Credited, along with Bob Marley, with playing a vital role in the introduction of reggae music to the world at large, Jimmy Cliff has never gained the kind of messianic reputation that his peer did. Despite the fact that Cliff’s name is virtually a household word among reggae fans in the United States and Great Britain, very few of those fans really know much of his music beyond some standard selections. In addition, his tremendous energy and industriousness - which have produced over eighteen albums in as many years - have never produced consistent financial success.
Cliff’s family descended from bands of fugitive Afro-Caribbean slaves called “Maroons,” who eventually gave their name to what is now the Maroon country in Jamaica. Certain parts of the West Indian island - largely inaccessible because of mountains and thick rain forests - provided a haven for escaped slaves as early as the seventeenth century. The area began to function as a base of operations for Afro-Caribbean rebellion; consequently, it has for hundreds of years stood as a source of conflict for the English colonizers and a source of pride and strength for a struggling Afro-Caribbean population. James Chambers, whom we now know as Jimmy Cliff, grew up in the Maroon country with the Maroon spirit.
Born in 1948 in the rural village of Somerton in St. James Parish, Cliff was the second son of laborer parents. (The older son, Victor, would eventually become his brother’s manager.) Because the children’s mother left the family soon after Jimmy’s birth, he and Victor were raised by their father, who worked nominally as a tailor but also supplemented his income as a farm hand. Beyond sustenance, he provided his sons with musical influence: “He was always singing. There wasn’t TV, there wasn’t radio. We played drums or guitars - that was the entertainment,” Cliff revealed in a Jet interview.
Cliff quit school in 1961 at the age of thirteen. He soon left Somerton for Kingston, the major urban center of Jamaica, to seek some kind of training that would provide him with a trade. He knew, however, even before setting foot in the city that he wanted to make a living in music. The draw of a thriving music industry in Kingston in the early 1960s, which primarily produced rhythm and blues and Ska, gave many black youths at least the fantasy of an opportunity to break out of a cycle of hopeless poverty. Ska, the roots of what would become reggae later in the 1960s, grafted the American mainland sound of R & B onto the syncopated calypso sound developed by Jamaican blacks. As Ska grew into reggae, it would be adopted by a religion of black liberation - particular to Jamaica - embodied by the Rastafarians. Although Cliff never identified himself as a Rastafarian, most reggae musicians did, and the same musical roots offered him a ticket to success.
As an unskilled black youth plunged into the ghettos of a city where he knew no one, all Cliff had going for him was resourcefulness and staying power. Before he could even approach the city’s music industry, he had to negotiate the dangers of the major slum of the city, Trench Town. Cliff displayed his usual bravado when he told Reggae Bloodlines author Stephen Davis about his experiences there as a teenager: “It was violent there, but I wasn’t afraid because the environment of Somerton was also tough and I was used to it. You had to know how to defend yourself and fear is a thing you couldn’t live with. In West Kingston we had political violence and they teargas my house all the time.... Dem raid and dem teargas the whole place.” Because Cliff had the spirit necessary to handle this setting, he could hold out long enough to make himself known to the Kingston record producers.
The local music industry was a thriving but extremely exploitative business, providing many young musicians with some degree of work. Small record producers participated in a kind of cottage industry, hiring local youths to write and record songs; the singles, called acetates, were played in dance halls where, depending on the response of the audience, the most popular would be chosen for sale in record shops. According to this system, an aspiring young musician could record a large number of acetates for a producer without ever releasing a single; if he or she did finally have a single, it was still a gamble as to whether or not the song would catch on and the musician would be paid to do more recordings.
Only a fraction of the talented individuals who put their energy into a vital Jamaican music industry have ever managed to make a living at it, or a name that goes beyond the island. Cliff expressed to Davis how even the possibility of success motivated him: “What was I supposed to do with my life? Work in a banana field? Cut cane? I came to Kingston to go to night school and learn a trade, but my intention was to sing.” While he sought that break in the music industry, he supported himself by working on a vegetable truck; for the most part, he led a life of extreme poverty - often near to starving - typical in the ghettos of Kingston.
Soon after arriving in Kingston, Cliff - who had reportedly changed his name because he wanted something that expressed his ambition to reach the “heights” - began courting local record producers. He recorded his first single, “Daisy Got Me Crazy,” and his first Jamaican hit, “Dearest Beverly,” in 1962 - only a year after his arrival in the city. The last song, combined with Cliff’s ingenuity, even established Leslie Kong, the man who produced the single, as an important reggae producer.
