JIMMY CLIFF -- BIOGRAPHY
Jimmy Cliff is the most
successful reggae artist after Bob Marley.
The story of his career is truly the Journey of A Lifetime, and
encompasses every stage of reggae’s evolution, from Ska and Rocksteady right up
to the present. In-between he’s
sung and written many of the most enduring international hits, starred in
several cult movies and continues to attract full houses wherever and whenever
he appears. Having long ago
conquered the Caribbean, America and Europe, he’s now a major celebrity in
Africa and South America, where he’s combined performing with recording to
Born James Chambers fifty
ago in Somerton, a small Jamaican village not far from Montego Bay, he left the
north coast for Kingston during his teens and then recorded songs for local
sound-system owners before joining forces with Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label,
with whom he quickly found fame voicing hits such as Dearest Beverley and
Hurricane Hattie. In 1964 he
traveled to the World Fair in New York where he performed with Prince Buster,
after which he came to the attention of Island Records’ Chris Blackwell. This was the beginning of an on-off
relationship that has endured for over thirty years.
After signing to Island the
young singer/songwriter was encouraged to come and live in England, where he
built up a strong following on the club circuit and worked on records with Ian
Hunter from Mott the Hoople, Madeline Bell, and P.P. Arnold. In 1968 he entered the International
Song Festival in Brazil, which he won with Waterfall. It was the first time a Jamaican artist
had scored a No. 1 hit in Brazil, and began a two way musical love affair that
still flourishes to this day. The
following year he reinforced his credentials yet further with strident anti-war
song Vietnam, which Bob Dylan said was the best protest record he’d ever
heard. After a highly successful
cover of Cat Stevens’ Wild World he then wrote international hits for Desmond
Dekker and The Pioneers before recording his ground-breaking Another Cycle album
at Muscle Shoals.
By now he was already a
major recording artist, but there were even greater heights awaiting him. In 1971 he starred and sang in the film
The Harder They Come, described as “one of the most important films in the
cultural history of our time.” The
soundtrack album released by Island contained his songs Many Rivers To Cross
(covered by UB40, Linda Ronstadt, Little Milton and Stanley Turrentine among
others), You Can Get it if You
Really Want and The Harder They Come itself, all of which were immediately
hailed as classics.
Jimmy became an
international star after the release of the film, but then left Island Records
for stints of variable success with first EMI, Reprise and finally CBS before
re-signing to Island in 1993. This
spirit of creative independence was to shape and inform every facet of his
career. Whilst Jamaican musicians
and the world’s media were endorsing Rastafarianism during the early ‘70’s,
Jimmy had already moved on and converted to Islam, recording his musical and
spiritual adventures on the Unlimited and Brave Warrior sets. In 1974 he made the first of his many
trips to Africa, whilst Island celebrated his talents on the highly acclaimed
Struggling Man album.
As the ‘80’s began, he
helped launch the JA Reggae Sunsplash then controversially visited South Africa,
playing in Soweto, Durban and Cape Town.
He was widely criticized for this as there were trade and cultural
embargoes in operation against South Africa at the time, and few commentators
stopped to note that he’d been invited there by a Zulu chief “in the spirit of love, human dignity,
and black liberation.” He wasn’t
classified as an “honorary white” and nor did he play to mixed audiences. History has now vindicated his actions,
as it has his equally contentious decision to play shows in Cuba against the
wishes of the Jamaican government during the early ‘80’s.
“I’ve broken all the rules”
he sings on the new song All for Love, and indeed he has. Jimmy set up his own Cliff Sound &
Film production company around this same time, then starred in a new film called
Bongo Man and recorded songs in Los Angeles with Denice Williams. Not that he’d forgotten his grassroots
audience. His own self-produced
Give the People What They Want album did precisely as it claimed, and was full
of hard roots/reality songs featuring the likes of Black Uhuru.
In 1982 he then signed to
CBS, recording the Special Album.
Brimming with songs of frustration, courage, politics, religion,
humility, confusion and optimism, it spawned two JA No. 1 hits in the shape of
Treat The Youth Right and Rub-A-Dub Partner. This album also featured contributions
from the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood.
Two years later his album The Power and the Glory won two Gold discs, one
of them for the highly successful single Reggae Night. In its wake Island Records released a
major retrospective of his earlier works called Reggae Greats, after which he
was invited to play in Sun City as part of the Artists Against Apartheid concert
organized by Steve Van Zandt.
Whilst many of his
contemporaries in Jamaica were struggling to maintain their careers amidst the
onslaught of popular digital rhythms during the mid-‘80’s, Jimmy’s own simply
grew stronger. In 1986 he won a
Grammy for his album Cliff Hanger, which he’d recorded with the help of Kool
& the Gang’s horn section. He
then toured the world with Stevie Winwood and took a leading role in another
movie called Club Paradise co-starring Peter O’Toole and Robin Williams. He subsequently contributed seven songs
to the soundtrack, one of them duetted with Elvis Costello.
By 1988 his restless quest
for expression found him touring the Congo, then forging important
cross-cultural musical links by recording in neighboring Zaire. The following year he released the album
Images on his own label after the success of his hit single Pressure with de-jay
Josey Wales. Utilizing an
incredible line-up of contemporary Jamaican musicians and studio’s, this set
demonstrated how he’d been keeping a close eye on the changes reggae music had
undergone in recent times, and not only won him many new fans, but
re-established his profile among the grassroots audience.
