NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Johnny Nash, a singer whose I Can See Clearly Now reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1972, helping to bring reggae music to a mainstream U.S. audience and over the decades becoming an anthem of optimism and renewal, died Tuesday at his home in Houston. He was 80.
His son, John Nash III, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.
Nash was a singer, an actor, a record-label owner and an early booster of Bob Marley in a varied career that began in the late 1950s when, as a teenager, he appeared on Arthur Godfreys CBS-TV variety show. He also sang on Godfreys popular radio broadcasts.
Nash, who sang in a clear, smooth, emotive high-tenor voice, was signed to ABC-Paramount Records and initially marketed as a crooner in the Johnny Mathis mold. He recorded several albums of lushly orchestrated standards, but they met with only modest success. He also tried his hand at movie acting, starring as a high school senior confronting racism in the 1959 coming-of-age drama Take a Giant Step and appearing alongside Dennis Hopper and Jeffrey Hunter in the 1960 neo-noir Key Witness.
By 1965, Nash had formed his own label, JoDa Records, in partnership with Danny Sims, his manager, and that year he scored a hit on the Billboard R&B chart with Lets Move and Groove (Together). It marked the beginning of a more interesting and more successful phase of his career.
When Nash traveled to Jamaica to promote Lets Move, he became enamored with the emerging reggae sound. He recorded at Federal Studios in Kingston, bought a house in the city and one night in 1967, at a Rastafarian ceremony, met a young Marley and heard him sing.
Nash and Sims were so impressed that they signed Marley and his group, the Wailers, to their label (now called JAD), with the idea that he would write material for Nash to sing.
In his book Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley (2007), Christopher John Farley described a complicated relationship between the two singers. Nash promoted Marley to international audiences, bringing the Wailers to London in 1972 as his opening act and recording Marleys songs. But to Marleys ears, an American singer doing a commercial take on reggae was inauthentic.
Hes a nice guy, but he doesnt know what reggae is, Farley quoted Marley as saying. Johnny Nash is not Rasta; and if youre not a Rasta, you dont know nothin about reggae.
Nashs 1968 album, Hold Me Tight, was the first to showcase his hybrid pop-reggae sound. (The title track reached the Billboard Top 10 shortly before another reggae record, Israelites by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, also charted.) But it was his album I Can See Clearly Now, released in 1972 not on his own label but on Epic, part of the giant CBS Records conglomerate that was a true breakthrough, both for Nash and for reggae in the United States.
The album included several songs written by Marley, notably Stir it Up and Guava Jelly. But it was the title track, written by Nash, that had the biggest impact by far. It spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and, according to Ed Hogan of allmusic.com, did more to bring the reggae music sound into the mainstream than any other single record up to that point.
John Lester Nash Jr. was born in Houston on Aug. 19, 1940, to John and Eliza (Armstrong) Nash. He began singing as a child at Progressive New Hope Baptist Church. At 17, he was introduced to Godfrey through an audition arranged by a man Nash caddied for at a local golf course, and he performed on radio and TV for several years.
Throughout his career, Nash was a hard artist to categorize, a pop chameleon who kept a low public profile. After 1979, he released only one more album, in 1986, and after that he largely retired from the music industry. A horseman who owned a ranch, Nash opened the Johnny Nash Indoor Arena in Houston in 1993 to host rodeo shows. It closed in 2002.
Nash was married three times. In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Carlie Nash, and a daughter, Monica Dixon.
In the years since its release, Nashs biggest hit, with its message of hard-won hope and rebirth echoed in lyrics like Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind and Its gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day, has been embraced as a modern-day spiritual for a secular culture.
I Can See Clearly Now has been recorded by, among many others, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Hothouse Flowers and Jimmy Cliff, whose version, from the soundtrack of Cool Runnings, the 1993 movie about the Jamaican bobsled team, reached No. 18 on the Billboard chart.
It has appeared in films and TV shows and commercials so many times that its branded in the larger cultural consciousness, The Houston Chronicle wrote in an appraisal of Nash after his death.
I Can See Clearly Now even uplifted famously grizzled rock critic Robert Christgau, who called it the kind of song that can get you through a traffic jam.
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