Kong and his brothers owned a record store in Kingston called Beverley’s. Although the brothers at this point only sold records and had never produced one, young Cliff wrote “Beverly” for the Kong brothers and then went so far as to suggest that they should produce it. Cliff described the evening to Davis: “I was alone and walking one night, and it was a night of frustrations. Go passed his record shop several times that night and I say, ‘Beverley.’ Right away think of a song called ‘Beverly’ and I walk in there to seduce him with my song that had the same name as his shop. Subliminal seduction, right?... So he liked the song and ... said it was the best voice he had ever heard.... I was fourteen years old then. He didn’t know anything about the business and so I gathered the musicians and two more singers, Monte Morris and Derrick Morgan, got them and bring them in and introduce them. We got a little hit out of ‘Hurricane Hattie’ and that was the beginning of Leslie Kong, too.” With Kong established as a producer, Cliff was able to record as much as he liked; he turned out a series of island hits, including “Hurricane Hattie,” “My Lucky Day,” “Miss Jamaica,” “Fat Man,” and “Rudie in Court.”
At about this time, the Jamaican government put together a troupe of island musicians for a promotional tour to broaden the appeal of Jamaican culture and encourage tourism.
Cliff went on the tour, planting the first seeds of his fame beyond the Caribbean in general and in the United States in particular. After the tour, in what seemed to be a major break for such a young new artist, Chris Blackwell, the president of Island Records, brought Cliff to London. In only two years, from 1961 to 1963, Cliff went from wandering the streets of Kingston to taking the first step in an international music career.
The move to London, however, first led Cliff into another period of poverty, struggle, and discrimination. He had to confront English racism: a government that tried to deport him and landlords who wouldn’t rent to any nonwhite tenants. Furthermore, he ended up having to support his own musical interests with work as a back-up vocalist for English pop groups. Since Ska was only then becoming palatable to English and American music audiences, Cliff couldn’t build a career on the Jamaican sounds that were most familiar to him.
Already inclined to musical and cultural eclecticism, Cliff handled these circumstances by branching out into other forms of music, either recording strict R & B and soul or blending these other sounds with early reggae. As Davis noted, Cliff was “trying to shake off his musical patois and assume a more cosmopolitan soul style.” Although his singles for Island at this time never had any notable success, he started to do well with a soul-based band that he had created in order to tour the European club circuit. In France and Scandinavia, he was especially well received; France has since remained one of his most loyal markets.
The next upturn in Cliff’s career finally came in 1968, when the song “Waterfall” was accepted at a Brazilian music festival. Cliff was so taken by the culture in Brazil, which offers an incredible weave of diverse national and racial backgrounds, that he stayed for six months, working on the songs that would finally cement his international reputation. The album that he released in 1969, Wonderful World, Beautiful People, included the first release of “Many Rivers to Cross,” which has since become one of the songs most often associated with Cliff’s name. The album also introduced Cliff’s first two international hits, “Vietnam” and the title track. Although the British press, finding the album too commercial, gave it mediocre reviews, consumers loved it. Wonderful World, Beautiful People made Cliff money in markets ranging from the United Kingdom to South America. His next album, released in 1970, prompted precisely the opposite response: critics lauded Another Cycle, but Cliff’s financial status waned due to slow record sales. To some degree, this vacillating condition would characterize the rest of Cliff’s career, partly because his musical style would vary so much from one production to the next that critics and fans could not count on any single sound from him.
This trend, this limbo in which Cliff’s career has generally suffered, was banished for a brief time in the early 1970s with the success of the low-budget cult film “The Harder They Come.” Director Perry Henzell, a white Jamaican filmmaker who earned his living filming commercials, had an idea for a film that would introduce audiences to the harsh realities of Jamaican life. After seeing Cliff on an album cover, he determined that this was the face that he wanted for Ivan, his lead character. Ivan, a black youth not unlike Cliff, tries to make it in the music industry in Kingston only to end up forced into a kind of Robin Hood-gangster existence by the oppressive island government. Henzell approached Cliff about the film in 1970, produced the film in 1971, and released both the film and the soundtrack in 1972.
“The Harder They Come” had a powerful cultural effect. It introduced Cliff to international audiences and cemented his reputation with small but loyal reggae audiences in the United States and Britain well into the future; it also introduced reggae to international audiences, initiating its importance as a musical force with British and American audiences in general. The songs that Cliff wrote and performed for the film, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” and “Sitting Here in Limbo,” have remained Cliff’s best known pieces and have positions in the history of reggae as vital as any of Bob Marley’s most memorialized songs.
Although Cliff’s financial reward for the movie never amounted to more than $10,000, it did establish his popularity to such a degree that he had a chance to launch a lucrative career in reggae music. He chose, however, to prioritize his social and spiritual values over his wallet and engaged in a firsthand study of Africa in order to discover his racial roots and study the Muslim religion. Although he continued to produce albums at a rate of almost one each year, they rarely satisfied the expectations of the most commercial markets in the United States and Britain. This move in many ways typifies Cliff’s career. He pursued African culture as an affirmation of his racial roots, but many critics have interpreted his quest as a rejection of Afro-Caribbean culture. To some degree, this and similar choices have cost him financial success and injured his reputation among Jamaican cultural forces and reggae purists.
