Like the western calendar, the history of reggae music divides into "Before Jimmy Cliff (BC) and After Jimmy Cliff (AC)." In fact, the music's precise turning point can be tracked to an image that is engraved forever in the minds of countless international viewers of 1972´s Jamaican classic film, "The Harder They Come." When Cliff´s radiant, rapacious grin stretched across several yards of movie screen, as his song "You Can Get It If You Really Want" boomed from the soundtrack, reggae transformed from an indigenous island music to the anthemic sound of the world's disenfranchised. As the character of Ivan, the proverbial country innocent corrupted by the big city into a "most wanted" posterboy, Jimmy Cliff put a face on the music and said all there was to say about the pressure of Caribbean ghetto living. As a musician, Jimmy Cliff was the first to improvise those real-life pressures and possess the soul-guidance to transcend them into the universal art form that he then took to every corner of the globe. Cliff's many hit tunes have been covered by rock & roll and R&B greats, including the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Cher and Percy Sledge, as well as Jamaican music legends like Desmond Dekker and the Pioneers. Yet, none of those versions approaches the luminosity of the originals.
Higher And Higher, Cliff's first Island album in over two decades, demonstrates this legendary artist's unvarnished virtuosity and powerful appeal. Co-produced by Cliff and a galaxy of international and Jamaican studio stars, Higher´s 12 cuts include 6 original Cliff classics (both newly arranged and original recordings), 4 brand-new ?tunes; the title track´s exhilarating cover, and Cliff´s recent smash single, a cover of Johnny Nash´s "I Can See Clearly Now," from the soundtrack of another movie set in Jamaica, 1994´s "Cool Runnings."
Cliff and his "Harder" movie character are virtually indistinguishable, that is, until the point in the story when Ivan leaves off his pursuit of music stardom to take up a life of crime. "The Harder They Come" is partly my biography, " says Cliff. "Most of what you see up there is my story, coming from the country, naive to the ways of the city. I always knew what I wanted to do. I didn´t want to be a doctor like my father wanted. I liked an audience."
The last of seven children, Cliff was born in the sleepy little village of Somerton, high in the hills just outside of Montego Bay. His parents broke up when he was an infant and Cliff was raised by his tailor/farmer father. Those were the days before country parishes had electricity and before the advent of the transistor radio. The rural youth´s earliest musical influences were not the American R&B, blues and jazz that were titillating the imaginations of Kingston city kids.
Cliff´s musical sensibilities imprinted on traditional mento bands, work songs, and the hymns of his local church. By the close of the 50´s, though, communications opened up in Jamaica and Jimmy Cliff was tuning into sounds of New Orleans radio station WINZ.
"I picked it up very clearly at night", he recalls. "Smiley Lewis, Professor Longhair, all the jazz people. Jamaican music developed alongside the jazz, R&B and Latino music we were listening
to. Ska´s tcha-tcha-tcha came out of boogie woogie which moved to rhythm & blues with people like Sam Cook, Ray Charles and Fats Domino, and then became rock & roll. Those people were very inspiring. When I came on the scene, there was no reggae, only its embryo.
After completing sixth grade, Cliff moved to Kingston, ostensibly to attend Kingston Technical School. Like "The Harder They Come´s" Ivan, Cliff had really come to the city to get his songs recorded and become a star. "I was writing songs in school like ´Back to Africa´ because I was living then like I´m living now, "he says, then adds with a laugh, "One was a love song named 'Need a Fiance.' I´d heard that word in school and asked `What that word mean?' That word sounded good! Everything in America then was about 'Baby, my baby, you got me crazy', so Jamaicans were writing songs like 'Leave my girl alone.' I asked my teacher 'How do you write a song?' He said, 'You just write it.' I asked him, 'How?' 'You write it,' he answered. So I just wrote a love song. They didn´t like the protest songs I was writing. It wasn´t the thing at the time."
