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A Quietus Interview

Many Rivers Crossed: Jimmy Cliff Interviewed
John Doran , May 15th, 2013 05:40

John Doran talks to a true original and the owner of one of the sweetest voices in popular music, Mr Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy Cliff was born James Chambers on April's Fool's Day, 1948 in the Somerton District of St. James near Montego Bay, Jamaica. He reputedly chose the stage name Cliff to reflect the heights he intended to scale in the music business. And while he belatedly became a household name in the 1970s - in the UK thanks mainly to his appearance in The Harder They Come both as an actor and a singer - it became clear to those who followed his career that his name actually came to represent artistic, political and personal struggle, rather than easily attained commercial success.

When he was 14 years old, he moved to Kingston to attend technical school and his recording career began at the same time after he hit upon a novel promotional idea for a local entrepreneur. Beverly's was a restaurant, ice cream parlour and record store which Cliff used to walk past every day. On one occasion the teenager pushed his way inside and said to the three owners that he had written a song called 'Dearest Beverley' which they should record as publicity for their business. Two of them laughed at his impudence but the third, a Chinese immigrant called Leslie Kong, saw potential in the boy and remained his producer until his death in 1971. 'Dearest Beverley' was one of several Jamaican ska hits he chalked up under Kong's tutelage; a list which also included 'Hurricane Hattie' and 'Miss Jamaica'.

The next few years saw him recording and playing in multiple styles in Jamaica, England, France, Germany, Brazil and America, scoring international hits with the Cat Stevens song 'Wild World', 'Vietnam' - which Bob Dylan declared the best protest song ever written, 'Wonderful World, Beautiful People' and many others, but not really achieving the kind of attention that his talent warranted. In fact it was his insistence on growing and progressing as an artist that saw him become slowly overshadowed in commercial terms by fellow Jamaicans such as Bob Marley (who had tempered his reggae sound to appeal to a crossover UK and US audience, it should be noted).

Cliff has one of the sweetest and smoothest voices that Jamaica has ever produced yet at the end of his first decade recording it looked like he was going to be a footnote in the history of popular music. The thing that changed his fortunes around was a film called The Harder They Come, a socially conscious Jamaican gangster movie based loosely on the short and violent life of Ivanhoe 'Rhyging' Martin which took in the vagaries of the vicious and unregulated Jamaican music industry. It was the perfect vehicle for Cliff. The soundtrack was carefully selected by director Perry Henzell to showcase the best of the emergent genre and leant heavily on cuts by Cliff as well as including tracks from Toots And The Maytals and Desmond Dekker. The movie was a massive cult hit in cities across the UK and America and the soundtrack has essentially remained the access point to reggae for many hundreds of thousands, if not millions worldwide since.

Last year the veteran singer celebrated four decades as a recording artist with the release of the Rebirth album which saw him return successfully to his roots with the assistance of producer and co-writer, Tim Armstrong from Rancid. It is an album of original roots, rocksteady, ska and reggae numbers as well as covers of 'Guns Of Brixton' by The Clash, 'Ruby Soho' by Rancid and 'World Upside Down' by Joe Higgs. Following on from this unexpected return to form album, the singer is set to play a number of shows in the UK and release an acoustic album The KCRW Session in June.

You’re known for many styles of music, from ska and reggae to soul and rock via pop and electronic. What was it that made you want to revisit your 1960s roots for Rebirth?

Jimmy Cliff: It’s an important question. I call the album Rebirth and in order for this to happen, I had to go back musically to the time to when it all started. Why did I do that? Like you said, I’ve been in different genres of music and there was a period of time where I had a successful album with Wonderful World, Beautiful People [1969] and all those songs. But then I didn’t follow them up in that reggae idiom; I went to Muscle Shoals and followed up with a different [kind of] album. And at the back of my head I always felt that there was a missing link from the chain. I always felt like I should go back and make another straight up reggae album. So the opportunity came when I met Tim Armstrong. He played me some tracks in the studio and I said, ‘Wow! This is like what I used to play back then.’ So that whole situation led me to do the album. I knew about Tim via Joe Strummer of The Clash.

I know there are quite strong links between traditional, English style punk rock which Rancid are informed by and reggae but still some people might think that it’s an unlikely or an odd pairing between you as the sweet voiced Mr Jimmy Cliff and this kind of gruff, tattooed punk rocker. How did you get on and was there any reservation from either party?

JC: No, not really because punk was influenced by reggae and it expressed the same sentiment; the same social political sentiment. So Tim Armstrong and The Clash were all expressing the same thing that we were so it was pretty easy for us to find that we had a common mind.

When did you first meet Joe Strummer and what were the circumstances?

