David Katz speaks to Michael Kuelker about his new biography of reggae icon Jimmy Cliff
It is 1962. Jamaica becomes an independent nation and a new pop music is being invented: ska.
Jimmy Cliff is there – young, fresh, making hits, something that he will continue to do. For fifty years and counting.
It is now 2013. Jimmy Cliff is still here. He has a new album, Rebirth, and sounds as vitalizing as ever. He is also recently the subject of a thorough, concise biography by reggae historian David Katz. In Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography (Interlink 2012) Katz compellingly narrates the artist’s journeys across the world and his fascinating musical trajectories.
Katz’s biography is an absorbing chronicle Cliff’s life and career, and he spoke to me recently from his home in London. Let me set up the interview with a gloss of what we’re dealing with in the life of Jimmy Cliff. (On “Positive Vibrations” this Saturday, January 19 (9-11 p.m.), starting in the second hour I’ll devote programming to Jimmy Cliff music and interview clips with David Katz.)
Jimmy Cliff has been consistent and popular for so long that it’s easy to overlook his truly humble beginnings. Born James Chambers in 1948 in the parish of St. James in Jamaica, he grew up in a poor community. But he had a golden voice that got pressed to wax as early as 1962 with songs like “Hurricane Hattie” and “King of Kings” for producer Leslie Kong. Cliff was officially an international artist as early as 1964, when two of his ska tunes were included on This is Jamaican Ska, an anthology for Epic Records in the US. Soon after Cliff went to England and cut some records, singing R&B/soul as well as reggae, scoring with songs such as “Wonderful World Beautiful People” in 1969. A versatile singer, Cliff’s greatest success would be in reggae, and soon he would become an icon.
Cliff became etched in the collective conscious of the reggae world immediately and permanently through his portrayal of the singer-gangster Ivan O. Martin in The Harder They Come (1972). Perry Henzell’s indie bildungsroman showed the country boy coming to the city negotiating his way through two syndicates dominating Kingston, the music industry and the marijuana trade. Ivan resists the systems of power which impede his dreams, but the quest is tragic.
The soundtrack to The Harder They Come is a brilliant assemblage of powerful, well-crafted reggae, including Cliff’s own “You Can Get It if You Really Want It,” the gospel ballad “Many Rivers to Cross” and the galvanizing title song. This was Cliff’s artistry in a full display as a composer, singer and actor. Even when the film’s low budget-ness is at its most apparent, he is transcendent on the screen.
There has always been a remarkably diffuse nature to Jimmy Cliff’s career, especially after the success of The Harder They Come, and one of the great qualities of Katz’s biography is his attention to Cliff’s artistic and spiritual commitments. In the seventies, his cultural interests were deepening, and there were important forays in Africa and Brazil.
At this same time, Jimmy Cliff’s music occasionally suffered from his record companies’ overweening eagerness for crossover success on the pop charts. Some of those pieces of music sound career-endingly bad. Used record bins always have Hanging Fire.
But this is Jimmy Cliff. Whatever new album may or may not be out, he always puts on a great concert. And there is more cultural material on Jimmy Cliff’s part than is apparent. Some of his best work is out of print, or fans have to search out the Jamaican singles for the best version of certain songs. Katz has some crucial suggestions below.
Rebirth is a strong set of songs, Cliff’s voice sounding pure as ever across several styles. It is particularly sweet to hear his retooling of Joe Higgs’ “World Upside Down,” now a peppy rocksteady. Cliff also does a cool sendup of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton.” (There’s an interesting back-story – Cliff co-wrote and dueted with Joe Strummer on “Over the Border” in 2000.) Produced by Tim Armstrong of Rancid, Rebirth also revisits older numbers in Cliff’s catalog, especially well done in the reworking of “Vietnam” into “Afghanistan.”
David Katz, an American in London for 20-plus years, remains constantly at work. His magazine and newspaper pieces and his album liner notes number in the hundreds. He is regularly invited to speak on reggae history, for instance, at the biannual International Reggae Conference at University of West Indies-Mona in Kingston and at the annual Rototom Sunsplash “reggae university.” Meanwhile, Katz’s Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, one of the glittering jewels among reggae tomes, was recently republished in revised and expanded form, and he deejays regularly in London under the moniker “Dub Me Always.”
