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."
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."
He spins by the downtown avenue that was once the throbbing, syncopated heart of the Kingston music scene. "We called this Beat Street because that's where the beat was," Cliff says. In the early 1960s, Cliff would walk to school along this corridor, which was lined with bustling record stores and labels, hoping to get discovered. "It was quite a walk, but I didn't mind it," Cliff says. "There were always lines of singers who wanted to get recordings made. Every day that I passed, I thought it was one more chance to get an opportunity."
He cruises by the building that housed Coxsone Dodd's famous Studio One, which released classic records by the Wailers and Burning Spear; across the street is sound-system pioneer Prince Buster's old store, where faded murals of Augustus Pablo and Dennis Brown are still visible on the wall. A little while later we pass by Duke Reid's Trojan Records, which still appears to be a working studio. "None of those guys ever really give me a chance," Cliff says. "I guess they just didn't like my songs."
He pulls up at the bombed-out husk of a two-story building on the corner, occupied by stray dogs and little shacks that appear to be workshops of some kind. This was Beverley's Records, where Leslie Kong – arguably the greatest reggae producer of the early period – recorded Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, the Melodians and countless more. "I thought once of buying the place and setting it back up, like as a monument," Cliff says. "But there's nothing happening here anymore. All the buildings are broken down."
Back in 1962, when Cliff first walked into Beverley's, it was just a record store – Kong had never recorded anyone. The way it happened was Cliff was walking home from school when he noticed the store, which was run by three Chinese-Jamaican brothers, and started working out a song called "Dearest Beverley" in his head. "I told them I have some songs," remembers Cliff, who muscled his way in as they were preparing to close for the evening. "And one said to me, 'I'm not in the business.'"
"But you sell records," Cliff pointed out. "You might want to get in the business." The tallest of the brothers, the one who turned out to be Leslie Kong, told Cliff to go ahead and sing his song. "Two of the brothers laughed," said Cliff. "But this other brother told me, 'You have the best voice I've ever heard in Jamaica.' And I was like, yes! Because when you get somebody who sees in you what you see in yourself, it was a great encouragement."
Kong booked studio time and recorded Cliffs first sides, the ska classics "Hurricane Hattie," "Miss Jamaica" and "Dearest Beverley." He started getting played on the radio, booking gigs and writing songs for other artists. By 1964, his childhood dream was coming true. He was on a plane to New York, to play a Jamaican-music showcase at the 1964 World's Fair.
Cliff has something like 300 songs written over more than 50 years, and plenty of them are about love and heartbreak and good times and gold diggers (case in point: 1962's "Gold Digger," on which the teenage Cliff warns a friend about a girl who "tried to dig my gold once/I caught her hands deep down in my pants"). But the abiding theme of Cliff's music is support for the world's poorest, most vulnerable citizens – particularly in Africa, the Caribbean and South America. Unlike Marley's often overt calls to revolution, Cliff's best-known songs tend to be motivational and empowering, with lovely, uplifting melodies and arrangements to match. "I still believe that you can get it if you really want it," Cliff says, referring to his classic song, most famously recorded by Dekker. "But you need to create jobs for the people. I guess it's an international situation, isn't it? We are in a drastic time of change on the planet. Socially, spiritually, politically, ecologically, the whole cosmic situation is changing."
We're headed to the West Kingston neighborhood of Denham Town, near Marley's Trench Town, where Cliff lived in a corner of his aunt and uncle's one-room shack and was so poor he couldn't afford long pants. "It takes less fabric to make short trousers!" he points out. "But at school they made fun of me for still wearing short trousers."
