"AS AN ARTIST, I started out to conquer the world with my talent," says reggae legend Jimmy Cliff.
"And I have established myself in all corners of the world, but I wouldn't say I've conquered," Cliff continues over the phone from one of those corners, Hungary's capital city, Budapest. "My biggest impact on the world is when I combine my two best talents -- singing and acting -- together. I did that once, and I still intend to do it within the next two years."
The "once" occurred with 1973's Jamaican cult classic "The Harder They Come," which presented reggae music and culture to the world. In it, Cliff starred as the ill-fated Ivan Martin, a country innocent who goes to Kingston with dreams of becoming a successful singer, only to be hustled out of a hit by corrupt producers and label owners, and abused by crooked cops. To survive, Ivan becomes a gun-toting, drug-dealing outlaw and eventually a cop-killer, ghetto legend and national folk hero. Shot on a low budget by writer-director Perry Henzell, "The Harder They Come" captured the dichotomies of Jamaican life at the time, from the desperation of the Trenchtown ghetto to the vibrancy of Kingston's dance halls.
Despite the bleakness of the story, the film's soundtrack was surprisingly uplifting and served as a near-perfect introduction to reggae, thanks to period standards by the Maytals, Melodians, Slickers, Desmond Dekker and Cliff, whose four songs are all classics: the title track, "You Can Get It if You Really Want," "Sitting in Limbo" and the gorgeous spiritual ballad "Many Rivers to Cross." The film and its soundtrack helped lay the groundwork for the explosive popularity of reggae in the '70s: Island Records owner Chris Blackwell once said that "The Harder They Come" and Bob Marley were "the double whammy that broke Jamaican culture."
According to Cliff, "there had been [mostly minor] reggae hits before that in Europe and the U.S., but when people saw the movie, it gave them insight into where this music was actually coming from. Plus the movie had such an impact because it was very real, shot in a documentary type of form, and all of us who were in it acted very real. It was like looking through a keyhole at somebody doing something and you not knowing they were doing it. That's what's given it its longevity, plus it captured a moment in time which people universally could have identified with."
Ironically, Henzell had originally conceived "The Harder They Come" as a straight gangster fable based on the life of '50s Jamaican outlaw Ivanhoe Martin, better known as Rhygin. After casting Cliff, Henzell modified his script to make the character Ivan a musician, which Cliff had by then been for more than a decade.
The singer was born James Chambers in 1948 in the small town of St. Catherine, the second to last of nine children. By age 6, he was a budding star in his local parish and a few years later began earning money singing out headlines from the Gleaner and Star newspapers as a way to attract customers.
"It was a job I really hated, but I had to do it because my father forced me to do it. But in the long run I liked it because I was saving some money," Cliff recalls. "I would call out the headlines in a singing style, and I really got people to buy the paper! I had to walk two and a half miles to pick up the papers and come back and sell them off, then go back to school to do extra lessons. It was a big learning process, and it got my vocal chords going."
At 13, Cliff moved to Kingston and connected with record store owner Leslie Kong, then beginning to produce ska, the precursor of reggae and rock steady, on his Beverly label. Under a new name that suggested the heights he aspired to, Jimmy Cliff had minor ska hits with "Hurricane Hattie" and "Miss Jamaica," and in 1964, the 16-year-old found himself part of the first effort to export Jamaican music when he was drafted to perform at the New York World's Fair, along with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires.
"I went, but I didn't agree with the way it was done because [the Dragonaires were] not really like the people who made the music," Cliff says. "They were middle-class, uptown guys who really looked down on the music, but the then-minister of culture [and later prime minister] Edward Seaga had some link with them, so they chose that band to go."
If that brief excursion didn't achieve its mission, it did at least connect Cliff to Blackwell, who'd been born in England but raised in Jamaica, where he started Island Records in 1959 with a $1,000 investment. According to Cliff, Blackwell knew Jamaica "like the back of his hand and had a real love for the island and the music. I had heard that he was the best producer, or paid the best money," Cliff says with a laugh, "so I was trying to get through to him."
On the World's Fair trip, Cliff had earned some good reviews in music industry papers and even a few offers from American labels, but Blackwell persuaded him to move to England.
"I wanted to stay here, but Chris Blackwell convinced me that 'There are a lot of good singers like you in the U.S.; you stand a better chance if you come to England.' He said, 'I've just taken a girl, Millie Small, who's not as good as you and she became internationally famous [for the 1964 hit "My Boy Lollipop"], and I think you have a better chance in England.' So I went to England."