At the dawn of the 60´s, Kingston was moving towards independence to the buoyant rhythms of ska. It was also birthing a home-grown Jamaican music industry. Mobile discos called "sound system" had made the transition from playing American sides to spinning Jamaican platters that they created in the tiny "roots" recording studios that were sprouting like weeds all over the capital city. Like his celluloid doppelganger, Cliff went from studio to studio until he got his first break and recorded "Daisy Got Me Crazy" with sound system/studio owner Count Boysie, the Monarch.
"I heard rumours that you got paid for recording songs, so I asked for pay, "Cliff recalls. "He got really angry and said, `Gwan (cq) little bwoy (cq). You got through and now you want pay?´ He called out all the bad men them to beat me up. Then he gave me a shilling. I refused it and walked to school. but it was a start. I´d gone to a studio and I´d recorded."
His resolve hardened, Cliff knocked on more studio doors, finally recording "I´m Sorry" for Sir Cavalier´s sound system. "He paid me," says Cliff, "ten pounds or something like that. That was a lot of money. I went out and bought new trousers, new boots, a hat. Then i bought a whole chicken and ate it off."
During this time, Cliff was entering local talent contests, including the Majestic Cinema competition on West Kingston´s Spanish Town Road, where he took first place with a cover of Owen Gray´s "sinners Weep." The two-pound prize paid for another sharp pair of pants, but did little for his career.
It wasn´t until Cliff met Leslie Kong, owner of Beverly´s Record Shop, that his dreams were realised. Kong wasn´t in the recording business at the time, but the skinny schoolboy convinced Kong that he should become a producer. "It was one of those mystic things, "Cliff recalls. "I was just passing the place and the vibes said, 'Check him'."
Their first recording session yielded no hits, but among the songs Cliff recorded in his second Kong session was the 1962 number one tune, "Hurricane Hattie," inspired by a real-life disaster. In defiance of his father, Cliff quit school and went on to record a succession of smash singles
on Kong´s Beverly´s label, including "Miss Jamaica", "King of Kings", "One-Eyed Jacks", "Lucky Day", and "Miss Universe."
Now a bonafide Jamaican music star, Cliff, along with calypsonia Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, was tapped to travel to New York and perform in the Caribbean Pavilion at the 1964 World´s Fair. He garnered raves from Cashbox, Billboard, and Record World, and met Chris Blackwell, who had recently formed his Island Records label. Blackwell knew of Cliff´s music, and was especially impressed by the prescient African pride expressed in "King of Kings." Cliff had also heard of Blackwell. "I heard that Chris paid the best money and recorded quality material," recalls Cliff. "He had brought Millie Small to England and she was doing well with 'My Boy Lollipop.' I had been trying to get to him and that was the time I met him."
Cliff´s World´s Fair experience also produced a flurry of offers from major American record companies. "I didn´t accept," Cliff says. "Chris Blackwell appealed to me. 'He´s Jamaican and he knows about Jamaica, 'I thought. I went back to Jamaica without making a choice and hung about for two to five months. Then I said, 'Okay, I´ll call up Chris Blackwell in England.' He sent me a ticket and I went."
Island released a succession of Cliff singles, including "Pride and Passion" and "Give and Take", then debuted his A Hard Road To Travel album, spearheaded by the title track, a re-recording of an earlier Cliff composition. Cliff began touring England with the first of several bands he would put together in that country. "They were all white," he says. "I couldn´t find any Black musicians. Finally, I met Rebop Kwakuba, an African congo player from Ghana, and he joined my band. It was hard for a Black band to make it in England. So most everybody was mixed, a Black singer with a white band."
Sharpened by the U.K.´s domestic version of colonialism, Cliff´s political views were colored by philosophies such as that of Malcolm X and Islam. but he also heard there a variety of world musics that would eventually play an influential role in his own writing. "I didn´t hear African music until I went to England," he says. "There was the Institute in Kensington, where one week you might have Caribbean music, another week African, and so on. All the colonies of Britain would come there to play their different forms of music. And they had small radio stations where you could hear music other than pop."
During the mid-60's to 70's period, Cliff wrote and recorded tunes like "Many Rivers To Cross" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want" (both included or Higher And Higher).