MICHAEL KUELKER: Mr. Katz, how would you summarize Jimmy Cliff’s importance as an artist?
DAVID KATZ: I think he has importance in several different ways. First of all, what’s very inspiring about Jimmy Cliff is not only is he a fantastic songwriter and someone with an amazing voice and also a very dynamic performer, but he’s someone who has always been very committed politically. So I see his work and what he’s done – a lot of it has been aimed at the bigger picture and the betterment of mankind. He’s not one of these people who’s on any kind of ego trip. Yeah, for me that kind of crystallizes his importance.
He starts out in this very small hillside community in Jamaica, a have-not community with impoverished beginnings, and his music takes him around the world. He connects with leaders of newly independent African nations. Through all of that he’s never lost touch with where he’s from.
MK: How much time did you spend with him to conduct interviews? And how often have you seen him perform?
KATZ: I’ve seen him perform a number of times. I conducted a very lengthy interview with him by telephone a number of years ago after meeting him at *an event* in London and conducted a shorter interview on another occasion when he was here when The Harder They Come was first being staged as a stage play. In terms of his live performances, he’s always dynamite. The age doesn’t really seem to catch up with him if you know what I mean. I saw him perform as recently as last July  and he still has all the youthful energy and still with a band that has young and upcoming musicians of a very high caliber.
MK: The subtitle of your book is An Unauthorized Biography, which gives off a whiff of salaciousness. I was kind of anticipating a Lost Weekend somewhere in that time … tales of extravagant decadence … the artist on the tour bus sniffling powders from the tummy of a stripper. That kind of material.
KATZ: In Britain, this book is published as part of a series called Caribbean Lives, and the idea behind that series is basically to celebrate noteworthy figures from the Caribbean who have made an impact on the world and to do that with short, easily readable biographies. I was approached by the publisher about the series when they were first putting it together, and they had commissioned titles on Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and the cricketer Learie Constantine. They asked me whether I would consider contributing to the series, and they suggested I do a book on Jimmy Cliff. It made sense to me that they were conceiving of placing him in the series and the people in the series are people of that caliber. I thought he fits right into that arena.
It was not my intention for the book to be an unauthorized biography, but that’s the way it turned out. And I don’t quite know how it ended up with the subtitle but I guess the publishers wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t a project that Jimmy was directly collaborating with me on.
The intention behind the book was really just to celebrate his life and work. It was never meant to be something that was any kind of intrusion into his private life. So, as you say, when some readers in America see the title, they might think this is going to be a kiss-and-tell expose. But that was never the intention behind the book.
The book really is just looking at, who is this person? What music have they done, how did it come together, and what is its significance? In that sense, it really avoids his private life.
MK: What I think you’ve done, better than anyone ever has, is to document the cultural stuff. In terms of iconic reggae history, Jimmy Cliff’s encounters in Africa are just as important as Bob in 1978 bringing the political party leaders onstage at the One Love Peace Concert.
You’ve done a tremendous service to him as a cultural artist because he’s better known for pop songs.
KATZ: One of the things I hoped to achieve with the book was to redress this imbalance, where Jimmy Cliff is sometimes viewed by the purists as not really a reggae artist, or not noteworthy as a reggae artist, or someone who’s a pop star and whose material is lightweight and lacking in substance.
But when you actually look at his great body of work and you look at what he actually achieved in his life, the converse is actually true. I’ve read things where writers have tried to suggest that Jimmy wasn’t particularly popular in Jamaica. That’s completely absurd. The opposite is true.
He was a very popular in Jamaica when he was a young man as a ska performer. The only period when he was not really that popular in Jamaica was the few years that he spent in London in the late sixties when Chris Blackwell was trying to break him and to do that he was trying to have him record soul music, and that music was not available in Jamaica. Jimmy was absent the rocksteady years in Jamaica; that’s the only time his popularity waned. As soon as he returned to do “Wonderful World Beautiful People,” from then on he was in the spotlight. He’s continued to maintain massive popularity in Jamaica.
