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Jimmy Cliff Biography

Home > Music > C > Cliff, Jimmy > Biography

Birth Name: James Chambers
Born: 1948/04/01
Birth Place: Somerton district of St. James, Jamaica
Genres: Ska, Reggae

Jimmy Cliff, OM (born James Chambers, April 1, 1948) is a Jamaican musician, singer and actor. He is the only currently living musician to hold the Order of Merit, the highest honor that can be granted by the Jamaican government for achievement in the arts and sciences.

Cliff was born in the Somerton District of St. James, Jamaica. He began writing songs while still in primary school in St. James, listening to a neighbor’s sound system. In 1962 his father took him to Kingston to go to Kingston Technical School.

Cliff sought out many producers while still going to school, trying to get his songs recorded without success. After two singles that failed to make much of an impression, his career took off when his “Hurricane Hattie” became a hit, when he was 14. It was produced by Kong, with whom Cliff remained until Kong's death from a heart attack in 1971.

Cliff's later local hit singles included “King of Kings,” “Dearest Beverley,” “Miss Jamaica” and “Pride and Passion.” In 1964, Cliff was chosen as one of Jamaica's representatives at the World's Fair and he soon signed to Island Records and moved to the U.K. Island Records initially (and unsuccessfully) tried to sell Cliff to the rock audience. His 1968 debut album, “Hard Road to Travel,” received excellent reviews and included, “Waterfall,” which became a hit in Brazil and won the International Song Festival.

“Waterfall” was followed in 1969 by “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” and “Vietnam” in 1970, both popular throughout most of the world. Bob Dylan called "Vietnam" the best protest song he had ever heard. Also during this period, Cliff released a cover of Cat Stevens' “Wild World” as a single, but it was not included on his 1969 “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” album.

In 1972, Cliff starred as Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin in the classic reggae film, “The Harder They Come,” directed by Perry Henzell. The soundtrack album of the film was a huge success that sold well across the world, bringing reggae to an international audience for the first time. It remains the most significant film to have come out of Jamaica since independence. The film made its debut at London's Notting Hill Gaumont cinema in September 1972.

After a series of albums, Cliff took a break and traveled to Africa, and subsequently converted to Islam, and took the new name: El Hadj Naïm Bachir. He soon returned to music, touring for several years before he recorded with Kool & the Gang for 1983’s “The Power and the Glory.”

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band added Cliff's previously little-known song “Trapped” to their live set. It achieved great prominence when included on 1985's “We Are the World” benefit album. His 1985 album, “Cliff Hanger,” won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album.

Also in 1985 Cliff contributed to the song “Sun City,” a protest song written and composed by Steven Van Zandt and recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid to convey opposition to the South African policy of apartheid. Cliff then provided backing vocals on The Rolling Stones' 1986 album, “Dirty Work.” In 1988, his song “Shelter of Your Love” was featured in the hit film “Cocktail.”

In 1991 Cliff appeared at the second Rock in Rio festival in the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He continued to sell well in Jamaica and, to a lesser extent, the U.K., returning to the mainstream pop charts in the U.S. and elsewhere with a version of Johnny Nash's “I Can See Clearly Now” on the “Cool Runnings” film soundtrack in 1993. In 1995 Cliff released the single “Hakuna Matata,” in collaboration with Lebo M, a song from the soundtrack of the film “The Lion King.”

In 2002, Cliff released the album “Fantastic Plastic People” in Europe. This album featured collaborations with Joe Strummer, Annie Lennox, and Sting as well as new songs that were reminiscent of Cliff's original hits. In 2004 Cliff completely reworked the songs, dropping the traditional reggae in favor of an electronica sound, for inclusion on “Black Magic.”

In 2003 his song “You Can Get It If You Really Want” was included on the soundtrack to the film, “Something's Gotta Give.” Cliff has also covered Solomon Linda's “Mbube,” which has been re-recorded by The Tokens as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

In 2010 Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Wyclef Jean spoke on behalf of Cliff at the induction ceremony.