Jimmy Cliff

TrackAlbum
Give And TakeHard Road To Travel
Wonderful World, Beautiful PeopleJimmy Cliff
Many Rivers To CrossJimmy Cliff
Viet NamJimmy Cliff
You Can Get It If You Really WantThe Harder They Come
Going Back WestStruggling Man
Black QueenUnlimited
Bongo ManGive Thanx
TerrorBlack Magic
World Upside DownRebirth

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Contributor: Peter Viney

Jimmy Cliff made his first record in 1961 at the age of thirteen … I’m Sorry on the Blue Beat label. At fourteen, Dearest Beverley/Hurricane Hatty was only the twelfth single on the Island label. He’s still singing King Of Kings and Miss Jamaica from that era in his 2015 live shows, in the ska section. King Of Kings was from 1963, and the original single all sounds a bit Dr. Doolittle because of the youth in his voice. Hearing it live in 2015 with the huge lion roars at the start, it’s Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah that comes to mind rather than The Jungle Book.

Jimmy did not see himself as exclusively ska or Jamaican in style. Island always saw his potential, and brought him over to England in 1965, where he spent the next two years with soul-oriented bands. Verden Allen and Mick Ralphs, later of Mott The Hoople, were in one of his bands, The Shakedown Sound. In 1966 his Pride And Passion appeared on Fontana. Island’s Chris Blackwell had launched the major success of first Millie, and then the Spencer Davis Group, by issuing via the major Fontana label rather than on his own, still small, indie label, Island, and tried Jimmy Cliff on the same route. We should include an example of Jimmy Cliff as a credible straight soul singer. Give And Take (aka Give A Little Take A Little) is from 1967, Rolling Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller recorded it. It’s a stomper, and should have been a natural addition to those Jackie Edwards’ penned Island hits (Keep On Running, Somebody Help Me). It was very nearly a hit, bubbling under for weeks. In 1971, Jimmy Cliff produced a new reggae version by The Pioneers, which was a #35 hit.

His first album, all produced by Jimmy Miller, was Hard Road To Travel and includes Pride And Passion, Aim And Ambition, Let’s Dance, The Reward, Give And Take, I Got A Feeling and the title track. Pride And Passion is an impassioned pop ballad … that was reggaefied in 1971 when he produced it for The Pioneers (and I think greatly improved it). Aim And Ambition sounds like the Rolling Stones with an Atlantic horn section. I’d sum the album up as soul … but Brit-soul. The backing vocalists included P.P. Arnold, Madeline Bell and Doris Troy. It also includes a cover of A Whiter Shade Of Pale. Island tried him on duets with Millie (Hey Boy Hey Girl) and Jackie Edwards (Set Me Free). Set Me Free is magnificent, and with its swirling organ would sound fine next to Spooky Tooth, and was a long-considered near miss from the ten. Let’s save it for a potential Jackie Edwards ten. A year later, Jimmy recorded Waterfall by Alex Spyropoulos and Patrick Campbell-Lyons, aka Nirvana (the UK group). It was a major hit in Brazil. It would have been perfect for The Foundations or Hot Chocolate a few years later. So would The Reward fit them. Keep Your Eyes On The Sparrow was produced by Paul Samwell-Smith of The Yardbirds. He had spent some time in the UK and Brazil trying these different styles, with no hint of his ska beginnings. Like Jackie Edwards, he wasn’t sounding Jamaican and was trying for chart material.

In the meantime, back in Jamaica, reggae had appeared.

Island and Trojan Records were closely linked in the late 60s … Island co-owned Trojan and divvied up its existing reggae and rock between the labels. Jimmy’s UK record releases switched to Trojan, then back to Island in late 1970 when the labels parted ways. Wonderful World, Beautiful People was a very early reggae hit (UK #6 in late 1969). At the time Paul McCartney was enthusing about Trojan’s Reggae Chartbuster compilation series, as well as pastiching it in Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da. If it was good enough for Paul, it was good enough for me and I started buying them. Wonderful World, Beautiful People was exactly the kind of Trojan record that the general public loved and deep reggae fans get sniffy about. It was actually composed while Jimmy was in Brazil, and there’s a touch of that in it, as well as a belated summer of love vibe. Trojan started the style of taking a Jamaican track and sweetening it with string arrangements recorded in London. This song defined the style though and remains a perfect example. I defy anyone to get through without a smile appearing on their face. Listen out, as in every Jimmy Cliff song, for the drums, and the treble tom-tom sound.

