Crossover reggae-pop star Johnny Nash, best known for the optimistic singalong “I Can See Clearly Now” and for his key role in launching the career of his friend Bob Marley, has passed away. The news was confirmed Tuesday evening by his son, Johnny Nash Jr., who told the Associated Press that the elder Nash died of natural causes at his home in Houston, Texas. The singer-songwriter, actor, producer, and record label executive was 80 years old.
Nash was born in Houston on Aug. 19, 1940, and he began performing professionally at age 13, singing on the local variety program Matinee and on Arthur Godfrey's radio and television shows. He started off as a teen crooner, with a tenor that earned comparisons to the voice of rival pop idol Johnny Mathis, releasing his debut single “A Teenager Sings the Blues” in 1957. His first proper chart hit, a cover of Doris Day's “A Very Special Love,” and a collaboration with fellow teenyboppers Paul Anka and George Hamilton IV, “The Teen Commandments (of Love),” respectively followed in 1958 and 1959. Nash released a string of radio singles in the ’50s and early/mid-‘60s, but just as his pop career was starting to fade, his life took an important turn in 1965 — when he moved to Jamaica and soon attended a Rastafarian party, where Bob Marley & The Wailing Wailers were performing.
Nash struck up a friendship with Marley, who introduced him to the Kingston rocksteady scene; Nash in turn became instrumental in helping kickstart the young Marley’s international career, co-founding a record label, JAD Records, and signing the Wailers’ Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and Rita Marley to long-term recording and publishing deals. JAD also released Nash's rocksteady single “Hold Me Tight” and his covers of Marley's “Guava Jelly” and “Stir It Up,” making him one of the first non-Jamaican singers to record reggae music in Kingston, Jamaica, and among the first artists to introduce reggae to mainstream U.S. and U.K. audiences.
It was Nash’s sunny, reggae-infused “I Can See Clearly Now,” written while he was recovering from cataract surgery and released when he was already well into his thirties, that was his breakthrough smash: It topped Billboard’s Hot 100 and Adult-Contemporary charts for four consecutive weeks in November 1972, and it eventually sold more than 1 million copies. Nash’s album that year, also titled I Can See Clearly Now, featured four Marley compositions, including Marley/Nash duet “You Poured Sugar on Me.”
Nash never repeated the chart success of “I Can See Clearly Now,” and he came to be seen, unfairly, as a one-hit wonder. By the ‘90s, he had all but retired from the industry; his final full-length studio album was 1986’s Here Again. However, his signature song has stood the test of time and has been covered by Ray Charles, Soul Asylum, Donny Osmond, Neil Finn, Hothouse Flowers, Eagle-Eye Cherry, and mostly notably reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, whose 1993 version was featured in the film Cool Runnings and charted in 11 countries, going to No. 18 on the U.S. pop chart.
In addition to his son, Johnny Nash is survived by his daughter, Monica, and his wife, Carli Nash.
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