Yesterday was a somber day for music fans that know their way around a Wurlitzer and have more than a passing familiarity with Cash Box and Billboard magazines: Along with the passing of rock and roll legend Eddie Van Halen we also lost another icon of pop music in the form of Johnny Nash, the reggae and pop virtuoso perhaps best known for his 1972 number one smash hit I Can See Clearly Now.
Johnny Nash began his career in music at the tail-end of the first decade of rock music, the 1950s. This would have put Nash, a Houston, Texas native born on August 19, 1940, in his late teens; a perfect time to be alive and to experience the whirlwinds of Alan Freed Big Beat shows, the ascendance to popular heights of such rock/soul luminaries as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and the peculiar yet very catchy rockabilly movement personified by such Nash contemporaries as the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. Perhaps as a result of this exposure to early rock and roll and soul as well as his own tricks of the trade that he picked up in performing for such bellwethers of the day as the Arthur Godfrey variety show, the inherent optimism and sheer joy and fun of those early years in the music industry inevitably found its merry way onto the records Johnny Nash cut. Incidentally, this music nerd takes real delight in the salient knowledge that Johnny’s first major label was with the now forgotten ABC-Paramount label, making him stable mates with such rock oddities as Frankie Sardo and the Impressions. And, while Johnny’s first recorded efforts for ABC-Paramount (A Teenager Sings the Blues, A Very Special Love) are widely forgotten by the public at large – much like Sardo and the Impressions – the music the teenage Nash was recording at the time did well enough on the charts to encourage him to continue on and grow artistically in a variety of ways, including trying out his hand in acting in movies.
It’s a safe bet that the song that will serve as Johnny’s epitaph will be the one that seemed so unlikely to be a number one smash in 1972, I Can See Clearly Now. Though the versatile recording star had scored other successes on the charts by ’72 – Let’s Move and Groove Together and Hold Me Tight are exceptional songs by any standards – the infectious happiness that I Can See Clearly Now plied its energy and mojo in garnered from the record buying public a true and lasting sensation. The salient fact that the song dropped in an era dominated by grim news from Vietnam and a country culturally at war with itself rather than the malt shops, hula hoop and long summer drives with a sweetheart that the lyrics and tone of the song evoked made it even more of a striking and welcome anomaly. I Can See Clearly Now was a clarion cry of optimism for a world in bad need of a healing and because of that the song felt immediately timeless. And it was, so much so that, when the soundtrack to the film Cool Runnings was released in 1993 with a cover version of I Can See Clearly Now by Jimmy Cliff, a disaffected and cynical Generation X embraced the positive vibes and sent the song a-soaring once again on record charts where it crested at number 18. Now that’s timeless.
Johnny Nash died yesterday at the age of 80 in his old hometown of Houston, Texas. The artist and the man may have left us, but his legacy of fun and positive music never will.