Until recently, this was one of the most dangerous urban zones on the planet. In 2010, Jamaican police and military (backed by U.S. surveillance) laid siege to the housing project Tivoli Gardens – built on the former site of the Back-o-Wall Rasta encampment – in an effort to capture Christopher "Dudus" Coke, a drug lord who ruled an army of hyper-violent young gangsters. (And whose acts of charity, like paying for the neighborhood's electricity, made him an Ivanhoe Martin-style outlaw hero for many West Kingston residents.) Coke was apprehended five weeks later; at least 73 civilians were killed in the siege. He's since been extradited to the United States, and in June of this year he was sentenced to 23 years for drug trafficking. "All this was Dudus' territory," Cliff says, gazing down the road. "But this was my stomping ground."
Things have settled down: As hip-hop and dancehall booms from passing cars, Cliff pulls over at 63 3/4 Spanish Town Road, which marks the entrance to an alleyway packed with brightly painted corrugated-aluminum and plywood shanties. We climb out of the BMW and a group of teenagers appears, offering to watch the car and show us around. It's not clear at first if they know exactly who Cliff is, but they know he's someone – and people who are someone don't come around Denham Town very often.
A kid who seems to be the leader, wearing a sharp reddish-pink button-down and big diamond studs in each ear, leads Cliff through the tightly packed shacks along a mud path. He stops to greet a group of older residents – including a woman smoking a monster spliff who beams at the sight of the reggae great. We wind our way back, past younger kids returning from school in immaculate uniforms, when suddenly Cliff spots a tiny, not-entirely-weatherproof-looking blue shack. It's about as spacious as an Apollo space capsule – without running water or electricity. "This was my home," he says, peering into the dim, sparsely furnished space. "I slept right in the back there." He soaks up the energy of the place for a few minutes, and then makes his way back to the car.
When he gets there, Cliff thanks our guides, sliding a fat roll of bills out of his pocket. "Which 'o y'all the boss?" he asks, and the pink-shirt kid steps forward. Cliff breaks off several $1,000 Jamaican bills (about $11 each) and instructs him to use them to buy some drinks for the others. Then he slips another bill in each of five or so outstretched hands, gets back in the car and heads uptown.
A lot happened on Cliff's first trip to New York: Blackwell happened to be at the World's Fair and saw Cliff perform for the first time. Cliff, meanwhile, had one of the key musical experiences of his life, getting his mind seriously blown by James Brown at the Apollo. "I had friends who worked on the cruise ships, and they used to come back and tell us about how they saw James Brown or Martha and the Vandellas there," Cliff says. "So when I went to New York, the first thing I wanted to do was to go to the Apollo."
Outside the Apollo, Cliff was handed a newspaper called Muhammad Speaks. Already interested in Malcolm X, he headed to Harlem's Temple No. 7, where he met Louis Farrakhan. "I became part of the Nation of Islam for a while," Cliff says, a move that was met with derision from the media and from musicians back home. "That was a big thing," he recalls. "'Wow, what's Jimmy doing over there? He's supposed to be over here.' But, you know, it was my journey."
Cliff no longer adheres to any formal faith, but he's always been a seeker: He has spent time in ashrams in India, adopted and left behind a more traditional Islamic faith in Africa, studied Shaolin kung fu with two different teachers.
But that hard-to-pin-down identity probably hurt Cliff with American reggae fans – along with records that strayed far from the roots sound Marley popularized. In the years after The Harder They Come, Cliff grew into a stadium-level act from Nigeria to Brazil, while his legend faded in the States. There were occasional flashes of sideways success, like his co-starring role in the corny 1986 Robin Williams comedy Club Paradise, or Springsteen making "Trapped" a hit via the We Are the World album. But by the turn of the millennium, he and America had mostly abandoned each other. "I had one agent who kind of robbed me of a lot of money," Cliff says of the years he stopped touring here. "I wanted to come back organized."
After the Hall of Fame, the timing seemed right, but there was one thing he needed to have in his pocket to really reintroduce himself properly: "I needed a really good record."
