I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW
Sometimes, rarely, a song just grabs you from the opening notes and the first words. In this case, Johnny Nash’s 1972 huge hit “I Can See Clearly Now” clasps you like a dear friend sneaking up from behind, with an all-embracing, loving hug, and who can help but smile?
That happens the first time you hear it, and the hundredth time. And if your mood is dim, this may be your best musical shot at banishing “the dark clouds that had me blind.” As Bob Marley famously intoned on “Trenchtown Rock,” “when the music hits you, you feel no pain.” Famously grouchy rock critic Robert Christgau called it “the kind of song that can get you through a traffic jam.” Also, “2 minutes and 48 seconds of undiluted inspiration.” It has always been rumored that he wrote it while recovering from cataract surgery.
Like Millie Small’s 1964 mega-hit “My Boy Lollipop,” it helped introduce mainstream US audiences to reggae music, even though most at the time still didn’t know that’s what they were listening to. It was a Number One hit for Nash, who recorded it in London, backed by the whose platinum album by the same name included three other Bob Marley-penned songs.
Nash boosted Marley’s career many ways in the beginning, recording Marley songs and bringing The Wailers to London to open for him. Nash partner Danny Sims says Nash “loved Bob and the guys,” taught Marley how to sing on the mic while Bob taught Johnny how to play a reggae rhythm.
But they had a difficult relationship. Marley was a purist. Author Christopher John Farley opined that to Marley’s ears, an American singer doing a commercial take on reggae was inauthentic. He quoted Marley as saying, “He’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t know what reggae is. Johnny Nash is not Rasta; and if you’re not a Rasta, you don’t know nothin’ about reggae.”
NASH WAS BORN IN HOUSTON
And sang in his New Hope Baptist church choir as a boy. At 13 covered R&B hits on a Houston TV show, and three years later began a seven-year run on Arthur Godfrey’s very popular radio and TV shows. At 17 he signed a major label deal with ABC-Paramount and had a few hit singles — “Hold Me Tight” in ‘68 went Top Five in both the US and UK, followed by UK hit “Stir It Up,” written by Marley and first recorded by The Wailers. But he released 10 albums that couldn’t crack the Top 100 before “I Can See Clearly Now” went Number One and platinum. Then, six more albums, none Top 100. He released only one album after 1979, in 1986, and then at 46 he largely retired from the music industry. He loved horses and managed rodeo shows at his Johnny Nash Indoor Arena, on the family ranch in Houston. As a young man he also did some acting, including a film with Dennis Hopper.
In 1965 he moved to Jamaica with business partner Sims to promote American singers coming there to record (much cheaper), plus Nash wanted to break the Jamaican rock steady sound in the US. An acquaintance took him to a Rastafarian party where The Wailers were performing and he immediately signed the three front men plus Rita Marley to publishing contracts, and The Wailers to his JAD label.
It went belly up in 1971 but was resurrected in ‘97 by local reggae authority Roger Steffens, who had scoured the world and all his many Marley family and other inside sources for never-released recordings that became “The Complete Bob Marley & the Wailers 1967–1972,” a series of compilation albums released in eleven volumes by JAD Records between 1997 and 2002. Marley never stopped playing and singing, even at his mother’s home or in hotel rooms on vacation, and almost always turned on the tape recorder. These tapes wound up everywhere but Steffens collected them, negotiated the rough waters of gaining everyone’s permission, and it’s a treasure, For that many never-released songs, the quality and consistency is amazingly high.
RAY LOVED IT, WILLIE, JIMMY
“Clearly Now” was covered by many vocalists, including Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Hothouse Flowers, Gladys Knight, Queen Ia, The Ventures, Brenda Lee, Sonny & Cher, Sergio Mendes, Neil Finn, Nana Mouskouri, a host of Jamaican artists, and versions by Lee Towers and Jimmy Cliff that reached the Top 20.
Side note trivia: Nash recorded his big hit in London backed by Jamaican group The Fabulous Five Inc. The “Inc” was added because when asked the name of the group, they hadn’t picked one yet, so turned around and made a head count on the spot and announced — We are The Fabulous Five! Trouble was, one of their mates in the six-man band wasn’t there at the moment. Later, to cover, they added the “Inc.”
Here’s my personal story. While my wife was in labor (33 hours!!) we mostly listened to a calming compilation I made of classical baroque instrumental music. When that beautiful baby finally arrived my wife, a professional singer since her mid-teens, spontaneously, joyously burst into “I Can See Clearly Now.” (And not just because one of her nurses was Jamaican.) I will never forget that moment.
Johnny Nash, 80, died peacefully at home in Houston two weeks ago after a long decline in health, his son announced. What a legacy.
Charles Andrews has listened to a lot of music of all kinds, including more than 2,500 live shows. He has lived in Santa Monica for 34 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at firstname.lastname@example.org