John Holt is rightly revered as Jamaica’s “finest interpreter of love ballads” but he could just as easily be regarded as one of its finest rock steady singers with The Paragons, one of its foundation vocalists at Studio One, or one of its best ever roots singers through his releases for Channel One in the seventies and Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes in the eighties…
Born 11th July 1947 in Kingston John Holt got his first big break on Vere Johns Junior's 'Opportunity Hour' talent shows and he recorded his first single, 'I Cried A Tear'/'Forever I'll Stay', for Leslie Kong's Beverleys label in 1963. And, like so many other Jamaican singers, his time came three years later with the advent of rock steady.
After Bob Andy's departure in 1966 The Paragons comprised Howard Barrett, Garth Tyrone Evans and John Holt. Working for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label their records, backed by Tommy McCook and his Supersonics, typified the cool, cool sound of rock steady and the harmonies of Howard and Tyrone swooped and soared behind John Holt's confident lead. A series of faultless records from The Paragons including 'Village Girl'/'Wear You To The Ball', 'On The Beach', 'Only A Smile', 'Happy Go Lucky Girl' and 'The Tide Is High' dominated the era. As rock steady progressed into reggae John, sometimes alongside The Paragons and sometimes as a solo artist, began to record for Duke Reid's arch rival Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd(CS Dodd). The hits kept on coming for Treasure Isle, including 'Tonight', 'Ali Baba', 'I'm Your Man' and 'I See Your Face', while Studio One scored with 'My Satisfaction', 'Fancy Make Up', 'Sad News', 'A Love I Can Feel' and 'OK Fred'.
Many of these songs have subsequently come to be regarded as classics of the genre to be versioned over and over again in whatever the current musical style happened to be. No fan of Jamaican music can ever forget the great U Roy... the first to take The Paragons' beautiful Treasure Isle songs to new levels of excitement in the early seventies. 'Sad News' was transformed in 1975 into 'Move Out Of Babylon' for Johnny Clarke and 'OK Fred' became a UK National Chart hit for Errol Dunkley in 1979. One of the strangest lyrics in the history of reggae, 'Ali Baba', ran things hot throughout the seventies with countless dreadlocks, baldhead and barber interpretations. And, during the winter of 2001/2002, versions of both 'My Satisfaction' and 'My Best Girl' were, once again, doing the rounds of the dance halls. 'The Tide Is High' became an international hit for Blondie in 1980 and again with Atomic Kitten in 2002. The list goes on...
"I have the record now for the longest selling Number One in Jamaica with John Holt. It was the biggest tune in Jamaica for that year..." Bunny Striker Lee
The 'Time Is The Master' album, released by Harry Mudie in 1973, proved to be the template for the hugely successful 'Volts Of Holt' ('1000 Volts Of Holt', '2000 Volts Of Holt', '3000 Volts Of Holt') long playing series for Trojan Records where John Holt's sentimental love songs were bathed in lush string arrangements. John became the 'housewives favourite' and his version of Kris Kristofferson's 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' became a huge European crossover hit in 1974/1975. But John Holt was not prepared to take the easy option and he travelled down Maxfield Avenue to Channel One Studio where his releases in the then current rockers style, including his version of Little Roy's 'Tribal War' and an update of his own 'Hooligan'/'Change Your Style' renamed 'Don't Fight Your Brother' were huge Jamaican hits.
Henry 'Junjo' Lawes' Volcano sound system and record label controlled the dance halls and the charts in the eighties and John Holt returned to the forefront once again with the anti authoritarian 'Police In Helicopter' and an update of 'A Love I Can Feel' for Junjo's Volcano label. In the new Millennium John Holt, together with Freddie McGregor and Ken Boothe backed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, sold out an entire series of black tie only concerts in London's prestigious Royal Albert Hall. His catalogue of hits remains unrivalled and watching John Holt perform at a revival concert can be a highly enjoyable, but sometimes frustrating, experience. The audience call out and request their favourites and John duly obliges... but sometimes he only gets to sing snatches of his innumerable greatest hits and never sings the song the whole way through.
A master craftsman John Holt's unerring ability to make music that the public want to hear is unequalled and he has triumphed at every stage of his career: foundation rock steady, Studio One classics, crossover ballads, love songs, raw roots reggae... any one of which would have made him a leading figure in reggae music's development. He's done them all. His greatest hits, many of them not only hits for him but also covered by countless others, serve as a reminder of just what a towering figure he has been throughout the history of Jamaican music.