'How fun was that?" asks a slightly winded Tim Armstrong, rocking a Sixties-cut black suit and a fedora cocked back to reveal a slice of heavily tattooed scalp. "Jimmy sounds strong, huh?" It's the April night before Coachella's first weekend, and the Engine Room, the band Armstrong assembled to back Cliff on the new LP, have just blasted through a supremely high-energy dress rehearsal in a hangarlike studio in North Hollywood. "He just loves performing," the 46-year-old Armstrong says, shaking his head in awe. "Whether it's playing in front of three people or 30,000, he's bringin' it."
Just a few minutes earlier, Cliff – wearing a different cool Windbreaker and matching snap-brim cap – was twirling, leaping, duckwalking and kung-fu-ing his way through the set, with Armstrong and the Engine Room skanking away behind him. On tunes from "Afghanistan" (a modern-times version of "Vietnam") to a punchy, muscled-up cover of Rancid's "Ruby Soho," the sound is pure Leslie Kong: chunk-a-chunk bass, spiraling Hammond organ, sun-kissed horns, Showtime at the Apollo backup vocals and Armstrong plinking away on his beautifully battered Gretsch guitar. "These guys are crazy trainspotters," says "Native" Wayne Jobson, a reggae DJ friend of Cliff's from the old days. (He's also an old buddy of Keith Richards' and the co-executive producer of Richards' two deep-roots reggae records with Wingless Angels.) "This stone-crazy punk guy can tell you what amp, what strings were used in 1968 at Treasure Island [studios]," he adds, marveling at the performance he just witnessed. "The guys in Jamaica don't know that stuff anymore. They know dancehall and some reggae, but not the rocksteady."
It's a chilly, wet, bummer of a week in L.A., but when the band leans into Cliff's version of the Johnny Nash classic "I Can See Clearly Now" and Cliff lets rip with a gates-of-heaven-worthy "briiiiiiiiiight sunshiny day," it suddenly feels as if Earth has shifted slightly closer to the center of the solar system. As soon as the song ends, Cliff calls for "The Harder They Come." The band cranks up around him, and suddenly I start to feel this crazy serotonin-surge of joy radiating from the base of my skull, the kind of pure happiness that reminds you that we really do live in a wonderful world full of beautiful people, despite all the evidence to the contrary. "I hope it rains tomorrow," Armstrong says on his way out of the studio. "And then – right when we play 'I Can See Clearly' – the rain stops."
Armstrong gets half his wish. The next afternoon, for the first time in the desert festival's history, rain is spitting down on Coachella, as the monster main-stage PA sways ominously in the wind. It's pretty much the most un-reggae weather this side of a blizzard, and the festival feels depressingly empty. Cliff's set is scheduled to begin at 5:10 p.m., but as the hour comes and goes, the only people onstage are a bunch of tech-crew-looking dudes pointing in a concerned way at the rigging and conferring intensely as the wind picks up.
Finally, 20 minutes behind schedule, Cliff and the Engine Room appear onstage, facing a sparse crowd. After all the time we've spent together, knowing how titanically great this show could be, I'm simply crushed on Cliff's behalf. But then something magical begins to happen. As the Engine Room kick into "You Can Get It If You Really Want," fans start streaming away from whatever buzz band is playing on the neighboring stage. They leave behind the dance tent's apocalyptic boom-boom-boom and the VIP zone's B-movie actresses and the beer gardens' booze. Cliff – in a spectacular gold and black getup and matching, vaguely Karate Kid headband – begins laughing happily as the fast-swelling crowd responds with an affirmative roar when he shouts, "How you feeeeeeelin'?"
Suddenly, the air fills with the smell of Cali medicinal weed, and some guy with an enormous Jamaican flag appears as if out of nowhere and begins majestically waving it above the crowd. By the time Cliff revs up "Many Rivers to Cross," I'm surrounded by a vast – totally, completely, fully psyched – audience, all warming themselves in his musical sunshine. The rain never quite stops, but somehow it doesn't matter. Because Jimmy Cliff is singing "I Can See Clearly Now," and he's about to do "The Harder They Come." And for now, at least, that feels like all the sunshine anyone could ever need.
This story is from the July 5th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.