Jimmy Cliff: Still Coming Hard

Garry Steckles reports that reggae legend Jimmy Cliff sounds as good as ever

Jimmy Cliff

For millions of reggae fans around the world, their first introduction to Jamaican music — and a singer called Jimmy Cliff — came in the early 70s, courtesy of a gritty, quirky, and downright wonderful cult movie called The Harder They Come, and its pulsating soundtrack.

As it happens, Cliff’s illustrious career goes back a long way further than that. Like Bob Marley and the Wailers — whose international breakthrough on the Island label also happened in the early 70s — Cliff was a star in Jamaica for about a decade before global fame came his way. And I’m delighted to report that this reggae survivor is not only every bit as good today as he was when he was burning up the Jamaican airwaves in the ska, rocksteady, and roots eras — he’s arguably in the best vocal form of his life.

I was fortunate enough to catch Cliff performing live in St Kitts a few weeks ago. And I must confess to being a trifle apprehensive in the days leading up to the concert. I hadn’t seem him on stage in something like 15 years; I knew he was probably nearer 60 than 50; and, not to put too fine a point on it, I was concerned that he might be a little beyond his best-before date.

As it turned out, I couldn’t have been further off the mark. Not only was Jimmy Cliff in as good vocal shape as I’ve ever heard him, but his stage act, if possible, is even more explosive these days. The only time I’ve seen him in better form was at Toronto’s staid O’Keefe Centre 20-odd years ago, when Jimmy and a crack version of his Oneness band almost blew the late, great Peter Tosh and his legendary Word, Sound, and Power ensemble off the stage — a not inconsiderable achievement, as anyone who’s seen Tosh perform will confirm.

Cliff’s St Kitts performance had the advantage of being at a venue immeasurably more attractive than the O’Keefe. This show was the first I’ve seen in the lovely grounds of the venerable Fairview Inn, and I sincerely hope it’s not the last.

Watching Cliff’s high-voltage stage performance, and listening to that soaring, unique tenor, it was difficult to believe that it’s been more than 30 years since The Harder They Come propelled him to international stardom, and more than 40 since he was signed, as a 14-year-old, to the Beverley’s label of the late Leslie Kong, one of the very first of Jamaica’s pioneering producers.

While his career has had its highs and lows — Cliff has flirted, not always successfully, with some distinctly poppish crossover material over the years — there’s not a shadow of doubt that the only Jamaican performer to have a greater international influence is Marley himself. Bob Dylan rates Cliff’s brilliant Vietnam as the best protest song ever written — and Dylan knows a thing or two about writing protest songs. Paul Simon was so impressed by Cliff’s music that he traveled to Kingston, booked the same Dynamic Sounds studio and the same rhythm section and engineer Cliff had used to record Vietnam, and recorded Mother and Child Reunion — which promptly became an international smash.

Although he was already a huge star in Jamaica, and immensely popular in Brazil, it was The Harder They Come and his unforgettable performance as Ivan O. Martin that made Jimmy Cliff a household name throughout much of the world.

The movie tells the story of a naïve young man from rural Jamaica who decides to move to Kingston, the island’s sprawling, tough capital, to pursue a career as a singer. It reflects, in many ways, Cliff’s own story, and also that of Bob Marley. But unlike Cliff and Marley, Ivan’s career is thwarted by a greedy and ruthless producer. He goes into the marijuana trade to survive, and after a couple of spectacular shootouts he becomes Kingston’s most notorious gunman, before finally being hunted down and killed by police and soldiers.

More than three decades after it was shot, The Harder They Come remains a cult classic, and one of the finest movies ever shot in the Caribbean. And, for those of you who may not have stumbled across it, I can wholeheartedly recommend the book of the same title. It was written — somewhat unusually — after the movie was released, by Jamaican Michael Thelwell, and it’s quite simply the best book I’ve ever read.

It’s horrendously difficult to find (sadly, it’s a rarity in bookstores throughout the Caribbean, even in Jamaica itself), but if you happen to come across a copy, snap it up. Trust me, if you like the movie or the soundtrack, you’ll love the book.