Say the name "Johnny Nash," and one song comes to mind: "I Can See Clearly Now," the 1972 smash that found renewed success when Jimmy Cliff covered it for the 1994 Cool Runnings soundtrack. However, Nash should also be known for bringing reggae into the mainstream, combining it with American pop and soul to create crossover hits. In addition, he became one of the earliest American artists to record in Jamaica. While "I Can See Clearly Now" remains his chief legacy, the 1968 single "Hold Me Tight" became a crossover success four years before that classic song.
Due to his sound, Nash could be easily mistaken for being Jamaican; in fact, he hails from Houston, Texas. Born in 1940, he would later sing in his Baptist church's choir. By 13 years old his talent earned him a spot on the local TV show Matinee, where he performed covers of current R&B hits. In 1956, Arthur Godfrey tapped Nash to perform on his radio and TV programs; this crucial exposure led to his signing with ABC-Paramount, and he released his debut single "A Teenager Sings the Blues" a year later. According to All Music, the handsome singer was even marketed as the new Johnny Mathis, appearing in films including 1959's Take A Giant Step. This campaign failed to establish him as a teen idol, and he subsequently recorded a series of obscure singles for various labels.
Nash made a comeback in 1965 when he scored a top five R&B hit with "Let's Move and Groove Together," which proved fortuitous for another reason: it ranked high on the charts in Jamaica. Clearly thinking this could prove a lucrative market, he toured Jamaica in 1967; after the promotional jaunt, he would later return to the island to record at Federal Studios. One of the earliest American artists to record in Jamaica, Nash would see the move pay off: during those sessions he laid down "Hold Me Tight," accompanied by the Jamaican band Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. During this time Nash also founded his own label, JAD, which boasted Bob Marley, Lee, Lloyd Price, and Kim Weston on the artistic roster. He released "Hold Me Tight" on JAD, which became a top five international hit.
"Hold Me Tight" stands as a stellar example of rocksteady, a successor of ska but precursor to reggae. Featuring a slower beat and sparser arrangements, rocksteady contains more danceable tempos and catchy riffs than the fast-moving ska. Written by Nash, the lyrics typify the sunny outlook of "I Can See Clearly Now." "I don't want to hear it / No more fussin' and fightin' baby," Nash sings over a scratchy guitar-driven beat. His smooth voice reflects his previous Mathis image; however, his delivery clearly resembles Sam Cooke (whom he covered on the flipside of the "Hold Me Tight" single, "Cupid"), particularly on the bridge. "Well, I know I was wrong / Burt I was just a fool / Too blind to see / You're were the only girl for me," he sings. Then comes the chorus, which features a melody and "la la" singalong that lingers in the memory long after the song ends. Once the narrator understands his mistake in the relationship, he ends the song on an optimistic note: "Now I see the light / And everything's gonna be all right / Baby, hold me tight."
The arrangement encapsulates rocksteady's main qualities: lazy rhythm, unstated arrangement, and minimal instrumentation. It invites listeners to dance to the swaying beat, yet maintains its Jamaican flavor. Indeed, it is a perfect amalgamation of Caribbean rhythms and American R&B, with a touch of pop melody, thus ensuring its crossover appeal.
After the success of "Hold Me Tight," Nash continued delving into ska and reggae, recording a reworked version Marley's "Stir It Up." Upon moving to Britain, Nash signed with the Epic label, and experienced his biggest hit to date: "I Can See Clearly Now," the 1972 chestnut that sat on top of the US charts for a month. Despite this achievement, he would never experience such massive success in America again. However, his popularity remained undimmed in Britain. He released more reggae-influenced songs, including a reworked version of Cooke's "(What A) Wonderful World" and the song "Tears on My Pillow" (not to be confused with the Little Anthony and the Imperials standard). However, his career had considerably slowed by the mid-1970s, and he largely withdrew from performing except for occasional tours (and a lone album, 1986's Here Again).
From the 1980s through the present, Caribbean artists such as Eddy Grant, Billy Ocean, Baha Men, Inner Circle, Maxi Priest, Shaggy, Shabba Ranks, and Rihanna have all achieved worldwide success. All of them owe a great debt to Nash, a pioneer in such crossover, genre-blending music. Without "Hold Me Tight," none of them may have become internationally known artists.