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Jimmy Cliff / Many Rivers to Cross

Updated on December 23, 2010

Jimmy Cliff


The Harder They Come the harder they fall

Both a popularizer of reggae music outside of Jamaica and an unorthodox, iconoclastic figure within the tradition, Jimmy Cliff is a durable Jamaican star with an international following. Even if he never achieved the fame and influence of his contemporary, Bob Marley, he blazed the way for Marley and other performers to spread their messages around the world. Cliff is perhaps best known for the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which explored reggae music and Jamaican life.

Jimmy Cliff was born James Chambers in Somerton, Jamaica, near Montego Bay, on April 1, 1948. A descendant of Maroons, escaped Jamaican slaves who hid out in a sparsely populated mountainous area, he was raised by his father, a tailor and farmworker. When he was 13 he quit school and headed for the Jamaican capital of Kingston. "I didn't know what I was supposed to do and I had no future at all," said in Reggae Bloodlines. "What was I supposed to do with my life? Work in a banana field? Cut cane? I came to Kingston to go to night school and learn a trade, but my intention was to sing because I was always singing good in school." Around this time, Chambers changed his name to Cliff to symbolize the heights of his aspirations.

It didn't take Cliff long to make an impression on Jamaica's music industry. Less than a year after arriving in Kingston he recorded his first single, "Daisy Got Me Crazy," and a subsequent record, "Hurricane Hattie," reached the Number One chart position in Jamaica. These recordings were in the ska style, the predecessor of Jamaican reggae. After several more hits, the teenaged Cliff performed in the U.S. in 1964, and met Chris Blackwell at the New York World's Fair that year. Blackwell, whose Island record label would eventually serve as the vehicle for the international dispersal of reggae, suggested that Cliff move to London, where the presence of both an atmosphere of musical innovation and a large West Indian population were stimulating new developments in Jamaican music.

Cliff encountered racist discrimination in London and struggled for several years, but he found the musical atmosphere congenial. Recording with English rock groups as a background vocalist, he began to build a career of his own. A new layer in his musical experiences came when he represented Jamaica in a song contest in Brazil with a composition called "Waterfall;" to this day Cliff remains popular in South America. Back in Jamaica, Cliff composed a great deal of new material, including a protest song, "Vietnam," that drew praise from U.S. folk-rock singer Bob Dylan. His 1969 LP Wonderful World, Beautiful People was a commercial breakthrough. Criticized by some in the hardcore reggae community for its slickness, the album nevertheless included his composition "Many Rivers to Cross," a reggae classic in the estimation of nearly all the music's observers.

The following year, Cliff was offered the lead role in a low-budget film conceived by Jamaican writer and director Perry Henzell. The film, The Harder They Come, told the story of a young Jamaican man who aspires to a musical career but ends up enmeshed in a web of organized crime that hovers somewhere between the governmental and gangster realms. Cliff, instantly recognizable in a T-shirt bearing a five-pointed star, exuded charisma in the role of the gun-slinging gangster, and the film became an international underground hit. The soundtrack, which contained several of Cliff's best recordings (including the title track), remains one of the best-selling reggae albums of all time.

By the middle 1970s, then, Cliff was one of the most recognizable reggae artists in the world. Several factors then conspired to dampen his popularity somewhat, both in Jamaica and in the key North American and British markets. Cliff, however, was guilty of nothing worse than following his own inner creative and spiritual dictates, and emerged as a perennially popular figure with a strong following in many parts of the world.

First there was his conversion from Rastafarianism, Jamaica's indigenous form of Christianity, to Islam in 1973. Reggae had an almost symbiotic relationship with Rastafarianism as the genre took shape in the 1960s and 1970s, and many music fans in reggae's Jamaican homeland saw Cliff's conversion as a rejection of Jamaican national and spiritual values. In one notorious incident, Cliff was spat upon by Rastafarian adherents during a 1975 concert in Kingston.

In Africa, however, where Islam is a major force in many countries, Cliff's spiritual quest did not cost him adherents but, rather, gained him new ones. Among Africans he remains probably the most recognizable reggae figure. Cliff himself saw his embrace of Islam as part of a larger attempt to reconnect with his own African roots and those of blacks in the Western hemisphere in general. "I was looking for the cause of the inferiority planted in the so-called black people," he said in Reggae Bloodlines. "But I couldn't find it until I came upon Islam." Even Rastafarianism, Cliff has contended, was motivated by the same quest. "We [Jamaicans] started looking deeper for our roots," he told Interview magazine. "Finding those roots meant searching for the connection to Africa. That's how Rastafari was born."

In the late 1970s, though, Rastafarianism, with its pacifist message and its sometimes sanctioned use of marijuana, held great appeal for youthful music listeners on both sides of the Atlantic. The artist who put together the powerful trinity of music, spirituality, and idealistic politics was not Cliff but Bob Marley, who shared space on the Island label roster with Cliff. The label promoted both singers heavily, but it was Marley who seized the public's imagination, while Cliff's heavily produced albums seemed over-polished by comparison. Cliff eventually left the label. He recorded for EMI, Columbia, and a succession of his own enterprises, but never recaptured the popularity he had achieved following the release of The Harder They Come.