Cliff would stay there four years and experience his first international success -- and one of reggae's first as well -- with 1970's "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" (No. 25 here, No. 6 in England).
In 1972, with Cliff back in Jamaica filming "The Harder They Come," Blackwell signed Bob Marley and the Wailers, who'd been recording since 1964 with no great success. Their 1973 Island debut, "Catch a Fire," came out about the same time as "The Harder They Come" opened (though the film didn't do so here until 1975), but it was Marley who became the most visible symbol and sound associated with reggae, marketed to international success by Blackwell. Cliff, who had helped Marley on his first recording, 1962's "Judge Not," would soon be overshadowed, pretty much forgotten as the musician who'd first brought reggae to the world.
Part of that was a result of Cliff's musical choice: At his moment of highest visibility and opportunity, Cliff released the "Unlimited" album, mainstreaming his basic reggae foundation with soul, rock and pop material.
"I am a creative artist, and I just followed my creative instinct," Cliff explains, pointing out that "the music that became known as reggae is from various different music forms on top of the indigenous music that we had. A lot of the musicians were jazz musicians, and we listened to a lot of Latin music, so various kinds of music brought reggae to become what it was. So I was always looking here, feeling there. I cannot say I regret doing that."
Still, Cliff's output over the last 30 years has been mixed, at best, both creatively and commercially, though he has remained one of the most successful touring acts around the world, with occasional forays into film as well. Upside: "Club Paradise" with Robin Williams. Downside: "Marked for Death" with Steven Seagal.
As for a long-rumored sequel to "The Harder They Come, " fans have been asking Cliff about one for decades, and the possibility now seems high. According to Cliff, there's a script, "though I realized the key to the movie would have been that my character had to live."
[Spoiler alert: At the end of the original film, Ivan goes down in a hail of bullets. According to Cliff, "you saw him get shot down, but you didn't actually see him buried, so that was the key, to resurrect him." It should also be noted that musical rights to the original were recently sold for a possible theatrical version of "The Harder They Come."] In the late '90s, a sequel seemed imminent because of interest by the then-red-hot Fugees, whose leader, Wyclef Jean, shared management with Cliff.
"Wyclef does have a resemblance to me, and we thought he could have played my son," Cliff explains, adding that "Lauryn [Hill] could have played my girlfriend or his girlfriend . . . a plot with jealousy between the older man and the younger!"
Prospects for a film evaporated along with the group in 2000, though Cliff and Wyclef have remained close. They duet on "Dance," a track from Cliff's most recent album, "Black Magic," due out here Aug. 24, almost two years after coming out overseas as "Fantastic Plastic People." Produced by former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, it includes duets with the other former Eurythmic, Annie Lennox; Sting; Kool & the Gang; Jools Holland; and former French tennis star Yannick Noah. "In Europe, especially in France, he's huge, and plays arenas and sells millions of records," Cliff says.
Another duet, "Over the Border," was one of the last recordings by Joe Strummer, a huge reggae fan from his days with the Clash. "We never had a chance to sit down and talk," Cliff says, "but we were friends at a distance, and just from that kind of vibration, we knew that there was mutual admiration for each other. Joe turned up at [Stewart's] studio with some lyrics and said, 'I'm feeling Jimmy Cliff in these lyrics,' and Dave said, 'How do you think it should go?' So Dave started playing guitar and the melody came on, and we just recorded it right away. That was probably the last piece of work that he did." [Strummer died of a heart attack in December 2002.]
For Cliff, there is still much work to be done, including an autobiography and a history of reggae. It's not that Cliff wants to rewrite that history, though his pioneering work is often overlooked even in Jamaica, where Marley was awarded the Order of Merit, Jamaica's third-highest honor, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the country's culture, just a month before his death in May 1981. Cliff received the same honor in November 2003.
"It doesn't bother me," says Cliff of the inevitable Marley comparisons. "Initially, it did, in some ways, but I knew that I made a choice. For instance, with that 'Unlimited' album, and some others, I made a choice to go in other directions. I didn't really want to be known just as the King of Reggae. I actually wanted to be known as the King of Music!
"So I didn't really have any regrets. At the same time, I would have liked for people to better know what my contribution to the Jamaican music scene was. The fact is that I'm still living, that I've still got my goal to conquer the world."
JIMMY CLIFF -- Appearing Wednesday at the State Theater and Thursday at the Funk Box in Baltimore. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Jimmy Cliff, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)