The son of a farmer-come-tailor, Jimmy was born James Chambers on April 1st 1948 in Somerton, a small country town situated in the parish of St. Catherine, and it was there that he spent a relatively happy childhood, during which time he took a particular delight in music, with gospel, Jamaican folk, Mento, Jazz, Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues all influencing his developing tastes. Aged twelve, he moved with his family to Jamaica's bustling capital, its music-filled streets further stoking a growing desire to make his mark on the island's burgeoning recording industry.
After victorious performances at Vere John's much fêted 'Opportunity Hour' show, Jimmy had enough confidence in his abilities to audition for Count Boysie, who like an increasing number of local sound system operators had been keen to capitalise on the rapidly growing popularity of home-grown recordings. After hearing the youth perform the original composition, 'Daisy Got Me Crazy', the rookie producer arranged for him to attend a session at Federal Studios to record the number. Soon after cutting the song, Jimmy's debut disc hit the streets, but the 45 failed to make an impression and his dreams of stardom were put on hold.
It would not be for another six months before the young singer could convince another fledgling producer of his talent, the entrepreneur in question being 'Sir Cavalier', another significant name on the sound system scene. The resulting 'I'm Sorry', fared a little better than his initial effort and promptly faded, although it was deemed worthy enough for release in the UK on Melodisc's recently launched Jamaican music imprint, Blue Beat.
Despite these set-backs, Jimmy remained positive and in 1962, after impressing local hit-maker, Derrick Morgan, he was brought to the attention of Leslie Kong, owner of the newly launched Beverley's Records label. After impressing with the conveniently named 'Dearest Beverley', the producer had the young singer cut the song along with another original number, 'Hurricane Hattie', penned following the recent Category Five storm that had swept the Caribbean and Central America. Kong's faith in the youngster quickly paid dividends and the resulting disc was soon riding high on the national radio station charts. A celebrity almost overnight, the teenage sensation promptly embarked on an almost relentless series of shows around the island, while further trips to the studio produced more hits for Beverley's, with 'Miss Jamaica', 'Man To Man', 'One-Eyed Jacks' and 'King Of Kings' serving to reinforce Jimmy's standing as one of Jamaica's brightest young talents.
But the hectic lifestyle and lack of financial rewards inevitably left him tired and disillusioned and around the close of 1963, he decided to take time out. The break proved short-lived, as the following year he was lured out of his premature retirement by Jamaica's Minister of Culture, Edward Seaga, who selected the teenager as a representative of the island's music industry for a promotional US tour. Accompanied by the likes of Prince Buster, the Maytals, Eric 'Monty' Morris, the Charmers and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, the subsequent trip was hailed as a great success, with Jimmy receiving particular acclaim. Among his many admirers was the Anglo-Jamaican boss of leading London-based West Indian music record company, Island, a certain Mr Chris Blackwell, who following the celebrated World's Fair concert in New York City approached the teenager with an offer of a 5-year contract.
Spurred by Blackwell's recent success with Millie Small, Jimmy finally decided to accept the offer and early in 1965 he arrived in London, where he was provided with suitable housing and an allowance. For the following three years, he endured a punishing work schedule that involved live performances across Europe and numerous recording sessions accompanying a number of Island's better-known acts, including Jackie Edwards, Millie and leading British Pop outfit, the Spencer Davis Group.
He also cut the occasional solo side, with the first of his UK-produced works featuring on Philip's Fontana imprint in January 1966. Although a commercial failure, the soulful 'Pride And Passion' (b/w 'Call On Me') illustrated a maturity that defied his 18 years, but it was to be just over a year later before his next single saw issue. Released on Blackwell's Island imprint, the appealing 'Give And Take' b/w 'Aim And Ambition' almost provided the breakthrough for which Jimmy had been waiting, but despite encouraging sales, the single failed to dent the national charts. The follow-up, 'I've Got A Feeling' b/w 'Hard Road To Travel' reached the stores as summer dawned, but it fared no better and another prolonged spell perfecting his song-writing and stage techniques ensued.
Sales of his next two Island 45s, 'That's The Way Life Goes' b/w 'Thank You' and the 'Set Me Free' b/w 'Here I Come', on which he was paired with compatriot, Jackie Edwards also failed to provide the elusive breakthrough hit, but in 1968, a South American tour finally brought wider interest in his work. 'Waterfall', released just prior to the trip had bombed in the UK, but in Brazil it won a national song festival and became a major chart success. Meanwhile, as he continued to gain experience and confidence in South America, Island released the first of his long-players, the admirable 'Hard Road To Travel', which featured some of his best material to date.
Early in 1969, Jimmy headed for Jamaica to return to his roots and renew his working relationship with his old mentor, Leslie Kong. The reunion produced a series of sublime sides in the new style that had been taking the island's music scene by storm: Reggae. The first of these saw release on Trojan, a Jamaican music imprint formed the previous year following the amalgamation of Chris Blackwell's Island Records and West Indian music distributor, B&C. The single, the joyous 'Wonderful World, Beautiful People' b/w a Reggae interpretation of 'Hard Road To Travel' soon began to pick up airplay and in the autumn breached the mainstream listings, where it finally climbed to number 6. Distributed by A&M in the US, the 45 also made #25 in the national Billboard Pop charts and in so doing was instrumental in changing western preconceptions about the new Jamaican sound.
