Johnny Nash: Pop Reggae, 1972

Charlie Gillett  (author of 1970 seminal roots rock history, Sound of the City) writes this review of Johnny Nash’s 1972 LP, I Can See Clearly Now, for the Rolling Stone Record Review, which says, in part:

“It’s strange, but not accidental that the man who has brought Moog and accordion to a reggae record is a show business veteran from Texas, Johnny Nash.  This is actually Johnny’s second shot at making a name for himself with the help of the irresistible rhythms of Jamaican music.  Back in 1967, he went to Jamaica to record his own song, ‘Hold Me Tight’ and Sam Cooke’s ‘Cupid’ with a local rhythm section [i.e., the legendary Lyn Taitt & the Jets], and the record became a huge hit on the island.  The following year, first ‘Hold Me Tight’ and then ‘Cupid’ were issued as singles in Britain and eventually in America, and gradually became local hits.”

Later in the review Gillett makes this comment about the title track, which spent four weeks at the top of the pop chart beginning November 4, 1972:

“‘Stir It Up’ was issued as a single here and became a hit despite what must be a suggestive chorus; the melody line of that chorus has surely been planted in the subconscious of everyone who heard it, and will rest there forever.  Amazingly, the follow-up single and title track of the album, ‘I Can See Clearly Now,’ is just as memorable, and has a simple ‘philosophy’ lyric that we accept and believe even though it can’t be true.  Wishful thinking at its most perverse – nobody can remember a worse summer than the one we’ve been going through in Britain while this record has been selling by the thousands every day.  We take it because the arrangement is undeniable.  A brilliant pop record.”

You might be surprised to learn (as I was) that Johnny Nash released his first album in 1958 for ABC-Paramount.  1972’s I Can See Clearly Now, you might also be surprised to know, was issued by CBS/Epic in at least eight countries worldwide:  US, UK, Jamaica, Brazil, Canada, Netherlands, Spain & Taiwan (and Yugoslavia in 1974).

Johnny Nash aJohnny Nash b

One day I hope to hear the album track, “The Fish and the Alley of Destruction” (according to Wikipedia, it was replaced with “Cream Puff” on later pressings) — but until then, I will have to content myself with the album’s soulful and sweet closing track, “There Are More Questions Than Answers,” which features a lovely (and unexpected) steel guitar break around the 1:45 mark:

Charlie Gillett’s Got His Eye on Bob Marley

Towards the end of the review, Gillett has a lot to say about then-unknown Bob Marley:

“There are at least two more songs on the album that could stand as follow-up singles, ‘Comma Comma’ and ‘Guava Jelly,’ both of them written by Bob Marley, one of the great unknowns of Jamaican music, who also wrote ‘Stir It Up.’  All of his songs make magical use of an indescribable interplay between the peculiar rhythms of reggae and haunting tunes; but they still need Johnny’s sympathetic singing to prevent the simple lyrics from becoming banal.

“Bob Marley was involved as a session musician and assistant producer on the LP, as was a Texas musician named John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, who contributed three ‘deep’ songs to the record.”

Johnny Nash & Bob Marley Play a One-Time Acoustic Gig in London

Marco on the Bass relates the story of Johnny Nash & Bob Marley’s historic one-off performance at London’s Peckham Manor School in 1972.  The school’s art teacher, Keith Baugh, organized this event and informed Southwark News nearly 40 years later:

“My friend was working with CBS doing promotion work and it was his role to promote Johnny Nash’s single. We were all out in a club called the Bag of Nails in Soho when I ended up meeting both Johnny Nash and Bob Marley. During that conversation they were bemoaning the fact they couldn’t get their single in the top 40 as they could not get any national radio airplay. I suggested as a bit of a promotion they should come down and play to the kids at our school, and a few days later they came down and played two 45 minute sets.”

Marley & Nash in London - bMarley & Nash in London - aMidnight Raver also posted Andy Gill’s account of this one-time acoustic performance from the August 2002 edition of Mojo.

Readers of this piece might also want to check out 1973: The Year Pop Reggae Broke

1973: The Year Pop Reggae Broke

You can count on one hand the number of times that reggae singles by Jamaican artists have cracked the Top 40 here in the States:  “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker in 1969 (#9) and  “Double Barrel” by Dave Barker and Ansel Collins in 1971 (#22).  Two times (*actually, three – see postscript at bottom).  Even Bob Marley & the Wailers were only able to penetrate the top 100 pop charts once (“Roots Rock Reggae” #51 in 1976), while hitting top 40 on the “dance” charts twice with 1977’s “Waitin’ in Vain” (#38) & 1980’s “Could You Be Loved” (#6) and once on the “R&B” charts with “Exodus” in 1977 (#19).  Any others from the classic era?  I don’t think so.

But what about those moments when non-Jamaican artists infused reggae rhythms into pop music?   Paul Simon kind of cheated and got top Jamaican session players to inject his top ten 1971 hit, “Mother and Child Reunion,” with authentic early reggae sounds.    Texas-American, Johnny Nash, who cracked the top 40 in 1972 with his hit, “I Can See Clearly Now,” had an even bigger rocksteady hit, believe it or not, in 1968 (#21) with “Hold Me Tight.”   Paul McCartney & Wings released one of my favorite songs of the summer of 1973 – “Live and Let Die” – which featured a “cod reggae” bit in the bridge.  And let us not forget that when Paul played with his prior outfit, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on 1968’s White Album was intended to be a Beatle take on what was then the new reggae sound.  Eric Clapton, I almost forgot, had a huge hit in 1974 with his cover of Bob Marley’s, “I Shot the Sheriff,” and Elton John, it is worth noting, jumped on the pop reggae bandwagon in 1975 with his reggae-esque chorus near the end of his hit version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

But let us also pay special note to almighty Led Zeppelin’s tribute to the hot reggae sounds of 1973, “D’yer Maker” – which the overwhelming majority of Americans, myself included, had no idea was a Londoner’s playful pronunciation of the name, Jamaica (scamps).  Actually, the song title was inspired by the following joke, an exchange between two friends:  “My wife’s gone to the West Indies.”  “Jamaica?” (“D’you make her?”)  “No, she went of her own accord.”

On the Warner Brothers sampler album, Appetizers, you will find the Incredible String Band doing a very credible take on the early reggae sound – although with a distinctly British lilt – on an instrumental named, “Second Fiddle,” a track originally included on the group’s 1973 Island album, No Ruinous Feud:

The band lists the song’s author as Duke Reid – famed owner of top rocksteady label, Treasure Isle – and Wikipedia confirms that the song is, indeed, a cover version.  However, it is interesting to note that when you look at the label of the original Treasure Isle 45 – such as in this vinyl video – “Drumbago Cannonball” is listed as the sole tunesmith.

1973 just might be the tipping point for the use of reggae in American pop music, as this article – “Reggae Be the Rage?” – by Robert Christgau (the “Dean of American Rock Critics”) would seem to indicate.

Bonus video link to Johnny Nash’s TV performance of “Hold Me Tight” with go-go dancing accompaniment – and fantastic musical backing by pioneering guitarist Lyn Taitt & his fabulous Jets.

Any other pop reggae moments on the US Hot 100 charts?

Wait a minute!  Jimmy Cliff was brought to my attention, and after a check of the charts – and this should come as no surprise – two hits from 1969’s Wonderful World Beautiful People:  the title track (#25) and “Come Into My Life” (#89).  Thus, we now have a total of three US top 40 hits from reggae’s 1960s-70s classic era.