John, you started out in the music business at a very young age taking part in the Opportunity Hour and Opportunity Knocks talents shows. Could you tell us a bit more about these contests and who organized them?
John Holt: "They were organized by a man called Vere Johns (Vere Everette Johns, November 1893 - September 1966, was a Jamaican journalist, impresario, radio personality, and actor. He made a major contribution to Jamaican music with his Vere John's Opportunity Knocks Talent Show on RJR Radio, which helped to launch the careers of several major recording artists including Lloyd Charmers, Hortense Ellis, John Holt, Bob Andy, Desmond Dekker, The Wailers, Alton Ellis, Jackie Edwards, Dobby Dobson, Boris Gardiner, Laurel Aitken and Millie Small. His talent contests began as theatre shows held in downtown Kingston venues such as The Majestic, Palace and Ambassador theatres, with the winners judged by audience reaction, and going on to appear on his radio shows. Producers such as Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd and Arthur 'Duke' Reid scouted for talent at the shows, red.), who was a talent scout who sponsored these events with his own money. It was pretty basic though; usually there was one pianist there to accompany you and that was it. I think I must have been nine or ten years old when I started participating in these talent contests. My talent was really discovered by my mother though, because she already used to take me along to birthday parties and weddings to sing. If you managed to reach the finals and win, the prize money was ten Jamaican dollars and a recording contract. The first single I put to record like that was 'Forever I Will Stay' which eventually even reached number one in the Jamaican charts."
Many people will still remember you as a member of the legendary vocal group The Paragons. How exactly did you get to join the line-up of that band?
John Holt: "Well, The Paragons used to rehearse in the parish church on King Street. I just was invited to come and have a listen one Saturday and couldn't resist singing along with some songs. Before I knew it I became a member of the band and even became the main songwriter after a while. In my time with The Paragons we had close to 15 number one hits in our repertoire."
One of these super hits was a song called 'Tide Is High', which was later made into a worldwide hit by the new wave punkpop band Blondie. What did you think of their version?
John Holt: "I was pleasantly surprised when I heard their version, because Debby Harry really succeeded in giving the song her own style. The fact a hip band like Blondie chose to cover one of my songs could only make me proud of course."
If I would call you the godfather of lovers rock would you agree with that title?
John Holt: "Well, about 99% of all the songs I perform have a lovers theme, so I guess that's kind of true. At one time I was even asked if I was aiming at an all-female audience! (laughs) But you know sometimes the brothers break the girls' hearts and then there must be someone at hand to mend them and that's where I come in."
That being said, in 1983, all of a sudden you released the fantastic roots album, 'Police In Helicopter'. How did your fans respond to that sudden shift of gear back then?
John Holt: "I definitely created a bit of a media-storm; the album got a lot of bad reviews and the song was banned from radio in Jamaica. Despite of all that 'Police In Helicopter' managed to keep the number one spot for about eight or nine weeks."
Earlier on in your career, like so many Jamaican artists at the time, you performed clean shaved and suited up. These days you're proudly growing your beard and dreads. When did that transition come about?
John Holt: "Despite my physical appearance at the time, I would have to say I'm a Rastafarian from the very beginning as I grew up around Rastafarians. It just never entered my mind to grow my dreadlocks and no one should force you to do so either; your dreads have to grow from your mind, heart and soul. I did already embrace the meditation, spirituality and cleanliness of living that the Rastafarians were offering when one day - I will never forget the moment - I was billed to perform at the Reggae Sumfest festival in Montego Bay and I was preparing myself, shaving in my hotel room. I don't know why but at one point I looked at myself in the mirror and thought: "This is the last time I'm doing this!" and that was that. Every time you shave, the hairs grow back, so that means it's a natural thing and you shouldn't really remove them."
Are you still affiliated with the Twelve Tribes organization?
John Holt: "Oh yes, I consider myself to be one of the first members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel movement. Personally I'm a member of the Tribe of Judah; I was born in July just like His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I."
Have you ever been to Ethiopia yourself, to perform or just visit the country?
John Holt: "Funnily enough I haven't, no. I should even add that I've never been to Africa full stop. Nothing happens before its time and if it is to be it will be; Africa will always be there."
There's a story that's been around for decades now, stating that together with Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and Delroy Wilson, you formed a pact at one stage to overturn the influence the deejays were having at the time. How much of that is founded in reality?
John Holt: "That story is absolutely true. You have to realize that the deejays were taking over by storm in those days and we didn't want to let that happen without putting up a fight. We decided to do that by recording as many tunes as possible, sometimes up to two or three songs a day. A lot of great singers left Jamaica at that time to build a career for themselves in Canada or the United Kingdom. That was really a great loss, because Jamaica is where the root of the music is. I've been travelling ever since I was still a kid; the first place I visited was Grand Cayman, but what I always found very hard to stomach on all my travels is that whenever and wherever I put on the radio, I never would hear any reggae music. For me there never really was a choice and I still live in Jamaica to this day."
I just asked you about this pact directed against the deejays, but at the same time you played a pivotal role in launching U Roy's career, as you were the one who pushed him in the direction of Duke Reid.
John Holt: "Well, what happened is that I heard U Roy one night doing his thing at the Gold Coast Club, toasting a version over 'Wear You To The Ball'. When I heard that, I really got excited, so I went up to talk to him and told him: "If you can assure me you can do that song you just did anywhere, anytime, I'll take you to meet Duke Reid tomorrow to record it!". That's exactly what happened and the rest is history!"
You're the only reggae artist I know who's performed with a full symphonic orchestra (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, red.). How exactly did that collaboration come about?
John Holt: "A number of my earlier albums - the whole Volts of Holt series really - were also recorded with an orchestra, the Brian Rogers Orchestra, which counted around 35 musicians. We just decided to recreate that vibe live together with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the resulting concert turned out great!"
August 6th 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the independence of Jamaica. What does that anniversary represent to you personally?
John Holt: "It means a great deal to me. We've been standing on our own two feet for fifty years now and just like any other country this has come with lots of ups and downs. There are things I don't like, however. When Jamaica had just become independent there were music events almost at every corner, stage shows going on, sound systems playing, you name it, but most of that has now disappeared because of all the rules and regulations they put in place. We should reintroduce a bit of that post-independence spirit!"