Last Man Standing: Jimmy Cliff Is Still Making Beautiful Music

The reggae icon on the soul of his music, his new record Refugees, discovering Bob Marley, and staying pure at 78
Credit: Vision Addict

Every musical form has a starting point, a place of origin, somewhere on the map to metaphorically place one of those little blue ceramic plaques. Rock ‘n roll came from the south, basically. The blues from the Mississippi Delta, jazz from New Orleans brothels. Hip hop from — the Bronx? But then they spread, mutated, evolved, and their geography became diffuse and meaningless. But reggae comes from Jamaica. Sure, it’s played elsewhere and has traveled the globe, but reggae is the Champagne of music, the authentic stuff only comes from one place.

To understand reggae we have to factor in Jamaica — an island colonized and oppressed and treated terribly, demeaningly, by the British. So the experience of the native Black people of white people wasn’t good, wasn’t pleasant. That experience is not disassociated from their culture or their day to day lives. Some reggae musicians have referred to white people as devils. Frankly, are they wrong? (Probably literally, but you get my point.)  And we white people, who brutalized them and sucked their nation dry, are offended at their racism!

Reggae was around, in a form, in the early ’60s, but not named as such until the late ’60s when Toots and the Maytals put out “Do The Reggay.” In the late ’60s and early ’70s it spread like an inkblot across the globe as new superstars Jimmy Cliff and later Bob Marley had hits with the music’s exotic sound, uncompromising lyrics and bass-driven, rhythmic instrumentation. There were others — Toots and his Maytals, The Wailers, Peter Tosh, and more esoteric artists like Desmond Dekker, Gregory Isaacs and Linton Kwesi Johnson, wafting from radios and record shops, the sound distinct from anything else, a music perhaps deliciously menacing. 

On stage in Paris, 1982. (Credit:  John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images)

Cliff and Marley were the faces of Reggae, in as much as you could see their faces. Back in the dark ages, before music videos and streaming channels and the ubiquity (and relentless, obligatory grind) of social media, there weren’t that many opportunities to form an impression of what someone looked or was like. You could see them in action, if you were lucky, or occasionally on TV, and, infrequently, in photos, the isolated snapshots of proof of existence. You heard them, and read about them, more than you saw them. You certainly didn’t know everything about them.

Marley was more the rockstar and therefore easier to mythologize (and once literally went down in a hail of bullets), but I think Jimmy was and is the real deal, the real sound, and it’s never been replicated, never bettered.

Improbably, he had his first hit, “Hurricane Hattie” at 14, in the late ’50s, having talked his way into the record business from sheer, no doubt annoying persistence while still at school. And that was actually his third single released. 

Over the next few years he had a few hits locally before moving to the UK, having signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. In 1967 he released his first major album, Hard Road to Travel, which was more an R&B / rock album (it included a cover of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”). He hadn’t found his reggae feet yet. 

But that came at the end of the decade, with “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” released in 1969 and “Vietnam” a year later, at the apotheosis of the conflict. It was a massive hit around the world, a rallying cry with a catchy tune to end the war, and an anthem to announce Jimmy as an international star. Dylan called it the best protest song he ever heard. 

And it was the movie The Harder They Come, released in Jamaica in 1972 and worldwide a year later that gave reggae, and Cliff, who starred in it but had never acted before, a visual definition. Now we could see where it came from, mostly the squalor but also, paradoxically, a relaxed, sunny island life where somehow, more or less, everybody gets through everything. The movie is music laden, and at least partially about music, but it’s not a musical. It’s a gangster movie about a kid (played by Jimmy) who comes to Kingston to break into the recording business, fails and becomes a small-time bad boy in a local crime gang, kills a cop, runs from the law and — well, it ends in tears. 

 

Cliff and Bruce Springsteen attend the 25th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony dinner, March 15, 2010 in New York. (Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)

The soundtrack is a wonderful compilation from some of reggae’s pioneers, but although Jimmy only has four of the ten tracks, it feels like his record, because his are the immortal songs — “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers To Cross,” “Sitting In Limbo,” and “The Harder They Come.”

For the next 40 years Jimmy glided around the world performing, recording, sometimes just visiting places, especially in Africa, winning awards, being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, collaborating with the Rolling Stones, Steve Van Zandt, Annie Lennox and Joe Strummer and others, and constantly making records, a flame that never went out. 

In 2012 his album Rebirth, produced by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and including a fantastic, probably overdue, version of “Guns of Brixton,” was his highest-ever charting record and won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album. 

