In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The ongoing conversation between American and Jamaican music has always been a fascinating thing. According to legend, the big bang for Jamaican music culture was the invention of the transistor radio, which allowed Jamaican listeners to hear the Fats Domino records that were being played on New Orleans R&B stations. Jamaican musicians would try to play the New Orleans R&B beat, and they couldn’t get it quite right. But their own chugging form of that beat became its own thing. It became ska, which begat rocksteady, which begat reggae.
That whole story is probably apocryphal. I have a hard time believing that this entire rich musical culture came out of these amazing musicians’ inability to play a pretty simple beat. But it does serve to highlight the ways that Jamaican music and black American music have been exchanging ideas back and forth for decades. I hear a ton of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, for instance, in the voices of Jamaican singers like Jimmy Cliff. And I hear a ton of Jimmy Cliff in Johnny Nash, the American singer who lived in Jamaica for years and who helped introduce the world to Bob Marley.
I’ve seen “I Can See Clearly Now,” Nash’s one monster hit, described as the first reggae song ever to hit #1 in America. That’s wrong. “I Can See Clearly Now” isn’t a reggae song. It doesn’t have that big one-drop beat, and I think you need to have that to qualify as a reggae song. “I Can See Clearly Now” is informed by reggae, but then, so is the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” a song built on the bones of an instrumental hit from Jamaica. Really, “I Can See Clearly Now” isn’t a song that belongs to any one musical tradition. Instead, it’s a lovely piece of the kind of alchemy that can only happen when the right writer pulls the right ideas from the right places.
Johnny Nash was 32 when he hit #1 with “I Can See Clearly Now,” and he’d already had 15 years in the game. Nash came from Houston, and he grew up singing in church. At 13, he started performing on Matinee, a music-themed TV show on the local station KPRC. At 17, he scored his first national hit, a fairly generic piece of orchestral-pop schmaltz called “A Very Special Love.” (It peaked at #23 on the pre-Hot 100 days of 1957.) It was years before Nash made another real hit, but he kept hanging around the margins, releasing singles and occasionally acting in movies like the 1959 anti-racism coming-of-age drama Take A Giant Step.
In 1965, Nash and Danny Sims, a New York restauranteur who he’d befriended, started a label called JODA Records, and they signed the Cowsills, a Rhode Island family band who scored a bunch of hits once they moved on to a bigger label. But 1965 is also when Sims and Nash moved to Jamaica. To hear Sims tell it, he’d been booking Malcolm X on the lecture circuit, and he was getting a little too much scrutiny from the FBI, so it was time to leave town. Sometime in the late ’60s, Nash heard a young Bob Marley singing at a Rastafarian celebration, and he and Sims signed Marley and his bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, hoping that the trio would write some songs for Nash.
Being around reggae worked wonders for Nash. In 1968, Nash recorded a reggae ballad called “Hold Me Tight,” and the song made it to #5 in the US. (It’s a 7.) And for a few years, Nash and Marley worked closely together. Marley wrote a bunch of songs for Nash, three of which ended up on the album that would become I Can See Clearly Now. (One of those songs was “Stir It Up,” which Marley had originally recorded in 1967. Nash’s version would become a hit, peaking at #12 in the US, and the version that Marley recorded in 1973 became one of his signature songs.)
But “I Can See Clearly Now” didn’t come from Marley or from any of the other reggae musicians in Nash’s orbit. Nash wrote and produced the song himself. He recorded it in London. It’s hard to find credits for the song online. Marley and the other Wailers played on some of the album tracks, but it seems like they weren’t on “I Can See Clearly Now.” Musicians from the Fabulous Five, Inc., a Jamaican session band, may have played on the song. But members of the Average White Band, the Scottish funk group who will eventually appear in this column, definitely appeared on it. (Bassist Alan Gorrie played on the song; he talked to the Houston Chronicle about it decades later. I’d love to know whether the studio band also included the two AWB guys who played on “My Ding-A-Ling,” the eternally shitty Chuck Berry song that “I Can See Clearly Now” replaced at #1.)
Maybe there’s a little bit of reggae in the drums on “I Can See Clearly Now” — the way they glide. But there’s other stuff, too. There’s some beautifully fuzzed-out guitar. There’s a lithe, supple bassline. There’s a massive sunburst of horns that rolls in halfway through. I think there’s an accordion? And above it all, there’s Nash, joyous and unconcerned.
There’s a dark but enduring theory that “I Can See Clearly Now” is a song about suicide, about giving yourself up to oblivion: “I think I can make it now, the pain is gone / All of the bad feelings have disappeared.” That’s not how Nash meant it, and I hope that’s not how too many people take it. Instead, it’s a song about pushing through struggle, through a shitty period. It’s about the euphoria that can come from that struggle, and from making it to the other side: The paycheck that gets you out of overdraft, the half-decent date that restores your faith in humanity. The song is vague and fuzzy and indistinct in its wording. But that’s where its power comes from, too. It’s a universal feeling, a moment of fleeting bliss that can change your whole outlook.
And it beautiful. Nash sells the song with an elegant simplicity. His voice hits high notes with an infectious ease. And maybe the float in Nash’s voice is where “I Can See Clearly Now” draws the most from reggae. There’s a grit to the song, but it’s not the sort of grit that comes to American pop music through gospel. It’s the sort of soaring ecstasy that implies that the singer has been through some shit. It’s the darkness that the light implies.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Screeching Weasel’s snarl-whining punk cover of “I Can See Clearly Now,” from the 1991 album My Brain Hurts:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The aforementioned reggae legend Jimmy Cliff covered “I Can See Clearly Now” for the soundtrack of the 1993 movie Cool Runnings. And that fizzy pop-reggae take on the song is, implausibly enough, Cliff’s highest-charting single in the US. (It peaked at #18.) Here’s the video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Soul Asylum’s cover of “I Can See Clearly Now,” recorded at a 1997 live show and released in 2004:
(Soul Asylum’s highest-charting song is 1993’s “Runaway Train,” which peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Moody Blues’ stoned-romantic “Nights In White Satin,” a 1967 single reissued in 1972, peaked at #2 behind “I Can See Clearly Now.” It’s an 8.