JOHN HOLT: Holt Like A Bolt


            If you are about to play this CD, you are in for a treat.  The music on this album features one of the great voices of reggae – as wonderful and influential as Alton Ellis and Horace Andy – at the peak of it’s popularity and power.   These songs represent the pinnacle of John Holt’s career, which has spanned five decades.


            Born in Kingston in 1947, by the time John Holt turned 13, he had already started building a following with his performances at the talent contests that proliferated around Kingston.  He recorded his first single, “I Cried A Tear” b/w “Forever I’ll Stay” for Beverly Records in 1963. A year later, Holt had the first of his more than 40 Jamaican chart-toppers, a duet with Alton Ellis called “Rum Bumper.”


            Holt became a major force in Jamaican music when he joined the vocal quartet the Paragons in 1965.  Modeled on American soul groups like the Four Tops and the Impressions – but with the ‘one drop’ that characterizes ska, rock steady and reggae in general – the Paragons developed taut, smooth harmonies that caught fire with records on Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label.  They became hugely popular in Jamaica, performing hits like “Happy Go Lucky Girl”, “Wear You To The Ball”, and “The Tide Is High.” Holt would re-record many of these in his later solo career, with those later versions of the latter two included here. “The Tide Is High” would become huge over a decade after the Paragons recorded it as a worldwide chart topper for Blondie.


            “Chris (Stein, Blondie’s guitarist) fell madly in love with the song,” recalled Deborah Harry, Blondie’s lead vocalist, “as did I…The musicality of it was just beautiful – beautiful melody, beautiful treatment.  The harmonies on the original are very exciting.”


            As Blondie took their version of a Holt tune to the top, many other Holt compositions succeeded in cover versions. The Specials, Horace Andy, Marcia Griffiths, UB40 and Dennis Brown, among many others, have all performed Holt songs. 

However, Holt also earned a reputation for doing successful cover versions of songs, starting with the Paragons.  They had hits with tunes like Don Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” and Lord Burgess’s “Island In the Sun,” among others.


            Holt continued this trend after the Paragons disbanded in the late 60s. He displayed a great fondness for Brook Benton songs – ironic as Benton’s voice was a register lower than Holt’s.  Holt had big hits with the Benton songs “Looking Back” as well as “Rainy Night in Georgia.”  He also took reggae versions of songs like Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, Smokey Robinson’s “A Love I Can Feel” and Adam Wade’s “Rain From The Skies” up the charts in both Jamaica and parts of Europe.


            Holt’s way with a romantic ballad led to comparisons to the great amorous soul singers like Lou Rawls and Barry White.  “John Holt may have been responsible for as many pregnancies as White during the 70s (not to insinuate that he was the father, of course),” wrote one critic.

            But there was so much more to John Holt’s solo career than reggae versions of pop hits. As a solo artist, he remained one of reggae’s more underrated songwriters, he wrote great rock steady tunes like “Stick By Me” as well as conscious reggae like “Hooligans Change Your Style” and raving rockers like  “Up Park Camp.” 


            The assent of Bob Marley after the golden era that spawned these recordings marked a slowing of Holt’s career. By no means, however did it end.  Into the 80s, Holt would have hits like “Police In Helicopter.” The 90s brought a massively popular cover of “If I Were A Carpenter” that rolled up the charts in Jamaica, England and around the world. Holt songs like “Stealin’ Stealin’” have been sampled into contemporary hits like Luciano’s “Ulterior Motives.”


His electrifying performances earned him the nickname “Mr. 1000 Volts,” and he continues to light up stages.  His performance at Reggae Sunfest 2000 earned him raves.  “He was nothing short of awesome,” wrote Kevin Jackson.  “The former Paragons lead singer took the show to a high, pacing the stage and interacting with those in attendance.”


He gave a three-concert command performance for Prince Charles in the fall of 2000.  The shows featured Holt backed by Lloyd Parks and We The People, along with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  “It was a really great experience,” Holt told the Jamaican Gleaner, “knowing that these songs were made so long ago.  To be performing with the great orchestra, man, oh man!”


Holt also was recognized for his contribution to reggae and Jamaican culture in the spring of 2001.  He and former I-Three vocalist Marcia Griffiths were presented awards at the Western Consciousness 2001 event.


“These are two of reggae’s premier ambassadors who deserve credit for (their) uncompromising stance in protecting the integrity of the music,” event promoter Worell King told The Gleaner.


John’s son, Junior Holt continues the family tradition and is making a considerable reputation himself as a singer.  As Holt sees it, this is right and fitting, though he adds.  “Reggae is not just what young people are listening to these days. I would love to see more of my peers getting out there so the music can break into major charts.  The world should see that Jamaican music has much more to it.”


Bronson, Fred; Billboard Book of #1 Hits, Billboard Books, New York, 1984 review

Kingston Reggae Report ”Sunfest 2000 review”

Clunis, Andrew; “John Holt Pleases Prince Charles”, The Jamaica Gleaner, November 12, 2000

“Special Awards for Holt, Griffiths”; The Jamaica Gleaner, April 27, 2001

Clunis, Andrew; ibid