Those hits, plus Cliff's cover of Cat Steven's "Wild World", which reached the top ten on UK pop charts, elevated him into the international pop world, where he worked with such heavyweight talents as Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller and recorded at such world-class facilities as Alabama's Muscle Shoals. Cliff also had an eye for talent. It was he who tipped off Blackwell about a promising young musician named Bob Marley.
Cliff segued into movie acting when the jacket photo for hs 1969 Jimmy Cliff lp attracted the attention of Jamaican film director/producer Perry Henzel, who eventually cast him in the role of
Ivan. "You Can Get It If You Really Want", "Many Rivers to Cross", and "Sitting in Limbo." Cliff´s stature soared with the movie's 1972 release, and along with it, the popularity of reggae music.
"'The Harder They Come' catapulted me to another dimension and gave me that international status, "says Cliff, "except for so-called Third World countries like Africa and South America who haven't seen the movie as much as they've heard my music." But the soundtrack album was Cliff's last for Island Records for the next 24 years. He signed to EMI and released Unlimited in 1973, then went on to sign to a succession of American labels, "everyone except RCA," he says.
During the 70's and 80's, Cliff toured the world, particulary those so-called "Third World" continents, Africa and South America. He was the first Jamaican artist to play Nigeria. Cosmopolitan-minded and possessed of an exploratory spirit, Cliff immersed himself in studies of various cultures and religious beliefs. At home, he was viewed as somewhat of a maverick by a generation of reggae singers who were "sighting up" Rastafari. "Everybody was Rasta, Rasta, so I studied other things, " he says. "I didn't just study Rastafari. I studied Buddhism, a little Hinduism, Zen and other forms of Buddhism."
Essentially Jamaican, and at the same time defying such pigeonholing, Cliff describes his unique place in Jamaican music and culture. "You see how the hand has fiver fingers and the thumb?" he asks. "See how close the fingers are together? See how far away the thumb is? But it's a part of the hand and it can't do anything without it. That's me, the thumb." In 1994, Cliff's "I Can See Clearly Now" success sparked another siege by record labels, including the newly-formed Jamaica-based major, Island Jamaica. Cliff says: "I told myself, ' Of all the companies I've been with, they understood best what I was doing."
Island Jamaica's Higher And Higher radiates much more than the usual retrospective glow. It is Cliff's welcome back, to Island and to his many millions of fans, as well as an introduction of his dazzling voice, universalised musical sensibility, and socially-conscious vision to a new, younger generation. The album re-energizes Jimmy Cliff's history with revamped Cliff classics from The Harder They Come soundtrack - "You Can Get It If You Really Want," "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" and "Many Rivers To Cross," with Sounds of Blackness contributing their gospel-inflected harmonies.
It preserves the original classic productions of "The Harder They Come," "Save Our Planet Earth," and "Rebel in Me", and in addition to his own classics, includes the moving title track and a sentiment-filled acoustic version of Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." Higher And Higher also presents new Cliff compositions: the title track, "Soul Mate", "Ashe Music", "Bob U Did U Job", and "Crime", his hot new single currently ruling Jamaican airwaves.
In the past decade, the Jamaican recording industry has developed into a mecca for international artists. Among the recording studio giants who traveled to Jamaica to collaborate with Cliff for Higher, are Jimmy Bralower, Andy Marvel, Matthew Wilder, Prince "Charles" Alexander, and
Pete Rock. Jamaican world-class producing talents who worked with Cliff on the project include Clive Hunt, Sly & Robbie, Handel Tucker, and "Computer" Paul Henton.
"I dubbed myself at one time as the shepherd of the music," says Jimmy Cliff. "The shepherd is the one who opens the gate and gathers the flock and leads everyone through. Then he has to close the gate, but I haven't closed the gate yet."
Jimmy Cliff is serving as the ultimate shepherd to his own career, taking the myriad of musical, visual, and spiritual images that he has successfully mastered and developed into a powerful creative force. This musical offering is a taste of where he intends to take us - "Higher And Higher."