Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


CLIFF, Jimmy

(b James Chambers, August 1948, St James Parish, Jamaica) Reggae vocalist, songwriter; also actor. He persuaded Leslie Kong (who was then running a combined ice-cream stall, restaurant and record store called Beverley's) to record him at the tender age of 14; the Kong/Cliff introduction to the record business was a single called 'Daisy Got Me Crazy' '62, accompanied vocally by Monte Morris and Derrick Morgan. 'Hurricane Hattie' on Kong's Beverley label commemorated the hurricane's visit, no. 1 in the Jamaican charts (notoriously prone to manipulation and lousy arithmetic). The early hit 'Miss Jamaica' appeared on both the Island anthology Ska Scandal and EMI's Scandal from the film about the Profumo affair.

According to David Katz's book Jimmy Cliff (2011), his career was taken over by the politician and label-boss Edward Seag, who sent him to the USA on tour '65 with Byron Lee's Dragonaires (who had appeared in the first James Bond film, Dr. No, shot in Jamaica in 1962) and Prince Buster; Cliff moved to Britain that year. The album Hard Road To Travel '67 on Island included the well-worn Jamaican evergreen 'Whiter Shade Of Pale'. Cliff's song 'Waterfall' won a prize in Brazil '68; he lived there for a few months. 'Wonderful World, Beautiful People' on Trojan reached no. 6 UK '69, no. 25 USA '70; singles and albums such as Hard Road '67 and Jimmy Cliff '69 further established an international stature; notable were the protest song 'Vietnam', Desmond Dekker's cover of his 'You Can Get It If You Really Want', and Cliff's cover of Cat Stevens's 'Wild World'. Taking a different tack Another Cycle '71 was an anthology of R&B and soul material, recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama.

He starred in a semi-autobiographical role as Ivan O. Martin, musician turned gangster (loosely based on '40s gangster Ruygin) in Perry Henzell's film The Harder They Come '72; he contributed 'You Can Get It If You Really Want', 'Many Rivers To Cross', 'The Harder They Come' and 'Sitting In Limbo' to the soundtrack. The soundtrack album became a Jamaican classic, released on Island in the UK, initially on Capitol in USA. Jamaicans in Britain didn't particularly care for the film, but it became a cult after George Melly gave it a good review in the Observer, a Sunday paper, and introduced the white audience to reggae.

The film brought international recognition. Cliff signed to EMI UK and Warner/Reprise USA '73, releasing Unlimited '73, Struggling Man '74, Follow My Mind '75 (which included a cover of Bob Marley's 'No Woman, No Cry') and Give Thankx '78. His song 'Sitting In Limbo' became one of the most frequently covered songs in the canon (e.g. by John Sebastian, the Neville Brothers). He formed his own Sunflower Records as a change from label-hopping before switching to MCA '80; chart success eluded I Am The Living '80 and Give The People What They Want. Special '82 and The Power And The Glory '83 on CBS/Columbia followed. Kool and the Gang guested on two tracks on the latter album, one of which, 'Reggae Night' co-written by LaToya Jackson and Amir Bayyan, was nominated for a Grammy '84, the year the reggae category was introduced. Bruce Springsteen covered Cliff's 'Trapped' as his contribution to the USA For Africa We Are The World project '85. Cliff Hanger '85 paired him with Kool and the Gang again and won a Grammy. He starred in the comedy film Club Paradise with Peter O'Toole and Robin Williams, the soundtrack including a duet with Elvis Costello on 'Seven Day Weekend' '86. Costello also covered his 'Many Rivers To Cross' on Live For Ireland '87. Hanging Fire '88 maintained the Kool connection, produced by Khalis Bayyan. Images on Cliff Sounds '89 provoked the suspicion that he had been withholding his stronger material towards the end of his CBS/Columbia contract; steering a rootsier course in contrast to overproduced and lightweight material, it was co-produced by Ansel Collins, including cover of 'Johnny Too Bad' (memorably performed by the Slickers on The Harder They Come), 'Trapped', 'Pressure (On Botha)' and the taut ballad 'Rebel In Me', reaffirming his status.

Cliff is a cultural eminence in Jamaica. Katz's book has a lot of detail on the recordings, not much on the life.