It’s one of the music industry’s great ironies that today, outside of reggae circles, Jimmy Cliff is perhaps better known for his film appearances than his music. Even after a string of hits, the singer never quite managed to break into the mainstream, although he seemed poised for international stardom during the late ’60s/early ’70s. The singer was born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, on April 1, 1948, with the less prosaic name James Chambers. His talent was evident from childhood, and he began his career appearing at local shows and parish fairs. Feeling ready for the big time at the age of 14, he moved to Kingston and took the surname Cliff to express the heights he intended on reaching. Cliff recorded two unsuccessful singles before he was spotted by Derrick Morgan, who brought him to Leslie Kong. His first single for the budding producer, “Hurricane Hattie,” was an instant hit. Unusually, Cliff remained with Kong until the producer’s death; most Jamaican artists flit from studio to studio. The singer’s loyalty was rewarded, however, by a string of follow-up hits. In the early years, the pair helped set the ska scene alight, both in Jamaica and in Britain, where the singer’s singles were picked up by Island Records. “Miss Jamaica,” “King of Kings,” “One Eyed Jacks,” and “Pride and Passion” have since become classics of the original ska era.
By 1964, Cliff‘s star was so bright that he was selected as one of Jamaica’s representatives at the World’s Fair. A successful residency in Paris followed, and Island head Chris Blackwell eventually convinced the singer to relocate to Britain. The label itself was in the process of shifting away from Jamaican music and into progressive rock, and thus Cliff began composing songs with an eye to cross over into that market.
The title track, a cover of Cat Steven‘s “Wild World,” was another smash in 1970, and Desmond Dekker took Cliff‘s own “You Can Get It if You Really Want” to number two in Britain. And then tragedy struck. Leslie Kong, who had continued to oversee Cliff‘s career during this entire period, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in August 1971. The singer was at a loss, as he’d grown up under the producer’s wing and was abruptly forced to fend for himself. Another Cycle, which arrived later that year, was proof that Cliff was beginning to get his career back on track. One of the last projects Kong had undertaken was overseeing the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come. Produced and written by Perry Henzell, this powerful film featured Cliff in the leading role, and upon its release swiftly became an underground classic. The soundtrack, which boasted a clutch of Cliff‘s own compositions, was an equally seminal record.