And a very big welcome to the show today. Are you a regular listener? Or have you somehow just discovered a breath of fresh air and happened to tune in? Either way, it’s great to have your company. And I’d love it if you’d let me know what you think of the show. To get in touch with me. Just send an email through the website, a breath of fresh air.com.au. Now, today’s episode is another very special one. And I’m still not sure how I’m going to fit in everything. Our guest has to say in just 52 minutes. I could have listened to him for hours. He’s a Grammy Award winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a musician, actor, singer, songwriter, producer, and humanitarian, who believes that because he was born during a hurricane, his life has been filled with magic. He’s known as the grandfather of reggae. And he became famous at the ripe old age of 14. He’s gone on to popularize reggae music everywhere. And nearly 70 years later, he’s still doing it.
I hope you enjoy hearing from the legend. That is Jimmy Cliff. And please forgive any audio glitches. He’s coming to us all the way from Jamaica. Hi, good day.
You’re known as the grandfather of reggae. How did you get started in the first place?
I saw I could do really and truly all I could do. So I said, this is what I can do. So I’m going to do that.
So young, Jimmy Cliff started singing on the street and in church, wherever and whenever he could.
One time I sang in the church. And it apparently blew everybody away. So next time, they asked me to come up on the rostrum, and sing, the church was packed. Every time they said, this little boy is going to say, I attracted people to the church, and they started making money, and then put the collection plate around it make money. Alright, so that encouraged me. I was only six years old. They had all turned up. And so yeah, I was well appreciated.
And what about your family? Do they encourage you?
My family didn’t encourage me? Their head was into Christianity. That didn’t encourage her but I pursued
you were single minded. Yes. Was it difficult for you to follow that path?
I guess it was difficult. But when one is doing something with their mind made up, you make it easy, or you make it look easy.
It did make it look easy, but I believe there was a bit of a struggle in there. When you first moved to Kingston.
Yes, Kingston wasn’t easy. Kingston was a bit of a jungle. And so I had to change my outlook. That was when you took on the name Cliff, wasn’t it? Yes. Why the name change?
How was born in the hills of Jamaica? I kinda liked the name Cliff. Since I was born in the cliffs of Jamaica. Don’t take on this name cliff. It worked out for me
the first single you had success with was one called hurricane Hattie. Correct. What do you think it was about hurricane Harvey that became your breakthrough. It was topical – was like almost a topic of the day. There was a hurricane in an island adjacent to Jamaica. And I just thought if you make a song that is on the lips, and the minds of people should have some don’t have success and it worked out so that brings back really good memories because that was my first number one was my fourth recording. And my first number one, it was like a tremendous time for me. When I record in the studio, and I walk out of the studio, I know I got something that was a feeling I got when I walk out of the studio that after recording that song.
In Jimmy’s teen years, he saw himself growing more and more popular at school, especially with the girls.
Girls that would not normally look at me. They come into the classroom and they say where is the radio? I said what radio said we hear singing here I said that was me and their mouth dropped and so things like that you know that say yeah, I got something here. I think I got something to attract people at the church. I attract people in school. I felt I had something there.
You appear to have been making songs about things you see around you in your world ever since?
Yes. It was always at the back of my mind.
In 1964, your star was shining so brightly that you were selected as one of Jamaica’s representative at the World Fair. And you move to Britain at that time. How come Britain?
It would be good for my career. So I pursued that. And it was after the World’s Fair. I went to the UK in 65. I said I’ll give it a go. It worked out and it didn’t work out. You know? If you know what I mean?
In what way I know about how it did work out. Why do you say in some ways it didn’t work out?
Britain was a bitch. Was it? Well, in Jamaica, I was accustomed to mild racism. But in Britain, I had to dive into the deep my first flat launder. Remember a lady said to me? What are you doing here? I said I live here. Well, you got 24 hours to get out. I said, then you gotta get me out on my head. Yeah. So we don’t accept color people here. I said, I’m not colored. This is my real color. I’m black. Well, whatever you want to call it. We don’t accept you here. So I was doing my workout. And I slammed the door in her face to say you got 24 hours to get out. And that was the end of that story. Then the following day, I was invited to be an A pop show called Top of the Pops and the most popular popular show in in England. And so I accepted the invitation. I was put around Nina Simone. That’s the way the show was kind of fixed. So she saw me on that show. And the following day, she said, Oh, I saw you on the telly okay, yes, I was on television. You can stay as long as you want.
Wow. Yeah. Who was this woman? Just a woman on the street?
No, she was the caretaker of the house. I’d say it was a particularly bad time then in the early to mid 60s in Britain. Yes. You’ve seen So many changes go through since then in your lifetime, you must be quite shocked at how quickly the whole culture has changed.
You recorded your debut album, The Hard Road, it won the International Song Festival, right? And the following year, wonderful world beautiful people was your international breakthrough.
Well, what it is, was Brazil was a pretty optimistic vibration. And I just ran into that what I saw first was the people seem so beautiful. The country was indeed beautiful. And I start writing about wonderful country, beautiful people, you and your girl, things looks pretty, but underneath this, there is a secret that nobody will reveal. So those were the words I had in my head, I felt that I was in a good place. But I started to see the reality after some time.
