Johnny Nash, American Singer Who Helped Popularize Jamaican Music, Dies at 80

In 1972, Nash had his biggest success with the reggae inspired, “I Can See Clearly Now.” The song, which Nash allegedly wrote while he was undergoing cataract surgery, spent four weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The million selling single was also the title track of his popular album, which included several songs written by Bob Marley.

Bob Marley and Johnny Nash in recording studio.

Bob Marley and Johnny Nash in recording studio.

Johnny Nash, best known for the million selling recording, “I Can See Clearly Now,” died Tuesday, October 6th after a long illness. He was 80 years old.

A native of Houston, Texas, Nash began singing as a child in the choir of New Hope Baptist Church in his hometown. In 1953, while still a youngster, he began performing covers of R&B songs on Matinee, a local variety show on KPRC-TV. This led to wider exposure of Arthur Godfrey’s radio and television shows.

Signed to ABC-Paramount Records, Nash was promoted as a rival to crooner Johnny Mathis, who was one of the most popular recording artists of the late 1950s. Nash’s hits in this early part of his career included a cover of Doris Day’s “A Very Special Love” and “The Teen Commandments,” the latter a collaboration with Paul Anka and George Hamilton IV.

In 1959, he achieved early success as an actor as the lead in the film adaptation of Louis S. Peterson’s Broadway play, Take a Giant Step. His performance as a teenager who discovers the realities of racism, won him the Silver Sail Award at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Singer Johnny Nash in 1965.

Johnny Nash in 1965.

In 1965, shortly after his recording, “Let’s Move and Groove Together” hit the Top 5 on the American R&B charts, Nash moved to Jamaica. Shortly thereafter, Nash formed a publishing company there called, Cayman Music. Nash’s attorney Newton Willoughby was the father of local radio host Neville Willoughby. The younger Willoughby took Nash to a Rastafarian party where Bob Marley and the Wailing Wailers were performing. Nash was so impressed that he signed Bob Marley as well as members Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and Rita Marley to an exclusive publishing contract.

In collaboration with some business partners, Nash formed JAD Records and recorded at Federal Records in Kingston. Nash’s rocksteady single, “Hold You Tight” was released on JAD Records in 1968 and became a Top 5 hit in both the US and the UK. The song’s success pre-dated “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, which is generally regarded as the first reggae song to receive international success.

In 1972, Nash had his biggest success with the reggae inspired, “I Can See Clearly Now.” The song, which Nash allegedly wrote while he was undergoing cataract surgery, spent four weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The million selling single was also the title track of his popular album, which included several songs written by Bob Marley. These included “Guava Jelly,” and a cover of “Stir It Up.” The latter peaked at number twelve on the US charts and was a Top 10 hit in the UK and Canada. The backing band for the album was the reggae group, Fabulous Five Inc.

Nash would never again achieve the success of his 1960s and early 1970s recordings, but “I Can See Clearly Now,” remains one of his most popular songs. A mainstay of oldies radio, the song has been covered by numerous artists. Perhaps the best known cover was Jimmy Cliff’s recording for the 1993 film, Cool Runnings. Cliff’s version was a Top 20 hit in the US and number one in both New Zealand and France.

In recent years, Nash managed a series of rodeo shows. He lived on a horse ranch in Houston.

Nash is survived by his wife Carli and two children, John and Monica.

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