Jimmy Cliff - Biography

Reggae was a hard sell for American audiences in the 1970’s. Unlike England and the rest of Europe, America already had some great black music of their own with fans of rock ‘n’ roll having long since branched out into predominantly African American genres like Motown, the Blue, and Jazz. At the time there was no such thing as “world music”, just “ethnic” and “traditional” considered a sub-section of folk. When the thick-patois strains of reggae reached the US it was met by a wall of resistance requiring a bit of subversion to carry it through. Jimmy Cliff arguably provided that subversion by not only starring in the landmark film The Harder They Come but also provided the worldwide hit soundtrack. The film instantly established Cliff on the world stage with numerous hit records, a Grammy win, and various massively successful world tours following. Although he is often overlooked by the reggae heavy weights like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear who came after him, it was Jimmy Cliff who knocked down the barriers and introduced reggae to the rest of world. 


Born James Chambers in the Parish of St. Catherine, Jamaica on  April 1, 1948, the story of his start is the stuff of legend. In fact, several legends, including a chance opportunity to sing on stage after winning a poultry judging contest and taking first place on the Opportunity Hour talent contest resulting in a record contract. His first record was a single called “Daisy Got Me Crazy” for sound system operator Count Boysie in 1962. At age fourteen, the young James Chambers relocated to Kingston to realize his music aspirations, changing his name to Jimmy Cliff in the process. Perhap the most legendary story of all comes from the day he entered Beverley’s Ice Cream Parlour (which, in somewhat typical Jamaican fashion, was also a restaurant and record shop) and sang the track “Dearest Beverley,” a track he wrote as jingle for the business. The moment was said to be the moment that convinced Leslie Kong (one of the brothers who ran the ice cream shop) to become a legendary producer for Bob Marley, Toots & The Maytals, amongst countless others. As luck would have it, Cliff scored a moderate hit with the flip-side, “Hurricane Hattie,” a topical song about a storm that devastated the island, followed by “Miss Jamaica” which won him a gig at the Carribean Pavilion of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Subsequent early singles like “King of Kings” with its veiled reference to Haile Selassie I and the original “Bongo Man” gave a glimpse of another side of Jamaican music, and presaged the lyrical focus of the roots music to come by nearly a decade.     


Cliff was nothing if not enterprising but he also had a great voice and a talent for catchy pop hooks that would eventually make him Jamaica’s first international success story. Of course, success breeds crossover expectations and after signing a contract with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in 1965, Jimmy Cliff left Jamaica behind. He played clubs in England, but nothing much seemed to be happening with his recording career. A 1967 single, “Give and Take” failed to chart (though it later was a hit for The Pioneers). The Jimmy Miller-produced debut full length, Hard Road To Travel (1968 Island, released in the US as Can’t Get Enough Of It on the Veep label), was essentially a soul album from which Cliff’s Jamaican roots had been carefully and all-to-successfully filtered. Later that year he entered a song festival in Brazil (while there he wrote the song “Sitting In Limbo” which reflected his mood at the time) and won with the track “Waterfall,” a personal triumph he turned into a career turnaround. The sophomore album Jimmy Cliff (1969 Trojan) finally contained all the signature Jimmy Cliff elements the world would come to know, spawning the moderate hit “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” which reached number six on the British charts and, amazingly, number twenty-five in America (where the album was released as  Wonderful World, Beautiful People on the A&M label). It and the Jamaican album Two Worlds (1971 Beverley’s Records) were both Leslie Kong productions, though the bulk of their early work together in the ska era remains uncollected. Better Days Are Coming: The A&M Years 1969-1971 (Hip-O) is a limited edition four CD set that gathers everything by Jimmy Cliff issued on that label during this time.


Although the next single from Jimmy Cliff wasn’t destined for chart dominance,“Vietnam” was a success in other ways. Bob Dylan is said to have been so enamored with the song he played it over and over for Paul Simon who booked a flight to Jamaica and recorded “Mother and Child Reunion” and other songs with the same band that laid the track. Cliff charted again in America with “Come Into My Life” from the same album and scored another hit in late 1970 with a rendition of the Cat Stevens classic “Wild World.” Cliff subsequently traveled to Muscle Shoals, the creative bastion of Southern Soul, where he got the full Arthur Alexander/Dan Penn style treatment on Another Cycle (1971 Island), spawning the single “Opportunity Only Knocks Once.”


Opportunity knocked once more for Jimmy Cliff in 1972. The Roger Corman production of The Harder They Come may have come together haphazardly but the film, featuring Cliff in the starring role, has since gone down in history for arguably introducing the Western World to reggae music. Cliff’s character, Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin, was unique in that he contained some elements of a real-life Jamaican gunman yet also incorporated some aspects of Cliff’s own story as well. After all these years, the film is still arguably the greatest reggae movie ever made (and there are some other good ones), recently released in a 30th Anniversary Edition. The soundtrack album remains one of the best reggae anthologies ever issued, with classic cuts from The Melodians, Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker, The Slickers, DJ Scotty and lots of Jimmy Cliff.  The Harder They Come Deluxe Edition (2003 Hip-O/Island) contains a second disc with more music from the same time period.