I’m sorry to say Brazil turned out to be a very hypocritical place. Like it was that moment in Britain. Oh, you can stay as long as you want. And not really. So was pretty pretty. Anyway, I stayed there. I won the festival. So my whole life changed.
How did it change? What did that mean for your life? Then,
I started making money. I started to be shown and all of the popular TV stations, I would walk on the street and people say he makes it easy to get that from you as a new nobody ever called me on the street before. So all of that I start to I start to become popular in the country of Brazil. In some Paulo. Did it feel good? It was a bit scary. These people call him I don’t know them. That was a big scary but for the fact that they knew who I was.
Jimmy Cliff after that came the anti war song Vietnam Bob Dylan call that the best protest song he’d ever heard that set you up again to build up another huge following. You did a couple of cover tracks you did Cat Stevens wild world in 1970 and the best version of Desmond Decker’s you can get it if you really want went to number two in Britain that was the one we were all dancing to.
It’s a great message in that song Try – isn’t it? Nearly 60 years in music from a man who has always looked beyond local life to move himself and Jamaican music as a whole on to a much larger stage. Stick with us as Jimmy Cliff continues his incredible story.
This is a breath of fresh air with Sandy Kaye. It’s a beautiful day.
Thanks for being here. Jimmy Cliff always believed he could make his dreams come true. But his road was paved with potholes. Even as he penned songs like wonderful world beautiful people. You can get it if you really want. Why did you decide to do the covers?
Absolutely. You Can Get It if you Really want. I wrote that song!
I’m sorry. I’m sorry, my mistake completely. It was the most amazing song. What can you get if you really want??
No matter how hard it’s seems that life is you can get whatever you set out to do. So don’t stop. That’s all that was going on. Whatever you set out to do, you can get it.
It was a great message for millions of people around the world. And obviously one that you had found to be true in your own life?
Precisely. I remember going to Hawaii, and I met this teacher who said children. I said yes. She’s taught you all aeration and all those things are not said. And then she started crying. And I said why are you crying? She said I was a dropout in school, and it’s your music, particularly you can get a computer on your lawn and then go back to school. And now I’m a teacher. And I teach students about your song. Especially you can get to theory on Rome was not built in a day. Opposition would come your way. The battle you see it’s the sweeter you can get in it you really can get in if you really want. You can get it if you really want but you must try it. Try it Have you succeeded?
So oh, bless you. That was nice to hear that coming from some have never known before.
Did you ever once consider that you might be able to have such an incredible influence over people’s lives.
I never considered it all I knew is I wanted to sing. And of course, I want to be popular. And I wanted to touch people. So that’s what I did. And I was grateful to the universe for that.
Jimmy is one of few surviving musicians. After the recent deaths of several of his colleagues, who can still draw a line from ska at the start of the 60s to today’s global reggae sound. His version of Cat Stevens wide world became almost as well known as the original. And here’s a song he covered shortly before turning his talents to acting.
You became known as an actor for the movie, the Harder they Come tell us how that came about.
Well, I did that movie, I was convinced to do that movie, because of the director telling me something. Only. I knew I didn’t want to do the movie. He said to me, Jimmy, I think you’re a better actor than sooner. I was stunned, stunned, because I thought the same myself.
The Harder They Come in 1972 was an important film, both for reggae, and for Jamaica. Jimmy provided music for the film and played the lead character. I had just finished you can get it if you really want up walk to me this white Jamaican gentleman and said, Yo, Jimmy, please say yes, I’m Jimmy Cliff. Do you think you could write the music for a film now? I’m making, I looked at him and I said, What do you mean, if I think I could write, I can do anything. For about a half a minute. He didn’t say anything at all. He was stunned by my response. The next thing I knew, I went back to England is sent the script. Now, not just want me to write the music want me to play the lead role in this in the film that at the time, I was very popular in England, I had it records. And so you get a Jamaican to play the lead role in that who is very popular all over the world. I look at it two ways. But how he convinced me was he said, I think you are a better actor than singer because he saw an album jacket of mine. There were two photographs one on the front, one on the back. And he said on one side I look like a winner. And then the other side I look like a rebel. So he said I had a wide range that I can be photographing in different ways. So that also was one of the things that prompted him to ask me to do the movie whether they tell me the sky waiting for me when I die between the day you’re born and then never seem to even so much sure as the sun will shine one smile
Making the movie was another thing. One of the important things about it was Jamaica’s first full length movie, of course. And they ran out of money. I jumped on a plane and went back to England. And they call and say, Oh, we got enough money to go again. I jumped back on a plane, I went back to Jamaica, start filming, they run out of money. It’s the same cycle, we finally finished the movie, and it has become what it has become, because everyone went into it with a positive mind. I think because of that, that kind of feeling that everyone was working with. It came across very natural, and I think is what gives the fate the film its longevity.
Right. But where had you acted before that you knew that about yourself in school? And where had he seen you act?
