Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place
Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".
Of all the versions of "I Can See Clearly Now" that have been circulating since Johnny Nash died on 6 October, my favorite is the one from 1973, when Nash performed the song on the late-night variety show The Midnight Special. Nash appears onstage in a revealing black leather jacket with black leather pants, both of which are edged with small white loops where we might expect metal studs. The full effect of the costume is a cross between comeback Elvis, rhinestone cowboy, and Shaft —suggesting that Nash wasn't precisely sure how to market himself in this moment.
If Nash's outfit is a bit awkward, his performance is not. Nash is completely in control of the song. His voice is sweet and clear. He sings confidently that the "rain" and the "pain" are gone. There is, however, a strange moment in the song at the 1:27 minute mark. On the word "skies" Nash holds the note for 20 seconds without taking a breath. Nash takes the note down, up, and back down the scale, as the band changes key from major to minor and back to major. The words are "blue skies", but the wandering note cries out from a place of storm and anguish. As the Irish singer Liam Omaonlai, says about the song: it has "generations of resistance and survival in it".
"I Can See Clearly Now" took a while to catch on. The song was released in the summer of 1972 and became a number one hit in October, after which it remained in the Top 40 for 31 weeks. It sold more than a million copies and has been covered more than one hundred and fifty times, including versions by Sonny and Cher, Ray Charles, a 1993 recording by Jimmy Cliff for the Jamaican bobsled film Cool Runnings (1993) and a recent hit by the young singer Grace VanderWaal.
"I Can See Clearly Now" has become such a timeless classic that it has eclipsed Nash himself, obscuring the length, depth, and breadth of his career. Some obituaries have suggested that we don't remember much about Nash because he was shy and because he didn't seek popularity or success.
Johnny Nash was shy, but he did seek popularity and success. Moreover, he was successful; he appeared daily on Houston area television and then weekly on national television for a decade, he made 17 albums and five compilation albums, he had six top 40 hits and many more that cracked the top 100, he had a successful singing and acting career that spanned three decades, he was the first to manage and employ Bob Marley as a songwriter, and he also helped to pave the way for reggae in the UK and the US. As Chris Molanphy has argued, Johnny Nash was reggae's "emissary".
In what follows I take stock of the entirety of Nash's career—his start in the church choir, his time as a "rock era crooner", his short but significant time as an onscreen rebel, his transition to a singing career more associated with Motown and reggae, and the time he spent working with the performer that would ultimately over shadow him: Bob Marley.
Reflecting on Nash's career, I present a two-part argument about Nash's relationship to social class. Like so many singers and performers of the American mid-century, Nash hailed from a working-class background. However, unlike many others in his working-class cohort, Nash was marketed as a "rock era crooner" and, along the way, he adopted a persona that was more associated with whiteness, politeness, and middle-class respectability. In the early 1960s Nash reached the limits of the popularity he could achieve in this genre; my hypothesis is that the music industry refused to promote him as a matinee idol/heart throb at a time when the teeny-bopper audience was made up almost entirely of white girls.
The second part of my argument is that Nash connected with his working-class roots in the late 1960s, when he traveled to Jamaica to make records on the cheap. There he was exposed to Kingston's rock steady and reggae music scene, and he became a part of it. It was in Jamaica that Nash met Marley and hired him as a song writer. And, as the Jamaican novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn reminds us, Marley was "a voice of the working-class people" of Jamaica, and eventually, the world. Working with Marley, Nash fell in love with reggae. Through reggae, Nash reconnected with his own working-class roots.
Nash was born in Houston Texas in 1940, the son of a chauffeur, in Houston's infamous Third Ward neighborhood, called by sociologist Robert D. Bullard, "the city's most diverse black neighborhood and a microcosm of the larger black Houston community." Nash grew up, like so many black singers of his generation, singing gospel music in the church, in this case the Progressive New Hope Baptist Church.
When Nash was 13-years-old, he was plucked by Houston's Dick Gottlieb for the TV show Matinee, where Nash performed every day. Nash's Houston fame led to a record deal with ABC; at 16, Nash cut a record with the songs "A Teenager Sings the Blues" and "Out of Town". One year later Nash had a top 23 hit with a cover of Doris Day's "A Very Special Love".
