John Kenneth Holt was born in the Greenwich Farm area of Kingston, Jamaica, on July 11, 1947 and made his entry into the Jamaican music world via the then popular Vere Johns Opportunity talent contest in 1958. Holt would go on to win this series multiple times and notched an astonishing 28 competition titles among all singing contests he entered over a four year period.
John Holt’s victory caused Leslie Kong to negotiate a contract with Holt’s mother as he was under age and through this Holt would write and record his first single, "Forever I'll Stay” which went to #1 on the RJR Charts and for which Kong paid him £33. He
released a second single with Kong’s Beverley’s label "I Cried a Tear." It was this connection which greatly assisted his music as Alton Ellis taught him how to play the guitar, an important instrument to learn as a songwriter.
He released a second single with Kong’s Beverley’s label "I Cried a Tear”From there Holt went to work with producer Clive Chin for whom he recorded “Rum Bumper” a duet with Alton Ellis. It was this connection which greatly assisted his music as Alton Ellis taught him how to play the guitar, an important instrument to learn as a songwriter. The period was relatively uneventful as his output failed to get much attention. In 1964 John Holt was invited to join the vocal group the Paragons after the migration of two of the group’s early members. The group was completed by veteran members Bob Andy, Howard Barrett and Tyrone Evans. The group recorded "Good Luck and Goodbye" for Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd.
Immediately after the single was released Bob Andy quit the group to pursue a solo career as he was unable to get beyond differences with Holt. Now reduced to a trio, and with both Evans and Barrett holding full-time jobs, Holt was entrusted with the dual role of composer and arranger, positions for which he turned out to be ideally suited. And the timing couldn't have been more perfect. The Ska era was winding down and the more easy-paced Rock Steady beat had steadily risen to take its place. Its slower tempo was perfect for vocal groups and John Holt’s writing seemed especially cut for the easy going beat and pop flavor that the style embraced.
John Holt and Duke Reid
The group soon linked with Duke “The Trojan” Reid the legendary producer at Treasure Isle Records through RJR’s Desmond Chambers. It was well known that Duke Reid was never fond of the Ska beat. According to Holt, Desmond Chambers took them to Duke Reid because Coxsone was exploiting them and they were not being paid. The only benefit was the fame they got as despite having all these # 1 songs he still could not afford to move out of his parents’ house. They decided to put the money together to rent 3 hours of studio time at Federal where they recorded “Memories by the Score” but could not find the money to release it. They auditioned at Treasure Isle with “Happy Go Lucky Girl” a song for which the music was arranged by Ernest Ranglin and backed by Duke Reid’s studio band with Lynn Tait. Duke Reid paid them £30.00 for the song which hit # 1 on the local charts. Their next hit “On the Beach” was written by Holt who drew his inspiration from a dance at the Gold Coast Beach in St. Thomas where he was listening to the legendary King Tubby’s Hi Fidelity sound system. The Paragons would be responsible for a total of 12 #1 singles between 1966 and 1968 including the heartbreaking “Only A Smile” inspired by Holt’s break-up with a girl he loved dearly and who he never let on was the subject of the lyrics. Despite his membership with the Paragons, John Holt continued to record for other producers and stated that at one time he was referred to by “Coxsone” as [“the singing whore who prostituted his voice to any producer who would pay him.”] Despite the criticism though Holt during this period released some seminal work including these two singles with Joya Landis “I’ll Be Lonely” as well as the big Treasure Isle hit “Ali Baba” In 1970 both Barrett and Evans emigrated to the USA to join their relatives, a move which literally dissolved the group. Holt who had already been putting out solo recordings stepped up the pace as he now fully launched this segment of career as a solo artiste. Working with Producer Bunny Lee, Holt released “Stick By Me” a cover of a 1963 song by the US R&B group “Shep & The Limelighters” which flew to #1, becoming a massive hit in Jamaica and foreshadowed the massive success that awaited him.