JC: It was when I was recording my last album [Black Magic, 2004] that we really met and really spoke. But prior to that we always passed each other going to the same gigs: “Hey Joe!” “Hey Jimmy, where you going now?” “Ok, well I’ll guess we’ll link up some time.” But we never really hooked up until that album. He came to my studio and said, “I’ve got these lyrics and I can hear Jimmy Cliff singing them.” I was producing the album with Dave Stewart and he said: “How does the melody go?” And he said: “It doesn’t have a melody!” So he took out the guitar and started playing it and I started singing it and we put the whole thing together. And that was my first eyeball to eyeball contact with him.

What was he like as a person? Did you see him as a kindred spirit?

JC: Yes. Definitely. And he was really very aware of what was going on in the system. And like myself he felt very strongly about it. And like him I always care and always will care and will never cease caring about what is going on. He had the same kind of spirit. He was a very very good artist.

Did you choose to cover ‘Guns Of Brixton’ – The Clash song - because it referred to your character Ivan from The Harder They Come?

JC: I chose to do ‘Guns Of Brixton’ because The Clash were on that side of the Atlantic and Rancid were on this side of the Atlantic [Rebirth contains a cover of Rancid's ‘Ruby Soho’]. Since reggae had influenced punk I thought it would be good to show that the whole link was there by doing two different songs from the strongest artists who were representing reggae influenced music.

I know that Bob Marley had mixed feelings about punk, although he warmed to it a little and he wrote ‘Punky Reggae Party’ in response to what he saw in London. What were your first impressions of punk like?

JC: I think I kind of grew up with punk a bit more than Bob because he was visiting England at the time whereas I actually lived there and watched the birth of it. From a musical point of view it was very fresh because when you blend all these things together like rock and reggae, then you end up with something new. And this is what I really like… invention. And lyrically what they were saying, expressing the social and political issues of the day, well that was really up my street. I liked punk a lot.

Can you tell me about the KCRW Session album you’ve got coming out soon?

JC: The area it is in is presenting a kind of a stripped down performance. And it’s something that I would like people to see of me. You hear me a little bit more raw instead of with an eight or nine piece band. And you get a different sense of the songs when I perform them stripped down like that.

You broke through first as a big name in ska in the mid 1960s. Now this was a very upbeat and celebratory style whereas reggae was much slower and introspective. Do you think social and political change influenced this change in musical styles?

JC: Absolutely. That’s what it was. Ska was a very celebratory music and it was celebrating Jamaican independence. But then people started looking inside themselves and asking, ‘Well, we have independence but what does this actually mean?’ And then the mind and spirit slowed down so the music slowed down. And then the spirituality came into the music so people looked toward Africa to discover what their roots were, so that’s how the music changed. The spirit of the people and the society of the people changed so the music changed as well.

At this time in the 1960s, the Rasta men weren’t really trusted by anyone in Jamaica were they?

JC: No, not at all. Rasta as a movement was not welcomed by anyone at all – especially the upper class. They had a very colonial mentality and they wanted things to remain in a colonial order. Of course [Rastafarianism] went back to Marcus Garvey who was also upper class and fought against his own people to say, recognise your roots, recognise that you come from Africa. But he was rebuffed by his own society. It was only when the outside world started accepting Bob Marley with his locks that they started to say, ‘Ok, yeah, yeah, yeah, YEAH!’ [laughs] So, yes, you’re right in that.

How did you first become introduced to the Rasta men?

JC: When I was growing up all of my family were Christian and I was a Christian in my mind even though it didn’t answer all my questions. I remember the first Rasta man who was in my village. He walked through with his dreadlocks and he said, ‘Love again brother man.’ Everyone looked upon him as strange of course. But I watched him and followed him around and he began to tell me about Africa. And that was my first introduction to Rasta man. Until I went to Kingston and became familiar with Prince Emmanuel from Back-O-Wall [a Rasta shanty town within Kingston which was razed in the early 1960s to make way for the Tivoli Gardens housing estate] and Ras Mortimer Planno, his secretary. And, it went on from there.

What unique perspective does it give you, spiritually speaking, having grown up in a Christian household, grown deeply involved with the Rasta religion and then later in life converted to Islam, do you think?

JC: My journey was one of searching for the answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ All of these religious bodies I asked the same question. I couldn’t find the answer in Christianity. In Rasta, I came a little closer and the finality of the question was in Islam from the black muslim point of view – and I came to this via Malcolm X. So you see, I was looking for myself but I discovered that all of these ancient religious bodies have their roots in ancient Egypt. So spiritually, I have found the roots. Religions can only tell you what you are though, not who you are.

