Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Johnny Nash by diving into his lone No. 1, the defiantly optimistic “I Can See Clearly Now.”
By 1972, reggae had become an international phenomenon. After picking up steam in Jamaica over the course of the ’60s, due to artists like Toots & the Maytalls, Desmond Dekker and The Wailers, the rhythmically offbeat genre crossed over to U.K. shores around the turn of the ’70s. Then, thanks to Island Records star Jimmy Cliff and the Cliff-led, all-reggae soundtrack to 1972’s Jamaican crime drama The Harder They Come, it began to make stateside inroads as well. But it wasn’t any of these figures — or even Wailers frontman Bob Marley, soon to become the genre’s signature star — who first brought reggae’s influence to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Rather, that fell to an ex-teen idol from Houston, who found himself at the right place at the right time to become America’s first-ever reggae crossover star.
Johnny Nash, who died this Tuesday (Oct. 6) at age 80, started early in the music business, singing on local radio as a young teenager. He scored his first national hit at age 17, with a 1957 cover of Doris Day’s “A Very Special Love.” Nash continued to crank out soft pop balladry for a number of years, even teaming up with fellow teen idols Paul Anka and George Hamilton for the waltzing “The Teen Commandments” in 1958. But with the rise of Motown and then the British Invasion in the early ’60s, the hits dried up for Nash, and he was forced to adapt. By that point, Nash had also begun working behind the scenes in the industry, writing the No. 18-peaking Hot 100 hit “What Kind of Love Is This” for Joey Dee and the Starliters, and co-founding JoDa Records with manager Danny Sims. Noting that the Jamaican market was an efficient one for American artists to attempt to break, due to the low cost of recording on the island nation, Nash and Sims moved their families there in the mid-’60s.
While the original plan had been to ignore the local music scene and continue to crank out American-sounding pop music, reggae (and its precursor genre, rocksteady) eventually rubbed off on Nash, and its influence could be felt on his first Jamaican-recorded album, 1968’s Hold Me Tight. That set’s clearly reggae-indebted title track, with its light offbeat bounce and sweet harmonies, became Nash’s first true international smash, hitting No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and even topping the charts in Canada. As Nash dove deeper into reggae music and Rastafarian culture, he also befriended Bob and Rita Marley, enlisting Bob as a writer for several of his own songs, and scoring a U.K. hit with a cover of the Wailers’ “Stir It Up.”
That Marley cover eventually appeared on Nash’s 1972 album I Can See Clearly Now, recorded with reggae group the Fabulous Five Inc. as his backing band. The set’s second single was its title track, which like Paul Simon’s top 5 hit “Mother and Child Reunion” from earlier in the year, integrated a light but unmistakeable Jamaican influence into a pop-soul groove easily understood by American audiences. The song’s jaunty, off-beat drums and hiccuping accordion hook suggested reggae, but the bubbling bass line was straight ought of Detroit, and the late-arriving keyboards (likely courtesy of a then-cutting edge Moog synthesizer) gave the song a near-prog sort of futurism.
The biggest Island influence on Nash for “I Can See Clearly Now” might have been his hard-earned sense of optimism and hopefulness. After bouncing around the industry for a decade, Nash had seemingly found his sound and his place — and whether or not that’s what the song is directly inspired by, the song’s ultimate impression is of a man who has finally achieved a clarity of vision after a long and cloudy journey. His thin, piercing vocal doesn’t sound boastful or overpowering on the verses as he sings about how “it’s gonna be a bright sunshine-y day,” but rather just kinda unburdened — the feeling of making it through a particularly gloomy and weighty night and having everything feel that much simpler and lighter the next morning as a result.
Actually, the song’s most powerful moments come not in Nash’s summery weather reportage, but in the suggestion of the darkness he’s since escaped. “I think I can make it now, the pain is gone,” he mentions on the second verse, not dwelling on the bad times but still making clear their memory is a recent one. Then at the end of the song’s unexpectedly stormy bridge — the one moment of the song where Nash really lets loose, bursting into “Look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies!” — the clouds seem to swirl back into place for a moment, in a fog of Moog and wordless minor-chord harmonies. It’s a downright frightening moment of musical doubt, but one that is quickly (and thankfully) ushered away by a major-chord resolution to the passage, and a return to the song’s sunny main hook.
Perhaps due to these moments of darkness, it’s been rumored that the song is about suicide. But Nash has never said as such, and that’s not really what the song feels like anyway. Rather, the reminder that no matter how sunny it looks or feels right now, the rain never totally goes away forever, is a healthy one — especially as the song doesn’t let the diversion totally derail its focus on the clearer skies ahead. And of course, it’s not the glimpses of pain and doubt that “I Can See Clearly Now” is most remembered for nearly a half-century later, but that giddy optimism for the future. It has soundtracked countless movie montages and vacation package commercials as a feel-good anthem, practically a moment of escapist fantasy in a world where such moments of total spiritual and mental ease can be tough to come by.
In any event, the optimism of “I Can See Clearly Now” was quickly validated by the song’s chart performance. It debuted at No. 84 on the Hot 100 in early September 1972, and just eight weeks later, replaced Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” atop the chart, staying there for four weeks. Nash would re-release his version of Marley’s “Stir It Up” for his next single, hitting No. 12 on the Hot 100 in April 1973 — but that would be his final visit to the chart’s top 40, as Philly soul and then disco rose to prominence and again Nash was left playing catch-up. He disappeared from the industry for much of the later part of his life, with seven years between the release of 1979’s Let’s Go Dancing and 1986’s Here Again albums, and the follow-up to the latter never materializing.
If Nash’s new friends in Jamaica hoped that his Stateside success would provide the bridge they could then cross to such Hot 100 triumph of their own, they were bound to be disappointed when the next decades brought further Island-flavored No. 1s from Eric Clapton (with a cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”), Blondie (doing the Paragons’ calypso hit “The Tide Is High”) and UB40 (with reggae-arranged covers of Neil Diamond’s “Red, Red Wine” and Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”), but none from Jamaican artists aside from Carl Douglas’ disco novelty “Kung Fu Fighting.” Vindication would have to wait until the ’90s, when Maxi Priest (“Close to You”) and Ini Kamoze (“Here Comes the Hotstepper”) brought Jamaican music to the top spot, opening the doors for the likes of Shaggy and Sean Paul to notch multiple Hot 100 No. 1s each at the dawn of the 21st century.
Would Nash be at risk of cultural appropriation accusations today for becoming reggae’s first true Stateside crossover star, without any Jamaican roots of his own? Perhaps, but likely not too seriously — his hits were recorded in Jamaica, after all, with Jamaican collaborators, some of whose later international success Nash helped make possible. (“It was Nash who helped the Wailers reorganize musically and who ultimately ushered them onto the world stage,” David Vlado Moskowitz wrote in 2007’s The Words and Music of Bob Marley. “In 1975, Bob said of Nash, ‘He’s good, I like him.'”) And in 1994, Nash probably got whatever remaining validation he would need when “I Can See Clearly Now” was returned to the Hot 100’s top 20 as part of the Cool Runnings soundtrack — recorded by none other than Jimmy Cliff.