From there Nash landed a regular gig on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Arthur Godfrey was a folksy, red-headed ukulele playing television star maker. Godfrey's "aw shucks" demeanor in front of the camera was belied by stories that he rode herd over his protégés, who were called "Little Godfreys". Despite his despotic rule, Godfrey was also committed to racial integration; he fought back against Southern TV outlets when they complained about the African American performers that Godfrey brought onto his show.
Nash represented both the possibilities and limitations of the post-1945 marketplace for African American performers. Television was a gaping ravenous maw that demanded content. To feed the beast, talent scouts like Gottlieb in Houston, and Godfrey on CBS, were willing to feature African American performers. On the other hand, the culture industry was not prepared for white adolescent girls to scream, cry, and tear their hair out in the front row of a concert by an African American heart throb. Though Nash was described by Modern Screen as "America's First Negro Teen Idol", the industry fell short of making Nash a bona fide star.
In the 1950s Nash was a high tenor, clean-cut, pure voiced balladeer, who sang with violins swelling in the background. He belonged to a small group of what the music scholar Vincent Stephens has called the "rock era crooner", which included Perry Como, Doris Day, Barbara Streisand, and Johnny Mathis (Stephens, 2008). One of Nash's producers, the composer Howard Lucraft, remembered that Nash was so clean-cut that he refused to sing in a traditional blues format:
"Many years ago, I was arranger and musical director for young Johnny Nash, at his long engagement at the Crescendo on the Sunset strip…In setting the program I said to Johnny, '[r]ight at this point, Johnny, between all the jump numbers, it would be good for you to do a quiet blues'. Johnny's reply: 'My parents are strict Baptists. They think that the blues is from whorehouses. I wouldn't dare sing a blues'. So—my partner and I wrote a 12-bar song based on the bible story of 'The Fallen Sparrow'. Johnny loved it. It was a great audience success'" (Lucraft, HowardLucraft.com)
Rock era crooners were marketed to teenagers as role models. In 1959 ABC put Nash together with Paul Anka and a young country singer, George Hamilton IV, to record "The Teen Commandments". On this recording the three ABC Paramount stars speak the commandments in dulcet tones over a musical accompaniment in the Doo Wop style—marked by a background of a high-noted plinking piano, harmonized voices singing "ah-woo," and a deep bass guitar line.
1) Stop and think before you drink.
2) Don't let your parents down; they brought you up.
3) Be humble enough to obey. You will be giving orders yourself someday.
4) At the first moment, turn away from unclean thinking—at the first moment.
5) Don't show off driving. If you want to race go to Indianapolis.
6) Choose a date who would make a good mate.
7) Go to church faithfully. The Creator gives you the week; give him back an hour.
8) Choose your companions carefully. You are what they are.
9) Avoid following the crowd. Be an engine—not a caboose.
10) Or even better—keep the original Ten Commandments.
In 1959, Nash got what was supposed to be his big break as an actor — the lead role in Philip Leacock's Take a Giant Step, a film about a black high schooler in a mostly white suburb who blows up at his history teacher because of the way she is teaching the Civil War. He then has a (relatively) wild night on the town, for which his parents punish him harshly. Nash played the troubled teen, Spencer Scott. The film was based on the Broadway play by the same name, by the African American playwright Louis Peterson. The filming of Take a Giant Step, which took place in Jamaica, gave Nash his first introduction to the island. It also made for a minor classic in the social justice cinema of the 1950s.
Johnny Nash as Spencer Scott and Ruby Dee as Christine in Take a Giant Step (1959) (IMDB)
The film is a strange mix of low comedy, teen angst, sexual awakening, and civil rights. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther savaged the film, arguing that "some interesting and possibly poignant problems" were "handled in a clumsy, shoddy fashion" in the "unworthy film" version of the play.
Crowther argued that one of the film's biggest flaws was the fact that Spencer couldn't zero in on his ultimate obstacle. "Is it undocumented resentment of his teacher and classmates in school? Is it anger at being excluded from the social activities of his neighborhood? Is it shock and disappointment at his parents for counseling him to 'stay in his place?' Or is it mainly the restlessness that comes with the rising sap of spring?"
