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The Cosmic Journey of Jimmy Cliff

Rolling through Kingston with reggae's greatest living singer

Jimmy Cliff performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella
July 5, 2012

Jimmy Cliff – original Jamaican rude boy, Third-World musical revolutionary and reggae's first global superstar – is steering his maroon BMW through central Kingston's epic snarl of traffic. He takes a drive like this every couple of years, recharging his psychic batteries by visiting places that loom large in his memory: the crumbling shell of Beverley's Records, where he persuaded reggae producer Leslie Kong to record his first songs at age 14; the rough West Kingston slum where he lived until he started making some money; the grand old movie palace where the streets were mobbed as far as the eye could see the night The Harder They Come premiered in 1972. 

It's a perfectly sun-splashed Caribbean day, and Cliff has his windows rolled down to catch the breeze from the nearby harbor. Approximately every five minutes, a shout comes from a sidewalk or passing car: "Jimmy!" or "Uncle!" or "General!" Each time, Cliff responds with a cheery "Bless-ed!" or "Respect!" and a couple of quick toots on the horn. It's kind of like cruising Liverpool with Paul McCartney, except the vibe is less starstruck than warm and familiar, as if the sight of Jamaica's greatest living singer is just part of the city's tapestry. "Jamaican people give you their respect, but they don't mob you," Cliff explains after it happens for the second or third time. "It's important to have self-esteem. Jamaicans have that kind of spirit, and that's what has propelled us to do many things in the world. We don't have snow here, but look at that bobsled team. Amazing!"

He inches through the commercial riot of Coronation Market, where farmers from the countryside pour into the city to sell their crops, and points out the bus terminal where he first arrived in Jamaica's capital at age 14. "Kingston was shocking," says the 64-year-old Cliff, who now splits his time between Jamaica, Miami and Paris with his French-Moroccan wife and their two young kids. "I grew up in a village where we didn't have running water or anything, shops weren't there. So if you're ready to cook and have no salt, you just go to a neighbor. 'Give me some salt,' you know? I wasn't accustomed to people cheating each other and that kind of thing."

In The Harder They Come, which was Jamaica's first major film production, Cliff stars as Ivanhoe Martin, an aspiring reggae singer who becomes a gangster folk hero before getting gunned down in a blaze of glory in the last reel. The first half is more or less based on Cliff's own journey from naive country boy to reggae hitmaker. (Ivan is conned out of all of his possessions within minutes of arriving in Kingston.) But more important, the film and its all-time classic soundtrack – featuring the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and Cliff's immortal "Many Rivers to Cross," "You Can Get It If You Really Want" and "The Harder They Come" – introduced the world to reggae music. And reggae's rebel image, before almost anyone outside Jamaica had heard of Bob Marley, was all Cliff: street-wise, charismatic and cosmically funky.

This summer, the vibrations Cliff beamed out to the world with The Harder They Come are returning in a major way. He's about to release a new album, Rebirth, recorded in Los Angeles with a crew of Jamaican-music obsessives led by Rancid's Tim Armstrong. The disc, which beautifully captures the horn-sweetened sound of Sixties ska and reggae on tunes like "One More" and "Reggae Music," caps a victory lap Cliff has been on since 2010, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and stunned the crowd with a crazy-great performance of "Many Rivers to Cross." This year alone, Cliff has sat in with Paul Simon (who often covers Cliff's 1969 anti-war anthem, "Vietnam") and the E Street Band (Bruce Springsteen's version of Cliff's "Trapped" is one of his most reliably devastating live moves). In April, Cliff played the main stage at Coachella with Armstrong and launched a world tour. "He wrote some of the most beautiful ballads that ever came out of Jamaica," says Cliff's old friend Keith Richards. "Unbeatable songs, and the voice of an angel, you know?"

Earlier that morning, Cliff brings me to his studio on a quiet street in Kingston's genteel Uptown district. A remote control opens a gate adorned with a huge metal sun symbol and twin lions of Judah, next to a hand-painted sign that reads "Sunpower Productions." He parks beneath a massive old mango tree in the courtyard; the walls are painted with scenes from Cliff's life and ancient Egyptian iconography. "I bought the tree," Cliff jokes. "The building came with it." Wearing a khaki windbreaker with the collar popped, a natty backward snap-brim cap, jeans and Euro-ish loafers, he looks remarkably like his younger self.

Cliff has a reputation for privacy, a notion supported by friends and acquaintances from Armstrong to Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who signed the singer to one of the label's first deals. Cliff himself notes that one of the main differences between himself and Marley, a friend from when they were teenagers, comes down to sociability. "Even though we had similar revolutionary aspirations, spirits and thoughts, I'm a bit of a loner, and he loved all the people," Cliff says, sitting on the sofa in the studio's control room. "And so he attracted the good, the bad and the ugly."

But one-on-one, Cliff is warm and charming and quick to laugh, thoughtfully answering questions in the British-inflected accent he picked up during the years he lived in the U.K. starting in the mid-1960s. He moved to London at Blackwell's suggestion, fronting a pair of R&B-powered bands, the Shakedown Sound and the New Generation, that played a mix of his own ska tunes with American soul and R&B. "We'd play Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Solomon Burke," Cliff says. "Some Motown people." Cliff and his young British backing musicians would drive up and down the M1 motorway playing the same club circuit as Jimi Hendrix and the Who (he opened for both), making lifelong fans of a whole generation of British rock gods, from Pete Townshend, who would eagerly watch from the wings, to Robert Plant, who introduced Cliff at a South by Southwest showcase this spring. "He was really impressive," remembers Blackwell. "He had moves that were very James Brown."

On the other side of the island, not too far from Montego Bay, is the village of Somerton, where Cliff was born James Chambers in 1948. (Inspired by Fats Domino, he took the stage name Jimmy Cliff because it better reflected the heights he planned to scale.) He was raised with his older brother Victor by their deeply religious father, and got his first taste of performing in the local Pentecostal church when he was six or seven. "I liked the music," Cliff recalls with a shrug. "But I didn't like the preaching."

As a small boy in a tiny corner of a far-flung British colony, Cliff developed a burning desire to see all the wonders of the world. He'd pore over maps and books, memorizing the names and locations of cities, mountains, rivers and landmarks like Big Ben. "I really wanted to see this famous clock," he remembers. "And I have this thing about water. Because I grew up on a river. So the River Nile was fascinating to me. I wanted to go to China or India or England or America. I just didn't know how I was going to do it."

The answer, it turned out, would be beamed directly to Somerton on an AM-radio wave. Alongside American stars including Little Richard and Domino, homegrown artists like the R&B singer Derrick Morgan were starting to get played on Jamaican radio. Cliff asked his woodworking teacher how he could go about writing a song, too. "He said you just write it," Cliff says. "You just write it!" He laughs at the memory. "So I just wrote a song." His timing couldn't have been better – as soon as he'd written a few more, the 14-year-old won a scholarship to a technical high school in Kingston. "I had about four songs in my pocket," he says. "And I knew this was the place to get them recorded."

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