Johnny Nash obituary

<span>Photograph: Dezo Hoffman/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Dezo Hoffman/Rex/Shutterstock

In the four decades since the song I Can See Clearly Now was written and recorded by Johnny Nash, many have used its uplifting lyrics to help themselves out of a period of sadness or introspection. Nash, who has died aged 80, appears to have had no particular episode of personal hardship in mind when he composed the tune in the early 1970s, but over the years it has struck a firm chord with generations of listeners who appreciate its feeling of new hope emerging from the gloom: “I can see clearly now the rain has gone / I can see all obstacles in my way / Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind / It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day.”

If many people might recognise little of Nash’s other work, a far larger number will know those lines off by heart. A staple of radio play and hugely in demand for use on film and television soundtracks (with more than 60 credits so far), it is difficult to imagine its popularity waning.

Best described as soulful pop, I Can See Clearly Now – which was a No 1 hit in the US and No 5 in the UK in 1972 – also had undertows of the user-friendly reggae sound with which Nash coloured many of his songs during the period of his greatest fame in the late 60s and early 70s.

Although he was an American, Nash had spent time living in Jamaica in the mid-60s, and the island’s influence on his music came to the fore in 1968, when his rock-steady compositions You Got Soul and Hold Me Tight were Top 10 hits in the UK, helping to kickstart a period of mainstream interest in reggae in Britain that remains to this day.

Nash’s reggae-fied version of Sam Cooke’s Cupid made it to No 6 in the UK the following year, followed by Stir it Up, written for him, and later reclaimed, by his friend Bob Marley, which was a UK No 13 in 1972, a few months before the release of I Can See Clearly Now. In 1975 he had his last big hit, Tears on My Pillow, a UK No 1, before eventually moving into deliberate obscurity.

Nash was born in Houston, Texas, to Eliza (nee Armstrong) and her husband, John Nash, a chauffeur. A sweet-mannered, good-looking and well-behaved child, though a little shy, Johnny went to Jack Yates high school and was brought up on gospel music at the Progressive New Hope Baptist Church in the city, where he soon became renowned for his beautifully smooth voice, which also made an impact at talent shows.

At 13, after Nash had been caddying at a golf course for a retired businessman, Frank Stockton, he was urged to get up and sing in the clubhouse. Stockton was so impressed that he arranged an audition for a local afternoon TV programme, and for the next three years the young Nash earned more money than his father by singing regularly on the show after school.

A young Nash, who began singing for a local TV programme at the age of 13
A young Nash, who began singing for a local TV programme at the age of 13. Photograph: Houston Chronicle/AP

Record companies soon became interested and in 1956, at 16, he released his first single, A Teenager Sings the Blues. Although it made little impact, his next single, A Very Special Love, made it to 23 in the US charts, his first album, Johnny Nash, was issued in 1958, and at 18 he was invited to take the lead role in a film, Take a Giant Step (1959), as Spence Scott, a black high school student struggling to come to terms with life in a white, middle-class neighbourhood. In 1960 he appeared as a gang member in Key Witness, starring Dennis Hopper.

Thereafter concentrating instead on his singing, Nash continued with a steady release of singles and a handful of albums, mainly in the vein of a crooning balladeer. As a church-going youth and former boy scout, he preferred to ignore rock’n’roll, which in any case did not suit his vocal style. But as a result his relevance and popularity began to wane, and in the years after his 1961 album, Let’s Get Lost, his impetus and direction foundered.

Salvation came with a move to Jamaica in 1965, where he and his manager-cum-business partner, Danny Sims, believed they would benefit from some time out. There Nash first met Marley, who was at that point largely unknown to the wider world. Struck by the Jamaican’s huge songwriting talent, he took him to see Sims, who became Marley’s manager for the next six years and eventually helped him to move in a more radical musical direction.

For Nash, who found the relaxed rock-steady vibe of mid- to late-60s Jamaican music perfectly suited to his singing style, the link-up with Marley was also helpful. “Reggae represented to me a layer of rhythm that was really infectious. I could lay on top of the rhythm and do my ballads,” he said.

Inspired by the new possibilities, in 1968 he wrote You Got Soul, a fine, fully-fledged rock-steady tune that was issued in the UK by Trojan Records and reached No 5 in the singles charts. Among the first of Trojan’s British reggae releases to experiment with the addition of pop instrumentation and strings, it helped to crystallise a winning formula in the UK that appealed to the masses and paved the way for Desmond Dekker’s Israelites to become the UK’s first reggae No 1 shortly afterwards. Later in the year Nash followed up with Hold Me Tight, in similarly rich rock-steady vein: it got to No 6 in the UK and was among the first Jamaican records to cause a stir in the US, making No 5.

In 1970 Nash was invited to Sweden to write the soundtrack for a film, Love is Not a Game, in which he also acted opposite Christina Schollin. Nash took Marley and Sims with him, and they were away from Jamaica for the best part of a year. The film was a damp squib – it had only a brief run in Sweden in 1971 and plans to release the soundtrack as an album were ditched. But the sojourn in Scandinavia brought Nash and Marley into a musical collaboration that bore fruits in Nash’s 1972 album I Can See Clearly Now, to which Marley contributed Stir it Up, Guava Jelly, Comma Comma and You Poured Sugar on Me, the last of which they jointly wrote. The album, and its title track in particular, established Nash as a household name.

Marley was left in his friend’s professional wake, but the relationship had been useful for both, giving Nash a new direction and grooming Marley for his eventual hook-up with Island Records and superstardom.

As it turned out, Nash had essentially begun to abandon the music business by the time Marley came to global attention. He decided to move back to Houston in 1974 for a quieter life, buying a ranch there and embarking on his third marriage, to Carlie Collins.

By 1980, though he was still only 40, his recording activity had ground to a halt, and though there was one more album, Here Again, in 1986, much of his attention was by then focused on family life, church activities and helping local causes. A keen horse rider since his youth, in 1993 he set up the Johnny Nash Indoor Arena in Houston, where he financed weekly rodeos for youngsters who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to get on a horse. For many years he politely refused all interview requests.

He is survived by Carlie and by two children, John and Monica.

• John Lester Nash, singer-songwriter, born 19 August 1940; died 6 October 2020