Of course, the answer is all of these things, and why not? Couldn't the problem of being a teenager be compounded by being a black teenager? As Leerom Medovoi has argued in Rebels: Youth the Cold War Origins of Identity, the rebellious teens of 1950s film were so often coded as dangerous/outsider/black/working-class, that when the teen film genre actually addressed issues of race and class, the result was surprisingly political (Medovoi, 2005).
In the film's most revealing scene, Spencer's parents insist that he apologize to his teacher for challenging her. His father tells him:"[W]e have to do things we don't want to do every day of our lives. I hear those crumbs down at the bank [calling me the n-word] but I stay on because I need the job, so I can get the things that you need".
After his father's speech, Spencer's mother reminds him that he has "no business" talking back to a white woman (his teacher), and that if they were in the South he could "be lynched". She finishes her speech by exhorting him to "remember his place".
Spencer explodes. "You'll pardon me for saying so, mom, but that's the biggest hunk of bull I've ever heard in my whole life. You both ought to be ashamed to talk to me that way."
In this scene Spencer is not a rebel without a cause. He has a cause, and that cause is civil rights. He is not going tolerate the "crumbs" the way his father does. He is not going to "remember his place". Neither would Nash himself.
One year later, in Phil Karlson's Key Witness (1960), Nash played a member of a gang of hoodlums that terrorizes a suburban man who is the only witness willing to testify in court that he saw the gang commit a murder. Dennis Hopper, himself only 24, plays a beatnik ring leader with a magnetism that seems to prefigure the malevolent charisma of Charles Manson. At the end of the film Nash's character testifies against his own gang, after a scene in which the racism of Hopper's character is revealed.
For his role in Take a Giant Step Nash won a Silver Sail Award from the Locarno International Film Festival. For Key Witness Nash also received good marks.
Variety judged that Nash "limn[ed] a believable, sensitive, young tough". The African-American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier wrote that "[I]t was inevitable that this young man would blossom into full-fledged stardom at anything he undertook" ("Talented Johnny Nash", 1960).
A few years later, however, Nash did not feel like a "full-fledged" star. His acting roles had dried up, and he was frustrated. Nash told Jet magazine that the few marquee African American performers needed to invest in Hollywood properties to make more room for performers like himself:
"It's going to take a massive effort on the part of the top Negro guys--fellows like Harry Belafonte, Nat Cole, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr.--getting together and producing their own films. They can do it and make money, too. Anybody would buy or underwrite a film with one of these fellows in the starring role and they could introduce actors like me. The white stars do it all the time".
Perhaps out of this very frustration, in 1964 Nash began working with an African American club owner and restaurateur, Danny Sims. With Sims as his manager Nash recorded "Let's Move and Groove Together", a Motown style number, that climbed to number 9 on the Billboard charts. According to several accounts, Sims was having trouble with the FBI, and so he and Nash left New York City for Jamaica, where the plan was to save money by recording Nash in Kingston. It was in Jamaica that Nash would begin to work with Bob Marley—a personal and professional connection that would change both of their lives.
"'Johnny told me about this fantastic artist,' remembered Sims. 'He said the songs were great, and he had invited him up to see me at my house'". Nash and Sims signed a contract with Marley, and employed him as a songwriter. Sims sold "I Shot the Sheriff" to Eric Clapton, and "Guava Jelly" to Barbra Streisand. Nash wrote the song, "I Can See Clearly Now," during this period, and his album by the same name included four songs written by Marley, including "Stir it Up".
In 1971 Nash and Marley toured London together, with Nash as the headliner. As Marco on the Bass remembers, Nash and Marley even played an acoustic set at a London boys school called Peckham Manor. Most likely to Nash's chagrin, Marley was the favored performer of the duo. In 1971 Nash, Marley, and the white musician and fellow Houston native John "Rabbit" Bundrick, lived together in London and also in Stockholm where they recorded a reggae-inspired soundtrack for a Swedish film in which Nash also played the lead, Love is Not a Game (1971).
