Johnny Nash, the angel-voiced reggae-pop singer-songwriter who had U.S. hits with “I Can See Clearly Now,” “Stir It Up” and “Hold Me Tight,” died Tuesday at his home in Houston. He was 80. No cause of death was revealed.
Nash scored a pop smash in 1972 with his self-penned “I Can See Clearly Now,” which spent a month at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. He followed up that success with a cover of reggae legend Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” that just missed the top 10. Nash’s first big pop hit was “Hold Me Tight,” which reached No. 5 in 1968.
But he remains best known for “I Can See Clearly Now,” the islands-tinged soft-rock classic that has been featured in dozens of films anf TV shows and famously was covered by reggae icon Jimmy Cliff for the 1993 John Candy movie "Cool Runnings" (watch the video of Cliff’s cover below). That version hit the top 20 on Billboard’s singles chart. Nash’s version was heard in such popular screen fare as "Thelma & Louise," "Grosse Pointe Blank," "Antz, Crooklyn," "The Wonder Years" and "The Boondocks." The song was covered by such disparate acts as Ray Charles, Hothouse Flowers and Eagle-Eye Cherry.
He first started hitting on pop radio in the late 1950s, with “A Very Special Love” and “The Teen Commandments” reaching the top 30. The latter was a spoken-word inspiration talk that also featured his ABC-Paramount labelmates Paul Anka and future film star George Hamilton. Three of his LPs made the national chart, with 1972’s "I Can See Clearly Now" — which also featured “Stir It Up" — reaching No. 23.
Nash’s career took off once he began recording in Jamaica in 1967, after co-launching JAD Records a couple of years earlier. The label would go on to sign and release albums by such Jamaican reggae royalty as Marley, the Wailers and Peter Tosh. But Nash’s commercial peak as a singer was short-lived, and he only managed to dent the U.S. pop chart a couple of times after 1973.
He was even more popular in the UK, where Nash six Top 10 singles from 1968-75 including the No. 1 “Tears On My Pillow” in 1975. “I Can See Clearly Now” peaked at No. 5 there.
Marley would be introduced to a new crop of fans in Great Britain as the opening act for Nash’s 1972 UK tour. While there, Marley was introduced to Chris Blackwell, who later would sign the reggae singer to his Island Records. A couple of years later, English guitar god Eric Clapton would score his only U.S. No. 1 single with a cover of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” and Elton John topped the charts with his reggae-tinged original “Island Girl.”
Born on August 19, 1940 in Houston, Nash began appearing on local TV in his hometown at age 13 and went on to appear frequently on Arthur Godfrey’s radio and TV shows from the mid-1950s through 1963.
He also enjoyed a brief film career, co-starring as a member of Dennis Hopper’s L.A. street gang in the 1960 noir "Key Witness." He also starred in the socially conscious 1959 drama "Take a Giant Step," which scored a Golden Globe nom for Best Film Promoting International Understanding. Nash also received the Silver Sail at the 1960 Locarno International Film Festival, an award given for the humanity and intensity of his performance. Nash also co-topped the 1971 Swedish drama "Love Is Not a Game."
Nash also appeared on numerous performance TV shows including "American Bandstand," "Soul Train," "Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert," "Top of the Pops" and "The Midnight Special," along with such popular talk shows as "The Tonight Show" — both Jack Paar’s and Johnny Carson’s — and "The Mike Douglas Show."