When Rancid’s Tim Armstrong first hit the studio with Jimmy Cliff to produce the reggae legend’s new record in May, the two had never even met. “I had no idea how it was going to work out,” Armstrong says. During their first session, he picked up an acoustic guitar and started jamming on the Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton.” Cliff watched for a while, then headed over to an old Jamaican hand drum and started playing along. “For 12 minutes, he was locked into this serious rhythm,” Armstrong says. “It was like magic.”
The Clash cover appears on Cliff’s new EP, due in November (a full album is coming next year). Since getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Cliff has set about reclaiming his legacy as reggae’s greatest living artist. “People in the Hall of Fame tend to clap their hands and say, ‘OK, I’ve done it all,'” says Cliff, 63. “But for me, it was a new beginning.” Cliff returned to a batch of songs he had begun writing in 2009, when he skipped his annual European tour and traveled to Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana. “Africa is like an injection for me,” says Cliff. “Being there gave me that high feeling – the songs just poured out.” Last summer, he road-tested the new material on a rare U.S. run that included a triumphant stop at Bonnaroo.
Cliff’s label put him in touch with Armstrong – a reggae-obsessed punk like their mutual friend, the late Joe Strummer – and the producer assembled a five-piece backing band in Hollywood’s Sound Factory. Recording live on vintage gear, they averaged a song a day. The resulting tunes have the loose, organ-fueled feel of Sixties-era rock steady. “He reminded me of a lot of things that I had forgotten,” the singer says of Armstrong. “He brought me back to my roots.”
Cliff began making music half a century ago, becoming a teenage star in Jamaica and mentoring a young Bob Marley. In 1964, he signed to Island Records, recording a string of bright, soulful singles with deceptively tough lyrics about poverty and war. He became a global superstar after playing outlaw singer Ivan Martin in the 1972 movie The Harder They Come; the soundtrack (featuring songs like the title track and “Many Rivers to Cross”) helped break reggae around the world.
Four decades later, Cliff’s tenor still soars on new tracks like the joyful, flute-soaked “Our Ship Is Sailing” and “World Upside Down,” where he rails against economic instability and religious hypocrisy over a sped-up groove. “I’ve abused myself a lot over the years,” he says, “but my voice is still intact – really, it’s better.”
The latest phase of Cliff’s career, the singer says, is just getting started. He hopes to return to acting with movies including a possible sequel to The Harder They Come – and he’s been writing an album of songs inspired by the soundtrack. “I have not become the artist I believe I am,” he says. “I want to become a stadium act. I’m not done at all.”
• Jimmy Cliff Works ‘Magic’
This story is from the September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.