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Reggae Legends

Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy Cliff

By Tom Terrell
Published September 9, 2005

Best known for his starring role in the classic reggae film The Harder They Come, and for its brilliant soundtrack, Jimmy Cliff was one of reggae's first international icons.

That Jimmy Cliff has spent the better part of his 40-plus-year career in the shadow of Bob Marley is arguably the most egregious of pop music’s many injustices. Matter of fact, if the Tuff Gong was alive today, he would no doubt say, “Amen.” Hell, he knew that he was as much influenced by Cliff as Cliff was influenced by him; that together they created/refined reggae and took it international.
     In a very real sense, they were two sides of the same coin, yin and yang, brothers of different mothers. Marley was born in St. Ann on February 6, 1945, Cliff in St. James on April 1, 1948. Both were mentored by Joe Higgs. Cliff recorded his first hit, “Miss Jamaica,” for Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label and helped Marley record his Beverley’s debut “Judge Not.” In 1963 both men scored their first number one hits (“Simmer Down”; “Dearest Beverley,” respectively) for Kong. In ’69, Johnny Nash’s reggae-lite cover of Marley’s “Guava Jelly” was an international pop smash; ditto for Cliff’s own “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.”
     In 1971, Cliff became the first reggae star to be signed to an exclusive contract with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records label; the following year, his lead role in The Harder They Come and performances on its soundtrack made him reggae’s first international superstar. The four songs Cliff contributed to the soundtrack—“Sitting In Limbo,” “Many Rivers To Cross,” “You Can Get it If You Really Want” and the title track—became and remain cornerstones of reggae, each one covered by countless others. In ’73, Cliff’s conversion to Islam and signing to Warner Brothers’ Reprise imprint alienated the folks at home.
     Deprived of his star act, Blackwell gave the Wailers (Marley, Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh) a shot. Y’all know what happened next: Bob, Peter, Bunny and their dreadlocked Rastafari peers were the purveyors of “real” reggae music while Cliff, who was every bit as authentic and brilliant, was stigmatized as “soft.” To his credit, JC kept on keeping on. He toured Africa, Brazil and all points East, West, North and South, won a Grammy in 1985 for his Cliff Hanger album, founded an annual festival in Jamaica that has raised hundreds of thousands for the downpressed and has recorded over 20 albums, most of which are still in print. He’s the Energizer Bunny of reggae music.

Recommended Recordings


The Harder They Come (Original Soundtrack) (Island)

Ultimate Collection (Hip-O)

Follow My Mind (Wounded Bird)