ON the day John Holt makes his final journey, it is appropriate to reflect on where his illustrious career started: With the Vere Johns talent contests in the 1950s.
Holt was a primary school student when he began appearing in the popular competitions which took place weekly at the Ambassador, Majestic and Palace theatres in Kingston.
According to Holt’s biography in British archivist Dave Thompson’s book, Reggae and Caribbean Music, the singer won the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour and Knocks contests a remarkable 28 times!
Holt was from Greenwich Town, a seafaring community near to Majestic Theatre where many of his Vere Johns victories took place.
The Vere Johns shows were as big as the Tastee Talent Contest and Digicel Rising Stars that came later. It attracted many Kingston youth from working-class and impoverished backgrounds.
Future stars Alton Ellis, Lascelles Perkins, Jimmy Tucker and Bunny and Skully also got their start on ‘Vere Johns’. Kingsley ‘King Omar’ Goodison, who stages the annual Tribute To The Greats event, remembers attending shows at the Ambassador.
“For many of them (artistes), it was the first stage of their career, because a lot of youth in those days wanted to be singers or dancers. Even if they didn’t win, it was great exposure,” Goodison said.
Holt began his recording career during the ska era of the early 1960s. Later that decade, he was a big star with The Paragons, one of the top acts of the rocksteady period.
He had a series of hit songs as the music transitioned to reggae in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including A Love I Can Feel, Stick by Me, Tonight and Strange Things.