How did you come to meet Chris Blackwell and then move to the UK?

JC: Well, I was interested in Chris Blackwell in Jamaica at the time because I was told he paid the best money. Ha ha ha! So of course I wanted to meet him but I never really got to meet him until I first went to New York to do some recording there in 1964 [Jimmy went to NYC with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires when he was 16, Ed]. I got some great reviews in the magazines. We met and he said, "Why don’t you come to England? You’re doing great but you could be doing greater." I was a little bit reluctant because I was getting these great reviews but he said, "Yeah, you can stay in America but there are lots of singers in America like you. But if you come to England there are not so many singers like you and you stand a better chance." And that’s what changed my mind.

How difficult was it for a young Jamaican man living in England in the mid-1960s?

JC: Well, the living was alright economically because Chris was looking after that side of things for the time before I got a band and started to work, then I had to pay back that money. But what was difficult was living in a new society. It was very difficult to adjust to life in the UK.

Have I got it right that ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ was written as a reaction to the trials and tribulations of this period?

JC: Yes. Definitely. When you hear the line in that song, “Wandering I am lost, as I travel along the White Cliffs of Dover”, that came from the number of times I crossed the channel to the continent. Most of the time it was France but sometimes it was Germany. It was a very frustrating time. I came to England with very big hopes and I saw my hopes fading. And that song came out of that experience.

Obviously there has been a lot of talk over the years about you not capitalising on your early success as a ska singer and Bob Marley becoming Jamaica’s primary reggae export after you went with Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to record soul instead of recording more reggae. In retrospect do you think it would have been easier for you to have continued making reggae albums instead of recording soul and then rock?

JC: I couldn’t do that. It’s not me. I can’t continue doing the same thing all the time. My creative spirit is to invent and to create something fresh. I contributed to creating reggae because when I came into the business there was no reggae and ska was just forming and I contributed to that. But what I really enjoyed doing was creating new things.

And while we’re on this subject. Do you think your decision to release ‘Vietnam’ as a single, effectively ended your chances of having a career in America?

JC: Yeah. At that time, it was really maybe not good timing. Not good timing at all in terms of having commercial success.

You took the artistic high ground though and earned fulsome praise from Bob Dylan [who described it as the best protest song written]. These characters from that period; did you ever meet Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens?

JC: I haven’t met Bob Dylan. Not as yet. I hope the day comes when we do meet because I have big respect for him. Not because of the statement that I heard he made about my song but because he was the voice of a generation. And I was there in that generation and he was very inspiring to me. I met Cat Stevens, as he was called then. I heard the song [‘Wild World’] from his publisher who said, Cat Stevens wrote it but he doesn’t like it. I said,’What?! This is a great song!’ And I got to speaking to him on the phone and then we started singing the song to each other down the line! He had a West Indian band at the time and he went into the studio to record the song soon after that and I went in and helped with the singing and the recording. And then I recorded it myself.

I’m interested in the complex image you have. I think Perry Henzell said that he wanted you to play Ivan in The Harder They Come because he saw this breadth of character in you when he saw the sleeve art to your second album Wonderful World, Beautiful People, which was released in 1968. He said he saw you on the front looking like a pop star and then on the back from a different angle you looked like a sufferah. And this double identity seems to have stayed with you for your whole career. Is he a religious man or is he a rude boy; is he a political protest singer or is he a pop star pin up; and so on. Which is the real Jimmy Cliff?

JC: Well, I’ll put it like this: I am the thread that goes through the weaving in that piece of carpet that you’re making. I’m the thread that goes through what you are writing. You’ll find me here and you’ll find me there. When you think of water… water runs to the most extreme places, it runs everywhere. In the most desolate of places, high and low but also it is the most common thing. That’s the kind of element I am. So yes, I am that kind of spirit or person!

When you were young and you were told about Rhyging, did you think of him as a duppy - a bogeyman to scare children - or a hero?

JC: When I was young, Rhyging was a guy who struck terror! So when I heard about Rhyging as a small schoolboy I was terrified. Because at that point in time to hear about someone who had a gun and not just that he had a gun but that he killed policeman as well… it was totally unheard of in Jamaican society. It was like, ‘Wow! Rhyging is terror!’ So in one way I was attracted to it, and in another way I detested it. I really don’t believe in violence but I also believe strongly in justice and sometimes justice is tough. I don’t think he was a just person in his ways but the fact that he was fighting against society was something.

Did your career in music stop you from becoming a rude boy yourself?

