Reggae Legend John Holt Dead at 69

Blondie famously covered the singer's "The Tide Is High," but the Jamaican icon also leaves behind more than 40 albums of reggae, rocksteady and ska

John Holt performing at Tropical Palace in 1984 in Harlesden, London. Credit: David Corio/Redferns

John Holt, one of Jamaica's most well-loved vocalists, died early Sunday morning in London at the age of 67. His death was confirmed by his manager Copeland Forbes via the Jamaica Observer. Holt, who was initially known for his career with the Paragons in the rocksteady era of the 1960s, had 40 albums under his belt alongside his reputation for strong live performances.

As a pre-teen, Holt was tremendously successful at local talent competitions in his native Kingston, quickly drawing the attention of equally legendary Jamaican singer and songwriter Bob Andy. Andy had begun performing as a duo with Tyrone Evans just after independence in 1962. Deciding that the field was flooded with strong twosomes, Andy and Evans decided to reach out to some potential singers, including Holt, that would eventually become The Paragons. Holt's voice was "a velveted tone like Nat King Cole," Andy tells Rolling Stone, and was just the thing for the mimicking of American and English hits popular in Jamaica at the time.

"We became a national household name without having a recording," recalls Andy. With songs including the Holt-penned "Ali Baba," "Wear You to the Ball" and "I See Your Face," the Paragons rose to fame, becoming one of the top groups in Jamaican music. Also recording on his own with the legendary producers of the time, Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, Holt had numerous hits throughout the 1960s. In 1967, however, the Paragons released the Holt-written "The Tide is High." The B-side tune was popular in Jamaica, but ended up both a UK and US number one in 1980 after Blondie covered the song for their fifth album Autoamerican.

Truly the voice of the Paragons, Holt continued his fame after leaving the group in 1970. His 1973 album Stick by Me was a hit, as well as his series of unique covers of well-known pop songs, 1,000 Volts of Holt. Holt demonstrated talent for roots reggae in the 1980s, making "Police in Helicopter" a 1983 hit while continuing to steadily tour. He was also the first Jamaican artist, alongside fellow singer Freddy McGregor, to perform with London's Royal Symphony Orchestra.  

More than anything, Holt will be remembered for his unmistakable tone. "He was a balladeer singing popular, uptempo music," Andy says. "He had such a naturally good voice that he didn't need to push the envelope. He has the most unique balladeer voice in Jamaican music. Across the board, he was the voice of our era."