Yesterday, the world lost two titans of popular song, Eddie Van Halen and Johnny Nash. We salute them both.
Eddie Van Halen, who died of cancer at the age of 65, was born in Amsterdam and rose to fame in southern California, but his music belonged to the world. Guitarist Eddie and brother-drummer Alex formed the band that became Van Halen in 1972 and paid their dues in the ensuing years, earning fans such as Gene Simmons and Kim Fowley. Once Warner Bros. Records took notice of them in 1977, the band – by then also featuring vocalist David Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony – was ready to rock.
Producer Ted Templeman (Harpers Bizarre, The Doobie Brothers) knew that Van Halen was capable of creating the next great guitar record, and indeed, their self-titled 1978 debut melded blazing hard rock with an accessible pop sensibility and a deep-rooted love of the classic rock repertoire. That debut included a cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” just one of many oldies Van Halen would revisit and transform over the years in tribute to Eddie’s musical heroes. But it was the originals that really caught fire: “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love,” and Eddie’s scorching solo “Eruption.” Today it’s still considered one of the most influential solos of all time, popularizing the style of tapping (a string is fretted and set into vibration in one motion of being tapped onto the fretboard, in contrast to the standard procedure of fretting with one hand and picking with the other). Eddie’s rapid-fire fingers and virtuosic technique created a sound unlike any other.
That sound would serve Van Halen – the person and the band – well over the years, through many much-publicized personnel changes and through chart-topping songs, an unbroken string of ten Diamond and multi-Platinum studio albums, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and a Grammy Award. Eddie generously collaborated with other artists, too, including Michael Jackson for whom he crafted the famous “Beat It” solo. He even cameoed in the music video for Frank Sinatra’s “L.A. Is My Lady.”
Eddie valiantly pressed on in the face of addiction and health issues, continuing to record and tour into the second decade of the 21st century and bringing his son Wolfgang into the family business. Whether you think of Van Halen for “Jump,” “Dance the Night Away,” “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” or even the band’s covers of “(Oh) Pretty Woman” or “Dancing in the Street,” chances are the searing, incendiary tone of this legendary guitar hero is ringing in your head. Go ahead and jump in his memory.
We also lost Johnny Nash at the age of 80. Most famous for his anthem of optimism, “I Can See Clearly Now,” Nash was one of the first Americans to record reggae in Jamaica and popularize the genre. But when the Houston-born singer first entered the studio, he planned on being a romantic crooner in the mold of another Johnny, Mathis. But fate had other ideas. While he recorded traditional vocal pop and soul for labels including ABC-Paramount, Warner Bros. and Argo, he had his sight on other goals, too. The young and restless talent appeared in films, earning accolades for his role in the 1959 United Artists drama Take a Giant Step. His JoDa production company and label helped launch the career of The Cowsills, and he produced one side of their very first single. At JoDa, he scored his first hit single in 1965 with “Let’s Move and Groove Together” but soon he was moving and grooving to Jamaica, entranced with the exciting new music being created there and sensing its commercial possibilities.
In Jamaica, Johnny gave an early break to Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Rita Marley, signing them to his publishing company. He started a new record label, JAD Records, on which his self-penned “Hold Me Tight” became an international hit in 1968. His 1972 single “I Can See Clearly Now” might be his most enduring composition, though, melding reggae and pop in a breezy, hopeful, and inspiring fashion. It became an international hit and relaunched his career at Epic Records. A 1993 cover by Jimmy Cliff restored the song to the top of the charts in numerous countries, reaffirming its innate relevance and power to uplift.
While Johnny only recorded sporadically after the 1970s, he had already left his indelible mark on pop music everywhere with his groundbreaking embrace of reggae and rocksteady. His catalogue is well worth rediscovering, both for his original music and his reworked versions of songs from Sam Cooke (“Cupid,” “(What a) Wonderful World”), Bob Marley (“Stir It Up”), and even Broadway’s Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (“Somewhere”) and Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields (“Sweet Charity”).
While Johnny Nash is gone, the message he leaves behind is an important one, especially in these fraught times. If things seem bleak, it might do some good to remember: It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day…