And then as you were pointing out, there’s this whole dimension where he’s such a pioneer in Africa. He’s the first Jamaican reggae artist to go there and perform reggae music. When he goes there, he doesn’t just go there to perform. He goes there as someone who is very aware that he is an African descendent, very aware of his African heritage. He travels around Africa to connect with that, to better understand his heritage; not only his own personal heritage, but the lineage of black people in the world, the significance of Africa as a cradle of civilization and fountainhead of creativity. He has these incredible experiences in different parts of Africa. He goes to perform in Nigeria as early as 1974. It wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing but he was just embraced by the people and returns to go and investigate Ghana, to try to understand what is happening in Ghana. And then in ’77, when he goes back on a west African tour, he plays in Senegal and Sierra Leone and other territories. He goes as part of a spiritual quest. He goes to meet the leader of the Baye Fall Mourides, this Islamic Sufi sect, whose leader is based in a rural area there, and he goes and gets inducted into the brotherhood.
All kinds of other things happen to him in Africa. He’s feted in Zambia as an African, as an African poet; he has the head of state writing a poem about him and feting him. It’s pretty amazing stuff. Back in the days when there was no such entity as ‘world music,’ Jimmy is interacting with Fela Kuti at the shrine. Having gone to Brazil in ’68 and recording an album in Brazil. In 1971, he goes to Muscle Shoals and starts working with the Muscle Shoals players. So he’s doing all these things very ahead of his time.
MK: What was the most surprising insight that emerged for you as a result of doing all this work on this book?
KATZ: I wasn’t quite aware of some of the things he’d been involved in, such as charitable activities that he’d done for Africans. When there was famine in Ethiopia, he got involved with prominent members from the Rasta community but also people in the Jamaican government to do fund-raising efforts and to make sure that the funds would actually reach the people. Not to do some tokenistic thing or to do something and not know what is going to happen to the funds that he raised. When he appeared in the film Club Paradise, there was a gala screening of it in Jamaica and he donated the proceeds to a local hospital. If you read the book, he’s done so much of that kind of thing. He started to do it early and he did it repeatedly.
And he has also paid a lot of school fees for children in the part of Jamaica where he’s from, up there in Somerton in rural St. James, because he’s aware that there are not enough funds to go around. Those things for me, the more I discovered about that, the more heartening it was and the more respect I could have for the man.
MK: How difficult a job was this book for you?
KATZ: A little more difficult than I anticipated, actually [Katz laughs]. The book had the format of a pocketbook, so if you compare it to my Lee Perry book, it’s a lot smaller. But I also didn’t realize there was so much to detail.
A lot of the people had already spoken to me about the work they had done with Jimmy. Everybody was really proud of the work they had done with him. When I had no concept that I would be working on this book, I’d be doing interviews with people and they would talk about the work they’d done with Jimmy, so I guess I already had a fair amount of material.
Just to give you an example, people like the Wailing Souls. You wouldn’t necessarily know they had worked with Jimmy but they did and they were proud of the work they’d done with Jimmy.
And others, Familyman Barrett and Sly Dunbar and a number of other people, they all wanted to mention the work they had done. And then some of the other folks, obviously Earl “Chinna” Smith. And then if there were folks that I hadn’t interviewed yet, like Squidly Cole, fantastic drummer and son of Stranger Cole, he was very amenable to that notion. So that was pretty much the experience I had. That was true over here as well, like the keyboard player Vernon Allen, who later played with Mott the Hoople; and Phil Wainman, a drummer that was active on the British sixties soul scene. Everybody was really pleased to be able to recount their tales.
MK: What are, in your opinion, some of the most under-rated or under-hyped songs from Jimmy Cliff’s catalog that would bring out some of the dimensions that people who are familiar primarily with his pop material would need to hear?