Cliff subsequently signed to EMI Records and released a series of pop/reggae albums  including Unlimited (1973 EMI), featuring great players like Hux Brown and Tommy McCook, House of Exile (1974 EMI) and Brave Warrior (1975 EMI) featuring Peter Tosh on rhythm guitar and a Wailers Band lineup that included Carlton Barrett, Familyman Barrett, and the I Threes. The EMI Years: 1973-1975 (2000 EMI) culls 20 tracks from these three albums (all you’ll ever need) onto one CD. Though his pop dalliances caused American roots fans (who, as fairly recent converts, knew nothing about Cliff’s own roots) to disdain him in comparison to Bob Marley, Big Youth or others. His world tours during this time however, made him a giant in Africa and South America where his sound and style continues to influence international reggae today.


Having seen Jimmy Cliff and his band play the Troubadour in Los Angeles during the mid-seventies, I can testify to Cliff’s powerful live presence. The band, which included keyboardist Pablove Black and bandleader Joe Higgs, was nothing short of incredible and Cliff, youthful, energetic, his voice in absolute tip-top shape, was unbelievable in strength and prowess. Struggling Man (1974 Island) was filled with sufferer’s tunes and gritty tales of city life while In Concert: The Best Of Jimmy Cliff Live (1976 Reprise) still stands as one of the best live releases of the classic roots era. Cliff continued to make excellent music throughout the seventies, with three albums for Warner Brothers/Reprise: Music Maker (1974 Reprise), Follow My Mind (1976 Reprise) and Give Thanks (1978 Warner Bros). He remained active, albeit somewhat overlooked, with the early 1980’s releases I Am the Living (1980 MCA), Give the People What They Want (1981 MCA), and Special (1982 CBS). In 1983, however, Cliff scored an important MTV hit with “Reggae Nights” from The Power and The Glory (1983 Columbia) with the song also receiving a Grammy nomination. Two years later, Cliff finally won a Grammy for Best Reggae Recording for the album Cliffhanger (1985 CBS).  Hanging Fire (1988 CBS) and Images (1989 Cliff Sounds and Films), which contains a studio version “Trapped,”  an older song that had long been part of his live shows and was often covered by Bruce Springsteen throughout his late 70’s live performances. Other artists who have covered Cliff’s material include The Pioneers, who had hits in the UK with several, Desmond Dekker, who got a hit off Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and Harry Nillson, whose cover of “Many Rivers To Cross,” on the John Lennon-produced album Pussy Cats caused this writer to go see Cliff live in the first place.


He put a positive spin on one of his best known songs with “Stepping Out of Limbo” on 1992's self-produced Breakout (JRS). Live ‘93 (1993 Lagoon) included some of his later songs like “The Rebel In Me” and “Save the Planet.” Cliff re-recorded some his signature hits for  Higher & Higher (1998 Island Jamaica) while offering  new songs, including a nice interpretation of the Johnny Nash classic “I Can See Clearly Now.” He ended the 1990’s with Humanitarian (1999 Eureka) which included the striking “Rise Up” and a cover of “Ob-La-Di- Ob-La-Da” and Shout For Freedom (1987 Milan), actually recorded in Zaire in 1987 and featuring accompaniment by OK Jazz, Africa International, and Grand Zako Wawa.  Plastic Fantastic People (2002 Artists Network) might sound like a throwback to his pop roots yet it also contains some more serious post 9/11 cuts like “War In Jerusalem” and “Terror.” Black Magic (2004 Artemis) is essential a duets album featuring big name guest artists like Spice, Wyclef Jean, Sting, Tony Rebel, Annie Lennox, Kool and the Gang, and Bounty Killer. The album’s standout track, “Over the Border” features an inspired duet with the late Joe Strummer of The Clash.


Jimmy Cliff appeared in several other movies over the years after the success of his starring role in The Harder They Come., including Club Paradise with Peter O’Toole and Robin Williams, with his songs also prominently featured on the soundtrack. Bongo Man (1985) is shot in a semi-documentary style and builds to a performance before a crowd of 70,000 in Jamaica. The Francois Bergeron directed Jimmy Cliff: Moving On (2003 Shanachie) from the World Music Portraits series, features acoustic and studio performances with addictional interview material. Besides the music, both these films are of interest because Cliff address the issue of his conversion to Islam in the 1970’s, which created some controversy in Jamaica at the time.


When perusing through the abundant “greatest hits” compilations currently available it is important to remember Jimmy Cliff recorded for just about every major label over the years so an anthology on Columbia, for instance, is likely to have been strictly gathered from his recordings made for that particular company. Of all the Jimmy Cliff collections available the two-disc Jimmy Cliff Anthology (Hip-O) is an excellent overview Cliff’s entire career including the early ska era, top hits, and tracks from his middle and later career.                                                                                                                                                             

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