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 unparalleled success. 

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 Music. 

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 far.” 

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 doctrine. 

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.