And this year, 10 years later, at age 78, he released Refugees, a beautiful, 13 track, soulful album. It includes the soaring “Bridges,” a song with his daughter Lilty called “Racism,” and two takes of the title track with Wyclef Jean, a rap and a dance version. He calls it “a new musical direction. I’ll always go into something new,” and says, even though the record’s title might seem heavy (although, let’s face it, sadly pertinent now) “you’re going to be moving your feet.”

 

Jamaica became independent of Britain, and the fast fading fantasy of the British Empire, in 1962, but remained part of the British Commonwealth, whatever that is — something between a communal garden and a sports federation, I think. I grew up in England and I can’t tell you. Not exactly enthusiastically, they officially retain the British monarchy as their head of state. Now that Charles is King, they will probably cast out the monarchy, like some demon in an exorcism. 

I happened to interview Jimmy on the day Queen Elizabeth died. As I said to him, two hours earlier this wouldn’t have been a question, but how did he feel about the Queen passing?

“The government was on the side of the monarchy. The rastafari was set up against the monarchy,” he replied, circumspectly. “The upper class, the middle class, are for the monarchy, so that’s how that works in Jamaica. The poorer class are not for the monarchy. If you ask them, they say ‘Monarchy what?’ I take side with the poorer class.”

I asked him what the essence of Reggae was? At its heart it’s a pure music, isn’t it?, I said.

“It is a pure music. It was born of the poorer class of people,” he answered. “It is the soul of Jamaican music. It came from the need for recognition, identity and respect. 

“That is the soul of Reggae music.”

SPIN: How did Reggae begin? I heard it was from Jamaicans listening to rock ‘n roll from America and trying to emulate what they could hear, because the long distance reception wasn’t good.
Jimmy Cliff: That’s partly true, because we only had transistors in the day. I can’t say that’s totally true. The rest of it will be that reggae music was born out of what music existed, Calypso, Mento, African Roots music, there are others which I grew up listening to. The sound of reggae is from all of those musics and the definition you gave is quite close. We listened a lot to New Orleans radio, late at night I would be listening to WINZ and some of the other stations.

How did you come to make a hit record at 14! 
Well, I made a hit record because that’s the way all the artists coming up made records! He want a hit, so you write a hit! What inspiration did I have to write a hit? Just a mixture of the local and the foreign music that I could hear. There was a big reggae hit then, called “Snapping” — only he didn’t say “snapping,” he said “snorp-ping.” 

In Jamaica, you make a living from two things, making music or playing some kind of a sport. I was not a sportsman at all. I love music from going to school, and going to church — my family were all Christians. 

Either you do that or you do manual labor, like cut cane, or carrying bananas, green bananas, and I did those things, and I hated them. So most of us chose music.

 

(Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Was crime the only other way to get ahead?
Yeah, it was a minor way. But if the question is, how did crime become such a big thing in Jamaica, it goes back to history. Jamaicans were fascinated with guns and knives, and all that, and it goes back to the resistance to colonialism. The British did a whhhhole lot of wrong things!

This is the 50th Anniversary of The Harder They Come. How has the film aged in your mind? How realistic was it, how close to your life? 
The film stands up very well. The director was saying, “I don’t want any actors in my movie. I just want people who play themselves.” Mainly all of the actors in the movie were playing themselves. That’s why it stood up, everyone was being real.

The director and co-writer was a bit political minded. One day he used the word bourgeois and I said, well, this man is political! He wanted to make a statement with that film. He says to me, “I’ve been looking around for someone to do my movie all these years, and I have found him!” So I said, “What makes you think I want to do your movie? I’m doing quite well with my music here, and in Europe, why should I do this?” He said one amazing thing to me. “I think you are a better actor than singer” and I was really shocked, because the only person that ever said that to me, was me.

But I never stole. I never killed. [laughs]

Why didn’t you do more movies?
That’s a good question. The scripts never come. 

How did you come to write “Vietnam”?
So, um, I just was around during the era of the Vietnam War, I was against the war, so [I thought] why don’t I write a song? 

Most protest songs sound down, and “Vietnam” sounds up.
And you know what, the media criticized me for that! Here he is writing a serious, sad song, very upbeat melody and rhythm. And to be honest it made me feel bad, I thought I had a great melody, some inspirational lyrics came, what’s the point of criticizing me for that? It was a long time, but it left a scar. 

