Three songs on this collection drawn from an epic songbook encapsulate the distinct phases of John Holt's enduring career in music. I four decades of hit-making, from teenage song contest victories to the older statesman who now plays to packed houses backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the singer has consistently brought the sunshine of a Jamaican beach to the home hi-fi's of the world. While he was helping internationalise early reggae music, he also took on some of pop's most mainstream hits, doused them in the island's distinctive spices and often made his the definitive version. In 'The Tide Is High', 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' and 'Police In Helicopter we also have the story of Holt's life, his emergence as a force in music and a symbol if his home nation's pride, as well as a critic of its problems. However, long before he joined the group that would establish him as on of Jamaica's great exports, The Paragons, Holt had made a name for himself starring in the local equivalent of 'Opportunity Knocks', a weekly talent contest that was compered by local journalist and entrepreneur, Joseph Vere Johns at the Majestic Theatre, on Spanish Town Road, leading out of Kingston. Holt's protective family and childhood friends always knew he had a great singing voice - his mother had encouraged him to sing at parties and weddings from the age of seven - and he was persuaded by friends and family to take part in the talent show around the age of 12. The first time he attended the contest, a dancer friend put Holt's name into the hat without him knowing and when it was called out, he performed under a veil of shyness and was soundly booed by the audience.

The second time, however, he was runner-up. He would attend the shows regularly from then on, eventually winning the contest an incredible 36 times, so he was well known around Kingston musical circles in his mid-teens, his versatile voice influenced by Nat 'King' Cole and other American singers. Holt was usually accompanied to the Majestic by his protective older sisters and perhaps it was this strongly supportive feminine influence that enabled him later to sing love songs with such sincerity and conviction.

Holt was born in Greenwich Town, a seaside community that grew from the site of an 18th century British hospital to become part of the sprawl of Kingston. The beach and its fishing culture has been a consistent source of inspiration throughout his life, and a day on the sand, or perhaps out on the idyllic sea in a boat, remains his favourite way to pass the day. When he was young his suburban Kingston home had kindlier neighbourhoods than the ones accommodating today's youth, who regularly appear in the local Gleaner involved in gun clashes and politically motivated killings.

"Growing up in Kingston I had a wonderful time," he recalled recently to UK Reggae don, David Rodigan. "Cos most of the people there would give you fruits. You really didn't have to buy much things as a little boy, you just go and pick some mangos or some oranges and stuff like that. It wasn't really rough for me, because my mother and father was very protective of me. I really grew up like a egg as far as my mother and father is concerned.

"I grew up around a lot of trade people. I usually keep friends that were a lot bigger than I am. I guess I was just trying to gain experience before my time. So I would listen to their experience and then I would sort of try to live up to their expectations as big and decent people.

"All of them things I had in my mind, and suddenly I decided to go to school, like leave from one school to another school, to try to become a doctor, then the music took me away again. And I went back into music and I told my father I wasn't going back, so I just decided to stick to music."

So it was a supportive environment for a youth who was an aspiring singer. And real success soon came from the 'Opportunity Hour' performances and his picture appearing the newspapers.

Holt cut his first tune, the poppy-beat ballad 'Forever I'll Stay', for influential producer Leslie Kong at Beverley's in 1962 (his mother negotiated the contract). Soon he was trying out for Coxsone Dodd's emerging Studio One studio, attending one of the Sunday morning auditions in front bassist Leroy Sibbles and keysman Jackie Mittoo. (In recent years, of course, Sibbles has been among his many support acts).

Among those who would also eventually pass through Studio One's hallowed doors would be Bob Andy, of Bob and Marcia (Griffiths) fame, and after Holt had recorded a few tracks for Randy's Records, the two met in one of Jamaican music's all-time great harmony groups: The Paragons.

"I used to hang out on King's Street on a Friday and a Saturday", said Holt, "you know, as a young youth hanging out where it's really happening. So while I was there I saw Tyrone Evans, he was introduced to me by a friend. He was in this Paragons group with Bob Andy, Tyrone and a couple of other guys - Howard Barrett wasn't in the Paragons during that time. So he heard about me, and Vere Johns opportunity hour and the songs I'd recorded, so he (Evans) asked me if I could even come and listen to them, to see if I would be interested in joining the group.

"So I went right away, like something just hit me to go right away. So Tyrone myself went in there, and Bob Andy was there as well, so we was playing around the piano, and that's where it just started right there and then. Our first hit was 'Love At Last'. That was a slow song for Coxsone. That went number one on the RJR charts, and then we went on to do, I think we had about 11 number ones in a row. All these songs, the Paragons' songs, were number one songs, all because the effort we used to put in it, because there wasn't a day pass where we didn't rehearse for 10 minutes. We become very close to each other, so we were always together, together, together, day in, day out."

Understandably, the young Andy saw the arrival of Holt, with his commanding presence and delicious voice, somewhat differently.

"I was aware that I was doing most of the work," he said, "because I had to choose the songs and play the piano for all four of us when we were rehearsing. I would be working out the harmonies and making sure the group stays together, you know. I assumed an overwhelming amount of responsibility at a very young age.

"And it was very heavy, because they reckoned that if a group had a strong lead singer, the group would be a force to be reckoned with. So we brought John holt in, who had a name already; he was a very strong singer. The two other guys adored him, mostly Tyrone. Tyrone just fell sucker to the way John sings. Well now, he (Tyrone) refused to sing (lead on) any song. He said, 'I'm comfortable doing the harmonies.' But I sais 'You know, I wouldn't like to spend the rest of my life Ooh-aahing.'

