Johnny Nash: Balladeer who embraced reggae with his No 1 hit ‘I Can See Clearly Now’

Nash once said the success of his biggest song was ‘the ultimate form of acceptance’ (Rex)
Nash once said the success of his biggest song was ‘the ultimate form of acceptance’ (Rex)

When Johnny Nash, who has died aged 80, hit the charts in 1972 with the single “I Can See Clearly Now”, many young record buyers who helped to make it one of the year’s biggest worldwide hits assumed he was a newcomer from Jamaica because of its reggae rhythm.

In reality, he had been performing for more than 10 years and was from Houston, Texas, where he had absorbed gospel music at the Baptist church he and his parents attended.

He grew up to be a crooner seen by record executives in the late 1950s as a potential rival to Johnny Mathis, but it was the gently uplifting “I Can See Clearly Now” – with its prediction of a “bright, bright sunshiny day” – that would kickstart his career. Described by rock critic Robert Christgau as “2 minutes and 48 seconds of undiluted inspiration”, the single topped the US charts, reached No 5 in the UK and kept Nash in the public spotlight for two decades.

The song itself, Nash’s own composition, was covered by artists ranging from Ray Charles and Donny Osmond to Jimmy Cliff, whose version featured in the 1993 film Cool Runnings.

John Lester Nash Jr was born in 1940 to a chauffeur and his wife, Eliza (nee Armstrong). From the age of 13, while still at Jack Yates High School, he started singing on a Houston TV show.

His debut single, “A Teenager Sings the Blues” (1957), failed to chart, but the follow-up, “A Very Special Love” (1958), reached No 23 in the US.

A first, self-titled album was released in the same year and Nash, like other pop stars of the time, was cast as an actor in a couple of films – as a black student in a white neighbourhood in Take a Giant Step (1959) and a gang member alongside Dennis Hopper in Key Witness (1960).

He then concentrated on records but failed to fulfil his early potential. During a visit to Jamaica in 1967, Nash and his manager (Danny Sims) were pointed in the direction of The Wailers by a radio broadcaster.

Not only did they sign the band – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer – to JAD, the record label they had formed with producer Arthur Jenkins, but Nash was influenced by Marley and his music.

He started singing ballads over the top of a “rock-steady” reggae rhythm, recording several songs on the island that all became Top 10 hits in Britain: “Hold Me Tight” (1968), “You Got Soul” and “Cupid” (both 1969).

The Wailers were also his support act for a tour of Britain in 1972, when his newly released album I Can See Clearly Now featured four of Marley’s compositions, including “Stir It Up”, Nash’s last single to make the US Top 20.

His chart success proved more durable in Britain, where his other hit singles included “There Are More Questions Than Answers” (1972) and “Tears on My Pillow” (1975), a No 1.

In the meantime, Marley and his group went on to find success after signing for Island Records, partly thanks to being introduced to audiences outside Jamaica.

By the end of the 1980s, Nash’s career had fizzled out. “Rock Me Baby” (1985) and a rerelease of “I Can See Clearly Now” in 1989 were only minor hits in the UK. His last album was Here Again (1986).

Nash, who produced many of his own records, settled down to a reclusive life on his ranch in Houston, where he enjoyed horse riding and staging rodeo shows for the black community, and rarely gave interviews.

Earlier, during one in 1973, he said he regarded his then recent achievement of topping the charts with “I Can See Clearly Now” as “the ultimate form of acceptance” and added: “That feels great, but it doesn’t mean that I’m gonna go off on a big ego musical trip.”

Nash is survived by his third wife, Carlie (nee Collins), and his children, John and Monica.

Johnny Nash, singer, songwriter and producer, born 19 August 1940, died 6 October 2020

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