This article originally appeared in Reggae Report
JIMMY CLIFF ON RECORD Lee O'Neill
Jimmy Cliff is so firmly identified with The Harder They Come
that his other work gets overlooked and undervalued. He has
been in the forefront of reggae since 1963 and continues to be
a major star all over the world. Although he, has appeared in
four movies, has received a Grammy (and was nominated four
other times) and has had dozens of hit records he is still
struggling to obtain the respect and success of artists with
far less impressive histories.
Cliff, born James Chambers, moved to Kingston as a teenager and
cut several obscure songs with minor producers. In 1963, he
impressed producer Leslie Kong enough to get a couple of songs
on Kong's Beverly's label and both "Dearest Beverly" and
"Hurricane Hattie" became hits. That began a relationship that
lasted until Kong's death in 1971 and marked the real beginning
of Cliff's career. Almost none of his ska material is
available these days, although "Miss Jamaica" has appeared on
several Trojan anthologies.
Cliff was selected to accompany Millie Small (remember "My Boy
Lollipop"?) and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires to the New York
World's Fair in 1965. This trip was designed to introduce ska
to the world and while we all know it just didn't happen, the
trip resulted in a film called This Is Ska, featuring a young
and enthusiastic Jimmy Cliff along with several other stars of
the time. It also brought Cliff to the attention of Island
Records' Chris Blackwell.
Cliff moved to England and Blackwell began grooming him for
international success. Early releases such as Hard Road to
Travel (Island, 1967), Can't Get Enough of It (Veep, 1968) and
Jimmy Cliff (Trojan, 1969) often sounded more like pop-rock
than reggae. It wasn't until Wonderful World Beautiful People
(A&M, 1969) that Cliff began to reach back to reggae for
inspiration and it showed. Cliff's voice is very pretty,
gospel influenced tenor and the Leslie Kong produced Wonderful
World provided him a bright, contemporary sound lightened by
just a few pop touches. The material included reworkings of
earlier hits like "Hard Road to Travel" along with new classics
like the title track and "Vietnam." Another Cycle (Island,
1971) was another rockish effort highlighted by the haunting
"Sitting in Limbo."
It was at this time that The Harder They Come was released.
Cliff's acting was extraordinary and his portrayal of the
archetypal artist/outlaw has achieved mythic status. The film
became a huge cult film in the 1970s and owning the video is
simply obligatory for every reggae fan. The soundtrack was a
near perfect introduction to reggae for novices, featuring the
Maytals, Melodians Slickers, Desmond Dekker, Scotty and Cliff.
His new songs included his own version of "You Can Get It If
You Really Want," a song originally written for Dekker, the
title track and another beautiful ballad, "Many Rivers to
On the verge of international success as a result of his role
in Harder They Come, he released a series of increasingly
insipid records that repeated the same mistakes he and
Blackwell made in the early 60s. Unlimited (Trojan, 1973),
House of Exile (EMI, 1974), Music Maker (Reprise, 1974),
Struggling Man (Island, 1974), Brave Warrior (EMI, 1975) and
Follow My Mind (Reprise, 1976) all had desultory mixtures of
soul, pop, rock and reggae and none managed to grow from the
artistic foundation of Wonderful World/Harder They Come. Oh
Jamaica (EMI, 1976) is a collection of the better tracks from
that label. Reggae Greats (Mango, 1985) assembles his best
Island material in once place and is a worthwhile starting
Only in 1976, when the legendary Joe Higgs organized a superb
band of reggae legends supporting Cliff on tour was he able to
rekindle the flame. A live album from that tour, In Concert
(Reprise, 1976) serves as a defacto Greatest Hits for the early
years and features some of his best singing and one of his best
bands. It also seemed to reenergize Cliff and over the next
several years he made some of the most eloquent and exciting
music of his career.
Give Thankx (Warner, 1978) returns to a reggae foundation but
adds some interesting world music accents in places. The
uptempo songs are energetic and the ballads inspiring. As good
as it was, however, it's sales were dismal and it was the last
record Cliff made for the Warner/Reprise label. His next two
albums, I Am the Living (MCA, 1980) and Give the People What
They Want (MCA, 1981) were also strong efforts with solid songs
and fine, contemporary reggae. Again, however, their
commercial reception disappointed and yielded another label
Cliff's third film was Bongo Man, a documentary/concert film.
A bit overlong, it had several sparkling performances and
insightful interviews along with plenty of chances to get some
popcorn. To date, it has not been released on video.
Reggae itself had changed substantially over the years and
while his last three studio albums were among the "purest"
reggae albums of his career, Cliff's reggae was not necessarily
the reggae being played in Jamaica. Special (Columbia, 1982)
changed that. The title track and "Rub a Dub Partner" were
significant hits in Jamaica and the album was the first to
crack the US charts since Follow My Mind. To many, it remains
his best album.
Again, however, Cliff and his label failed to capitalize on a
successful album. Power and the Glory (Columbia, 1983), Cliff
Hanger (Columbia, 1985) and Hanging Fire (Columbia, 1987) all
attracted Grammy attention (Cliff Hanger won in 1985) while
being featureless attempts at creating a universal dance music
out of R&B, Soul and a producer's idea of generic Reggae and
African music. The only bright spot (after Special) in the
1980s was Club Paradise, a movie starring Cliff, Robin
Williams, Peter O'Toole and several Saturday Night Live and
Second City TV veterans. It's a bright comedy and the
soundtrack contains some top-ranking tunes from Cliff,
including "The Lion Awakes," "Third World People" and
Cliff returned to Reggae for inspiration one more time and
Images (Vision, 1989) was his best album in years. It is also
on a small label and received very limited distribution.
Breakout (JRS, 1992) and Samba Reggae (Lagoon, 1993) also
received little US recognition but were both very strong sets
from this reggae legend. His South American popularity led to
some wonderful touches of samba with reggae but this time the
fusion approach worked well. Live 93 (Lagoon, 1993) is another
good concert recording, showing Cliff's uplifting songs to
their best advantage. It's also the last we've heard from him,
apart from his cover of Bob Marley's "Stir It Up" from the Cool
Runnings soundtrack, his cover of Jackie Wilson's "Higher and
Higher" from the Air Up There soundtrack and "Hakuna Matata"
from Disney's "Lion King" soundtrack.
Those songs and his other 90s work indicate that while Jimmy
Cliff may not be as productive as he once was, or as well
promoted as he once was he is still every bit as talented.
That beautiful voice still touches hearts on its way to the