Trojan
 

The power of the written word is immeasurable and the catalogue of those whose fortunes and reputations have been destroyed over the years by flippant comments based on whim or effected by changes in fashion is vast. But there are a small select number of individuals whose talent and determination has enabled them to remain at the forefront of their profession despite the negative remarks of others. In Jamaican music, few men have come under such a barrage of criticism for their art than the singer/songwriter whose work provides the focus of this collection; John Holt.

Holt was born in 1947 and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, where he was exposed to a rich variety of musical sounds throughout his youth. By his early teens he had developed a keen interest in music, but despite his blossoming singing skills he lacked the courage to perform publicly, as he related to pioneering British Reggae journalist Carl Gayle in 1974:

"School really wasn't my thing... I preferred singing. I never attended singing class, though, I was scared. I was actually forced to sing in school by my friends, I didn't have the nerve y'know to really go out and do it."

During the late fifties and early sixties, the most accessible route for any aspiring performer to achieve stardom was by gaining recognition at one of the numerous talent contests held in and around Kingston and it was this avenue that eventually provided the opportunity for Holt to illustrate his singing prowess. By 1960 he had overcome his initial shyness and began inpressing audiences with his interpretations of songs by his favourite vocalist, American teen idol, Jimmy Clanton. During this time, the young singer found himself in direct competition with a number of other hopefuls who would also go on to achieve stardom, as he later recalled...

"I used to whip Jimmy Cliff's ass, y'know... he was afraid. If he knew I was gonna sing tonight for instance, he wouldn't turn up."

After two years honing his singing skills at shows, Holt was finally ready to make his mark as a recording artist and after one of his winning performances was highlighted in both the island's two national newspapers, The star and The Gleaner, he was approached by fledgling producer, Leslie Kong with a view to cutting a disc.

At a subsequent session arranged by Kong at Federal studios, Holt recorded a couple of original compositions, 'Forever I'll Stay' and 'I Cried A Tear', backed by leading instrumental group, Colsten Chen & The Vagabonds. The recordings were issued back to back on the producer's recently launched Beverley's label, but while the record sold well enough, Holt experienced a plight common among Jamaican recording fraternity; negligible financial remuneration. Despondent, but determined to make singing his profession, Holt teamed up with Alton Ellis whose former singing partner, Eddy Perkins had recently departed for America. Holt and Ellis went on to record the best selling 'Mouth A Massie Liza' and 'Rum Bumper' for Vincent Chin of Randy's Records, but once again, the singer saw little in the way of royalties. After a brief sojourn with leading producer, Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, Holt decided to call it a day...

"Because things weren't so right and you had better or bigger singers than myself, like Owen Gray or Jackie Edwards, I was too far in the background, so I quit for a while."

After a year away from the music scene, Holt finally came out of his premature retirement to join a local vocal group called The Binders who had recently lost the services of their lead singer, Leroy Stamp. The remaining three members were not only all performers of considerable merit, but also hugely talented songwriters, with Keith Anderson (aka Bob Andy), Garth 'Tyrone' Evans and Junior Menz all going on to pen songs, later regarded as Jamaican classics. Soon after Holt was recruited into their ranks, the group experienced further changes in personnel, with Menz departing to be replaced by Howard Barrett. The new line up signaled a change of direction for the group, which was further emphasised by a new name, from now on, they would be known as The Paragons.

The Paragons quickly set about making their mark on the Jamaican music scene, making regular appearances on the island's club and hotel circuit and recording a number of Doo Wop flavoured hits for Coxsone Dodd. These included '(In) Love At Last', 'Love Dream', 'Follow Me', 'Play Girl', 'Good Luck And Goodbye', 'I Was Lonely' and 'Live And Love You', all of which saw issue around 1965. But for all their success, internal differences within the group became increasingly apparent and by 1966, Andy had left the group to pursue what proved to be a highly successful solo career. His departure left the Paragons in a state of turmoil and there followed months of inactivity before the three remaining members eventually decided to relaunch the group as a trio towards the close of the year. Still boasting considerable singing and songwriting talent, the group had little difficulty in securing a new recording deal and promptly signed with producer Arthur 'Duke' Reid. Among the songs cut at the group's initial session for Reid was 'Happy Go Lucky girl' which quickly became a major hit on the island and over the ensuing months, the Paragons added to their tally of successful singles with 'On The Beach', Only A Smile', 'The Tide Is High' and 'Wear You to The Ball', all of which appeared on their debut album, 'On the Beach'. Although the trio briefly strayed from Reid's Treasure Isle operations around the close of 1967 to record a handful of songs (including the hit 'Talking Love') for Federal Records, it was with the Duke they continued to enjoy their greatest success.