In 1972 Sims and Nash produced Marley's single, "Reggae on Broadway", which was a giant flop. That same year Sims and Nash admitted that they had failed to popularize Marley in either the UK or the US. In the breach, the white Jamaican record producer Chris Blackwell—who was also a long-time buddy of Marley's—signed Marley and the Wailers to his Island Records label, advancing them 8,000 pounds.
Marley was grateful to Nash for giving him some of his earliest breaks in the music business, but he didn't see Nash himself as an authentic reggae performer:
"He's a hard worker, but he didn't know my music… reggae isn't really his bag….We appreciated him singing the kind of music he does—he was the first US artist to do reggae—but he isn't really our idol. That's Otis or James Brown or Pickett, the people who work it more hard."
This was, perhaps, Nash's curse. He was born into a working-class family, but his performing style was relaxed, low-key—even genteel. Unlike Brown, who branded himself as the "hardest working man in show business," Nash, in contrast, never seemed to break a sweat. He worked incredibly hard—doing live performances weekly, if not daily, from 1953 to 1976, but he never "worked it more hard".
Early in his career success seemed to come easily to Nash. But Nash complained about the limits of his fairytale story in Cosmopolitan in 1967: "Cinderella stories like mine happen and it's a great thing. But after every big thing, you're out of a job again. You finally reach the point when you're a household word and then you don't have to keep plugging all the time. I haven't reached that point yet.".Nash never would reach that point.
In 1972 Nash performed his mega-hit "I Can See Clearly Now" on Soul Train. After the performance, Soul Train host Don Cornelius held the microphone during a Q & A session in which young, soft-spoken, African American woman asked Nash: "How would you describe yourself as a singer, and what image are you trying to put across to your audiences?"
Nash, who at 32 had already been in show business for more than half of his life, seemed almost taken aback: "Huh. That's a good question. I don't really have anything mind, anything special, other than just me and what I do."
"Just me and what I do." This is all that Nash ever wanted to "put across to audiences". But the market resisted. Even Nash's shy Soul Train fan wanted him to settle on an image. To claim a genre. To declare himself for rock, reggae, easy listening—whatever—just so long as he formatted himself.
But Nash refused to format himself. After his success with "I Can See Clearly Now", Nash moved back to Houston, married for the third time, and had two children. In 1986 he released his last album of original material, Here Again. In 1992, he built a stadium which he named after himself, the Johnny Nash Indoor Arena. He lived on a ranch and raised horses. For ten years he "financed weekly rodeos" in his arena and gave working-class youth the chance to see and participate in those rodeos.
Like Spencer from Take a Giant Step, Nash refused to "remember his place". He refused to format himself. He loved reggae, and he helped to bring it to an international audience. But he was never accepted as an authentic reggae performer, because he didn't "work it more hard".
Many of the black actors and singers of Nash's era who are better remembered were more openly political. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte campaigned for voting and civil rights. Motown star Marvin Gaye recorded explicitly political songs, as did the soul-griot Gil Scott-Heron. Bob Marley co-created a new genre of music that gave voice to a global subaltern. Rolling Stone magazine called the "unsettling images" and "incendiary pronouncements" of Marley's songs to be among "the most authentic in modern music."
The optimism Nash proclaimed in "I Can See Clearly Now" was also authentic. But in the era of civil rights and Black Power, perhaps it was not sufficiently edgy for Nash's black audience. At the same time the white dominated corporate music industry never fully embraced Nash as the polite-but-sexy, rock-era-crooner, reggae-enthusiast that he was. "Just me and what I do."
Nash never told his own story or allowed it to be told by anyone else. Nonetheless, Nash was a key witness to, and a key player within, the mid-century culture industry. He was, even, at times the very voice of that industry, as when he recorded "The Teen Commandments". Nash ultimately rebelled against the market by leaving it, but from a distance his rebellion looks like quitting. In 1998 he noted that he had never won a Grammy, but that he had a "lifetime of a body of work" which was "more important" to him. "And the special folksy blend of music I make, that is what it is all about."
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