A crooner, a real star
In the world of classic Jamaican reggae, there is no such thing as a greatest hits album. From the ‘60s through the ‘80s especially, artists recorded so many records for so many producers for so many labels, that it’s nearly impossible to corral a definitive selection of anyone’s work on a single disc. This axiom holds true even for classic reggae’s figurehead, Bob Marley, whose massively popular Legend album collects his work that is most familiar to Americans, but neglects a huge chunk of his greatest moments. And if you can’t find a definitive single-disc Marley greatest hits, you sure won’t find one for John Holt, another Jamaican star who had his share of crossover success.
Instead, you get collections that focus on a particular time period, or a particular label or producer—collections like I Can’t Get You Off My Mind, which is subtitled 18 Greatest Hits!, and includes songs Holt cut with the vocal group the Paragons. “Well, then,” you might ask, “Where’s ‘The Tide Is High’? Where’s ‘Wear You To The Ball’? ‘Ali Baba’? ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’?” To answer: I Can’t Get You… includes only songs Holt/the Paragons cut for Clement Dodd’s Studio One label between 1968 and 1972. Most of the aforementioned hits were recorded during the same time period but for Dodd’s rival Duke Reid, hence not issued on Studio One; “Help Me Make It” is from the hit 1,000 Volts of Holt album, which came out in 1974. Got all that?
Now that you know what’s not here, what does I Can’t Get You have to offer, anyway? Some damn good reggae. And Holt’s singing, too. He’s rightly regarded as reggae’s greatest love crooner. His voice isn’t the most powerful, but that’s the point—it’s buttery with the right amount of sandpapery edge. The effortlessness of his delivery can make any line seem not like a come on so much as a dare to turn him down; his confidence is in the way he’s so softspoken. Just listen to the laconic, mesmerizing cadences of “Fancy Make Up”—Holt sings like Snoop Dogg raps. Now add some gorgeous harmony and you can understand why tracks like the beguiling “Happy Go Lucky Girl”, uncharacteristically rudeboy “Change Your Style”, and yearning “My Satisfaction” are some of the highlights of this collection. Holt’s gift is in making even trite love songs like “I’ll Be Lonely” more than just listenable.
On albums like 1,000 Volts, Holt gained fame mostly by singing others’ songs. Here, though, all but a few writing credits are Holt/Dodd, proof that the man was more than just a nice voice. Like many reggae stars, Holt was a big fan of American soul music, as evidenced by “Depth of Love”. The three covers, though, reveal a lot about what else made Holt tick. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”, recorded almost contemporaneously with Harrison’s hit, is rendered pretty straightforwardly. The pair of Neil Diamond covers, “Holly Holy” and “Soolaiman”, have a hauntingly melodic quality that is perfect for Holt’s voice, not to mention Dodd’s thick, reverb-heavy production.
As for that production, it’s really the not-so-secret weapon behind Can’t Get You. One of the strongest songs here, the foreboding, moody “Strange Things”, was first recorded for Phil Pratt. But Dodd’s version of just a year later thumps the Pratt version handily. Although he would record with many others, the Studio One sound worked wonders for Holt. And making that sound was arguably the greatest studio band in reggae history—the Sound Dimension. Some superlative reggae musicians—guitarist Ernest Ranglin, keyboardist/arranger Jackie Mittoo, bassist Leroy Sibbles, horn player Roland Alphonso—have no small hand in the quality and impact of the material.
Holt’s subsequent reputation as a MOR sellout may be understandable based on albums like 1,000 Volts, but collections like I Can’t Get You Off My Mind prove how hasty that judgment is. If you could put the best of this album together with the best of Holt and the Paragons’ Trojan and Treasure Isle material, you’d have a “true” and truly indispensable greatest hits. Trojan’s The Tide Is High: Anthology 1962-1979 is almost there, and this is close behind.
- Multiple videos YouTube