Buoyed by such recognition,
he devoted his next album Save Our Planet Earth to issues concerning the
environment. One song Trapped,
became a regular feature of Bruce Springsteen’s stage act before the rock star
recorded it on the charity album USA for Africa. Save Our Planet Earth led to Jimmy being
invited to attend the 1991 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in the capacity of
spiritual advisor. His song Rebel
In Me had proved sentiments expressed in this track were entirely genuine. He spent several weeks in the shanty
towns of Salvador (the area where samba and bossa nova comes from), where he
wrote and recorded many fine songs with local musicians. That same year he also made a cameo
appearance in the film Marked for Death, then announced plans to work upon a
long overdue television documentary tracing the development of Jamaican
There was little surprise
when he re-signed to Island Records in 1993. The label was already home to many
of his greatest-ever triumphs, and their belief in his abilities hadn’t wavered
in nearly three decades. Nor was it
misplaced. His cover of Johnny
Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now was released by Columbia that November and spent
months on the US Billboard charts.
It was also included on the Cool Runnings soundtrack, although for once
Jimmy’s gift for acting wasn’t called upon in this instance. No matter. In 1997 he and Chris Blackwell were
awarded honorary doctorates by the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in
recognition of their outstanding contribution to music, and finishing touches
were applied to the album he describes as the “summation of his life and work so
New set Journey of a Lifetime
is a masterly achievement, ranking
alongside his finest ever works.
The majority of the tracks were recorded in Jamaica with Clive Hunt and
Computer Paul at Mixing Lab and Tuff Gong – both Bob Marley’s original Tuff Gong
studio on Hope Road and the one on Marcus Garvey Drive – although certain
overdubs were laid in America.
The opening track Journey
Intro recalls the Biblical book of Genesis, and is the story of creation. Jimmy explains it thus. “In the beginning was the word, and
after the word came the drum.
Therefore the first two sounds you hear on the album is my voice and
those nyahbinghi drums…”
Looking Forward is a song of
resistance and riven with religious symbolism, although he says this wasn’t
deliberate. But he’s paid his dues,
and refuses to be left out or held down.
He’s looking at an open door and is moving up with a new “pep in his
step.” You can trace such
sentiments in tracks from every era of his career thus far, and again he pulls
something inspirational out of the bag.
In contrast, Let It Go is more philosophical. When difficulties in life arise, he
suggests we simply release them whether fear or frustration, rage, anger, and
tension. He points out that we
cannot force or oppress them, but instead should cultivate or imagination and
express them to the full, thereby initiating a transformation from within. “So let the dance begin.”
Higher and Deeper Love opens
with him reminding us how he was invited to the Earth Summit. He told the
assembly that the world has fallen short of divine love, and that politicians
and religious leaders can’t do the job.
Another brave statement, and notably free of any specific religious
The next song Burden Bearer
was inspired by the frustrations of artist in Jamaica who are expected to
support large numbers of people within their own communities, despite often
struggling themselves. He
approaches this difficult subject with typically unflinching and compassionate
resolve, pointing out how we all possess the inner facility to help ourselves
and overcome our own difficulties.
The message in this song – i.e. that of self determination – can also be
heard in earlier songs like You Can Get it if You Really Want, showing he’s lost
none of his original beliefs.
Rubber Ball contains
dee-jaying from one of his sons.
Four of his sons dee-jay or rap on this album altogether, whilst two of
his daughters also appear on the intro of Daddy. Rubber Ball is a survivor’s song, and
born of resistance once more.
“Somehow I keep on coming through, and despite all I’ve been through, I
have prevailed!” he exclaims. The
harder he’s pushed, the harder he rebounds, and The Harder They Come, the harder
they must certainly fall…
All For Love is again
autobiographical, and deeply humanitarian.
After traveling countless miles, going in and out of styles, this most
remarkable artist is not only still with us, but making even more relevant music
than ever before. Because apart
from documenting his own experiences, it was his intention to make an album for
his Jamaican, and by extension, international reggae audience. Hence he’s directly addressing them
during several of the introductory passages, as well as on songs like Super Bad
and Where Will U Be.
The latter is an
extraordinary track anticipating the coming millennium and the growing
possibility of communication with aliens.
He points out that it’s unfeasible to believe we are the only from of
life in the universe, and sings optimistically of a “new mystery.” True to form he feels neither fearful or
threatened, but simply open-minded and curious, just as he does on the song
Change. “you make the right move
and find the right groove, entirely fresh options can manifest themselves” he
says, adding that, “It’s all in the rhythm of life.” Indeed it is, and this man has tapped
that rhythm to perfection.
After the touching, laid-bare
emotions of Daddy, Street Vibes is a powerful reality song, dealing with the
immediate pressures of urban survival.
Four of his sons make their appearance on this track, rapping and
dee-jaying with considerable prowess before their father tackles further
distressing political situations. Democracy Doesn’t Work is a bold claim from a
veteran of the protest movement.
Jimmy points out how “democracy is supposed to mean that all of us live
for, and by each other,” but that not having been built upon love, it can only
support an increasingly greedy elite.
When the element of love is
missing, we all have to relearn how to love and to love ourselves. Then it will spread to others” he says
on Learn to Love. “Because with
self determination, they’ll be no more self destruction.”
Finally Journey Of A Lifetime
opens by posing the question “Where does life begin?” This remarkable song maps
out the evolution of life, from water to embryo, from child to youngster, and
then to maturity. According to
Jimmy, whose spiritual search has encompassed Rastafari, Islam, Christianity and
many other forms of religion, our ultimate goal is to be one with the source of
creation. This in essence, is the
journey of a lifetime. Not only
his, but that of the entire human race.