“I have not become the artist I believe I am. I’m not done at all.”
Reggae icon Jimmy Cliff returns to Western Australia this month as part of West Coast Blues N’ Roots at Fremantle Park on Sunday, March 29. MUMMA TREES checks in with the man himself.
‘Living legend’ is a term often bandied about and rarely fully deserved. Jimmy Cliff is a musician who has earned the title.
From a career starting in the ’60s, acting credits, collaborations and receiving Jamaica’s highest honour (The Order of Merit – the only living musician to hold this honour), he truly is a legendary figure in Jamaican culture and music.
Well known for his acting role and music soundtrack on the classic 1972 Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, Cliff is clearly a man of many talents. Coming from the country as a boy into the big smoke of Kingston, he always had dreams of both acting and singing. Producer, Leslie Kong (Beverly’s Records), was the first to spot his raw talent (or perhaps give way to his persistence), recording his first tunes. “Leslie Kong had an establishment that was a restaurant/ice cream parlour/record shop and cosmetic place, and I pushed myself into the establishment one night when it was closing, sang my song a capella to him, and the rest of it was history.”
Hurricane Hattie came out of those early recording sessions for Beverly’s and became a hit on the island. “That was my first big hit, and I wrote that song because there was a big hurricane in Belize South America, and I wrote the song about it, like I was writing about a girl. Leslie Kong is very missed, even today (he suffered a heart attack and died in 1971) he was a producer who had the biggest international hits, with artists like Desmond Decker, Derrick Morgan, and I even introduced Bob Marley to Leslie Kong.”
Like so many Jamaican singers in the ’60s and ’70s, Cliff moved to England to further his career, where he was picked up by Island Records.
While recording the song, You Can Get It If You Really Want, movie director Perry Henzell heard the session, and asked Cliff if he would be able to write the music for The Harder They Come.
“I said to this bearded Caucasian man, ‘what do you mean would I be able to do that? I can do anything!’ Then he saw some of my photographs, where I had these different looks… you know, I could look mean and I could look like an innocent!”
The Harder They Come is credited as introducing the world to reggae music. The film was hugely successful in Jamaica and has been described as the most influential film to ever come from the Caribbean. Cliff, despite no previous acting experience or training, gained the lead role of Rhygin.
“That movie propelled me to another level in the music and film industry. It had such a big impact. It brought Jamaican culture and music complete to the world.”
While he gained a few other acting credits in later years, including Club Paradise with Peter O’Toole and Robin Williams, and a cameo in Marked For Death with Steven Seagal, Cliff is best known and loved for his musical career. He has penned hits such as Wonderful World, The Harder They Come, Sitting In Limbo, You Can Get It If You Really Want and Many Rivers To Cross. He also had mainstream success with his covers of Cat Stevens’ Wild World, and Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now. His 1969 song, Vietnam, was described by Bob Dylan as the best protest song he has ever heard.
2011 saw Cliff team up with Tim Armstrong (Rancid), on the Sacred Fire EP and full-length album, Rebirth. Featured on the album is a reworking of the classic Clash song, Guns Of Brixton.
“We started out with that song,” Cliff notes, “because we didn’t know that we were going to make an album.”
In the late ’70s in England, punk and reggae went in hand in hand as rebel music, with both genres being played often at the same gigs. “Reggae music was very influential to punk music and I knew about Tim through Joe Strummer. Joe Strummer and I did a song together on the album, Fantastic Plastic People, called Over The Border.”
Last time Cliff appeared at the West Coast Blues N’ Roots festival in 2013, he had in his backing band young up and coming reggae musicians Unga Notis on drums, Stephen Maxwell (who now tours with Katchafire), and Dan ‘Zuggu’ Patterson (who is featured on Nattali Rize’s new release, Rebel Love) amongst others. With a new backing band touring with him this year, Cliff is one who strives to develop and nurture new talent.
“I am the kind of person who likes to open doors for people, so I open the door for a whole lot of Jamaican musicians”.
At 67 he shows no signs of slowing down, maintaining an energy that belies his years. Jimmy Cliff live in concert is always a dynamic experience.
“I have not become the artist I believe I am,” he says. “I’m not done at all.”