Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff on his musical rebirth

JIMMY Cliff is getting to that point, 50 years into his career, when lifetime achievement awards are forthcoming.

Jimmy Cliff says he still has goals he wants to conquer in music and film after a career spanning 50 years
Jimmy Cliff says he still has goals he wants to conquer in music and film after a career spanning 50 years
Jimmy Cliff says he still has goals he wants to conquer in music and film after a career spanning 50 years

The singer, songwriter and actor holds the Order of Merit in his native Jamaica in recognition of his status as a global ambassador for reggae and he was honoured again for his crossover success when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. But Cliff feels he’s only getting started – again.

“What I saw there [at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony] was an ‘I’ve done it, and that’s it’ attitude,” says Cliff, “but it wasn’t all about that for me. I appreciate the recognition for the work that I did but for me it is a springboard to higher things. I set out to conquer the world as an artist. I started out on this small little island and I had this global vision of becoming a stadium act, having a stream of number ones all over the world. I wanted to be a great box office star. But I’ve not won an Oscar yet, I’ve not written my best songs yet, so those are the goals that have still to be conquered.”

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With that attitude as his engine, Cliff’s latest album is called Rebirth. His first new music in almost a decade and his only purely roots reggae album in some time has been received with open arms and Grammy Awards. “I haven’t put out a record that has made any kind of impression like this one in many years,” says Cliff. “But I called it Rebirth because I envisioned that’s what it would do.”

Cliff had previously been working on an album with the more stoic title of Existence, but his initial recordings didn’t get the reaction he hoped for and he put it on hold. The breakthrough came when he agreed to work with player/producer Tim Armstrong of Bay Area ska punk band Rancid, who gathered a team of Californian “reggae connoisseurs” and encouraged Cliff to go back to his roots.

Armstrong may have been a superficially surprising choice of creative director, but had been recommended to Cliff some years before by Joe Strummer when the late Clash frontman had guested on Cliff’s previous album, Black Magic. This was to be Strummer’s last recording session before he died in 2002. In tribute to his judicious matchmaking, Cliff has included a cover of The Clash classic Guns Of Brixton on Rebirth. “I thought it was the most appropriate way to lift my hat to him as a great artist and a good friend,” he says. “It’s strange how things work out sometimes in life…”

Guns Of Brixton has further resonance for Cliff. The song’s lyrics make reference to Ivan, the outlaw character Cliff portrayed in the iconic Jamaican film The Harder They Come, propelling him to overseas stardom. Although Bob Marley was to become the first world music superstar in the years that followed, Cliff’s sweet tenor was the first reggae voice to make a commercial splash way beyond the Caribbean.

He recorded his first songs aged 14, after badgering local record shop owner Leslie Kong to go into the studio with him – a key turning point which he celebrates on Rebirth album track Reggae Music. Then five years later, Cliff scored his first global hit with the uplifting sunshine reggae track Wonderful World, Beautiful People.

The starring role in The Harder They Come came shortly ­afterwards. Cliff’s contributions to the soundtrack, such as Many Rivers To Cross and You Can Get It If You Really Want, had a life well beyond the film and remain staples of his set.

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Spurred by those global ­ambitions he is still pursuing, Cliff decided he could make his way more easily if he left ­Jamaica. Even in the early days of his career, he cast his net wide for inspiration. “The models for me at that time were the great American acts that I heard on the radio even before I left Jamaica, like Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and the rock’n’roll people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, then later on acts like The Beach Boys and The Beatles,” he says.

This has manifested itself in a varied musical career. One of Cliff’s earliest recordings was a number written by Nirvana (the English psychedelic band from the 1960s, not their more renowned grunge namesakes) and he has had hits with songs by Cat Stevens and Johnny Nash.

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Cliff doesn’t regret his pop and soul-infused excursions but he has always connected most strongly, both creatively and commercially, with that particular elixir provided by reggae music.

“It’s a lifestyle, it’s a frame of mind,” he says, counting off his tips for eternal youth: “I try to rest, I don’t smoke, I take care of my voice, I take care of my body, I exercise a lot. I try to do the right thing.”

Doing the right thing for Cliff includes engaging with social and political issues through his songwriting. On Rebirth, he updates the Joe Higgs number World Upside Down and adds his own food for thought on Children’s Bread.

“There are two directions of reggae music today,” says Cliff. “There are 
still some artists who make roots and culture music, like Tarrus Riley, Queen Ifrica and a few other female artists and male DJs, but I don’t know if they are making an impact internationally. But what I call ‘girls and cars and superstars’, which is what dancehall music is about, is what seems to have taken prominence over everything else.

“There isn’t a lot of artists making important social, political statements about life, so I feel good about standing up for what I believe in. You have to have the hunger and the fire inside you still to keep going.” «

• Jimmy Cliff plays the ABC, Glasgow on 23 June. Rebirth is out now on Trojan Records.