Reggae Revolution: Jimmy Cliff
Ska-Legend, Reggae Royal, Inspirational Instigator and Sage: The Honourable Jimmy Cliff.
Words by Alisa Bowen. Photography by Michael Oachs and Gino DePinto.
"Jimmy Cliff," just saying the name alone conjures a smile on people's faces. Synonymous with happiness, music, peace and harmony - oh, that harmony, this music man and statesman of reggae is also the only living musician to hold The Order of Merit – the third highest honour granted by the Jamaican government for achievement in the Arts and Sciences. Recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his musical contributions, it appears the rest of the world concurs. Hailed internationally, as one of the founders of reggae music, the Honourable Jimmy Cliff just keeps on groovin’ – surfing the waves of positive vibrations since his career broke in the 1960’s.
Celebrating the ripe young age of sixty-four this Ap ril, it is evident Cliff is just getting started. This spring, he releases his twentyeighth album, Sacred Fire, produced with Rancid ska/punk front man Tim Armstrong, kicks off a world tour, is slated to reprise his role in a remake of the 1972 Jamaican crime film, The Harder They Come, and was featured in GQ’s “The Survivors” – a spread on musicians who “never stopped rocking.” Deftly spinning multiple plates in the air, Cliff continues to push artistic boundaries and create fresh music. He glances upwards with his boyish grin and laughs, “I like to stay with the time.” How cool is Jimmy Cliff? So cool that Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Sting and Keith Richards all admit to being inspired by his work and have paid him the highest compliment by performing his music to the masses. Born and raised as James Chambers, in Jamaica’s northwest parish, St. James, he began writing songs whilst in primary school. Fueled by musical motivation and ambition, in 1962 Cliff moved to East Kingston and shared a rented room with his cousin, supporting himself by working on a vegetable truck and for the most part leading a life of extreme poverty. It was around this time that he changed his name to Cliff to symbolise the height of his aspirations. Driven to carve out a spot in the country’s bustling music scene, he wrote a catchy tune titled “Dearest Beverly,” hoping to win the ear of Leslie Kong, a local record storeowner and Beverly’s record label producer. One night walking past the store, he took a chance, singing his heart out. The chance paid off. His young tenor voice and the peppy tune gained immediate notice leading Kong to record and produce Cliff’s music for years to follow. Taking cues and inspiration from his tropical motherland, Cliff wrote the song “Hurricane Hattie.” The rest, as they say, is history. The following year, 1964, he was chosen to represent Jamaica at the World’s Fair and subsequently signed with the iconic Island Records.
In sync with the turmoil of the 60’s and 70’ s, Cliff’s rebel songs were laced with strong political lyrics, upbeat rhythms. and the unique inspirational sounds of Jamaica – ska and reggae. Playing on the world’s stages, he helped introduce reggae around the globe. Audiences soon took notice with the release of his groundbreaking 1969 “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.” The following year, his sociopolitical war song “Viet Nam” cried out to the masses, and was hailed by Bob Dylan as the best protest song he had ever heard. “I always had this kind of revolutionary way of thinking – I want to make a difference in the world,” asserts Cliff.
The 1972 cult classic film, The Harder They Come, directed by Perry Henzell, starred Cliff as leading gunman Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin, and simultaneously launched reggae to the musical masses and cemented it as a new musical genre. Released shortly after Jamaica’s political independence, the film’s soundtrack was largely penned by Cliff and contains his now-classic songs, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Viet Nam” and the heart wrenching gospel-like, “Many Rivers to Cross.” His signature grin spreading across his face, he reflects, “That was a film that captured a moment in time…it is a classic and today celebrates its forty-year anniversary.” Historically, this film marks Cliff as a vital player in the reggae genre’s explosion on the international scene. It quickly blazed a trail around the globe and primed the music scene for the arrival of budding reggae stars Peter Tosh and Bob Marley.
With a career spanning five decades, and as a citizen of the world’s stage, Cliff still calls Jamaica home, often retreating to island life to remind himself of his roots, culture and rich Caribbean musical heritage. It is the slow-pace and warm people of his motherland that call him back, providing vital ingredients to replenish his creative well and fuel the joyful sound of music like bottled sunshine. Regularly circling the globe as reggae’s keenest ambassador, Cliff is proud of the part he continues to play in establishing the genre as a world-wide phenomenon, “My role has always been as the shepherd of reggae music,” Cliff notes. “When they wanted to bring reggae to America, they sent Jimmy Cliff. When they wanted to bring reggae to England, they sent Jimmy Cliff. When they wanted to bring reggae to Africa, they sent Jimmy Cliff.”
With his heart and home deeply rooted in the Caribbean, Cliff has plenty of musical inspiration stowed up his sleeve. “I’m actually working on enough material for about three different albums right now. The juices are flowing,” he assures. With over two-dozen albums to date, more than twenty million records sold, and his latest, Sacred Fire, set for release this spring, clearly the beat goes on, as does Jimmy Cliff.
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