On Monday 20th October, the news came that nobody wanted to hear – Sir John Holt had passed away. It was confirmed by his manager Copeland Forbes that he had passed away in a London hospital at around 2.40am on Sunday 19th October.
Music has the power to break down barriers and forge an acquaintance of sorts; although I’d never personally met Sir John, I felt a connection to him through his many great songs. I think it is fair to say that most 90s babies, particularly those of Jamaican descent like myself, would recall hearing his music – at some point – whilst growing up. John Holt touched a lot of people.
I heard his standards being played in my household, particularly via our beloved radio stations of choice – Vibes FM (93.7, back then 93.8) and Galaxy Radio (102.5…”a fi we station!” the jingle used to go). Holt’s solo songs such as ‘Time Is The Master’ and ‘Strange Things’ and Paragons standards such as ‘Only A Smile’, ‘Happy Go Lucky Girl’ and ‘Memories By The Score’ are just some of the hits which partially compiled the soundtrack to my infant-early adolescent years. We’re talking from about 6 years old, upwards. I couldn’t call his name at the time because I did not know it – however, I latched onto that voice. I can say that it sparked my curiousity and introduced itself warmly, like a new friend.
Around 1999, I got to actually find out this legend’s name. I was walking through a Brixton estate (South London) with my older sister, going to her friend’s house. It was a summer’s day, nice outside, the vibes was nice and reggae music was blaring through some speakers, with no apology. I don’t know what song came before but I know that Holt’s ‘Stick By Me’ came after and immediately grabbed my attention. As my sister and I kept trodding towards the destination, I saw an older guy bussing a wicked skank which made me stop and stare, amused. This 1972 track was the biggest-selling Jamaican record of that year and even up until now, it remains a classic. Anyway, the guy was singing along, working those feet and eventually exclaimed “yooo…dah John Holt bad enuh!”. The name stuck and I resumed my walking, satisfied that I knew his name. I now felt fully acquainted.
In 2002, Atomic Kitten dominated the UK charts and music video channels with their video for ‘The Tide Is High’. I loved a bit of Pop, as much as the next 10 year old, and was totally into the song. What’s more, the song always struck a note of familiarity with me, like I’d heard the melody somewhere before. This made it all the more easier to like it.
It wasn’t until 2004 that a random conversation with my peer Stephanie Clarke, which took place in the school playground, would inform me that John Holt wrote the song. Looking back, it’s quite funny that we were having those relatively mature conversations:
Me: *Sings chorus from ‘The Tide is High’ which was still very much popular at the time*
Stephanie: Do you even know who sung that song? *in a typical whiney, know-it-all school-girl voice*
Me: Atomic Kitten *offended that she’d ask such a stupid question*
Stephanie: No, have you heard of John Holt? He’s a reggae singer, my Mum plays him all the time. He sung it
Me: I’ve heard of him but it’s not a reggae song…(Poor ting, at that age I just assumed those who sung songs wrote them, themselves!)
Stephanie: Yeah but he wrote it and sung it first. Then they did it after, that’s what my Mum told me, so boy…
Her last comment was dripping with distain and she was obviously horrified that her revelation was utter news to me. I remember feeling quite embarrassed at my lack of knowledge on this matter. I felt about this big —–> [.]…! #shame
However, although I never forgot Stephanie’s assertion, I duly shrugged it off. Years later, I’d learn that Sir John did indeed write the track and record it with The Paragons in 1967. After this it became a #1 US/UK hit for Blondie, aswell as Atomic Kitten. By the time Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall and Keri Hilson used the song in 2008, I was already well informed of just who made that possible.
So, not only was Sir John Holt’s music a treasure for legions of listeners all over the world, but it has had a profound and lasting impact on popular culture too. Many people my age were avid supporters of Disney Channel sitcom ‘Lizzie McGuire’ and some may recall that ‘The Tide Is High’ was featured in one of the episodes:
Fast forward to 2011, when I decided that I wanted to break into Reggae Journalism. I attended the ‘One Love Peace Festival’ at London’s Wembley Arena which was headlined by Shaggy, Sean Paul and Busta Rhymes (flyer below). I was there to review it for Playvybz Radio and it was the first festival which I’d attended! As excited as I was to see most of the acts perform, I was particularly looking forward to seeing John Holt’s set as I’d never seen him live before. And what a performance he gave! I was honestly impressed with how this man effortlessly blazed a fire, like a silver haired lion commanding his pride. He performed each song with such grace, stamina and precision – I remember thinking ‘how is it that this man sounds exactly like he does on his records?’
Alongside LUST and Freddie McGregor, John Holt provided the vocals for the first valentines concert which I attended, which took place at Brixton Academy, not so long ago (below).
I say ‘provided the vocals’ because the experience was much more than just a concert, he made the vicinity feel like more than a “ram-out”, sweaty venue, where you’re among strangers. His performance felt so much more intimate than that; the evening was tailored in sheer romance – who better to be the headliner? I remember rocking with my plus one, as he belted out cover tracks which he totally re-invented, such as ‘If I Were A Carpenter’, ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and ‘I Want A Love I Can Feel’.
So, you see, from the music heard around my house/neighbourhood to random playground chatter, watching all-important after school television programmes to festival and valentines day experiences, Sir John Holt has always had an important presence in my life. With a career spanning over four decades and 40 albums to his credit, he was one of the leading talents for our beloved reggae music.
As the world mourns his loss, we can only be thankful that we received his gift of song, draw comfort from them and be inspired by his unique legacy. Thank you, John Holt for all that you have given us. May you now take your rest; your work is complete.