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Famous Jamaicans: Jimmy Cliff, the Music Icon

Updated: May 27, 2021

Jamaica Attractions, Jamaican Culture, Jamaican Music, Famous Jamaicans, Jamaican People

A baby is born in the Somerton District of St. James, Jamaica, during a devastating storm. A mother gives birth to a child, wraps him in a sheet and takes him to shelter at a neighbor’s home as the hurricane blows her house away. James Chambers (known as Jimmy Cliff) was born on July 30, 1944, growing up in Maroon country with the invincible Maroon spirit.

Jimmy Cliff became an accomplished musician, actor, singer, songwriter, producer, and humanitarian and has received many accolades. As one who helped to popularize reggae music outside of Jamaica, and an iconoclastic figure within the music industry, Jimmy Cliff is a Jamaican star with an international following.

Jamaican Music, Jamaican Culture, Jamaican People, Famous Jamaicans

Jimmy Cliff - He's Special!

I’m Special

The GRAMMY® Award-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame® inductee, musician, actor, singer, songwriter, producer, and humanitarian attributes his Grammy award to "magic." “I feel like there’s something magical about everything,” he smiles. “When my mother was pregnant, she had such a huge stomach that everyone thought she was carrying triplets! That’s why people said I was special. Many of the things I do, I was not taught - there are so many stories like that in my life. The fact that I came out of that hurricane felt significant to me.”

Credited, along with Bob Marley, with playing a vital role in the introduction of reggae music to the world, Jimmy Cliff has never gained the kind of messianic reputation that his peer did. Even though Cliff's name is virtually a household word among reggae fans in the United States and Great Britain, very few of those fans really know much of his music beyond some standard selections. In addition, his tremendous energy and industriousness--which have produced over eighteen albums in as many years--have never produced consistent financial success.

It's one of the music industry's great ironies that today, outside of reggae circles, Jimmy Cliff is perhaps better known for his film appearances than his music. Even after a string of hits, the singer never quite managed to break into the mainstream, although he seemed poised for international stardom during the late '60s/early '70s.

I Can See Clearly Now (Lyrics) - Jimmy Cliff


A baby is born in the Somerton District of St. James, Jamaica, during a devastating storm. With only one midwife tending to the entire village, a mother gives birth to a child. She wraps him in a sheet and takes him to shelter at a neighbor’s home as the hurricane blows her house away. James Chambers (known as Jimmy Cliff) was born on July 30, 1944.

He was the second son of laborer parents. (The older son, Victor, would eventually become his brother's manager.) The children's mother left the family soon after Jimmy's birth, and they were raised by their father, who worked nominally as a tailor but also supplemented his income as a farm hand. Beyond sustenance, he provided his sons with musical influence: "He was always singing. There wasn't TV, there wasn't radio. We played drums or guitars--that was the entertainment," Cliff revealed in a Jet interview.

Cliff's family descended from bands of fugitive Afro-Caribbean slaves called "Maroons," who eventually gave their name to what is now the Maroon country in Jamaica. Certain parts of the West Indian island--largely inaccessible because of mountains and thick rain forests--provided a haven for escaped slaves as early as the seventeenth century. The area began to function as a base of operations for Afro-Caribbean rebellion; consequently, it has for hundreds of years stood as a source of conflict for the English colonizers and a source of pride and strength for a struggling Afro-Caribbean population.

He began writing songs whilst still at primary school in St. James, listening to a neighbor’s sound system. In 1962 his father took him to Kingston to attend the Kingston Technical school. In Kingston, he ended up sharing his cousin's one rented room in East Kingston.

Jimmy Cliff - Many Rivers To Cross


Cliff quit school in 1961 at the age of 13. He soon left Somerton for Kingston, the major urban center of Jamaica, to seek training that would provide him with a trade. He knew, however, even before setting foot in the city that he wanted to make a living in music. The draw of a thriving music industry in Kingston in the early 1960s, which primarily produced rhythm and blues and ska, gave many black youths at least the fantasy of an opportunity to break out of a cycle of hopeless poverty. Ska, the roots of what would become reggae later in the 1960s, grafted the American mainland sound of R & B onto the syncopated calypso sound developed by Jamaican blacks. As ska grew into reggae, it would be adopted by a religion of black liberation--particular to Jamaica--embodied by the Rastafarians. Although Cliff never identified himself as a Rastafarian, most reggae musicians did, and the same musical roots offered him a ticket to success.