John Holt with Trojan Records
In 1973 his album 1000 Volts of Holt was released by Trojan Records in the UK where it sold extremely well for a Reggae record. The album broke into the British mainstream charts where it reached #42 driven by Holt’s cover version of country singer Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night” This particular song reached #6 on the pop singles chart and served as a lesson to upcoming Reggae artistes as the original acetate had to be over-laden with Trojan’s trademark strings orchestration to drive the crossover success they sought in the Pop market. John Holt as a writer has been a special “gift” to Jamaican music. John Holt would continue to share this gift with Jamaicans at home and abroad as well as the international popular music community long after the dissolution of the Paragons. Despite the unfavorable comments Holt attributed to Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, the two resumed a recording relationship in the 1970s as Holt ploughed ahead with his solo career. His work with Coxsone was particularly exemplary boasting a slew of his most classic solo recordings, including "Tonight," "Stranger in Love," and "A Love I Can Feel." The latter song being the title of his 1971 album, which compiled many of his hits with Coxsone.
In the same year he released another album titled “Like a Bolt.” The album included works done with Duke Reid including “Ali Baba.” With Prince Buster he did a cover of Adam Wade’s “Rain From the Skies” and with Phil Pratt, Holt did a re-cut of the popular “My Heart is Gone" a song he had done originally for Coxsone.
The Trojan label became a valuable vehicle for moving Holt’s work into the UK and the connections released a number of albums to capitalize on the success that his hit singles were having in Jamaica. The 1973 album “Still in Chains” helped in establishing Holt as a reggae artiste extraordinaire and have since been repackaged on one CD by the British label "See For Miles" In 1974, he released three albums “The Further You Look”, “Dusty Roads”, and “Sings for I” showcasing a huge volume of ‘self-penned’ work as well as Holt’s penchant for ballads. He toured the UK that same year and courtesy of Trojan worked with Tony Ashfield who had arranged the strings work on “Time is the Master” producing the first in the “Volts” series 100 Volts of Holt which featured the monster hit “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and which brought Trojan the crossover success that they had been searching for. Two follow-ups were recorded -- 2000 Volts and 3000 Volts but neither were not as successful as the first and Holt headed back to Jamaica in time to face a rapidly changing social and political landscape.
Dancehall was now transforming the music especially with newer, more adventurous producers such as the Hoo-Kim brothers at Channel One Studios on Maxfield Avenue with their house band the Revolutionaries. With them Holt in 1976 recorded the title song to his album, the seminal “Up Park Camp” The title-track was a fabulous take on the Heptones' "Get in the Groove," with new cultural lyrics, and set the singer on the path for dancehall success. For the rest of the decade, Holt would continue making the studio rounds, including reuniting with Bunny Lee. In the period 1977-1983 he produced a number of works that suggested that he was losing his way as well as the attention of his audience. To some, John Holt was now a dinosaur and unable to operate in the ruthless world of “Dancehall.”
Most (it appeared) had forgotten the singer’s collaboration with U-Roy a decade before, not to mention the results it had produced. According to Holt, he had attended King Tubby’s dance then, and was blown away with U-Roy’s toasting over his then hit “Wear You to the Ball.” He had taken U-Roy to Duke Reid and the rest (is for another Birth of Legends series). John Holt drew on these resources including collaborations he had done with Dennis Alcapone as well as the high riding “King Yellow Man,” the #1 DJ at the time whose weapon was Henry “Junjo” Lawes. “Junjo’s reputation for producing deep earthy rhythms turned out to be the perfect accompaniment for Holt’s songs, from the lightest pop to the heaviest hitting roots cuts. Sporting his newly cultivated dreadlocks after admitting to his Rastafarian beliefs, Holt shed his family entertainer image and with the album “Police in Helicopter” Holt had reinvented himself as a cultural hero. The title song tackled the controversial subject of American funded effort of the Jamaican government efforts to destroy ganja fields across the island; a source of deep resentment among many Jamaicans especially those whose livelihood depended on the illicit cultivation. Holt would continue to produce hits including “Fat She Fat” but not with the regularity of previous years, and certainly none that would resonate as much as “Police in Helicopter” He would continue to collaborate with artistes including Dennis Brown with whom was raised the album “Wild Fire”
Across the decade of the 1990s Holt made numerous acclaimed appearances at Reggae Sunsplash as well as headlining the perennial favorite Heineken Startime. He was accorded Commander of the Order of Distinction CD by the Government and people of Jamaica in 2004 for his contribution to Jamaican music. Holt diagnosed with colon cancer in June of 2014 and lost the battle in October of the same year. He is survived by his wife June, 12 children and 25 grandchildren. Check out our videos at: www.yaawdmedia.com/videos
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