Cliff made various attempts to reestablish a foothold in the U.S. market in the 1980s and 1990s, collaborating with the successful R&B group Kool & the Gang on two albums (one of which, Cliff Hanger, won a Grammy for Best Reggae Recording in 1985), and appearing in several films, including Club Paradise (1986) and Marked for Death (1990). He failed to reach upper chart levels, but a string of personal appearances kept his name before the public, and over the years his status as an elder and builder of reggae grew more and more secure. Cliff toured the U.S. in 2000, appearing at such major outdoor venues as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Atlanta's Music Midtown Festival.


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    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      Thanks DarkSinistar, it still amazes me too. I've done my part by taking my friends to see him. I love Bob Marley but some folks think that's all there is to reggae music. Thanks for checking it out and commenting. Peace!!

    • DarkSinistar profile image

      DarkSinistar 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Having worked in a record store in a college town for years, I am very familiar with Jimmy Cliff and sometimes it surprises me how few people are aware of his music. A great hub and nice to see it is introducing some folks to this fine artist!

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      Hi Freta, Jimmy had a good amount of sucess but it was limited. His music is some of the most uplifting I've had the pleasure hearing. Thanks for stopping by, it's always good to see you. Peace!! Tom

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 7 years ago from Southern California

      Tom what a wonderful hub. I must confess that I never heard of this performer, however I thank you for introducing him to us. So sorry he never received the recognition that he deserves, and from what I see in the videos he really deserves it. Thanks again Tom. As usual voted up.

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      Thanks Vern, I've always loved to see what everyone else on the planet is into be it good or bad (mostly good) and I'm happy to pass it along. Peace and Love!! Tom

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      Dar, I know you love the Rasta Vibe. Hope you had a good one too!! Peace!! Tom

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Jimmy Cliff was a legend. I am glad to know about him from this hub. Good work, my friend. I really enjoy to read this hub. I give my vote to you. Merry Christmas.


    • vrbmft profile image

      Vernon Bradley 7 years ago from Yucaipa, California

      I learn so much from you about very interesting fellow men and women whom otherwise, I am sad to say, I might know nothing about due to my own ignorance and narrowness of world vision. So THANK YOU for that. You are good for us here on hubpages, Tom! You are more than Jus Tom!

      Merry Christmas, Peace



    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 7 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Hello boyfriends, I love you soooooo much and I adore this hub as I love Jamacian music. I feel in for this music while in Jamacia, and clicking sound which added to it made it magical, I asked the owner of the club in Jamacia what that sound was and he said it was the crickets, the sing with the music and are very loud. So right there in then I was in love. Now as far as you are concerned, you are an awesome friend, writer, and protector...Merry Christmas to you and your my friend. I wish you the very fullest year ever. Let's pray for peace on Earth. Love darski rate up

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      You're quite welcome Kaie. Merry Christmas to you too, have a great one!! Peace!! Tom

    • Kaie Arwen profile image

      Kaie Arwen 7 years ago

      I'd never heard of Jimmy Cliff before.......... thank you for the introduction~ Kaie


    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      Absolutely Todd, Merry Christmas man!! Peace!! Tom

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      Bless you brother, Justin always gets hooked up:D Peace and Love, Tom and Justin

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      God bless you Tom! God bless Jimmy Cliff! I loved Jimmy in Club Paradise with Robin Williams. I hope you got Justin something good for tomorrow. Peace brother!

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      We must have a mission in life, Tom, to bring real music back! I'm on it, man, and so are you!

    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 7 years ago from NW in the land of the Free


    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      Merle Ann this guy is wonderful. I tried to out up the video for the song Many Rivers to Cross but it wasn't working. Check it out on youtube, You'll love it! I'm real glad you like this stuff!! Peace and Love! Tom

    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 7 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

      Never heard of this man...thanks.., this was great..One thing I liked was "search for our roots" as we all should try to do...then as I listened to the last song I tried closing my eyes as you say you do...and it was great... these drummers ? are so very talented, a constant steady nice beat... :O) Hugs Me

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      Hey moncrieff,I agree I had the pleasure of seeing him live 3 times and I'd say it is a most spiritual show. He always ends with Bongo Man and I closed my eyes and left earth each time. Thanks for checking it out. Peace!! Tom

    • moncrieff profile image

      moncrieff 7 years ago from New York, NY

      I like that particular song ('Many Rivers to Cross') a lot. I remember it playing over the bleak landscapes of Kingston ghetto in Harder They Come. I also love his 'Vietnam'. Great rhythm and melody.

      I feel like he could have achieved more as Bob Marley did but maybe he was stubborn and didn't want to play the game.

      Thanks for keeping the memory up! Nice videos.


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