The Jimmy Cliff LP is dated 1969. I bought mine in late 1970. It was an extraordinary album, a fully-formed masterpiece, though being a reggae LP it compiles singles … or rather it generated singles. Wonderful World Beautiful People, Many Rivers To Cross, Viet Nam … three essential Toppermost tracks, plus Come Into My Life. Hard Road To Travel (first done on the previous LP) opens it. You need to compare the 1967 track (also an Island 45) and the 1969 one. In 1967, complete with He’p me somebody, pleeeze … it sounds like Otis Redding wrote it, and it sounds like it was recorded in Memphis too. The 1969 version (the one on the compilations) is burbling reggae bass, choppy rhythm guitar, vocal dancing over the top, that girl chorus and those metallic drum interventions. The comparison demonstrates the total switch in style. If we had fifteen, both versions would go in.

Time Will Tell launches it with the complex reggae rhythm, the distant girl chorus, warbling bass and those drum flourishes. The Jimmy Cliff album was his first Jamaican recording in five years, and included future Wailers, Aston “Family Man” Barrett on bass, and Carlton Barrett on drums.

Many Rivers To Cross certainly isn’t reggae. It’s a poignant melody that seems timeless … along with Yesterday, Midnight Train To Georgia, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (as improved by Roberta Flack). You can’t believe that a tune with that melancholy perfection has not been around forever. In his original the organ leads off so deep and low and churchified, but then his voice comes in so high and pure that it’s always a shock. It works beautifully as an instrumental, as the 1990s edition of The Band proved live (you can find it on Jim Weider’s 1997 album Big Foot, with most of The Band), but the words resonate so powerfully too. Crossing rivers and the melody make you think “River of Jordan” but he personalizes it, and you can take it for the desperate migrants of 2015:

Many rivers to cross,
But I can’t seem to find my way over.
Wandering I am lost
As I travel along white cliffs of Dover

Many rivers to cross
And it’s only my will that keeps me alive
I’ve been licked, washed up for years
And I merely survive because of my pride

Viet Nam was called ‘the greatest protest song ever’ by Bob Dylan. It brings back strong memories for me. We used to do an extract from Terence McNally’s One-Act play Botticelli on a regular basis in our theatre shows for foreign students and we bookended it with Jimmy Cliff’s Viet Nam at high volume. We also used to use You Can Get It If You Really Want (along with The Wailers’ Stir It Up) in productions of Zigger Zagger. We played them at high volume through a loud system and Viet Nam always got everyone clapping along in contrast to that chilling lyric:

Mistress Brown, your son is dead …

Chris Blackwell said “Viet Nam is the best thing he’s done … I wanted it released in America but the people there said, well, how can you have a sad song played with such an upbeat? So they didn’t release it.’ One listener was Paul Simon who went to Jamaica and booked Jimmy Cliff’s session band for Mother And Child Reunion.

Desmond Dekker recorded the major hit version of Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want in 1970 (UK #2). It was produced by Jimmy, as was the hit version of his song Let Your Yeah Be Yeah by The Pioneers (UK #5 in 1971), followed by the Pioneers reggae versions of Give And Take/Pride And Passion. He was profiling more as a songwriter and producer, though he had time for a hit with his reggae version of Cat Stevens’ Wild World.

Also in 1971, Bongo Man appeared as a single. It was credited to James Chambers, the name he was born with, on a “split 45” with Ken Boothe on the B-side, on Trojan’s subsidiary label, Summit. The 1967 singles, As and Bs, are all credited to G.Chambers on the original 45s, but Jimmy Cliff on later compilations. Why the subterfuge? It was produced by Leslie Kong and Island and Trojan had already parted ways. The song appears on Island compilations as Jimmy Cliff, and it gave its title to the documentary film in 1982, centred around a Jimmy Cliff concert. It’s a key song. Massed bongos and flute with a wildness that approaches the realms of Count Ossie & The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari (that’s really deep Jamaican) rather than the smoother pop reggae sounds of Trojan. I’m choosing the longer 1978 version from Give Thanx. I’d rather have a 2015 live version though. It opens every Jimmy Cliff concert with most of the band on bongos.

