There's an argument to be made that if it weren't for Jimmy Cliff, there wouldn't have been a Bob Marley. It goes like this: Chris Blackwell had an idea for breaking the singer to rock fans around the world. He was going to package Cliff as a new Hendrix – a black musician with a supercool swagger – and thought The Harder They Come was just the thing to make that happen. "[The director] Perry Henzell had seen the cover of one of Jimmy's records" – 1969's Jimmy Cliff (featuring the hit tunes "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" and "Vietnam") – "and he rang me and said that is the guy I want to play the lead guy in the film," says Blackwell, sitting barefoot on a deck at his extremely rock-star resort, GoldenEye, built on Ian Fleming's old beachfront property. "I said to Jimmy, 'This is a great opportunity.'"
Before the movie came along, Cliff had been considering a $50,000 offer to leave Island. Blackwell persuaded him to stick around, promising he'd be able to give him a bigger deal once the movie came out. But the production stretched on longer than either of them expected, and Cliff was running out of money fast. Feeling betrayed by Blackwell, Cliff took the $50,000, signing with EMI. "It was a lot of money at the time," admits Blackwell. "But I'd been putting a lot of energy into him. I was bitter."
By chance, Marley strolled into Blackwell's office a week later and Blackwell signed him. As The Harder They Come stoked interest in reggae worldwide, Marley cut the rock-flavored LP Catch a Fire with Blackwell, who sent the Wailers barnstorming through clubs across the U.S. and Europe. "I transferred the whole plan I had for Jimmy over to Bob," Blackwell says, "and was motivated to make it work."
Cliff shrugs off the suggestion that Marley stole his fire. He had his own journey to take, his own rivers to cross, his own albums to record and his own stadiums to shake. Plus, as the singer points out, by the time he left Island, Blackwell seemed more interested in his new rock bands, like Traffic, than the lilting soul-flavored ballads Cliff was writing. "He saw the rebel side of me, which is what he wanted to promote," Cliff says. "The songs I was writing didn't really match the image he wanted. So we were both bitter, I think." (For a taste of just how bad the relationship got, give a listen to Cliff's 1974 Blackwell diss, "No. 1 Rip-Off Man," which is as harsh a toke as you'd think.)
Of course, the immensely talented Marley could have broken through even without the Cliff-Blackwell split. But there's one other key piece of information, from way before any of this. Cliff discovered Marley, when they were both teenagers in 1962. At the time, Marley was working with Cliff's friend Desmond Dekker in a welding shop. Cliff and Dekker both had singles out on Leslie Kong's Beverley's Records, and Marley wanted to get his songs recorded too. "We were maybe a few years apart," Cliff says. "He came into Beverley's, and I was in there playing a new song on the piano. He just walked in and said, 'That sounds good.' I thought, 'This must be somebody really sensitive, to just walk in the room and pick up on the vibe of what I was doing.'"
Cliff asked Marley to sing his songs, and was impressed enough that he set up a session with Kong to record three of them: what would become his first two singles, "One Cup of Coffee" and "Judge Not," and the never-released "Terror." "For me, those three songs kind of sum him up as the person and artist he was," Cliff says of his old friend. "Because 'One Cup of Coffee' is a love song, 'Terror' was a type of a revolutionary song, and 'Judge Not' was his declaration of 'I am who I am, and I know who I am, and I'm not trying to be anybody else. So don't judge me.'"
One likes to imagine that the first time Marley – or Bob Dylan, for that matter – smoked weed, the doors of perception blew off their hinges, allowing them to tune in to a previously inaudible, epoch-shaking new musical frequency. This is not what happened when the teenage Jimmy Cliff had his first real taste of herb. What happened to Cliff is he flipped the fuck out. "When I came to Kingston, near where I used to live was an area called Back-o-Wall," he says. "Prince Emmanuel, a Rastafarian elder, lived there." One day, the sound of drums came floating over to Cliff's neighborhood, and he felt compelled to follow the rhythm back to its source. "That's the first time I ever heard Nyabinghi drums," he says, referring to an African style of ceremonial Rastafari percussion. "I was called by them."
The Back-o-Wall Rastas got Cliff seriously baked, and after a while the singer set off on a surreal journey home. "I felt like I was stepping 10 miles high," he says, cracking up at the absurdity of the memory. "It was so strange that I felt like I should lay down to see if I could cool it off. But when I got home and lay down, the ceiling started dancing. It wouldn't stop! So I started getting scared, and said, 'Boy, I better go to the hospital.' I start to walk to the hospital, and halfway there I think, 'What am I going to tell them?' So I turn back and say, 'Jah, that's the last time I'm ever going to smoke in my life.'"
We stop for lunch by the pool at the very James Bond-y Wyndham Hotel, which is kind of a clubhouse for the lawyers and doctors and embassy employees who live and work nearby. While he picks at his lunch – salad with anchovies and a ginger beer – Cliff breaks down the Rastafarian religion for me. "Rastafari is, well . . . you can use the word 'mystic,'" he says. "It's realizing the ability to tune in to the universe. Looking at the Bible literally, but interpreted in a maybe not very realistic way. It's about getting to know oneself."
Cliff has always been drawn to certain tenets of the religion – like the unique wordplay-based dialect, which is full of ideas that he finds useful. "You can understand something, but you can also 'over-stand' something," Cliff says. "You can have intellect, but there is also 'outerlect.' These kinds of things."
For decades now, Cliff has led a life of moderation, which goes along way toward explaining his youthful vitality and perfectly preserved voice. (Blackwell actually thinks Cliff sings better now: "He was slightly reedy when he was younger, and that's mellowed out.") But he also doesn't like to make hard rules for himself. For instance, even though he generally avoids meat, he won't turn down his North African in-laws' lamb couscous. "And occasionally I'll share a spliff with certain friends," he says. "Or drink a glass of wine or champagne."
In his early Kingston years, though, he picked up some bad habits. He took up cigarettes, mostly to be sociable around the studio, and began smoking outrageous amounts of herb. "I like to try things, and I'm the type of character who doesn't like to be outdone," says Cliff. "People like Toots and the Maytals said, 'Wha happen ti ya? Why yi na smoke?' So I out-smoked them all! When I was really smoking, I was smoking all day, and not just spliff. I had to smoke the chalice" – a Rasta water pipe – "because the spliff wouldn't satisfy me."
Eventually he noticed that the hard living was threatening to degrade his crystalline, high-altitude tenor. "It was in England that I stopped alcohol too – I liked to drink before I went onstage," he says. "I decided all of these things are bad for me. So I cut them out."
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