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Jimmy Cliff

A leading light of the Jamaican ska movement and a reggae singer who successfully crossed over to the British pop charts, it’s nevertheless difficult to believe that JIMMY CLIFF only had two major British hit singles (`Wonderful World, Beautiful People’ and `Wild World’) in his long career. Or that he remains best remembered for his leading role in Perry Henzell’s early 70s cult film classic, The Harder They Come. While the movie’s grainy tale of country boy turned bad was a compelling portrait of Jamaican society and its cut throat music industry, the soundtrack – to which Jimmy contributed three of his best loved songs – was an instant classic, and one which accelerated the appreciation of reggae in both Britain and the USA, despite not even charting in Britain, and not being released in the States until 1975.
Born James Chambers, 1 April 1948, Somerton District, St. James, Jamaica, his earliest musical influences stemmed from Trinidad, the birthplace of calypso. However, by the time Jimmy left home for Kingston in 1962, his real interest lay in the imported sounds of boogie and blues from the States. As the boogie sound blended with calypso, mento and Jamaican folk music, so “ska” was born. CLIFF cut his first track at Federal studio (owned at the time by the dominant force in Jamaican recording, Ken Khouri) for Count Boysie’s sound system, who, in turn, would air the track at dances. The single was never released, although after a few more attempts with various systems, `Hurricane Hatty’ delivered CLIFF’s first hit, produced by Leslie Kong, who at the time had little knowledge of the music business, but plenty of money to hire the best musicians on the islands, and was to be involved in Jimmy’s finest work.
By ‘63, CLIFF had his second local hit with `Miss Jamaica’, going on to score again with `My Lucky Day’ and `Miss Universe’, although he was barely earning a decent living. A brief attempt to break ska in the States led to the singer meeting Chris Blackwell (head of UK’s Island Records), who persuaded him to try his luck in England; CLIFF moved crossed the seas in ‘65. The trip to America had opened the singer’s eyes to soul music, this influence subsequently coming to the fore in both his gigs and recordings of the mid-60s.
After a couple of near misses with Island, the album HARD ROAD TO TRAVEL {*5}, was released in early ‘68, amongst the tracks a poppy version of PROCOL HARUM’s `A Whiter Shade Of Pale’. During this period, he built up a strong fanbase in Britain without the hits and cash to go with it; unsurprisingly, his spirits were low, made apparent in his classic track, `Many Rivers To Cross’, which he authored in the same year.
A subsequent trip to Brazil to attend an international song contest, saw Jimmy pulling off a hit in the country with `Waterfall’, as well as inspiring him to write the aforementioned `Wonderful World…’. On the way back from Brazil, the singer stopped off in Jamaica for the first time since ‘65, recording material for his subsequent first LP for Trojan, JIMMY CLIFF {*8}, and catching up with the sounds of rock-steady and reggae, the new style coming to the fore on the set. Released in Britain at a time when Trojan scored with the majority of their hits, the LP proved the pinnacle of CLIFF’s recording career, listing `Many Rivers…’ and the sublime `Use What I Got’, as well as the melancholy sounds of a rare ballad, `Come Into My Life’. After the international success of `Wonderful World, Beautiful People’ (the Stateside title of his eponymous set), CLIFF recorded the inspired protest song, `Vietnam’, although the major success he craved continued to evade him with the record being rejected for US release as it was considered “too upbeat”.
`Wild World’, penned by CAT STEVENS, gave Jimmy another glint of success. In the meantime, he produced DESMOND DEKKER’s version of “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and The PIONEERS’ smash “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah”, before launching his return to Island Records via the slightly below par, ANOTHER CYCLE (1971) {*5}. Superstar status was eventually achieved through an unforeseen medium; film. THE HARDER THEY COME (1972) {*9} not only starred CLIFF but used four of his songs, including the title track, `Many Rivers…’, `Sitting In Limbo’, as well as the infectious `You Can Get It If You Really Want’. It remains a mystery, however, as to why the movie’s success didn’t boost Jimmy’s career at a time when he was signed to Island Records in the UK and when his albums were still garnering critical acclaim. Disillusioned, he moved on to various major record labels (E.M.I., etc.) over the couple of decades without ever regaining commercial success.
