Welcome to the life of a famous reggae star.
Jimmy Cliff wasn’t reggae’s biggest star, but he was its first. Though he spent the better part of his career in the all-eclipsing shadow of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff is the man who paved the way out of Kingston for all who followed. And while so many of the genre’s key architects are sadly no longer with us, Jimmy Cliff remains a vibrant artist, giving us a direct line of sight into the birth of reggae. There is nobody alive today who was more instrumental to the proliferation of Jamaican music on a global scale.
Born and raised in the small town of Somerton, St. James Parish, southeast of Montego Bay, Cliff was inspired to take up songwriting by the American R&B that blasted out of sound systems in the neighborhood around him. He relocated to the capital to attend Kingston Technical School, but spent the better part of his time outside the classroom passing his homemade recordings off to area producers. He had little success until he convinced the proprietor of an area record store, Leslie Kong, to become his producer. Kong agreed and helped Cliff score his first hit at age 14.
“Hurricane Hattie” made Cliff a local sensation in 1962, its mellow vibe, sunny disposition, and uniquely accented backbeat representing an inflection point in Jamaica’s music. Its incorporation of mento, calypso, and American R&B makes it among the earliest examples of reggae music. His subsequent releases enjoyed the same level of success—so much so that he was selected to represent his country at the 1964 World’s Fair, an appearance which earned him a deal with Island Records.
His true break into global stardom came in 1972, when Cliff starred in the classic Jamaican blaxploitation film, The Harder They Come. In addition to his compelling performance, Cliff provided the soundtrack with a few of his most dramatic performances (“Many Rivers to Cross,” “The Harder They Come”). He was joined by a collection of artists and songs that would define the genre for international audiences.
It would also help to bridge the gap between Jamaica and record hounds in America and the U.K. Bob Marley would ultimately walk across this bridge. But as Marley’s star grew, Cliff steadily persevered as one of the genre’s most consistent and independent artists, exploring rock, pop, African music, punk, and electronica. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy winner just two years ago, Cliff is also the only musician, living or otherwise, ever to be awarded Jamaica’s Order of Merit.
Clancy's comment: Go, Jimmy!