[Side note: It’s not that I don’t like pop songs. I do. Love that live performance, by the way, of “I Can See Clearly Now” @ Coachella 2012 – including the invocation @ 2:54 that is pure Rasta. And another thing. I was deejaying with Papa Ray at the Venice Café outdoor garden one Friday evening a few years ago. A gaggle of young ladies bounced in and I absolutely slew them with Jimmy Cliff’s cover of Kool & the Gang’s “Let’s Go Dancin’ (Ooh, la la la).”]
KATZ: If you go back to the ska years, I would hope most readers would be familiar with Jimmy Cliff’s ska material. “Hurricane Hattie” and “Miss Jamaica” and the other big one, “Kings of Kings,” a very interesting track, those are just a number of the early hits he had, and they are pretty fantastic in checking out what he achieved as a young man in the ska years in Jamaica.
When he gets to England the first time, he did an album for Island that didn’t really do anything but there is a song from that album that was also released as a single called “Give and Take,” which is a pretty interesting record. You listen to it and you see, hmmm – this is striking and different. It’s as early as that, 1967, and it’s a soul record, and Jimmy does it in a way that just seems completely natural. And then some listeners may be familiar with that record as a hit for The Pioneers, who covered it as a reggae song a few years down the line. So it’s worth tracking down the original that Jimmy did and giving it a listen.
Also the first take of “Hard Road to Travel,” which is on the same album. When Jimmy first recorded that song in 1967, he did it as this kind of slow, R&B track, very very different from how he did it later for Leslie Kong at Beverly’s. Most listeners would be familiar with “Wonderful World Beautiful People” and “Hard Road to Travel” from that comeback album he did for Beverly’s, the album that really broke him out into the wider world… And then there’s kind of an interesting record – obviously, everybody should know “Sitting in Limbo” and “The Harder They Come” that were on the film soundtrack, although “Sitting in Limbo” he recorded significantly earlier.
After The Harder They Come and he leaves Island Records, he ends up on EMI in the UK and Reprieve in the US. Some of those records, you know, they suffered from being a little manipulated for overseas audiences, but if you track down the singles, the original singles, like for instance “Every Tub”, some of them are very very different if you track down the original Jamaican singles compared to what ended up on the album. [A reggae documentary shows Cliff doing a mashup of his mid-70s songs; that’s Ernest Ranglin you see on guitar.]
But anyway, for me the track “Fundamental Reggae” is a really fantastic record, 1973. If you listen to the whole album, it’s not to say the album is necessarily him at his best, but that record, I describe it in the book as a mini-masterpiece.
Once we get to 1976 and Jimmy starts issuing material on a label in Jamaica he called Sunpower that’s where we get to some amazing work. And a lot of this work is unjustly overlooked. He did a song called “Let’s Turn the Table” – magnificent record, very powerful record which talks about turning the tables of the social order; that’s well worth seeking out. He also did these two fantastic singles with Joe Higgs with whom he was working on an album at the time; unfortunately, the album has never surfaced. Joe Higgs, the man who schooled The Wailers in vocal harmony. Those singles, “Sons of Garvey” and “Sound of the City,” are just exceptional records. They are quintessential roots reggae, at its best really. In ’77, he did an interesting single called “Material World,” which he re-recorded for an album later but the single on Sunpower is really fabulous.
“Seven Times to Rise, Seven Times to Fall,” a single released as “7×7,” is also very tremendous. And in ’79, when he was with Warner Bros. in the States, he did an album called Give Thanx. To me that’s an underrated record. I think it’s got some magnificent work on it. And I also thought the 1982 album Special was a very strong record.
He did some interesting collaborations with some Congolese musicians that he met in Zaire and went to record in Congo-Brazzaville. There’s an EP that came out with those tracks but the sound quality is not very good unfortunately, but that’s sorta worth seeking out. Some of those tracks ended up on an album he had done in the States but they were heavily altered. Another good record that comes out in the later days is Save Our Planet Earth; it also came out under the title Images. Sacred Fire — I thought that was a very tastefully done record and shows another side of the man again. He’s been doing it for all these decades and he’s still doing it.
So yeah, he’s done loads of great records, and he’s still making great records.