From this point onwards, his output (including UNLIMITED (1973) {*6} and STRUGGLING MAN (1974) {*8}, failed to capture an audience as a certain BOB MARLEY was beginning to “stir it up”. Surely an album that escaped the attention of the masses, the latter record was an optimistic and earnest landmark that garnered some fine R&B reggae tunes in `Better Days Are Coming’, `Sooner Or Later’ and `Let’s Seize The Time’.
HOUSE OF EXILE (1974) {*6} – entitled “Music Maker” in the States, BRAVE WARRIOR (1975) {*5}, FOLLOW MY MIND (1975) {*6}, IN CONCERT (1976) {*7} and GIVE THANX (1978) {*4}, all failed to match the high standards he’d previously set for himself, his style shifting away from the reggae sound that had formed the basis of his fame. I AM THE LIVING (1980) {*5} and GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT (1981) {*6}, showed the man was still capable of writing some good songs, while the latter set saw him teaming up with rhythmatists SLY & ROBBIE, plus guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith. Jimmy did, however, have further brushes with celluloid, the Muslim man being the subject of a 1981 West German documentary, `Bongo Man’, the title of an opening ditty on the “Give Thanx” LP.
Having subsequently moved to Columbia Records for the SPECIAL (1982) {*6} album, JC’s profile was never huge, although he continued to record both solo and with help from other artists; both the KOOL & THE GANG-assisted THE POWER AND THE GLORY (1983) {*5} and its follow-up CLIFF HANGER (1985) {*6} were nominated for Grammys, with the second of these actually taking home the prize. The same year, he wrote `Trapped’ for BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, who sang it on the charity album, “USA For Africa”.
The Jamaican icon subsequently resumed his relationship with film, both starring in, and composing the soundtrack to, Caribbean comedy, Club Paradise, in 1986. Of the seven JIMMY CLIFF songs `You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’, `American Plan’ and `Third World People’ are all happy examples of the singer’s gift for hook-laden melodies and concise commentary. `Seven-Day Weekend’, a punchy single collaboration with ELVIS COSTELLO & The Attractions, was less distinctive.
HANGING FIRE (1988) {*5}, IMAGES (1989) {*5}, SAVE OUR PLANET EARTH (1990) {*5} and BREAKOUT (1992) {*5} couldn’t bring back the halcyon days of old, and once again his cinematic endeavours overshadowed his solo material when, in 1993, his cover of JOHNNY NASH’s `I Can See Clearly Now’ (from the soundtrack to Jamaican bobsled comedy, Cool Runnings) reached the US Top 20.
Following a couple of sets, the first a reunification for Island Records, HIGHER & HIGHER (1998) {*4} and HUMANITARIAN (1999) {*4}, the Jamaican star was still representing the reggae faction well. Jimmy was subsequently joined by a roll call of rock royalty (including ANNIE LENNOX, STING, WYCLEF JEAN and the late JOE STRUMMER) on the DAVE STEWART-produced BLACK MAGIC (2004) {*6}.
Several years in the musical wilderness, the aptly-titled REBIRTH (2012) {*7} was a welcome return to the fore. Produced by Tim Armstrong of RANCID, a notable fan of The CLASH, Jimmy is let loose on one of this group’s more reggae-fied cuts, `Guns Of Brixton’. Introspective and nostalgic, the pairing of Jimmy and Tim combined best on `Reggae Music’, `Cry No More’ and `Outsider’, while there might well’ve been a hit single from either `One More’ or `World Upside Down’. The transatlantic return to the charts proved once again that it was never too late to get back in touch with your roots.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS // rev-up MCS Jun2013

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