Jimmy Cliff: ‘I Had Come To England With Big Dreams, But It Didn’t Happen That Way’

Interview - Jimmy Cliff, Shepherd Of Reggae Music : NPREven on his parents’ rural Jamaican farm, Jimmy Cliff dreamed big. “When I was a very small boy, my cousins and me would look after my family’s cows and goats, and I would talk about towns and countries I wanted to go to. Although they would laugh at me, I always had that kind of thinking.”

Cliff’s new single, Human Touch, released on Jamaican Independence Day, marks more than 60 years in music from a man who has always looked beyond local life to move himself – and Jamaican music as a whole – on to a much larger stage. Cliff-penned songs such as Wonderful World, Beautiful People and You Can Get It If You Really Want are some of Jamaica’s most enduring pop music, and he is one of a few surviving musicians – after the recent deaths of stars such as Toots Hibbert and U-Roy – who can draw a line from ska at the start of the 1960s to today’s global reggae. “Ska did not develop until the time I came,” he says. “There were a few artists prior to that, but they were singing a version of rhythm and blues, Jamaican blues I would call it. I turned up in Kingston at just the right time – at the beginning of the real Jamaican music.”

I had come to England with big dreams, but it didn’t happen that way

The Quietus | Features | A Quietus Interview | Many Rivers Crossed: Jimmy  Cliff InterviewedCliff, who recently turned 77, relocated from the family farm to Jamaica’s capital as a young man in the late 1950s (a move later echoed by the character he played in the movie The Harder They Come), and “jumped at the chance” to attend the World’s Fair in New York in 1964.

Together with Millie Small and Prince Buster he performed at the event’s Jamaica Pavilion, to introduce ska, and perhaps make it as lucrative an export as calypso had been. It didn’t work out that way – “they took the right singers, but the wrong band, they took a slick showband with no feel for the music” – but in New York Cliff met Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, who invited him to work in the UK.

“That was pivotal in my career, but at first I said no! I was in New York, the press there wrote about me favourably so I felt I had an opportunity there. Then Chris said: ‘Look what I did for Millie in the UK.’” Her single My Boy Lollipop had reached number two in the charts there. “I knew I was bigger than her in Jamaica, so I figured maybe he can do something for me and I went.”

Jimmy Cliff performs on the main stage of Love Supreme in Lewes, England, in 2019. Photograph: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns
Jimmy Cliff performs on the main stage of Love Supreme in Lewes, England, in 2019. Photograph: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns

In England in the second half of the 1960s, he toured almost constantly and made a few records he admits “didn’t go anywhere”. Unfortunately, the singer selected for his ska chops had arrived as Blackwell – years before his success with Bob Marley – was repositioning Island from Jamaican music towards the UK hippy market, with artists such as Traffic, John Martyn and Fairport Convention. Cliff, it seemed, was an attempt to create a black pop-rock star who wasn’t American, and the failed records he speaks of were a long way from ska. He was produced by, among others, Tony Visconti, of T Rex and David Bowie fame, and worked with another of Blackwell’s proteges, Nirvana, a symphonic rock outfit best known for their 1967 concept album The Story of Simon Simopath (and not to be confused with the Kurt Cobain band).

The Cosmic Journey of Jimmy Cliff - Rolling StoneWhile ’60s London may not have swung for Jimmy Cliff, he flourished abroad, recording at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, and performing all over Europe with the multiracial soul/blues band The Shakedown Sound. He appeared on French rock TV alongside Jimi Hendrix and Cream, and moved to Paris for a while; he spent time in Africa and became a superstar in Brazil after he was invited to represent Jamaica at an international song festival.

Jimmy Cliff performing at his home in Kingston for Roots Rock Reggae, in 1977. Photograph: Chris Morphet/Redferns
Jimmy Cliff performing at his home in Kingston for Roots Rock Reggae, in 1977. Photograph: Chris Morphet/Redferns

“I had come to England with big dreams, but it didn’t happen that way, so I wanted a change,” he says. Cliff won the festival with a number called Waterfall – written by Nirvana – then stayed on in Brazil to record a huge-selling album with a distinct samba flavour, Jimmy Cliff in Brazil.

Source: Jimmy Cliff: ‘I don’t reach my peak yet’

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