Friday, 3 October 2014

Johnny Nash-The Soul Era

To many music listeners Johnny Nash is synonymous with his two big hits, the reggae infused Hold Me Tight from 1968 and the classic I Can See Clearly Now from 1972. Nash recorded some sublime soul material in the early 60's for a variety of labels. The great 45's came out on the Chess label or their affiliates in Nash's case it was Argo, he also released a number of 45's on his own Joda label. Nash began his career as a more pop oriented crooner on the ABC-Paramount label and he also came to prominence as a dramatic actor in the film Take A Giant Step.

After parting company with ABC-Paramount in 1961 Nash recorded two singles for Warner Brothers which saw him begin to push in a more soulful direction. Not sure whether WB saw Nash as a Sam Cooke styled balladeer but on the first single Don't Take Away Your Love producer Stan Applebaum creates a tasteful dramatic setting for Nash's pure and precise vocals. There is a concerted focus on Nash's soft floating vocal normally with these types of songs there would over the top orchestration but the accompaniment is kept tasteful. The follow up single the C&W chestnut I'm Movin On was released in 1963 and is a more rock oriented approach with pounding horns but it doesn't quite work, it's not long before the strings come on and it doesn't fit. My friend Matt Lucas cut the same song that year and to me his is the definitive version.

Later that same year Nash was on the move to the RCA subsidiary Groove where cut the grimy Deep In The Heart of Harlem, a dramatic tale that suited his voice and he gives a great performance.

A dog barking at the crack of dawn
A baby crying because his mama has gone
I toss and turn and I stretch and yawn
Another morning, another day deep in the heart of Harlem

There weren't many records in the early 60's that confronted the inequalities of life in the ghetto's of the United States in such a direct manner. The single was produced by Sam Cooke's original producers Hugo Perretti and Luigi Creatore, perhaps RCA had the same feeling as Warner Brothers that they could create another Sam Cooke. The B side What Kind Of Love is This is bold and brassy, a strutting uptempo slice of soul that didn't quite hit the mark. In 1964 Nash started recording with the Chess subsidiary Argo records and famed Chicago arranger Johnny Pate, his first single a cover of the Little Willie John chestnut Talk To Me finally hit on the write sound. Stripped back, tasteful arrangement that showed off an amazing soulful and sensual vocal with some of those classic Chicago horns. The B side Love Ain't Nothin showed early glimpses of Nash's interest in reggae music, this performance shows another side of Nash, it's more funky but the arrangement puts his soaring vocals front and centre where they belong.

Meanwhile Groove records issued I'm Leaving, this is classic Northern soul with it's Latin tinged samba beat, whilst not a major hit it reached #120 on the billboard chart, but the song established Nash as a great soul performer. His next single came out on the main Chess label, Strange Feeling had a more R&B oriented sound and was produced by Nash himself. The same year he released Always but it's the B side Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye a John D Loudermilk track a pure soul ballad, characteristic restraint and that remarkable clear delivery from Nash.

Let's Move And Groove Together released in 1965 was at that point his biggest R&B hit peaking at #4 and crossing over to #88 on the pop chart. This has an Impressions sound to it, especially the guitar work it's an unfamiliar setting for Nash, less strings and a more brassy uptempo sound.

The B side is a great slice of early funk, with a brilliant syncopated reggae feel. Nash once again shows his versatility and as his production experience grew he was starting to find his true style. In some ways he was moving closer to his amalgamation of reggae and soul. These 45's came out on Nash's Joda label and were all self produced. His next Joda release Big City in 1966 was another track that owed a debt to The Impressions and the sound of Chicago soul. Another restrained song musically, it's another cautionary tale of life in the big city with a honking sax solo in the chorus. It was then on to the MGM label Stormy was aimed more at the middle of the road and is a little stilted, it doesn't have the elements of Chicago soul that framed his work at Chess and Joda. This was also the last true soul number he would record, his next single You Got Soul issued on the Major Minor label saw him step firmly into reggae music.

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