By Jo-Ann Greene
Born in 1948, the talented tot James Chambers wowed audiences at country fairs before celebrating his homeland’s independence and his own by joining the deluge of youngsters flooding into the capital, Kingston, in 1962.
Taken under the wing of Leslie Kong, with whom he remained until the producer’s death, the renamed Jimmy Cliff scored his first hit with “Hurricane Hattie” before the year was out. A star at 14, the singer released a stream of local smash 45s over the next few years.
Cliff began jet-setting at 16, representing Jamaica at the World’s Fair in 1964, garnering acclaim with a Parisian residency the following year, and then, giving in to Island head Chris Blackwell’s constant badgering, emigrating to London in 1966. The label, built on Jamaican music, was already shifting its focus toward the progressive-rock scene, and the versatile Cliff followed suit, aiming his compositions at the singer-songwriter market. It was a successful move, with his “Waterfall” winning the 1968 International Song Festival.
But it was 1969’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” that gave the singer his first U.S. and U.K. hit, followed up in the latter country by the highly acclaimed protest song “Viet Nam.” A 1970 cover of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” completed Cliff’s hat trick, while Desmond Dekker’s cover of Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want” proved a massive U.K. hit, as well.
Cliff’s original was featured in the movie “The Harder They Come,” in which the singer also starred. Screenwriter/producer Perry Henzell rejigged the life of legendary ’40s Jamaican gangster Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin into contemporary times and climes, with Cliff giving a tour-de-force performance as the doomed anti-hero, sympathetically encapsulating the rude-boy culture that turned to crime (and music) to make their way and leave their mark upon their impoverished world. The movie’s soundtrack, released in the U.K. in 1972, still stands as a superb epitaph to Kong, who died during its production.
“Harder” became Jamaica’s most successful theatrical release to date, and its soundtrack a huge best-seller. With Cliff now poised for international stardom, Island inexplicably refused to release “Harder” in the U.S. and turned their attention exclusively to Bob Marley. Thoroughly discouraged, Cliff departed for Reprise (U.S.)/EMI (U.K.).
A period of soul searching followed, with the artist eventually drawing comfort and direction in his new faith, Islam, and new musical inspiration from travels in Africa. Cliff’s inner turmoil was reflected in his contemporary albums, which contain some of his strongest and most emotive songwriting. 1976’s Follow My Mind reached the lower rungs of the U.S. chart, while that year’s ferocious live set (In Concert: The Best of Jimmy Cliff) captured the singer’s fiery onstage power, while simultaneously doubling as a greatest-hits collection.
Yet Cliff refused to trade his soul for a break-out hit. Dreadlocks and a nod to Rastafarianism would have had the roots crowds eating out of his hand; equally, orchestral arrangements and a twist to straight pop would have made him a rock star for lovers. Instead, Cliff stayed true to himself, a reggae soft-rock writer of surprisingly provocative songs, with the title of his 1981 set Give the People What They Want at least partially ironic. It was his last for EMI, and the artist next moved to Columbia.
More recordings would follow, including the electronic innovation of 1982’s Special to the fabulously frothy blend of club, reggae and rock that was 1985’s Grammy winner Cliff Hanger. A stellar live set, The Cool Runner, provided confirmation of Cliff’s onstage fire, and the 1995 song “Samba Reggae” was popular in clubs. In recent years, Cliff’s 2004 effort, Black Magic, proved a potent set, offsetting the somewhat unfocused Humanitarian from 1995. And there was also a surprising movie role in “Club Paradise.”
Always a consummate performer, Cliff really does give the people what they want — a phenomenal show, revisiting his past with gusto, thrilling fans young and old. He remains a huge draw, headlining Jamaican and reggae festivals around the world.