream markets in Britain with the albums The Further You Look and 1000 Volts of Holt. Holt’s cover of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night spent 11 weeks in the British pop charts in late 1974, peaking at No 6, and his orchestrated cut of Mr Bojangles was also popular. By contrast, the following year Holt’s rousing smash Up Park Camp, a song about a detention camp for gunmen in Kingston, proved he was still in touch with his Jamaican audience.
After the 2000 and 3000 Volts of Holt releases, and the tastefully orchestrated Time Is the Master set for Harry Mudie, during the late 1970s Holt released several extended-play showcase albums, including Holt Goes Disco, though none fared particularly well.
Then, at the start of the 1980s, as Holt began sporting dreadlocks and proclaiming a Rastafarian identity, Blondie’s hit cover of The Tide Is High sparked renewed interest, leading to a series of hit recordings for Henry “Junjo” Lawes with the Roots Radics band : first came the hard-hitting ballad Ghetto Queen, followed by the sensual love song Sweetie Come Brush Me, and then the massive Police In Helicopter, which described the potential acts of civil unrest that would greet a crackdown on Jamaica’s clandestine marijuana industry. Wild Fire, the duet Holt then cut with fellow star Dennis Brown for producer Tad Dawkins, was equally popular.
Though his output slowed during the late 1980s, Holt remained in constant demand for live performance work, whether with a standard backing band, or the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.