Nash, Johnny 1940–
Johnny Nash 1940–
Vocalist and songwriter Johnny Nash notched various accomplishments as a singer and songwriter in the 1960s and 1970s, but he became best known for one above all: his 1972 hit, “I Can See Clearly Now.” That song, one of the first to introduce Jamaican music to American audiences, epitomized an optimistic spirit that flourished in the popular music of the Baby Boom generation and became nearly universally recognized by music listeners in the United States and England, even decades after its release. Many of those listeners, unfamiliar with the rest of his career, assumed that Nash was Jamaican himself, but he was a Texas native whose musical roots were in black pop and R&B.
Nash was born in Houston, Texas, on August 19, 1940. His father worked as a chauffeur. He was raised on gospel music, impressing the congregation at Progressive New Hope Baptist Church to a point where news of his talent started to spread around Houston. “Johnny started out as a little boy wearing a white suit,” disc jockey Paul Berlin told the Houston Chronicle. He was a Boy Scout and did well in school. Though a child of the city, Nash sometimes visited his grandmother on a ranch in Edge, Texas, where he enjoyed horseback riding, and when he began singing professionally he occasionally performed country music.
A perennial talent show winner as a young high schooler, Nash broke into show business at age 13 after getting a job as a caddy at a Houston golf course. Several players on the course one day had heard about Nash’s vocal talents, and one of them, real estate broker Frank Stockton, offered him four dollars for an impromptu performance. The next day Stockton pulled strings and set up an audition for Nash on the television variety show Matinee. Soon Nash had become the first African American with a regular slot on Houston television and was out-earning his father with a paycheck of $60 a week.
After three years on Matinee, Nash was signed to the ABC-Paramount label in 1956. He recorded his debut single, “A Teenager Sings the Blues,” in New York a day before his sixteenth birthday, and though that song failed to crack the charts, Nash won a spot on The Arthur Godfrey Show, one of the top radio and
At a Glance…
Career: Singer, mid-1950s–; appeared on Matinee program and became first regular African-American performer on Houston television, mid-1950s; signed to ABC-Paramount label, 1956; regular appearances on Arthur Godfrey Show television program, 1950s; film actor, 1959-60; Johnny Nash Indoor Arena, owner and operator, 1980s–.
Address: Office —Johnny Nash Indoor Arena, 6200 Willardsville Rd., Houston, TX 77048.
television variety shows of the 1950s. Nash hit the top 25 in 1958 with a cover of the Doris Day hit “A Very Special Love.” Many of his early songs, though they also explored rhythm-and-blues, gentle calypso, and country styles, fell into middle-of-the-road pop patterns. ABC-Paramount seemed to be trying to groom Nash as a successor to pop balladeer Johnny Mathis, and after he appeared in the films Take a Giant Step and Key Witness, it seemed as though the label might be succeeding: Nash was billed in one movie fan magazine as “America’s First Negro Teen Idol.”
Nash hit the top 30 once again in 1959 with “The Teen Commandments,” recorded with pop crooners Paul Anka and George Hamilton IV. However, the ferment of 1960s rock and soul partially sidelined Nash and his romantic styles. The singer picked up production skills and was in some demand as a songwriter, penning the hit “What Kind of Love Is This” for Joey Dee in 1962. Following in the style of Sam Cooke after that smooth-voiced icon’s death, Nash released a series of singles on the Warner Bros., Groove, and Argo labels. For several years he had little success, but “Let’s Move and Groove Together” became a moderate hit in Britain in 1965. Nash started his own record label, Jad, that year, and produced the soul hit “For Your Love.”
The song also did well in Jamaica, a place with a keen appetite for American pop in the 1960s. Nash had fond memories of the island after filming parts of Take a Giant Step there when he was 17, and in 1968 he made a trip there to promote his music. He heard in Jamaica’s laid-back rhythms—labeled “rocksteady” at the time, not yet reggae—a new foundation for his pop-oriented vocals and decided to record there. Nash sought out the pioneering Jamaican industry figure Byron Lee and recorded “Hold Me Tight” at Lee’s Kingston studios in 1968. The song, which Nash wrote himself, hit the top five in both the United States and England.
