Born in Kingston, Jamaica on July 11, 1945, John Kenneth Holt was one of three boys and three girls. John grew up in Greenwich farm, a bustling community situated on the South Western edge of Kingston Harbour. He attended Greenwich Primary and Calabar High schools where the desire to sing was awakened within him. Although not a member of the school choir, among his peers John was accepted as a singer who, during the regular school concerts would bring the house down with his voice.
In the early sixties the most popular show on radio was ‘Opportunity Knocks’. Hosted by the late Vere John, the programme on the then Radio Jamaica and Radio Fusion, now Radio Jamaica Limited (R.J.R). Jamaica’s only radio station at that time was the platform for the weekly finale for the series of the talent contests were held mostly in the Kingston Cinemas.
At 16, John was persuaded by Victor Grant to enter a talent contest for ‘Opportunity Knocks’. After several tries, during some of which he was booed and pelted with orange peel and banana skins on stage, John finally won the Solomon Burke’s ‘Just Out of Reach’. He went on to win the contest 28 times more! John had his chance to be performance. He was a winner and doors were beginning to open.
“After winning this contest my picture appeared in The Gleaner and a producer by the name of Lesile Kong approached me to do a recording fir him. My mother negotiated a deal with him for which I got 30 pounds. I wrote the first song that I recorded – a single entitled. ‘Forever I Will Stay’. On the flip side was ‘I Cried All My Tear’ a song Winston Samuels and I wrote.”
Since he had now found success in music, John put educational goals on the back burner and pursued music vigorously. ‘I walked out of school and left everything else behind. I decided to take up music permanently and have never really done anything else besides singing. You could say I got carried away with the music’.
In 1964, John teamed up with Alton Ellis as duet and recorded for Vincent Chin and Randy’s record shop. Their first release was ‘Rum Bumpers’ which went no.1 on the charts. This was followed by ‘Mouta Massy Lizza’. By today’s standards these records would have been done poorly. “In those days. There were not many record players around, and so you had to listen to the radio to hear your favourite song. If an artiste sold 300 records then it was considered a lot.”
After a while John and Alton parted company and John continued performing as a solo act around Kingston and on the North Coast. Given his stature as a singer and his growing popularity and ability to write, John was invited to join the The Paragons as lead singer (Paragon: model of excellence or perfection).
The Paragons are said to have evolved out of a group, The Binders, which consisted of Tyrone Evans, Keith (Bob Andy) Anderson, Junior Mendez and Leroy Stamp. Like many groups of that era they did covers of the international groups that were popular at the time – groups like The Drifters and the Plotters.
Soon The Paragons performing live at various Kingston venues and along the north coast hotel circuit. The group then teamed up with veteran producer Coxone Dodd and recorded the hit single ’Love At Last’, which quickly went to the no.1 position on the charts and remained there for five weeks. They then recorded two singles ‘Lover’s Dream’ and ‘Goodbye’ between 1964 and 1965. Soon after Bob Andy left the group, they searched for a replacement to balance their sound because “Vocal groups were the best things in town” John reminisced.
For any group to succeed then, hard work was the only order “You would spend days preparing a song, and at the end of the rehearsal the promoter guy you were rehearsing for would say he didn’t like the song you’d have to go back to square one”.
The year was 1966- and in Kingston, Rocksteady was the new pretender, it ruled. As ska faded, like father time on a new genre of music evolved called Rocksteady that ruled and became the most outstanding music form. Between 1966 and 1968, from Kingston to Montego Bay, Rocksteady ruled the nation. In every household people sang and danced every weekend, the sound systems were playing this incredible rhythm beneath sparkling harmonies laden with rich, full production was during this period that The Pargons earned a place in the music industry.
One day while rehearing near studio one, John came up with an idea. John, Howard, Tyrone quickly created the arrangement and melodies of a Rocksteady beat entitled ‘Happy Go Lucky Girl’, they brought the idea to Duke Reid, another Jamaican producer whose name and personality would establish him (Reid) as legendary development of Jamaican music.
The Paragon’s recorded ‘Happy Go Lucky Girl’ in the early days instantly became one of the first Rocksteady hits in Jamaica. The group then recorded ‘On The Beach’, this song made beer more popular which became the party drink. More sweet sounds followed. ‘Wear You The Ball’ another classic, ‘In My Neighbourhood’, ‘Riding High’, ‘Only Smile’, ‘The Same Song’ and ‘So Much Pain on the same label. They did two impressive singles for Federal, ‘Talking Love‘, and ‘Stagger Lee’. The Paragons had written the book on producing hit songs. Between 1965 and 1970, they released some sixteen hit songs that most reached No. 1 in the Jamaica charts.
Although The Paragons became one of the most popular groups in Jamaica, the corruption and shoddy business practices prevailed in the music business helped to precipitate the dissolution of the group. They had to pay lots of prices in those days. “During those times we would rehearse songs everyday. At the end of the recordings, we had not received any substantial rewards. The songs played on the radio but yet we had no money.” Since music was not providing the rewards they envisioned, the group split. Howard and Tyrone migrated to the USA to pursue educational and economic opportunities. John was left on his own. Not one to give up easily, John went back into the studio embarking on his solo career.
His first solo hit, was ‘Tonight’ which was followed by ‘Stick By Me‘ a song that held on to the No. 1 spot in Jamaican charts for weeks! He returned to Coxone Dodd and the Studio One label and recorded ‘Love I Can Feel, ‘Anywhere You Want To Go’, ‘My Satisfaction’, ‘Left With A Broken Heart’. When asked about the temporary relationship with Coxone Dodd he replied “There were better producers as there are today. It was just mainly Coxone Dodd where artistes would line up at his door. Most singers in those times got their start at Studio One”.
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