Jimmy Cliff: ‘It’s such a great feeling for me to be part of that’

Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy Cliff

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It is possible that the entire genre of ska and reggae may never have come about, had it not been for a group of girls in a Jamaican schoolroom in 1956.

They walked in as an eight-year-old Jimmy Cliff, future pioneer of both genres, was singing his heart out – and demanded to know what record was playing

Over 50 years later, the star of groundbreaking movie, The Harder They Come and creator of ska, who headlines Beat-Herder Festival, near Clitheroe, next month, recalls: “Some girls came out and said, ‘Where is the radio?’ I thought, wow, I’ve got something here!’ These were girls that would never normally look at me!”

Cliff grew up immersed in music. He says: “My family were Christians so there was a lot of music around me. My father, grandmother, my aunt, all my siblings sang a lot and played whatever type of instrument existed at the time and, of course, in the church, there was a lot of singing.

“And there were all other forms of music, like work songs, like digging songs, wedding songs, burial songs. All of those events, there was a form of music.”

But when, in his early teens, he began to write his own songs, young Cliff needed encouragement.

He said: “So I asked my woodwork teacher, Mr Stewart, ‘How do you write a song?’ He said, ‘You just write it!’ So I went ahead and wrote the song.”

When he moved to Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, soon after, those songs became the starting point for the rising genre of ska. Cliff grins: “I have always told this story but sometimes I forget to say his name. But it is important because he did lay the foundation for something really big.”

Cliff became a star in Kingston – and his songs reached the ears of Island boss, Chris Blackwell, who sought him out when Cliff was sent by his proud nation to the New York Worlds Fair.

He remembers: “He found the hotel I was staying at and he came there and introduced himself. I said, ‘Wow, I was looking for you!’ And he said, “I was looking for you!”

Cliff signed to Island and moved to England. He laughs: “You couldn’t imagine what high hopes I came with! I’ll give you a hint - I started hearing about the Beatles and the Stones in Jamaica and I wanted to be as big as them. Those are really high hopes!”

But England’s rain and racism was a shock. In an Earl’s Court flat Blackwell found him, he recalls: “One morning, the caretaker saw me and said, ‘What are you doing here? We don’t have coloured people here!’ She said, ‘You have 24 hours to get out.’

“The following day was Friday and they had Top of the Pops. I was on this show, not performing, but as one of the audience. I went back the following day and she said, ‘Oh hi! I saw you on the telly yesterday!’ So now I had become a celebrity, it was OK to stay!”

His deep unhappiness at this time inspired one of his greatest songs, Many Rivers to Cross, written as he sailed to tour France on a cross Channel ferry.

He says: “Maybe the dreams and hopes were not being realised. So one day, going across the Channel, the idea for the song came – many rivers to cross.”

It was left incomplete until a few years later as Cliff put finishing touches to his album, Wonderful World, Beautiful People. He remembers: “On the way to the studio, I just felt an inspiration – maybe if I finish this song, I might have an opportunity to record this one. So, in about 15 minutes, walking to the studio, I finished the song.”

“And I said, ‘Please, can you just wait a moment, I have this song if you don’t mind to listen to it.’ They were still sitting at their instruments and I took up my guitar and sat down on a chair and played it.

“And they put a mic in front of me and put a mic to the guitar. And the organ player counted it off. And I sang it there and then.”

Jimmy’s career never reached the heights of his contemporary, Bob Marley, due mainly to his tendency to skip between genres, while Marley made reggae a worldwide force. But the two remained firm friends since Cliff first auditioned Marley as a young unknown. When Marley died, it took a while to sink in. Cliff recalls: “All the time I heard he was ill, I really didn’t take it serious. And when I heard he had actually passed away, even then I didn’t take it serious. But a few hours after, it became real that he was really gone.

“So that night at my show, I asked the audience for a minute of silence for him. But when I remember his life and our relationship, he was always someone moving very fast, as if he knew his time was limited and he wanted to complete what he had to do.”

Cliff was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 after a campaign to win him the recognition he deserved.

It gave him the boost he needed to re-enter the fray with new album, Rebirth, produced by Tim Armstrong, singer of punk band, Rancid, a connection which came about through Cliff’s friendship with the late Joe Strummer.

The title Rebirth is significant.

Cliff says: “My career hadn’t gone to the pinnacle of the vision I had for myself. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles, they play stadiums!

“And that’s what I want to do, I want to play stadiums!”

He headlines the 10,000 capacity Beat-Herder Festival, near Clitheroe, next month – and thanks to the festival’s home-grown ethic and its roots in the free rave party scene, he can’t wait.

He says: “I love to be part of those kind of things, now I know where they are coming from and how it started.

“It is such a great feeling to me to be part of that.”

Beat-Herder Festival, near Clitheroe, runs from Friday July 5 to Sunday July 7.

Weekend tickets are £105 from www.beatherder.com