He went to Miami to record Synthetic World, a straightforward attempt again at rock stardom. It flopped, surprisingly (Psychedelic music is on my mind … so you see my patience is getting thin …). The next move was the Another Cycle album, recorded in Muscle Shoals. It’s one of the early LPs that I see in secondhand shops. It has the Muscle Shoals people throughout … Sitting In Limbo is the best-known song. The title track, Another Cycle, is a slow thoughtful and anthemic song in the Many Rivers To Cross style, but it tries a tad too hard with the overwhelming backing vocals. Listen to the start of Keep Your Eyes On The Sparrow from 1971. Is it like the start of Knocking On Heaven’s Door or not? Jimmy Cliff recorded it two years earlier.

Jimmy Cliff regained You Can Get It If You Really Want for the 1972 film The Harder They Come where it appears in two versions. It’s an interesting combination, typical for Jimmy Cliff, where a reggae rhythm has the addition of soul horns with a prominent trumpet part. The film made Jimmy Cliff the first international reggae star. Many Rivers To Cross re-appeared on the soundtrack, with the other highlights being The Harder They Come and Sitting In Limbo. The Melodians 1970 song Rivers Of Babylon is on there too, and Jimmy Cliff features it live to this day. The title song, The Harder They Come, is a tougher rethink of 1971’s The Bigger They Come, The Harder They Fall. He shifted it from gentle and wistful singer-songwriter to urgent reggae. You should hear both versions.

This was the point where Chris Blackwell of Island Records decided he could certainly make Jimmy a megastar, whereupon Jimmy promptly left Island to capitalise on his success with major labels (EMI in the UK, Reprise in America, then CBS). Blackwell was deeply hurt, and put his efforts instead into his latest discovery … Bob Marley and The Wailers. He said he had wanted to make Jimmy Cliff the ‘rebel’ after the film, but The Wailers were ‘the real thing’.

Going Back West appears on Struggling Man the last Island album in 1973, right after The Harder They Come. It also appears on non-UK albums a couple of years earlier, so must date from 1971. The personal lyrics are exploring his potential moves in his life … from Island, and also to Islam. Sooner Or Later includes:

It’s getting to the point
Where I can’t hang round no more
It’s getting to the point
Really have to open up the door

The Toppermost choice has to be Going Back West though:

Listen to my story of what became of me …

It might be aimed at Chris Blackwell …

I met a businessman,
who said he got some friends back east,
said “Why don’t you come along?
Well we could help you at least.
Make you into a big star, by playing your guitar,
But the joke was on me, they left me flat, you see.

Struggling for recognition, identity and respect
I got a lot of promises, they told me not to fret
Said “We will stand by you, if the going gets rough.”
But when I started sinking, they didn’t even bluff …

The Struggling Man album is as strong as the 1969 one. Try the title track, Let’s Seize The Time and the cover of Dave Mason’s Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving, (both great blues treatments, not reggae at all) and then Sooner Or Later. It coheres as a whole.

Other Toppermost compilers will know the syndrome. You’re only up to 1973, and you’ve used up most of your ten. Jimmy Cliff never stopped recording, and quality is consistently high too. I bought a few albums from the next period … Unlimited from 1973, right after he left Island (EMI in Europe, Reprise in America) then from ten years later the three CBS albums … Special (1982), The Power And The Glory (1983), Cliff Hanger (1985). You can see Jimmy’s own Toppermost view of these albums in the tracks he still performs live.

Unlimited is under-rated and should have been a major seller. It has Under The Sun Moon & Stars and Oh, Jamaica, both singles, as singalong chants. On My Life is classic Trojan pop reggae. Poor Slave is very much in The Wailer’s Slave Driver mode. The Price Of Peace has phenomenal bass playing from Jack Jackson. Black Queen is bass-heavy sensual reggae and the choice. But perhaps the album wasn’t reggae enough, definitely a move away from Trojan-lite. Be True sounds like Curtis Mayfield and Commercialization nods to contemporary Marvin Gaye. I See The Light is spiritual searching. Rip Off is in a lyrical area Van Morrison has often explored. Was it too eclectic, perhaps, in a year when reggae was so hot? The CD The Best Of The EMI Years has the cream of Unlimited, House Of Exile (1974) and Brave Warrior (1975).

Special has Treat The Youths Right, and The Power And The Glory has Reggae Night. Songs like We All Are One are far closer to Stevie Wonder (Boogie On Reggae Woman) than they are to Jamaican material. Impeccably recorded though. Reggae Nights is Lionel Richie territory. Cliff Hanger has Reggae Street.

There are more than a dozen albums out there that I haven’t heard. Instinct, and the later ones I have heard, make me confident that the selections from 1967 to 1973 are the cream of his work, his golden period. Through the 80s and 90s and 00s he remained a major star in Africa and Latin America. There were a lot of albums, many out of print and commanding high amazon reseller prices.

