Jimmy Cliff: Many rivers to cross

In an extract from his new biography of the singer, David Katz tells how the young Jimmy Cliff made his breakthrough

–Derrick Morgan. Photograph by David Katz

At the end of Jimmy’s first year in Kingston, he decided not to continue with his studies, certain that he would make his career in music. When his father found out, he was livid, decrying Jimmy’s actions as foolhardy and reckless: “You’re on your own now,” said Lilbert Chambers decisively, cutting him off from parental support.

The rejection was painful, but Jimmy was determined to stick to his decision, despite the hardships he faced on a daily basis in Back-O-Wall. He earned meagre wages working on a vegetable truck for a time, but at one point, things got so bad that he contemplated robbing a bank, though the thought of his father finding out ultimately deterred him.

Then, as 1961 gave way to 1962 and independence loomed ever closer, everything changed one evening when, pounding the streets of downtown Kingston in search of the way forward, Jimmy Cliff found himself a few streets from home at 135 Orange Street, the site of an ice cream parlour, cosmetics shop and record outlet called Beverley’s, which had real-estate offices upstairs. Pots, Cecil and Leslie Kong, three Chinese Jamaicans, were the businessmen who ran the place, though no one can recall the origins of its name.

Once again, Cliff thought fast at the front door of Beverley’s; if he came up with a song that made use of the name Beverley, maybe he could convince the proprietors to record him. So he started to put lyrics together in his head, based partly on a girl he knew in Somerton. Then, once the song was fully formed, he returned the following evening to present it.

“I thought, maybe if I write a song called ‘Beverley’s’, I could probably get my foot through the door,” he recalls. “They said they are closed and I said I have a song, and they said, ‘Well, we don’t do recording,’ and I said, ‘Can you just listen?’ and I forced my way in. There were three Chinese brothers there, and they said they’re not into recording, and I said, ‘But I think you can get into recording,’ and I sang the song, ‘Dearest Beverley’.”

When Jimmy was through, Pots and Cecil laughed out loud, but Leslie Kong’s reaction was different. “I think he has the best voice I’ve heard in Jamaica,” he exclaimed, telling the singer to return the next day.

Upon Jimmy’s return, Kong said he would be happy to record him, as long as certain conditions were met. The first hurdle, he explained, was that Jimmy needed to seek out the better-established Derrick Morgan, and present the material to him. If Morgan liked it, Cliff should bring the singer back to Beverley’s with him, and arrangements would be made for him to record. Kong was an astute businessman, and his extra precaution had a dual purpose: if Morgan liked the singer, it meant that he was truly ready to record, and if Kong was going to take the plunge into the unknown arena of record production, it would probably be better to have an established pro on board as well, since Jimmy was still completely unknown and relatively inexperienced.

Jimmy was a big fan of Derrick Morgan, really knocked out by his song “Fat Man,” which grafted Morgan’s grainy rhythm-and-blues baritone onto a bolero beat. In fact, Morgan’s early success was one of the reasons Jimmy had first approached Duke Reid, as Morgan was then one of Reid’s most successful performers.

On the ghetto grapevine Jimmy learnt that Morgan lived in a big yard where Orange Street met North Street; when he approached the singer as Kong instructed, Morgan was impressed by the youth’s vocal tone, and the melody of “Dearest Beverley” greatly pleased him. But Morgan pointed out that the song was unlikely to be popular because its pace was a little too sluggish: after all, the sound that was increasingly capturing the nation’s imagination was ska, and the ska beat was anything but slow.

When Derrick Morgan complained that “Dearest Beverley” was too slow, Jimmy responded with another number called “Hurricane Hattie”, a clever ditty that warned a girlfriend not to misbehave, lest he lick her with the wrath of the hurricane that had been heading for Jamaica, but which ultimately destroyed British Honduras on October 31, 1961, changing course at the last minute. Derrick and Jimmy then went back to Leslie Kong, and arrangements were quickly made for a recording session.

“He asked me, ‘How does Jimmy sound?’ and I told him, ‘Very good,’” Morgan explains. “He said, ‘What about you, you no have anything fi sing?’ I say, ‘Yes, I have a song named “She’s Gone”,’ and I told him about Drumbago and the All Star band, and he said he would like to see them…Drumbago take me and Jimmy to Greenwich Farm to rehearse at a place with just a piano there; we went with the rest of the musicians and go to Federal Studio the following day.”

With a full band behind Jimmy, “Dearest Beverley” was cut as a gentle rhythm-and-blues ballad, in which he softly implored Beverley to return to him despite his erroneous ways, the verses broken up by a lengthy saxophone solo. Kong’s second session, arranged soon after, turned out to be pivotal, as it brought forth exceptional material. On arriving at Federal, Morgan found his friend and rival Owen Gray putting some lyrics together; the resultant love song, “Darling Patricia”, was voiced for Kong, inspiring Morgan to retaliate with the boastful “Be Still”, in which he claimed to be “superior” to Gray. Morgan also voiced a song called “Sunday Monday”, and Jimmy voiced “Hurricane Hattie”, not quite in the mode of full-blown ska, but as an understated number with a pleasant, up-tempo rhythm, Jimmy’s boasts and warnings nicely framed by mouth organ and lead guitar licks.

When “Hurricane Hattie” and “Dearest Beverley” were pressed back-to-back on a single, “Hattie” was the hit that took off. “Be Still” was also massively popular, alternating with “Hattie” in the number one position at the top of the Jamaican charts in March 1962, followed soon after by “Darling Patricia”. Leslie Kong was rapidly rising as one of the island’s formidable record producers, and Cliff and Morgan played a big part in his ascendancy, as they were in charge of auditions and assisted with musical arrangements, in addition to providing the producer with hits of their own.

For Jimmy, reaching the number one spot on the charts felt like clearing a major hurdle; over the moon, he felt justified in defying his father.

Jimmy Cliff: an unauthorised biography David Katz
(Macmillan Caribbean/Signal, ISBN 978-0-230-71824-1, 262pp)