As an unskilled black youth plunged into the ghettos of a city where he knew no one, all Cliff had going for him was resourcefulness and staying power. Before he could even approach the city's music industry, he had to negotiate the dangers of the major slum of the city, Trench Town. Cliff displayed his usual bravado when he told Reggae Bloodlines author Stephen Davis about his experiences there as a teenager: "It was violent there, but I wasn't afraid because the environment of Somerton was also tough, and I was used to it. You had to know how to defend yourself and fear is a thing you couldn't live with. In West Kingston, we had political violence and they teargas my house all the time.... Dem raid and dem teargas the whole place." Because Cliff had the spirit necessary to handle this setting, he could hold out long enough to make himself known to the Kingston record producers.

Jimmy Cliff - Sitting In Limbo

The Music Scene

The local music industry was a thriving but extremely exploitative business, providing many young musicians with some degree of work. Small record producers participated in a kind of cottage industry, hiring local youths to write and record songs. The singles, called acetates, were played in dance halls, where, depending on the response of the audience, the most popular would be chosen for sale in record shops. According to this system, an aspiring young musician could record many acetates for a producer without ever releasing a single. If he or she did finally have a single, it was still a gamble as to whether the song would catch on, and the musician would be paid to do more recordings.

Only a fraction of the talented individuals who put their energy into a vital Jamaican music industry have ever managed to make a living at it, or a name that goes beyond the island. Cliff expressed to Davis how even the possibility of success motivated him: "What was I supposed to do with my life? Work in a banana field? Cut cane? I came to Kingston to go to night school and learn a trade, but my intention was to sing." While he sought that break in the music industry, he supported himself by working on a vegetable truck; for the most part, he led a life of extreme poverty--often near to starving--typical in the ghettos of Kingston.

Jimmy Cliff - Johnny Too Bad

Breaking Out

Soon after arriving in Kingston, Cliff, who had reportedly changed his name because he wanted something that expressed his ambition to reach the "heights," began courting local record producers. He recorded his first single, "Daisy Got Me Crazy," and his first Jamaican hit, "Dearest Beverly," in 1962 - only a year after his arrival in the city. The last song, combined with Cliff's ingenuity, even established Leslie Kong, the man who produced the single, as an important reggae producer.

Kong and his brothers owned a record store in Kingston called Beverley's. Although the brothers at this point only sold records and had never produced one, young Cliff wrote "Beverly" for the Kong brothers and then went so far as to suggest that they should produce it. Cliff described the evening to Davis: "I was alone and walking one night, and it was a night of frustrations. Go passed his record shop several times that night and I say, 'Beverley.' Right away think of a song called 'Beverly' and I walk in there to seduce him with my song that had the same name as his shop. Subliminal seduction, right?... So, he liked the song and ... said it was the best voice he had ever heard.... I was fourteen years old then. He didn't know anything about the business and so I gathered the musicians and two more singers, Monte Morris and Derrick Morgan, got them and bring them in and introduce them. We got a little hit out of "Hurricane Hatty" and that was the beginning of Leslie Kong, too." With Kong established as a producer, Cliff was able to record as much as he liked; he turned out a series of island hits, including "Hurricane Hatty," "My Lucky Day," "Miss Jamaica," "Fat Man," and "Rudie in Court."