After two recordings, Andy quit to achieve his own great success at Studio One, and the Paragons line-up settled as Holt, Tyrone Evans and Howard Bennett. Before the group split, as Evans and Bennett both pursued vocational scholarships in the USA, the Paragons set a benchmark for polished harmonies, brilliant interpretations and brilliant song-writing.

Holt's genius was behind most of their great originals, and the process behind creating 'The Tide Is High', his formative song, is revealing. Originally, the first line he had penned was 'The time is hard but I'm holding on.'

"But I had a friend who was a fisherman," he related afterwards, "and one evening he went out with some pots to set in the sea to catch fish and stuff, and he came back real quick. I sais, 'Why are you back already?' And he said to me, 'Bob, the tide is high, so I couldn't go out.' And it was during the time I was writing the song, and I always had my guitar with me, so I changed the line from 'the time is hard' to 'the tide is high'.

"I was trying to write the song about hard times, about the sea, and two people in love as well, or a man seeking to be friends with a woman. I could write four songs out of that one song now. I guess that's what made that song so heavy, you know. You can see that song from many different perspectives."

Hit after hit followed until the Paragons folded, having already made inroads into the emerging UK Reggae market. When Holt struck out on his own that penetration reached new levels, with evergreen tracks like, 'Love I Can Feel', 'Stick By Me', Ali Baba', 'Strange Things' and 'Jam In The Streets' still heard at parties to this day.

The tune that changed things for him forever though, was the 1973 cover of country songwriter Kris Kristofferson's 'Help Me Make It Through The Night', and the album of the same name, which sold by the bucket-load to a mainstream audience as never before.

"I can remember when I was a younger youth than I am now," mused Holt once, "all of us used to go and record a song and all we wanted to do was mostly to hear it on the radio, hear your voice, and you could go to your friend and say, 'Hey that's me,' But as far as imagining anything like this would happen, I never see it at all, at all in my mind.

"Telling you the truth, it really did change my life musically for a while because, knowing to the fact that it's the first anything like this ever happen to Reggae music.'

The critical factor in the popularity of 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' was the addition of top string orchestration to Reggae. This came about when an English producer called Tony Ashfield contacted Holt, professing him to be his favourite singer in the world. Ashfield had an idea to accompany that sublime vocal with the best symphonic string sound, and Holt liked the idea. Ashfield recruited string arranger Brian Rogers and matched him with Reggae guitarist Earl 'Chinna' Smith to create the right sound. The rhythms were laid down in Jamaica, the strings and voices dubbed in London.

"It was beautiful," recalled Holt of the first hearing. The British public though so too, and a brief, passionate love affair began between Holt and music buyers that only really faded once the heavier sounds of the late.

Credible tunes followed for a few years, particularly the underrated sides for Harry Mudie that include 'Time Is The Master'. But like many of his generation, Holt found himself out of fashion in the late seventies as dancehall's harder edge cut in. It was at this time that he shocked conservative fans by quietly growing his locks and adopting Rastafarianism.

Although internationally, especially with the success of his current 'Reggae With Strings' revival tours, it's the Paragons and early solo hits that the majority of fans want to hear, Reggae aficionados will be delighted that his 'comeback' tunes 'Sweetie Come Brush Me' and 'Wildfire' (in combination with his peers Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs) feature here.

But the tune that re-established Holt as a relevant artist in 1983 was the 'Police In Helicopter', a surprisingly militant pro-ganja tune cut for top early dancehall producer Henry 'Junjo' Lawes. Suddenly Holt, with his now grizzled dreadlocks had the look of an Old Testament prophet. He wrote the song while watching the police burn fields of marijuana and musing on the fact that there were so many other issues they should be tackling instead. He is an advocate of legalising the weed.

Holt's ability to appeal to the masses while retaining his credibility in this way has been remarkable. He has been a massive influence on succeeding singers - just listen to Sugar Minott, Tristan Palmer or Anthony Johnson, among others - and deserves to retain his eternal place in the sun.

Interview with John Holt by Sarah Harris.

Forever I'll Stay
Happy Go Lucky Girl
On The Beach
The Tide Is High
Only A Smile
The Same Song
You To The Ball
Talking Love
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
Silver Bird
My Best Girl
Memories By The Score
I've Got To Get Away (aka Quiet Place)
I'll Be Lonely
Ali Baba
Have You Ever Been To Heaven
Wooden Heart
Stealing, Stealing
My Heart Is Gone
Strange Things
Let's Build Our Dreams
Still In Chains
It May Sound Silly
Stick By Me (And I'll Stick By You)
Stagger Lee
Keep It Up
It's A Jam In The Streets
Lost Love
Riding For A Fall
Looking Back
Pride And Joy
The Further You Look (The Less You See)
Time And The River
Help Me Make It Through The Night
You Baby
Time Is The Master
Love Is Gone (aka Gone Is Love)
My Desire
Up Park Camp
(You're My) Soul And Inspiration (You're All I've Got)
Wasted Days And Wasted Nights
Do The Best (aka Let The Wicked Run Away)
I'll Take A Melody
Winter World Of Love
You Will Never Find Another Love Like Mine
Everybody's Talkin' (Theme from Midnight Cowboy)
Ghetto Queen
Sweetie Come Brush Me
Police In Helicopter

All material © Trojan Records