Davis summed up the conflict as it prevailed in the late 1970s: “Jimmy Cliff is the most misunderstood of the reggae masters. He has been vilified for abandoning his roots and the Jamaican styles that nourished him.... In Jamaica, Cliff is respected as an artist who opened doors for reggae that might otherwise have remained shut. Others contend that Cliff moved to England so long ago he’s lost contact. Critics point to the smoothness of some of his ... albums, [which seems to represent a denunciation of] the fundamentally raw reggae sensibility. [In addition,] his religion gets him into trouble with the Rastafarians. In a weird incident late in 1975 Cliff was spit upon during a Wailers concert in Kingston by Rastas indignant at Cliff’s ardent embrace of Islam.”
Cliff has, however, established respect and success where he has most seemed to want it: in his own eyes and with untraditional - particularly Third World - markets. He told Lee Wohlfert-Wihlberg in People in 1982: “I realize that the world is set up on publicity and propaganda, and the wise thing for my career was to use it. But if I hadn’t gone to Africa, I probably would have gone crazy. I don’t regret it.” Furthermore, he discovered in 1974 that he had a large following in Africa. Wohlfert-Wihlberg noted that “Cliff’s biggest following is in Nigeria. He’s also popular in Brazil, Sweden, the Soviet Union and South Africa.” So, although he hasn’t ever seemed to discover the proper formula for British and American commercial success, his multinational-based career has been kept very much alive.
Greil Marcus, writing for Rolling Stone, called the 1978 effort Give Thankx, the most popular of Cliff’s late seventies releases, “the first satisfying album Jimmy Cliff has made since the soundtrack to ‘The Harder They Come in 1972.’” Sadly, this comment dismisses the numerous albums Cliff produced between 1972 and 1978. Marcus characterized the work of those six years very harshly: “Cliff, apparently confused by the stardom he’d wanted so long, took a new contract with Warner Bros. and proceeded to make music so dull you couldn’t even blame it on an attempt to compromise, to ‘reach a broader audience,’ to sell out.” In a 1984 review for High Fidelity, Steven X. Rea cast a condemning glance back through Cliff’s career: “The quality of his work ... has fluctuated dramatically. Most of his late ‘70s albums are ludicrously overproduced, zealously optimistic, rife with homilies and cornball sentiment.”
By 1984, Cliff had returned to Jamaica, where he maintained homes in Montego Bay, Kingston, and Somerton. He continued with his eclecticism, mixing the ethics of Rastafarian life with his adoption of Muslim ideals, living between Jamaica and England, cultivating strong markets in South America, Africa, and continental Europe. His 1984 release The Power and the Glory, did better in the States than any album since The Harder They Come; it prompted some particularly optimistic statements from Rea, who claimed that it would “bode well for the future of reggae, and the future of popular music,” adding, “Cliff appears to be widening his parameters toward a global pop context.”
But even this album did not do well enough for Cliff to include any U.S. stops in his 1984 concert tour. The tour took him on 41 stops in Europe over the course of two months, during which he was embraced and encouraged by European audiences. One single from the album, Reggae Nights, went gold in France, anticipating the excitement that French audiences would display at his concerts.
After another run of albums in the late 1980s, mostly produced with Columbia records, Cliff came on tour again in the United States to promote his 1990 release Images. He received favorable reviews for his performances, particularly since he combined his style and reputation with the growing popularity of an important African musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Expectations that this album might be a change for Cliff were based on a change in production; Cliff stopped trying to work under the auspices of large record companies and formed his own company, Cliff Sounds and Films, in order to control the production entirely. But Images, where it even received notice, prompted reactions as tepid as his previous albums. Gene Santoro, writing in Nation, raved about the Images concert, but dismissed the album itself as “uneven.”
Ultimately, the sense of unfulfilled critical promise that had hovered over Cliff in 1972 remained two decades later. Still, he is recognized as a leading voice in reggae music and a vital figure in the genre’s explosion on the international scene. Of his 1992 release, Breakout, Pulse! contributor Doug Wendt wrote, “Cliff is obviously proud to leave the quest for the ‘great American crossover album’ behind and concentrate on just making great music.”
The legendary Jimmy Cliff is back with his first all new album in over seven years! Rebirth (2012) pairs the reggae superstar with the award-winning producer and punk legend Tim Armstrong, who produced this thirteen-track album. Armstrong also produced Cliff’s Sacred Fire EP which was released late in 2011, and Rolling Stone magazine hailed the music as Cliff s best music in decades. Rebirth includes compelling Cliff originals including the single “One More” and a few pointedly chosen covers, such as a version of the Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” and a version of Rancid’s “Ruby Soho.”