JC: Hmmmm. Well, what was a rude boy when I was growing up in West Kingston? It was someone who took the negative route more than balancing with the positive, someone who did lots of bad things and I knew a lot of people like that and a lot of them are now dead and gone. So it was kind of the music and my family upbringing that stopped me from taking that route. The thought of the shame that it would bring them to hear that I was in Kingston doing that, and that, and THAT! The thought of the shame and disgrace were really the things that stopped me from becoming an out and out rude boy. But I was a rude boy in the way that I was a rebel. But I rebelled against the state and the religion. Against things that were not right. I wrote a song called ‘Democracy Don’t Work’ and you know: it still don’t work.

How did you get on with Perry when you first met him?

JC: To be straight with you, I treated him how I treated most white Jamaicans; with mistrust. But he was very intelligent so by talking with him I found this out. He was very spiritual and very well read. I came to have much respect for him.

The Harder They Come was very authentic in its portrayal of Jamaica for its day and must have been a bit of a hard sell abroad. Do you have any opinions on why it was such a hit in places like London and New York?

JC: Two things. First it expressed the spirit that was going on in the world at the time. The rebelliousness against the system. It was at the same time as the end of the hippy movement who were also rebelling against society. And then you had this character which connected with people. He connected with the college students in the US and UK. It didn’t connect too much with black America at the time because they very much had their own thing going on. Black America normally doesn’t really understand what is going on in the rest of the black world. And it’s still very much like that today. America as a whole doesn’t really know what is going on in the rest of the world. America sees America and thinks, ‘There is the world!’ Maybe you could say middle class black America liked it. And the other reason was it was fresh, showing you another culture. New music. The music was, ‘Wow!’ The music was already familiar in England and parts of Europe but to see where that music came from; to see the culture that it came from; to see the cause of that music.

I heard a story that you were watching this in America in the cinema once and right at the point where there is the showdown with the cops, you jumped up on stage in front of the screen…

JC: That was in Boston. It had been showing once a week for seven years or something like that. So we went to see it and someone suggested that if I did that it would be funny. So I jumped up in front of the screen like I had the six shooters. The people went wild! Really really wild! [laughs]

They keep on talking about a sequel or a remake. Do you know about either of those things?

JC: Well, just before you called here I was just meditating on the sequel because we are still in the process of trying to make the sequel. And I was just about to call Sally, Perry Henzell’s wife because I’ve just done an adjustment to another first draft and sent it to Justine [Perry’s daughter] and I’m just wondering what she thinks of that. And it’s been over 40 years and there have been many opportunities to make a sequel, with many companies, even when Perry was around, it was talked about. So all I can say is that there is a demand for it and I don’t see why we shouldn’t supply that demand.

Is it true that Desmond Dekker, Bob Marley and you all used to work together at Beverley’s?

JC: Oh yeah. The story is like this. I started at Beverley’s and I had hits and I became one of the people who did the auditions for new artists and the other person, the senior person was Derrick Morgan. Desmond Dekker came and I auditioned him. The first song that I chose was ‘Honour Your Mother And Your Father’ and he got that one recorded and it was a big hit for him. And that was the start of his recording career. Now Desmond and Bob Marley used to work together at the same welding plant. So after I auditioned him and he got that song he went back and said to Bob, "I’m recording a song for Beverley’s after doing an audition with Jimmy Cliff – are you interested?" And he said yes. So he sent Bob down and he recorded about five songs and I chose three of them and then it went to Derek Morgan and he chose the same three and that was the beginning of his career as well. So at that point of time we were all on the same label and all worked under the same roof and we worked together for quite a number of years.

Did you talk together about your dreams and aspirations for the future?

JC: Ah, always. The last talk that I had with Bob was on the steps of Oak Road, where he built his studio. And I was finishing up my album I Am The Living there. And Errol Brown was the engineer and he came to me and said, “Boy, Bob say to me, ‘Where the music it come from?’ when he heard you playing I Am The Living you know? An’ I told him Jimmy Cliff, an him say, ‘Wha?!’” And the next thing you know Bob wrote a song with a similar riddim called ‘Could You Be Loved’ – it was an upbeat riddim different from all his other riddims. So he was inspired. And the next night I stayed at Oak Road all night and the next morning I was sitting out on the step and he came out and we were just chatting. We were both about to go on tour and the next thing I heard he collapsed in Trenchtown Park. I said, ‘What?’ The day before we had been playing football and everything. I was like, ‘What? How can he collapse?’ And the next thing I heard he’d cancelled this tour in London and I heard about this cancer thing. And I was really, really amazed because we had always talked together, what I was going to do, what he was going to do. The same thing with Desmond Dekker, especially when we were in London at the same time. So we stayed really close like artist brothers. With that love and respect for each other. All along the way.

The KCRW Session LP is out in June and accompanied by a UK tour