Stir It Up by Johnny Nash (Epic, 1973)

[Ed. Note – I try to keep this blog alive by paying tribute to those 70s stars who pass away. This week, we lost four. So it might take me a while to catch up. But there’s no guarantee I will.]

Houston, TX native Johnny Nash had been hitting the charts since the late 60s, and his first Top 40 hit, A Very Special Love, would reach #23 in early 1958. Fourteen years later, he would spend a month at the top with I Can See Clearly Now. It became his signature song and the one that 99.9% have referenced during his passing this week. That this song would be the most popular in the country when the Watergate scandal was erupting, and a temporary peace agreement with North Vietnam was being preferred was not a coincidence. However, Johnny’s musical legacy cannot and should not be boiled down to a sunny three-minute pop song because he was influential in a bigger way. He helped to bring reggae into the mainstream.

Now I know what you’re thinking, but before you finish saying Clapton, let me steer you towards Johnny’s 1968 Top 5 smash, Hold Me Tight. Go ahead and listen, then I’ll continue.

Actually, let me start three years before that when Johnny hit the R&B Top 5 with a single called Let’s Move & Groove (Together). It was released on his own record label, JoDa Records, which he started with his manager Danny Sims. The song only reached #88 on the Hot 100, and as the label struggled, he and Danny decided to move to Kingston, Jamaica. They figured that they could record singers down there and break them in America. What happened instead was that Johnny got deep into the rocksteady scene. He was introduced to Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and the rest of the Wailers, immediately signing them to a publishing deal. Starting up a new record label, JAD, he recorded Hold Me Tight backed by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and it became a huge single. Let me reiterate – a Black entrepreneur exposed the Pop world to a new sound via an independent record label based in Jamaica.

For the next four years, JAD would release singles by Bob Marley to the world, but with limited distribution resources, many did not hear these songs. But Island Records did, and promptly signed him and the Wailers in 1972. It didn’t hurt that Johnny’s new album featured four of Bob’s compositions, including Stir It Up, which would peak at #12 in the Spring of 1973. The Wailers had recorded it six years previous to Johnny and would re-record it for their Island Records debut, Catch A Fire.

So the next time you listen to Legend or hear No Woman, No Cry playing in your local head shop, take time to thank Johnny Nash, the man who helped bring reggae to America.

Also, Clapton is a racist.

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