When I started the Bovine Ska and Rocksteady back in 1996, a show that has always focused on early Jamaican music, I knew that there would be a time when a lot of the artists that I had loved from that period would begin to pass away but I would never have imagined the occurrences that have happened these last few months. Hopeton Lewis, Jackie Bernard, Tito Simon and now, arguably the most celebrated of that group, Sir John Holt, has passed away at the age of 69 in London. There had been rumors of his passing since Holt had collapsed at the One Love Festival in England not too long ago but now the rumors are confirmed true. This past week, we dedicated the entire show to John Holt, from his earliest recordings with Leslie Kong at Beverley’s, through his time as the lead singer of the hugely successful vocal group, The Paragons, and finally as an even more popular solo artist. You will hear one of the finest voices to have ever recorded in Jamaica.
John Holt was born in Greenwich Farm, Kingston on July 11th, 1947. At the young age of 12, Holt entered the music industry with performances at talent shows. Like so many of his peers, Holt would perform in these shows and would also eventually make multiple appearances on the (like Veer Left) Vere John’s Opportunity Knocks Talent Show. During these early competition years, Holt won a total of 28 awards. As Holt gained fame from the shows, he attracted the attention of Lesley Kong and recorded his first single for the Beverley’s label in 1962. His first recorded single is what we started off with during this John Holt memorial show.
Given the popularity of vocal groups and duos in the early 1960s in Jamaica, a very young Holt teamed up with Alton Ellis to record a duet in 1964, for Vincent Randy Chin called “Rum Bumpers,” a fun ska number about bootlegging. That same year John Holt would join what would soon become one of the most popular vocals groups in Jamaican history, The Paragons. However, he was not initially involved when the group was conceptualized at the back of the Kingston Parish Church, by Keith Anderson, better known as Bob Andy, and Tyrone Evans in the very early 1960s. Andy and Evans were members of the church and started singing as a duo on the church compound. Bob Andy, in an interview from 2013, explained the group’s beginnings.
“There were lots of duos in the market at the time: The Blue Busters, Keith and Enid, Higgs and Wilson, Alton and Eddy, to name a few. Tyrone felt that was kind of a strong field, so we started listening to groups with more than two, like The Drifters, The Four Tops, and The Temptations. While we rehearsed and played the piano, lots of people would join in. We tried many, until we settled with Evans, Howard Barrett and myself. Then someone told us about John, who was on his way to becoming a solo artiste after winning on Vere Johns, and so we got him into the group. He fit perfectly and we continued as four until I left, and they decided they’d remain a trio,” he said.
Andy went further, explaining that at one point the group swelled to five, with the inclusion of Junior Menz, a future lead vocalist of the Techniques and the name Pentagon was contemplated, but when Menz left, they settled with the name, Paragons. The Paragons version with Holt first cut tracks for Coxone’s Supreme label, and we played those songs first. After recording for Coxone, the Paragons traveled over to his rival, Duke Reid and cut more tracks for Treasure Isle and would see their greatest fame as a trio. In 1967, at the peak of rocksteady, The Paragons would record a few tracks for Winston Blake’s Merritone Label.
Though the Paragons officially split up in 1970 with the immigration of Tyrone Evans and Howard Barrett to America, Holt had been recording singles as a solo artist throughout the late 60s at the Paragons main label, Treasure Isle but also for his old producer, Coxsone Dodd, and young producer Bunny Lee. We’ll hear those singles next. Holt’s popularity continued to grow in both Jamaica and in England and the demand for full length releases of his solo work grew rapidly. His first full length would come courtesy of Coxsone and the superb 1970 LP, A Love I Can Feel. He would record his subsequent LP with Coxsone, for UK release, with it’s hit title cut, OK Fred. A follow-up record simply entitled “Holt,” produced by Bunny Lee and released on Jaguar would also prove hugely popular in England with the hit version of “Stick By Me.” Holt would also contribute vocals to a couple of brilliant songs on the seminal Prince Buster produced release featuring a young DJ named Big Youth, entitled “Chi Chi Run” in 1972. He would then work with Harry Mudie on the lavishly produced 1972 classic, “Time Is The Master.” Giving Holt’s vocals that string accompaniment that would become the trademark of many of his recordings, specifically aimed at the UK audiences.
Putting this show together reminded us as to how great his voice was. John Holt will truly be missed. R.I.P. John.
Listen to the show via the WMBR archives here: LISTEN HERE
This link will be active until 11/4/2014