That December, Trojan released 'Jimmy Cliff', a superb intelligent, thought-provoking collection of songs from the Leslie Kong sessions. Even the British press, previously so dismissive of Reggae, grudgingly accepted this was much more than simply a set of dance-friendly ditties. Alongside Jimmy's breakthrough hit, the LP featured a selection of memorable sides, including his impressive anti-war follow-up single, 'Vietnam', the US hit, 'Come Into My Life', his next UK single, 'Suffering In The Land', and the beautiful 'Many Rivers To Cross', a song later covered to great effect by UB40.
Given his sudden success and the popularity of Reggae in the UK, it would have been quite easy for Jimmy to continue repeating the formula and churn out a succession of sides in the style, but as if to prove he was much more than a one-trick pony, he decided his next recorded work would take a completely different direction. Written and produced by Cat Stevens, the lilting 'Wide World' could not have been in greater contrast to his preceding works. The single, which marked a return to Island, was aimed squarely at the mainstream Pop market; a strategy that quickly paid dividends, with the disc soon making its way onto the British charts, ultimately peaking at number nine.
Meanwhile, Trojan continued to provide the platform for Jimmy's Reggae repertoire, releasing the excellent 'You Can Get It If You Really Want', the success of which was eclipsed by Desmond Dekker's cover that followed weeks after. In 1971, the company issued the Nyahbinghi-styled 'Bongo Man (A Come)' along with the greatly-overlooked 'Those Good Good Old Days' b/w 'Pack Up Hang Ups', although by this time, Island were attempting to establish him as a versatile mainstream artist. A trip to Criteria studios in Miami produced the thought-provoking 'Synthetic World', while sessions at Muscle Shoals early in '71, resulted in the soulful 'Another Cycle' collection. In between US trips, he arranged for the Pioneers to record his song, 'Let Your Yeah Be Yeah', along with a Reggae reworking of 'Give And Take', with both tracks subsequently becoming major UK hits for the Jamaican trio.
Yet despite his considerable achievements, Jimmy still sought to push himself further creatively and when offered the opportunity to play the lead role in Perry Henzell's motion picture about a rebellious music-loving Rude Boy, he leapt at the opportunity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his brooding portrayal of the tragic anti-hero in the movie, 'The Harder They Come' received widespread critical acclaim, and a long-term future as Jamaica's greatest all-round performer seemed assured.
But instead of the role providing a springboard for more successes, Jimmy's career stalled. His decision to leave Island for EMI may have initially brought financial rewards, but ultimately it proved significantly detrimental to his career. While the standard of his work was never in question, his new company lacked the experience and understanding of marketing a Jamaican act and sales of his subsequent recordings proved disappointing. His conversion to Islam and rejection of the more fashionable Rastafarian faith also did little to enhance his commercial marketability, while a move to Warner Brothers/Reprise in the mid-seventies failed to raise his profile significantly. By this time, his position as Jamaica's most commanding voice had been well and truly usurped by Bob Marley, ironically, the performer brought in by Island to fill the void left by his own departure from the company.
The eighties finally brought a change in Jimmy's fortunes. After forming his new backing band, Oneness, he gave a series of impressive performances on a U.S. tour with former Wailer, Peter Tosh, while at last his recorded work received due attention from the mainstream press. The title track from his acclaimed 'Special' album, released by the latest major to acquire his signature, CBS, returned him to the US R&B charts, a feat he was to repeat twice more over the next two years, with 'Reggae Night' and 'We All Are One', respectively. In 1985, the 'Cliff Hanger' LP took the Grammy for 'Best Reggae Album', while the following year, he played his second major motion picture role in 'Club Paradise', co-starring alongside US comedian, Robin Williams.
Further evidence of his standing on the international music scene was evidenced by his contribution to the protest song, 'Sun City', on which he joined a number of high-profile US acts, performing collectively as Artists United Against Apartheid. His vocal contribution to the Rolling Stones' album, 'Dirty Work' and the use of his song, 'Shelter Of Your Love' in the hugely successful motion picture, 'Cocktail' also served to reinforce his position as a major global star.
Towards the end of the decade, Jimmy finally parted company with CBS and it was not until 1993 that he was finally back on the mainstream charts once more. An updated version of Johnny Nash's 'I Can See Clearly Now' featured prominently in the popular Disney comedy, 'Cool Runnings' and propelled him back into the limelight. Although just missing out on a top 20 placing in the UK, the track climbed to number 18 in US Billboard charts and topped of the French national listings. In 1995, he worked with South African composer/arranger, Lebo M to record 'Hakuna Matata' for the soundtrack to the award-winning motion picture, 'The Lion King', with the resulting single becoming a major hit worldwide.
Jimmy continued to record and perform to great acclaim over the subsequent years, with his 2003 'Fantastic Plastic People' collection bringing him a second 'Best Reggae Album' Grammy. The same year, his contribution to Jamaica's music and film industry was recognised by the national government that bestowed upon him the country's third highest award, the Order of Merit, while his next album, 'Black Magic' featured collaborations with the likes of Wycliff, Annie Lennox, Joe Strummer, Yannick Noah, Sting and Kool & the Gang, along with Jamaican acts, Bounty Killer, Cleevie and Tony Rebel - further evidence of his status as a global star.
Today, Jimmy Cliff is arguably the most celebrated living Jamaican-born performer on the world stage. Earlier this year, he became only the second 'Reggae' artist to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, while the release of his forthcoming collection, 'Existence', is eagerly anticipated by both fans and the international music press alike.