How important is Jimmy Cliff to the legacy of reggae? Well, to conjure up a rough idea, combine the careers of, let’s say, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, and you’ll have the rock world’s approximate equivalent. At the tender age of 13, Cliff was already filled with enough fire to talk Kingston, Jamaica restaurateur/record shop owner Leslie Kong into becoming a producer and starting a label to release the budding reggae prodigy’s material. Ultimately, Kong became one of reggae production’s foremost pioneers, and Cliff was scoring hits when most kids his age were still in high school. The 1972 movie The Harder They Come, starring Cliff as a Jamaican singer who lapses into a life of crime, was the Big Bang of reggae on an international level. The soundtrack — unfailingly the one reggae album you’ll find even in the collections of non-reggae fans — introduced the world to such Cliff-penned reggae standards as “Sitting in Limbo,” “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” and of course, the title track.
The tireless troubadour, now 64, has never halted his musical journey, and Cliff’s new album, Rebirth, finds him tapping into his roots while reaching out to a whole new generation of listeners. Produced by Tim Armstrong of Rancid, the record puts Cliff’s ageless croon atop endearingly old-school arrangements, but amid the singer’s own material, there are also a couple of covers of tunes from the rock realm: The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Rancid’s “Ruby Soho.” Not only should it surprise no one that Cliff achieves a complete takeover of both cuts, but the original artists would probably be the first to admit it. With the reggae legend revving his engine anew, it’s a good time to take stock of some stellar moments from Cliff’s panoramic past.
1. “Give A Little Take A Little”
Reggae History 101 will tell you that American R&B is one of the basic building blocks for the sound that started out as ska, evolved into rocksteady, and finally settled into reggae. If you’re in the market for an emphatic reminder of that fact (not to mention a taste of Cliff’s pre-Harder They Come career) this soulful 1967 clip from Germany’s famed Beat Club should do nicely.
2. “Many Rivers To Cross”
Just one of the many reggae milestones found on the Harder They Come soundtrack, this song has emerged as a modern spiritual on the order of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Like those tunes, “Many Rivers To Cross” has been covered relentlessly over the years — everyone from Linda Ronstadt to U2 has tackled the tune. It’s fascinating to see Cliff kick into it at the 1970 MIDEM music conference at Cannes, introducing it as “a song from my next LP.”
3. “The Harder They Come”
For millions of people, the image of Jimmy Cliff remains inseparable from his role as reggae roughneck Ivan in the film that introduced him to the world at large. This classic scene with Cliff’s character cutting the movie’s title tune never gets old. FYI: the man whose beaming visage you see behind the board at about 0:40 is uberproducer Leslie Kong himself.
In the early ‘80s, Bruce Springsteen started honoring Cliff’s catalog by including this cut from the latter’s back catalog in his live repertoire. In 1985, both Bruce and Cliff ended up doing their bit for Ethiopian famine with the inclusion of The Boss’s recording of “Trapped” on the We Are the World album. But as this early-‘90s Letterman clip shows — with Cliff supporting an album that included a revamped version of the song — even Springsteen can’t beat the master at his own game.
5. “Guns of Brixton”
Besting Bruce when it comes to one of Cliff’s own tunes is one thing. But when the Jamaican giant takes on the killer Clash cut “Guns of Brixton” — still one of the most exciting intersections of punk and reggae ever recorded — for Rebirth, Rock Hall of Fame inductee Cliff makes it clear that he can give even England’s proudest punks a run for their money.