1968 began as the previous year had ended, with 'My Best girl' and 'Silver Bird' both topping the Jamaican listings. Yet for all their popularity, the Paragons received little in the way of hard cash. In a bold attempt to take complete control over their work, the trio formed their own Supertone label, although after just two released, the project floundered, due primarily to the island's corrupted system of record distribution. None the less, the two records in question had both been vintage Paragons, with three of the four songs issued becoming widely considered as Jamaican classics; 'Memories By The Score', 'I've Got to Get Away' (aka 'Man Next Door') and a superb rendering of the Four Tops' 'Left With A Broken heart'.

Following the failure of their label, the trio briefly returned to work with Coxsone Dodd, for whom they recorded a quartet of songs, of which the most popular was the haunting 'My satisfaction' (aka 'Late Night'). shortly after their sojourn with Dodd, Barrett relocated to New York and while Holt and Evans attempted to maintain the group as a duo (cutting with the excellent 'Equality And Justice' and 'You Mean So Much To Me' for Lloyd Daley), by the beginning of 1969, it was all over for the Paragons. Evans went on the cut a one-off single with Bob Andy and also sang with Bruce Ruffin in the Shades before he too moved to New York around the close of 1970.

Holt, meanwhile, set about making his mark as a solo artist. He had in fact recorded a couple of sides away from the group shortly before Barrett's departure, recording 'tonight' and a duet with American singer, Joya Landis, entitled 'I'll Be Lonely'. Produced by Duke Reid, both songs were issued towards the close of 1968 and their popularity no doubt influenced Holt's decision to go it alone.

Freed from the constraints of group decision making, he discovered a new freedom in his work and over the next few years enjoyed considerable success, working with a variety of producers. Among his most popular recordings from this time are 'Ali Baba', 'Stealing Stealing' (both for Duke Reid), 'Never Hurt My Baby' (Keith Hudson), 'Have Sympathy' (Harry Johnson), 'A Love I Can Feel' (Coxsone Dodd), 'Linger A While' (Lloyd Daley), 'My Heart Is Gone', 'Strange Things' (both Phil Pratt), 'Stick By Me' and 'Pledging My Love' (Bunny Lee). In addition, Holt saw the release of five collections of his work, with Coxsone Dodd issuing 'A Love I Can Feel' and 'Greatest Hits', and Bunny Lee releasing 'Holt', 'Still In Chains' and 'Pledging My Love'.

By 1972, Holt was firmly established as one of Jamaica's leading vocalists, with a series of 'Best Male Vocalist' titles to his name, but for all his success at home, his talents were yet to be widely recognised abroad. All that was to change with the release of his initial collaborations with British manager/producer, Tony Ashfield. Ashfield who had previously operated a UK based sound system, had recently turned his hand to producing, experimenting with sound techniques at a small studio owned by Holt's Road manager, Terry Newman. It was through Newman that Ashfield first met the singer in 1968, during Holt's first visit to Britain. Two years later, the pair renewed acquaintances while Holt was in the country for an appearance at the Wembley Reggae Festival and the pair soon began discussing the possibilities of forming a record production company of their own. Before long, their plans for a joint project were realised with the launch of Chaguaranmas Productions.

After returning to Jamaica, Holt began recording rhythm tracks for a number of songs that were later embellished with vocal, string, horn and flute over-dubs by Ashfield at Intersound and Lansdowne studios, London. Among the array of talent involved at this stage were respected American soul singer, Doris Troy and former Blue Mink vocalist, Madeline Bell (both singing backing vocals) and one-time Pop star, Mike Berry, who supervised the final mix of the tracks at Audio International Studios.

By 1973, a dozen such recordings were ready for release and gathered on the Trojan LP, 'The Further You Look' (aka 'Sings For I'), which promptly topped the UK reggae album charts. But while the use of sophisticated arrangements with raw urban Jamaican rhythms proved popular with the British public at large, many critics and so-called purists were quick to dismiss the style, accusing the singer of selling out in a bid for wider commercial appeal. Undaunted by such remarks, the Holt/Ashfield partnership continued unabated, with a second collection if similarly styled recordings appearing soon after on the album 'A Thousand Volts Of Holt'. Sales of the LP quickly surpassed those of the previous volume and had it not been for the peculiarity of the distribution of Reggae releases in Britain, would have certainly topped the country's Pop charts. 'Volts' also included a recording that went on to become one of the biggest selling Reggae singles of all time - 'Help Me Make It Through The Night', written by Country singer/songwriter, Kris Kristofferson, the song had originally provided a US chart hit for Nashville-based singer Sammi Smith in 1971, before being covered by a variety of performers, most notably Joe Simon, OC Smith and Gladys Knight & The Pips. Of these, only the latter version succeeded in breaching the British charts, the disc climbing to number eleven around the close of 1972. This notable achievement was eclipsed two years later, when Holt's rendering peaked at number six in the UK listings early in 1974, remaining in the Pop charts for a total of fourteen weeks.

