A Conversation Between Rusty & Bob Bell: John Holt

Bob: 

So John Holt has left us. How sad …. he was only 69, not that old at all. I know we had arranged to talk about Owen Gray for this particular post, but fortunately dear old Owen is still with us. Of course, he has no idea that we were going to talk about him, but I am sure that if he DID know, he’d dig that instead we talked about John Holt and his stunning legacy. Back in the days when I worked at Trojan my first encounter with him on record was his definitive Bunny Lee produced cut “Stick By Me”. I’m pretty sure Dandy or Webster Shrowder or someone had hipped me to the fact that he had been a key player in the Paragons before going solo, but “Stick By Me” really brought home to me just how talented he was. I know you know a lot more about his career than I …. when did he leave The Paragons and go solo.

Rusty: 

I believe John left The Paragons to go solo in 1969 or 1970? So many classic solo sides left in his legacy. I have so many faves by him, it’s difficult to say which one is on the top of the heap for me. He did some beautiful sides for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. Some of my personal favorites he did while he was there are “Stranger In Love”, “Fancy Make Up”, “Have you Ever Been In Love”, “I Can’t Get You Off My Mind”, “Change Your Style (Hooligan)” and of course the massive JA anthem “A Love I Can Feel”. He also did a nice version of George Harrison’s hit “My Sweet Lord” at Studio One. He cut an album’s worth of material for Prince Buster where he voiced a lovely version of Nat Cole’s “Mona Lisa” over a skanky Reggae rhythm by my favorite JA studio band, the Now Generation which featured my dear friend and mentor Mikey Chung. His output for Bunny Lee was staggering and seemingly endless but there are quite a few that stand out. I guess I would have to say “Stick By Me” is up there at the top of the Bunny Lee produced material but there’s so much more. I’m not 100% sure he cut “Ali Baba” for Bunny Lee but I really love that. The lyrics are a bit psychedelic! Some others for Bunny Lee that are exceptional are “It’s A Jam In The Streets”, and the many Johnny Ace covers he voiced during that period. His output for Harry Mudie was spectacular with great support once again by Now Generation and Hux Brown too. Titles that come to mind that Sir John did for Mudies would be “It May Sound Silly”, “Time Is The Master” and his beautiful reading of Nat Cole’s “Again”. He did a relick of The Paragons Rock Steady hit “Memories By The Score” that came on a Trojan LP called “The Further You Look”, but I’m not sure who produced that. I think it may have been Tony Ashfield. I’ve always been partial to that updated reggae version with it’s gorgeous and lush arrangement which includes horns, strings and a marimba. This leads me to his records “1,000 Volts Of Holt” and “2,000 Volts of Holt”. I know the Reggae purists hate these releases because of the orchestral string arrangements, etc.. but to me, they are some of his finest performances. Reggae with sophistication and class – John could surely pull it off with his smooth crooner voice. I have to say I never cared for his roots reggae reinvention in the 80’s when he cut the massive “Police In Helicopter” with Roots Radics for produce Henry “Junjo” Lawes. It’s funny because a lot of people know and remember him for that. To me, there wasn’t much from that period that did his voice justice. It was too plodding and dread for his beautiful style. He did cut a couple of nice Lovers tracks during that time though. Notably “Sweetie Come Brush Me”. In 1985 he did a sweet duet with The Crown Prince of Reggae, Dennis Brown called “Wildfire” which I’m certain mashed up many a sound system and Blues Dance in the UK. Another fave, and I’m not sure when he did it but I do believe it was for Bunny Lee, is his reading of The Isley Brothers “For The Love O You”.

Bob: 

Bunny Lee was prodigious in his output, that’s for sure. I hear what            you say about his “Thousands of Volts” LPs. When I was at Trojan I was often a bit leery of the arrangements that were put on some of the potentially more commercial recordings, but there is no doubt that a lot of them really worked, to the advantage of the song and of the artist. And have no doubt about it, a LOT of the artists wanted their recordings to be augmented by adding  arrangements. These days I am not so purist about it. I have his “1,000 Volts of Holt” around somewhere, (right now I am embarrassed to say I can’t find it), but I have been listening to a  Bunny Lee produce LP that came out on Weed Beat. You probably know it … it has a heap of oldies done in the inimitable Holt style. Things like Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me”, Freddy Fender’s “Before The Next Teardrop Falls”, Jesse Belvin’s “Goodnight My Love”, Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby”. Your buddy Scully is on it, as are Ansel Collins, Sly & Robbie, Carlton Davis and a few more legends. This sort of material fits his voice very comfortably indeed …. I haven’t heard the Prince Buster or Harry Mudie material … do you have it? I met Harry Mudie, by the way, when I was with Trojan. He came to London to cut a deal for his ‘Leaving Rome’ production, and came to Music House in Neasden. Music House was Trojan’s headquarters back in those days. Incidentally, ALL the news reports give John Holt’s  birth year as 1947, and his age as 69. I was born in 1946, this year is 2014 and I KNOW I am 68. So much for fact checking.

Rusty: 

Yes, I know the LP you’re talking about! It’s called “Superstar” and it’s a wonder I didn’t walk away with it on one of the occasions I house sat for you in the past!  Just kidding. Great cover too. Yeah, when John sang the classics he did it with so much love. Harry Mudie’s productions are always top notch and full of soul and class. He put string arrangements behind John even before the Volts Of Holt series but of course those were the records that put him on top especially with his hit version of “Help Me Make It Through The Night”. Did you know Hux Brown played on those records?

Bob: 

No, I didn’t know Hux played on those releases. You mean the Volts of Holt ones, right? I am not surprised …. it seems that Hux must have played on just about every session from the late 60’s thru the mid 70’s. He got around! Was Hux on “Stick By Me”? Man, I played that record to death back in 1971 and 1972. A perfect blend of soul and reggae. Thank you John Holt.

 

Rusty: 

Yes Hux was involved in those first two “Volts Of Holt” records playing rhythm guitar. He brought in a young Earl Chinna Smith on those sessions to play lead and pick guitar. Familyman Barrett and Gladdy Anderson were also in the mix. Trojan released both of those as double disc sets which include the sessions before the strings overdubs, etc……. I don’t believe Hux played on “Stick By Me”! I think it’s Alva Reggie Lewis and Ronnie Bop on guitars. Rest easy Sir Holt

 

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