March 1978, Tokyo (Credit: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

You discovered Bob Marley and brought him to Beverly Records, Leslie Kong’s seminal label. What did you see in him? 
I discovered Desmond Dekker and Desmond Dekker went back and told Bob Marley, who he used to work with, and he said, you should go ‘round and check this man, see how it work out, and that’s what he did, he came and he checked me! I was like the AR man, along with Jerry Morgan. What I was looking for was a good song, a good singer and when I heard “Honor Your Mother And Your Father”, it was kind of a religious theme, but was such a good voice, to me, I thought I should introduce him to Leslie Kong.

He had a way with lyrics, and he had a personality, that was kind of magnetic. He walked into the room and right away he said —- I was writing a song — and he said “That song good enough.” I thought, who is this man say my song sound good? But the song sounded good!  

I told Jerry Morgan to listen to him, and the three songs they chose, were the three I close. So I was right on the money.

How did Island Records treat its artists? I know there were allegations of slippery stuff. 
I have to say, at the time, I didn’t know! Well look, Marley complained about one of the producers, Coxsone Dodd. In Jamaica, we get a lot of cheatin’, if you want to call it. It’s part of the culture.

Is Chris Blackwell the Devil?
I’d have to split that in two, because I would say Jamaica hated him. He was the best one of all the producers, except for Leslie Kong. There were technical producers who were really, really good, but as a businessman, we needed someone like Leslie. He was a good match for Blackwell. 

I respect him, for the job he has done there. Yeah. That’s it.

What’s your favorite of all your songs? Which one means the most to you? 
Well, I don’t want to sound like most everybody else, but “Many Rivers to Cross.” It is and it isn’t — its melody has a sadness about it, and I only started realizing that later. At one stage, I said, I didn’t know this song was so sad. 

I think it’s a song full of hope.
Yes it is a song full of hope.

At the 2012 Celebrate Brooklyn! Opening Night & Gala, June 5, 2012. (Credit: Al Pereira/WireImage)

“Bridges” on your new album sounds a lot like “Rivers.” I also thought “Bridges” was a song full of hope.
There’s a producer, Nineny, said to me one day — he call me Skip — he say, “Skip, that song, ‘Many Rivers to Cross’, you need one named ‘Bridges’, how can they cross otherwise?’ You don’t cross the rivers without some bridges!” That’s why I wrote that song.  

You know, the songs that would be my favorites, are not popular songs. To be quite honest. I wrote a song, I think it was ‘77, “Universal Love (Beyond the Boundaries).” I wrote it one late night in Senegal. 

[He starts to sing Beyond your individual bound’ry, beyond your cultural bound’ry. Go beyond your tribal boundaries…” When he sings this, it sounds to me that his voice has the cadence of a muezzin calling Muslims to prayer.]

I forget the words now. That song is one of my favorite I’ve written — “go beyond your spiritual boundary.

I would put it above “Rivers to Cross” because we are stuck in the culture, the political boundary, all of those boundaries, it’s one of the things that keep us divided.

What was it like making a song with your daughter on Refugees? Were you self-conscious?
Hahahaha…. I was delighted, even though she was shy. I was shy. I didn’t want to put her off, so I got a friend of mine to run her part of the session, because I don’t think I could do it. I already cut the track, but to produce her part, I got an artist friend of mine to do that. Because he had such a great attitude.

How has your voice not aged? Your voice sounds almost like when you were doing “Vietnam” — slightly different, but you haven’t lost that vitality. 
I am someone who is full of energy. On stage, and it comes across on record, so the quality of my voice has maintained. I always knew I had a good voice, I never want to lose that, I guess somewhere I made a conscious effort to maintain my voice.

Wyclef said: “Jimmy has always stayed on message when it comes to peace, love, and unity.” Has this always been your message? How is it that possible, given all the cruelty and lack of love in this world, the selfishness and racism and discrimination?
Haha, good question. I boil it down to having grown up in the ghetto. I could have gone either way — I could have gone like Ivan, in the movie, or gone the way I have now. I had to be optimistic to survive. Or you sink like a stone. So, I put it down to that, I just have to stay optimistic. 

That attitude has become a part of me.

You’re the only living Jamaican musician to hold the Jamaican Order of Merit? That makes you a national treasure. Do you feel like a national treasure?
No, and I don’t want to feel like that. I think I am a treasure out of the community I came from, as one might say, ghetto. I’m a treasure to them. But from a political point of view, I never look at myself as a treasure. I guess I want to stay that way in my mind so that I don’t lose my purity. When I start to think like a national treasure, I might lose my purity.

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