To promote the single and the album, Holt once again took the opportunity to tour Britain, taking time out in between live shows to voice further Ashfield produced recordings which appeared later that year on the 'Dusty roads' album. By now, Ashfield was planning to develop Chaguaranmas Productions into a Jamaican music corporation in the mold of Motown and Stax and brought in respected arranger Rob Powell to work on various projects for the company. These included an album with Jamaican group, the Chosen Few and a collection of instrumental sides by respected session pianist, Gladstone Anderson, who also arranged Holt's sessions in Jamaica.

Around the close of 1974, Holt began recording material for another album with Ashfield, although by now signs of strains in their relationship were becoming increasingly apparent and by the time Trojan issued what proved t be the final collaboration, '2000 Volts Of Holt' the following year, their partnership had come to an end. In the months following the acrimonious split, Holt had no difficulties maintaining his popularity, with many Reggae fans openly expressing delight that the singer had decided to end what they regarded a misguided dalliance with a style sneeringly labeled 'Pop Reggae'. Over the next year or so, Holt recorded primarily with Bunny Lee, their collaborations resulting in two further albums, 'Superstar' and 'World Of Love', with the latter issued in the UK by Trojan as '3000 Volts Of Holt' in 1977.

The preceding year, the singer briefly reunited with Tyrone Evans and Howard Barrett to record 'Let Them Wicked Run Away' (aka 'Do The Best Thing'), a superb Roots number that echoed the Paragons glory days of the late sixties. Also around this time, he also worked with Joseph 'JoJo' Hookim of Channel One Records with their sessions yielding a number of excellent sides including a trio of Jamaican hits, 'Up Park Camp', 'Ghetto Girl' and an updated version of an old Paragons number 'Hooligans' (aka' Don't Fight your Brothers').

He continued to enjoy success both at home and in Europe throughout the remainder of the seventies. In 1978 Bunny Lee released yet another album of his work, 'In Demand', which Trojan subsequently released as 'Just A Country Boy', while the following year his updated version of the Delano Stewart hit 'Rock With Me Baby' became the first 12" single to be issued by the British company. Following the success of the disc, Trojan released a selection of newly recorded extended mixes on the somewhat misleadingly titled 'Holt Goes Disco', which saw issue in Jamaica as 'New Disco Style Showcase'. Further similar collections followed in Jamaica with 'A-1 Disco Showcase' and 'Introspective', although neither officially saw release in the UK. or the self-produced 'Let It Go On' album towards the close of 1978. Holt embarked on a hectic touring schedule and while performing in the US took the opportunity to meet up with former singing partners, Tyrone Evans and Howard Barrett. This encounter, allied to the international success of Blondie's reworking of 'The Tide Is High' in 1980 prompted the Paragons to reform and the following year, Island Records issued an album of newly recorded material by the group entitled 'Sly & Robbie Present The Paragons'. Despite the positive reaction to the album from critics and Reggae fans alike, Holt decided to concentrate on his solo work and in 1982 started working with Henry 'Junjo' Lawes, Reggae music's leading hit maker of the period. Major Jamaican hits swiftly followed with 'Fat She Fat', 'Sweetie Come Brush Me' and the banned 'Police In Helicopter', all of which contrasted starkly with the romantically themed recordings of his earlier work. These and further Lawes-produced material on the 'Sweetie Come Brush Me' (aka 'Gold') and 'Police In helicopter' collections illustrated Holt was more than capable of holding his own as a Roots singer.

Throughout the remainder of the eighties and up to the present day, Holt had continued to tread his own path, refusing to alter his approach to music making in accordance with the various musical trends that have come and gone over the intervening years. Today his fan-base is as broad as ever, but for all his popularity, the critics still remain. Perhaps one day they will stop their sniping and accept John Holt for what he is and will always be - one of the finest singers Jamaica has ever produced. And if you are one of those that still needs convincing, open your mind and take a good long listen to the wonderful music on this collection.

LAURENCE CANE-HONEYSETT

Forever I'll Stay
Happy Go Lucky
On The Beach
Only A Smile
The Tide Is High
Wear You To The Ball
Talking Love
My Best Girl
Silver Bird
Memories By The Score
Left With A Broken Heart
Got To Get Away
My Satisfaction
I'll Be Lonely
Tonight
Equality And Justice
Ali Baba
Never Hurt My Baby
Share My Rest
Have Sympathy
Don't Break Your Heart
Fat Girl, Sexy Girl
Stealing Stealing
A Love I Can Feel
Sometimes
Let's Linger Awhile
My Heart Is Gone
Strange Things
Sister Big Stuff
Let's Build Our Dreams
Riding For A Fall
Stick By Me (And I'll Stick By You)
Pledging My Love
Looking Back
Stagger Lee
Anymore
Land Of Ecstasy
Don't Break Your Promise
The Further You Look
Help Me Make It Through The Night
Dusty Roads
In The Springtime
Let The Wicked Run Away
Up Park Camp
Ghetto Girl
Don't Fight Your Brothers
You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine
Rock With Me Baby
(I'm Just A) Country Boy
You Are Everything To Me

Trojan
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