Few artists can boast about changing the face of music, but Jimmy Cliff was there at the crossroads at two points in reggae’s growth into a global movement.
In 1972, Cliff starred in the ‘first reggae film’ The Harder They Come — wrapping up roots, ska, Rastafari and Jamaican social justice issues into a digestible two hours, and the soundtrack was reggae’s first big breakthrough in the US.
Cliff also auditioned a young Bob Marley and gave him his first recording break in 1962, and we all know how that worked out.
Jimmy Cliff has been feeling reggae for 50-odd years, and the 72-year-old isn’t stopping any time soon — he answers the phone in a hotel at Heathrow Airport, just off a flight after a gig in Austria, and he’s recently been on tour in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. His soothing lilt isn’t a million miles from his singing voice, one of the most cherished in all of reggae music.
Cliff says he “absolutely didn’t think that far ahead” when he recorded his first single Hurricane Hattie in 1962 when he was 14, but adds: “But oh yeah, I was always ambitious, I wanted to accomplish a lot of things in this lifetime.”
Even his most lofty ambitions wouldn’t have stretched as far as how things actually panned out. If there was a reggae Mount Rushmore, Cliff would be up there with Marley, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear, with all-time classics behind him like You Can Get It If You Really Want, Many Rivers To Cross and of course The Harder They Come. He’s also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is the only living musician to hold the Order of Merit in Jamaica.
Like many young Jamaicans, Jimmy was turned on to the new offbeat ska craze, which flipped American jazz and rhythm and blues with Caribbean rhythms. He wrote a few songs in his rural home in St James, but soon realised he needed to be in Kingston. When he moved to the capital to enrol in a technical college, he started knocking on doors.
“I found out that music was what I loved, and music and acting was what I could do the best, above everything else, so I just followed that feeling, you know,” he recalls. “I left with the countryside with five songs, I just started making enquiries, of where and how I could get my songs recorded. Even though I was still going to college I was still asking how do you do it? How does it work? Asking everyone.”
Born James Chambers, he laughs off my pseudo-intellectual notion that the ‘Cliff’ name represented the huge obstacle he had to climb to make it in the industry.
He just says simply: “I was born in the hills of Jamaica you know, way up in the hills, and so I would say, Cliff, why not Cliff?”
The young Jimmy’s brass neck finally gave him a foot in the door – literally – when he went to a family restaurant called Beverley’s and sang the song Dearest Beverley for the owners. He somehow convinced one family member, Leslie Kong, to start a record label and release Hurricane Hatty, with Dearest Beverley as the B-side. Beverley’s Records eventually released 45s by the Maytals, Peter Tosh and Desmond Dekker and others, becoming one of the iconic labels that helped ska and rocksteady evolve into reggae through the 60s.
“I started recording for Beverley’s and Desmond Dekker came and I auditioned him,” Jimmy recalls. “And Desmond Dekker used to work as well with Bob Marley at the same place [a welding shop in Kingston], so he went back and told Bob and Bob came and I auditioned him as well, and got his songs recorded too – that was the start of his music career. I knew straight away that he had a good sense of rhythm and a great sense of words. I just saw, yeah he is a poet.”
Hurricane Hatty and its follow-ups were local hits, and Cliff hitched a ride to the US on the back of this local success. In New York he met the famously hands-on Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, who tried to entice him away from his new comfortable life in the States.
“I was kind of well liked, and he say why don’t you come to England, and I say, well but I would prefer to stay here in America, the papers are writing about my voice and my dancing and all of that. He say, ‘Well I think you’ll do better in England than you could do here, because there are many over here like you but there are not many like you in England. And it made an impression on me, I went back to Jamaica and then accepted the offer to come to England a few months later, in 1965.”
Cliff’s music has always been informed by a social consciousness as well as disarmingly personal narratives, and he mixed both on Many Rivers To Cross, as he considered his journey in the context of his ancestors’ struggles.
“Many Rivers To Cross was drawn from many sources,” he explains. “Like I thought about some of my ancestors crossing over the Middle Passage and all of that, to go to Jamaica and Brazil and the United States and all the places they were taken to. And I thought about the journey I made from the countryside going to Kingston. I thought about how other people were feeling, like the so-called Indians of North America… that’s how it came from many different sources.”
Reggae and dub’s link with punk has gone down as one of the greatest pairings of the late 70s – from Don Letts playing the finest Jamaican 45s to kids at the Roxy, the Clash covering Junior Murvin and the initially reticent Bob Marley finally getting it and writing Punky Reggae Party.
“We both expressed feelings of social justice and both were kind of rebellious music at the time so that’s what I saw, the similarity,” Jimmy recalls.
“I liked The Clash because like I said they were expressing the same kind of sentiment. Joe Strummer, we used to say hi to each other when we were on the way to different gigs and that kinda thing, so yeah, I liked them and I thought they liked my music too. And evidently they did – afterwards I met Joe and he expressed that to me.”
And if reggae music hit a raw nerve with the punks, they found a true anti-hero in Jimmy’s character in The Harder They Come, Ivanhoe Martin – based on a mythologised 1940s Jamaican gangster. Ivanhoe even gets namechecked on the Clash classic The Guns of Brixton, which Jimmy covered on his 2012 album Rebirth.
He also tapped into the punk spirit on the Rebirth LP by recording with Tim Armstrong of LA ska punks Rancid, who are also on the record as huge Jimmy Cliff fans. He covered Rancid’s Ruby Soho, but was also convinced to dig deep back to his 1960s roots sound.
“We never set out to make an album, we were just going to work on a few songs and it started going so good so we say let’s make an album, it was that simple. Tim was a great guy to work with. I heard him playing a track and I said it takes me right back to the beginning of things when I started and that’s how I just had a fall back into it. It was really nice to go back and record those kind of rhythms with people who are not Jamaican.”
But even if his last album was a roots throwback, Cliff says he’ll jump back to the present with his new album, due next year. Bob Dylan once said that Cliff’s 1970 single Vietnam was the greatest protest song of all time, and he says he’s also addressing some issues on the new album.
“There isn’t a general theme, or maybe there is, as the general theme would be the basic things that I’ve always sang about which is of course love, but justice… social justice. there’s a song on It called Refugees, there’s also a song on it called Racism. Basically what I’m saying about racism is that no one wins the race of racism.
Cliff’s 2017 single Life is a summery dancehall call to live for the moment, and he still maintains this belief informs his whole life.
“I’ve always been a forward-looking person, but I’ve learned it more over the years,” he says. “I have learned to live in the present, and the present is called the present because it is a gift. And I’m here now.”