Jimmy Cliff

With a hit film and an album in 1972’s rollicking The Harder They Come, Jimmy Cliff was the first major influence on the global expansion reggae. Jimmy Cliff’s film roles are perhaps more well-known than his music today. It is ironic that Jimmy Cliff is not a major influence in the global expansion of reggae. Although he had a few hits, the singer didn’t break into mainstream. However, he was poised to become an international star in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Born in St. James, Jamaica on April 1, 1948, the singer went by the more casual name James Chambers. He was a gifted performer from childhood. His first gigs were at parish fairs and local shows. At 14 years old, he felt ready to make it big and moved to Kingston. He took the surname Cliff in order to represent the heights he hoped to reach. Cliff had two failed singles before Derrick Morgan spotted him and brought him to Leslie Kong. His debut single, “Hurricane Hattie”, was a hit for the budding producer. Cliff stayed with Kong until his death, which is unusual considering most Jamaican artists move from studio to studio. However, the singer was rewarded for his loyalty with a series of hit songs. The pair were instrumental in establishing ska in Jamaica and Britain in the early years. Island Records bought their singles. “Miss Jamaica,” King of Kings, One Eyed Jacks, and “Pride and Passion”, have all been classics of the original Ska era. Cliff’s star had reached such a high point that he was chosen to represent Jamaica at the 1964 World’s Fair. After a successful residency in Paris, Island’s head Chris Blackwell convinced Cliff to move to Britain. The label was moving away from Jamaican music to more progressive rock and Cliff started writing songs in an effort to get into this market. Although it was risky, it proved to be a profitable one. Cliff’s debut album, Hard Road, was released in 1968. He won the International Song Festival with his song “Waterfall”, which became a huge hit in Brazil. Cliff quickly moved to Brazil to capitalize on his success. But, he was set for greater heights. His international breakthrough came in the following year with “Wonderful World, Beautiful People”. It reached number six in Britain’s charts and soared to the Top 25 in America. The anti-war song, “Vietnam”, was less popular even though Bob Dylan called it the greatest protest song he’d ever heard. Cliff’s 1969’s Wonderful World album was critically acclaimed and helped the singer build a fan base among the AOR crowd. Desmond Dekker ranked Cliff’s song “You Can Get It If You Really Want” second in Britain with the title track. Then tragedy struck. In August 1971, Cliff’s manager, Leslie Kong, unexpectedly died from a heart attack. He was distraught as he had grown up under Leslie Kong’s tutelage and was suddenly forced to take care of himself. Cliff was starting to get his career on track with Another Cycle, which was released later in the year. The soundtrack for The Harder They Come was one of Kong’s last projects. This powerful film, which was written and produced by Perry Henzell featured Cliff as the lead role. It quickly became an underground hit. The soundtrack featured a number of Cliff’s original compositions and was equally important. Island should have promoted the singer to the mainstream but instead they turned their attention towards Bob Marley. In the U.S., the timing of the film’s release was off. It didn’t get released until 1975. Cliff signed to Reprise in America and EMI in England, but he did not fare well on either label. 1973’s Unlimited, 1974’s Struggling Man, as well as the next year’s Brave Warrior, were not able to maintain the success of Another Cycle. Cliff converted to Islam during this period and went to Africa to find his roots. His newfound religious devotion influenced his music heavily. With the 1975 release of The Harder They Come, Cliff’s second album, Follow My Mind, caught America’s attention. It became his first album to reach the top of the charts. Reprise decided that it was time to compile a great-hits compilation, but this would be done via a live album. Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones producer, was hired to supervise the project. Cliff was then sent on the road to record and tour. The label was rewarded with Live: In Concert, one of Cliff’s most intense albums. He was not content to dwell on nostalgia and continued to release albums throughout the decade that were both modern and powerful in their delivery. Cliff left Reprise after 1981’s “Give The People What They Want” and moved to Columbia. Oneness formed his new backing band and toured the U.S. together with Peter Tosh. They also performed at Reggae Sunsplash in 1983. His partnership with Kool was inaugurated by 1983’s The Power and the Glory.

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