He featured on the Sun City charity record, and sand backup on The Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work. Cool Running the 1993 film gave Jimmy Cliff a further hit with the revived Johnny Nash song, I Can See Clearly Now, which he does better than the original. His live performances always include it, along with the song he wrote for the Pioneers, Let Your Yeah Be Yeah, and The Melodians, Rivers Of Babylon … a major feature of the film The Harder They Come even if he didn’t sing it. He’s also the voice on Hakuna Matata on The Lion King soundtrack.

Black Magic (2004) attracted interest from reviewers because of the urban, electronic and world sounds and guest artists like Wyclef, Kool & The Gang, Spice, Dave Stewart, Joe Strummer, Sting, Jools Holland, Sly Dunbar. The tracks I like far the best are just Jimmy Cliff though. Fantastic Plastic People got airplay. The City is lovely. On Terror (which starts … September Eleventh it was hell in heaven …) he sounds more like Talking Heads meets Hip Hop rather than Jamaican. Beverly Skeete sings backing vocal, and it has the power of Viet Nam. The YouTube track Terror (September 11th) – Yellow Version starts with just Jimmy Cliff’s acoustic guitar, and is a quite different version/mix. It’s two minutes shorter, has mainly lost the prominent ‘Arabian flute’ and some verses. I can’t choose between them. I just wish I had the YouTube track on audio too.

I realized what I’d been missing when I heard him live on the radio promoting Rebirth in 2012, just Jimmy Cliff and acoustic guitar. A recent release, Live At KCRW is an acoustic radio broadcast from Los Angeles from the same promo tour, with selections from the album and early hits. The voice has deepened over the years, but it’s also stronger.

It opens with Trapped, originally a single with Struggling Man in 1972 (As ‘Jimmy Cliff and Jamaica’), and produced by Cat Stevens. That’s straight rock, not reggae at all, as Bruce Springsteen realized when he covered it in 1985 live, and made it sound like a classic Springsteen song. Jimmy Cliff re-recorded it for Images adding a Caribbean rhythm absent from the original. Bruce wins ‘best Jimmy Cliff cover’ though. The simple, stripped down solo Many Rivers To Cross is sublime singing. I thought about choosing it over the original, but I love the organ part on the original too much.

Rebirth (2012) is what it says in the title. One More is the favoured track on live shows, and appears twice. Live he takes it down to just a chant of “One more!” then walks off leaving the audience chanting it for an encore. It’s a good opportunity. The album scores played right through. I’d pick out his life history rapped out in Reggae Music, boiling horn-led Stax era soul in The Outsider, the Marleyesque Rebel Rebel, the melodies of Cry No More and Children’s Bread. He covers The Clash’s Guns Of Brixton. The Outsider harks back to his 1966-1967 soul singer days, and does so brilliantly. But I’m going to choose the opening reggae track, World Upside Down as the representative while recommending the album as a whole as essential listening.

53 years of songwriting, singing and production? He deserves a “Bubbling Under”!

King Of Kings (Island 070/Live)
Hard Road To Travel (1967 version) – Hard Road To Travel
Wild World (Island WIP 6087)
The Bigger They Come, The Harder They Fall – Wild World (Europe)
Synthetic World (Island WIP 6097)
Trapped (Island WIP 6132)
Under The Sun Moon & Stars – Unlimited
Treat The Youths Right – Special
I Can See Clearly Now – Cool Running
The Outsider – Rebirth

BUYER’S GUIDE
I’ve got three Island/Trojan CD compilations. The original Trojan Many Rivers To Cross: Best Of Jimmy Cliff has very poor sound. Island/Mango’s The Best Of Jimmy Cliff is way better, but you really only need Harder Road to Travel: The Collection, a double CD from 2010 with 40 tracks (Trojan/Island). It has a previously unreleased A Little Bit Of Soap, a classic piece of reggaefying a known song. The Best Of The EMI Years 1973-75 is definitely worth finding. 2012’s Rebirth is essential. But if you see Unlimited or any other complete albums, grab them.

 

Jimmy Cliff official website

Jimmy Cliff lyrics

Peter Viney’s review of Jimmy Cliff live 2015

Nick Warburton on Jimmy Cliff & The New Generation

Jimmy Cliff biography (iTunes)

Peter Viney writes on popular music and the arts at his website.

TopperPost #471

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