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Reggae is part of the family

Special to The Times

FOR two decades beginning in 1978, the live home of reggae music was Reggae Sunsplash, a festival that made its mark in Jamaica with a lineup of the genre’s kings, including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Dennis Brown.

Sunsplash landed on the shores of the United States in 1985, stopping at the Greek Theatre to spread its good vibrations every summer through 1996.

But when native Jamaican and tour founder Tony Johnson died in May 1997 of a massive heart attack at age 56, Sunsplash essentially passed on too -- until this year.

Now Johnson’s son, T.J., has assumed the mantle of advancing his father’s venture.

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“My family and I, we’ve never given up my father’s dream, and Sunsplash was definitely his dream,” T.J. says by phone from Japan, where he is putting on a show.

T.J., like his father a graduate of UCLA, has relaunched the tour in America with the help of sisters Nikki Johnson and Danielle Johnson Williams; his mother, Sonia Johnson; and his father’s former business partner, Toby Ludwig.

(A different company runs the Reggae Sunsplash that continues in Jamaica.)

Ask T.J., who grew up in Pasadena and sold real estate after college, why the tour works now, and he concedes he’s not quite sure.

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“We’ve been trying and now it just worked out,” he says. “I wish I could put my finger on what exactly it was, but for whatever reason everything just fell into place this year.”

Maxi Priest, an artist who’s been with the tour from the early days and will perform along with headliner UB40 on Saturday at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, acknowledges having some concerns about reviving Sunsplash. “When it first came to me I remember sitting down, thinking, ‘Do they know what this really is, have they thought about how to make this move, not once, or twice, but again, and again?’ ” he says. “Because it was something created by one person and it’s difficult to emulate that person’s dream and take that massive thing and kick it off.”

However, Priest says the 19-date tour, which began Aug. 10 in West Palm Beach, Fla., has gone well: “It’s fabulous to see it back on the road. So far it’s worked with the help of a lot of people who were there at the beginning. That’s helped a lot.”

Besides Priest, Third World is also a veteran of past festivals. “I thought it was important to come back with some people who really knew my dad’s spirit,” T.J. says.

Of UB40 making their inaugural Sunsplash appearance, Johnson says, “It’s one of the biggest acts in reggae and I thought it would be definitely fitting, because I know my father loved UB40, to have them on Reggae Sunsplash.”

Priest says that not a day passes when he doesn’t think of Tony Johnson. “Every day we’re out on the road Tony runs through my mind,” he says. “ ‘What would he be doing now? What would he think, his son running it?’ ”

Says T.J.: “I think he’d be very happy, just have a big smile on his face, saying, ‘That’s my big son.’ That’s what he always used to call me. And he’d be proud of me and my sisters and my mom and all of us. I can definitely feel my father’s spirit.”

Steve Baltin may be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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Reggae Sunsplash

Where: Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Price: $15 to $45

Info: (949) 855-8096


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