Living in a rented house in Jamaica, Nash became friends with future reggae stars Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. They introduced the buttoned-down Nash to marijuana. “It was very new to me,” Nash told the Houston Chronicle. “But I was in Rome, and that was the order of the day.” Nash recalled the spiritual Marley fondly. “Bob was a fun guy,” he commented to the Houston Chronicle. “He had the uncanny ability to deal with a lyric and a double entendre. It was just so innocent. If you didn’t listen closely, you’d miss it.” Members of Marley’s band, the Wailers, served as backup musicians on a series of moderate reggae hits Nash made in Jamaica; a remake of Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” hit the top ten in Britain in 1969, and in 1971 the catchy Marley-penned “Stir It Up” put Nash back in the top 15 in the United States.
These songs blended a gentle reggae beat with production techniques Nash had picked up during his years in the United States, and the same was true of “I Can See Clearly Now.” But that song, written by Nash himself, added something new. With its general message of positive spirituality, it tapped the gospel roots of Nash’s singing and became a bridge between reggae and American styles. Earlier Jamaican songs, such as Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” and Desmond Dekker’s “The Israelites,” had turned up on U.S. charts, but where those songs seemed like novelties, Nash’s hit became an American standard. It roosted at the number one spot on Billboard magazine’s pop chart for four weeks in 1972 and remained a radio staple long afterward.
Nash never again reached the level of popularity he had gained with his hit “I Can See Clearly Now,” although he opened a studio of his own in Jamaica, recorded several more Marley compositions, and made appearances in several films. He scored a number one hit in England in 1975 with “Tears on My Pillow,” but record companies then tried to push him in the direction of heavier rock and R&B styles. Already disillusioned with the increasingly decadent lifestyles of the music industry, Nash gradually withdrew from the music business, re-emerging in 1979 to write a song dedicated to the mothers of the children who were slain that year in the Atlanta, Georgia, serial killings. He released the album Here Again in 1986 and did concerts in support of the album in England.
Most of Nash’s time, however, was spent with his family back home in Houston (Nash and third wife Carlie raised two children). He opened a large hall, the Johnny Nash Indoor Arena, that served as a youth-oriented indoor rodeo by day and a competitive riding venue by night. His most famous creation, “I Can See Clearly Now,” got a fresh infusion of popularity when reggae giant Jimmy Cliff covered it in 1994 for the film Cool Runnings, and it entered the new century with its popularity undiminished. The album I Can See Clearly Now that contained the original song was still in print as of 2003. “I could see that song etched on his epitaph,” Nash’s friend and onetime publicist Lee Ivory told the Houston Chronicle. “The more he sang it, the more he believed it.” In 2003 Nash’s arena was flourishing and was recommended on several websites to Houston-bound tourists in search of a taste of the rodeo life.
Johnny Nash, Paramount, 1958.
I Got Rhythm, Paramount, 1959.
Quiet Hour, Paramount, 1959.
Let’s Get Lost, Paramount, 1960.
Starring Johnny Nash, Paramount, 1961.
Composer’s Choice, Argo, 1964.
Hold Me Tight, JAD, 1968.
Prince of Peace, JAD, 1969.
Folk Soul, JAD, 1969.
Let’s Go Dancing, Epic, 1969.
I Can See Clearly Now, Epic, 1972.
Celebrate Life, Epic, 1974.
What a Wonderful World, Epic, 1977.
The Johnny Nash Album, CBS, 1980.
Here Again, London, 1986.
Tears on My Pillow, CBS, 1987.
The Reggae Collection, Epic, 1993.
Clifford, Mike, ed., The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, 5th ed., Harmony Books, 1986.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Pareles, John, and Patricia Romanowski, eds., The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
Houston Chronicle, January 2, 1994, p. Lifestyle-1.
“Johnny Nash,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (June 11, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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