Jimmy Cliff - Hurricane Hatty

The Harder They Come

In 1972, Cliff starred as Ivanhoe "Ivan" Martin in the classic reggae film, “The Harder They Come,” directed by Perry Henzell. As the film tells Martin's story, he is a young man without funds. Arriving in Kingston from the country, he tries to make it in the recording business, but without success. Eventually, he turns to a life of crime. The soundtrack album of the film was a huge success that sold well across the world, bringing reggae to an international audience for the first time. It remains one of the most internationally significant films to have come out of Jamaica since independence in 1962. The film made its debut at London's Gaumont cinema in Notting Hill on 1 September 1972. In 1975, Cliff sang on the first season of Saturday Night Live, episode 12, hosted by Dick Cavett. After a series of albums, Cliff took a break and traveled to Africa, and subsequently converted to Islam.

Jimmy Cliff - The Harder They Come

Immortal Songs

Nowadays, his impact remains inescapable. You have undoubtedly sung along to his immortal anthems like “I Can See Clearly Now,” “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “The Harder They Come,” and many more. In addition to receiving his country’s highest honor “The Order of Merit,” he holds the distinction of being one of two Jamaican Rock and Roll Hall of Fame® inductees—in good company with Bob Marley. Everyone from the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello to Annie Lennox and Paul Simon has sought him out for collaborations. Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Cher, New Order, and Fiona Apple have recorded notable covers. Springsteen’s “Trapped” even graced the track listing of “We Are the World.” Bob Dylan proclaimed “Vietnam,” “the greatest protest song ever written.”

Jimmy Cliff - You Can Get It If You Really Want


2012 marked another watershed moment for Cliff with the album Rebirth. Produced by Rancid and Operation Ivy punk stalwart Tim Armstrong, the record earned the GRAMMY® Award for “Best Reggae Album.” It was listed on the Rolling Stone’s “50 Best Albums of 2012." Cliff said of the album: "It is a rebirth of my career as I have goals yet to achieve, and this album is the steppingstone toward those goals." He also said that the title referred to the rebirth of the planet. It also reflected a return to the music from earlier in his career, with Cliff saying: "As a rebirth one has to go back to point zero to move forward again. We recorded the music with the same instruments and the same style that we had used back in the days, which is everyone recording at the same time."

“Now, I feel I have not completed what I’m here on this planet to do,” he admits. “I have to say what I have to say and do what I have to do via music and films. That keeps me going every morning I wake up.”

Jimmy Cliff - One More (Lyric Video)

Personal Life

Cliff is not a member of the Rastafari movement, although he briefly was before converting to Islam from Christianity. He describes himself as having a "universal outlook on life” and does not align himself with any particular movement or religion, saying that "now I believe in science". He is married and has a daughter Lilty Cliff and a son Aken Cliff. He is also the father of the actress/singer Nabiyah Be.

Jimmy cliff - Morning Train

Moving On

Teaming with Ghana-born and London-based co-producer Kwame Yeboah [Stevie Wonder], Cliff revisits, recharges, and revitalizes reggae in its purest form. With its upbeat and undeniable swing, the first single “Moving On” builds from delicate instrumentation into a powerful declaration, “I’m moving on”—carried to the heavens and back by his inimitable voice. “It’s really one of my favorites,” he continues. “It’s a very personal experience. Anyone can identify with that idea. We’ve all got to move on at some time in our lives.” “I still haven’t written my best song,” he leaves off. “I’m pursuing that all the time. If my music can uplift someone to make them want to live a better life and not give up, that is a big success for me.”

Jimmy Cliff - Reggae Night (Official Video)


As one who helped to popularize reggae music outside of Jamaica, and an iconoclastic figure within the music industry, Jimmy Cliff is a Jamaican star with an international following. Though he has not achieved the fame and influence of his contemporary, Bob Marley, he paved the way for Marley and other performers to spread their messages around the world. Today he is a popular figure with a strong following in many parts of the world. Jimmy Cliff is not just another reggae artiste, he is a musical legend.


“Jimmy Cliff,”

“Jimmy Cliff – Bio,”

“Jimmy Cliff,”

“Jimmy Cliff – Crossed Many Rivers,”

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Jacqueline Cameron is an editor/writer with years of writing experience running the gamut from blogging to reporting. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica and is the chief writer for the Jamaica So Nice Blog. She is a trained engineer and musician and loves to see people transformed through her work.

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