Famous Jamaicans: Jimmy Cliff, the Music Legend
Updated: Jun 1, 2019
We open 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 April 1, 1948. 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.
While still at school, Cliff sought out many producers trying to get his songs recorded, but without success. He also entered talent contests and won some. "One night I was walking past a record store/restaurant at closing time, pushed myself in and convinced an owner, Leslie Kong, to go into the recording business, with me," Cliff writes in his own biography. After two singles that failed to make much impression, at the age of 14 years, Cliff's career took off when "Hurricane Hattie" became a hit. Cliff remained with Leslie Kong until Kong's death from a heart attack in 1971.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Cliff
“Jimmy Cliff – Bio,” https://www.jimmycliff.com/bio/T
“Jimmy Cliff – Crossed Many Rivers,” https://thecaribbeancurrent.com/jimmy-cliff-crossed-many-rivers/
You Tube, https://www.youtube.com/