I don’t know. It must have been intuition.
So how was that experience for you?
It was great. The opportunity was great. So yes, I always cherish
that moment. And you did the soundtrack for the movie, too, didn’t you? Yeah, I did most of the soundtrack, which was your favorite song from that soundtrack?
I guess I’m going to say what most people say is not my style, to follow the crowd. But Many Rivers to Cross man
I had recorded many rivers to cross a few years before it came out. Or Chris Blackwell was the executive producer. He didn’t think much of the song. He said, Okay, let’s put it in as a filler. I was burning inside when I heard him say that. But and I said to myself, I know it is a great song. So nothing or no one can kill it.
And of course, we all know what happened to it after that you were right. And he was wrong. It was a huge success!
There was a whole lot of mixed emotions packed in that song, first of all emotions about my ancestors, crossing the Middle Passage, then to myself, crossing over from Jamaica, to the US to the UK. Then thinking of people in general as I normally do when I write a song, their own personal rivers that they have to cross. So it was all of those emotion packed in it and like the song says, I can’t seem to find my way over because I went to the UK would be expectation that I’m going to beat out the Beatles or stones when I went I find out a is not that easy. You know Jimmy is not that easy. It’s a different game here. But I never gave him however, hence the line. I can’t seem to find my way over. So it was all of those emotion that packed in that song. And you know the way I recorded that song. I had done a session in Jamaica and I did not record that song because I know we in Jamaica. We are very much rhythmic people rhythmic music Friends, I chose to leave that song till the time was opportune. And when I went to New York, the thought came to me while walking out of the hotel to the studio, I said, Wow, if I finish this song, I may be able to get it recorded. And so said, so done. I finished the song in 10 minutes, and had it recorded one take. And it was done. Do you mean that movie brought you to the attention of the world in an even bigger way than you had been until then, but somehow, attention would turn to Bob Marley at that particular point. He was like your competition almost.
Were you upset by that?
Well, I’m someone who always had confidence in myself, I saw that Bob was well promoted by a record company. So I said, Okay, all right. I’ll keep going my own way. And as a result of the promotion, yeah, you became very popular in Britain and the rest of the world. So I kept going my own way, my style.
And of course, your styles were very different anyway. So there was no need for any comparisons.
Right. And you know, if I want to look at it this way, but it was like my find when he walked into the rehearsal room or I was playing the piano, and he announced himself and he said, there’s one Decca set because there’s when the record came before, and I had him recorded his song, and they both used to work at the same place as welders. He had a great sense of rhythm and the other great sense of the use of words. So from then I could detect that he was a poet.
I found him I took into the recording studio, recorded his first three songs, and boom after that, I started sailing. I didn’t know that. Yeah, because he was writing good songs. Let’s face it. I was happy for him and happy also because I found him via Desmond Dekker and so happy that he made it there’s one there Ken made it and there’s one there was also my fine and happy that they came by the way of my hand
You certainly had very good taste, you knew when a song was going to be successful. You knew when an artist was going to be successful, and you knew how to find success for yourself too. As the 70s went on, you worked with a whole lot of incredible people you toured the US with Peter Tosh. You had a partnership with cooling the gang and your follow up album Cliffhanger eventually won the Grammy in 1985. Was that an accolade that you were very grateful for?
I was not so conscious of what the Grammys all about. And so, somebody had to pull my shirt and stay, we will be coming soon big thing in the music industry as we know, you know, in many ways, I considered myself a smart person. And in another way, when I look at, I look back as he thought you knew you are not that smart. Otherwise, you wouldn’t do that you wouldn’t do that and slow. But that was my character, and I lived it out.
Jimmy’s easy going character certainly stood him in good stead most of the time. But when it came to handling the music business, he was in a whole world of trouble hanging as he unravels the details.
This is a breath of fresh air with Sandy Kaye, it’s a beautiful day.
Welcome back. The grandfather of reggae. Jimmy Cliff has been commenting on social issues through his songs for more than 50 years. justice and fair play have been hard wired into his DNA
business side was terrible for me, because I am a country boy, and I just felt everything should be fair. I give you what is yours. You give me what is mine. That’s the way I looked at life, though. I made lots of business mistakes. You know, before I went to make the movie, I had this big tour in Europe to do and I got confused along the way which road to take so I made some mistake there. I took all of that so that was a big blunder.
Was there a time when you wisened up?
Oh yeah, I did wisened up Oh, fair play this game is no fair play what you’re looking for.
I say oh so that’s how the game plays. Okay. And that must have been very disappointing?
1986 Jimmy Cliff appeared in a film called Club paradise with Robin Williams. His notoriety helped put Jimmy back onto the American charts as his version of Johnny Nash’s song I can see clearly now was released. I said well, I know the song very well. I was in the studio that night John and recorded it and I can do this. Oh, I recorded that song. And it turned out to be a big hit.
I Can See Clearly Now is a song of hope and courage for people who’ve experienced adversity but have overcome it. Jimmy’s version went to number 18 in the US and was used in the John Candy movie called Cool Runnings about the Jamaican bobsled team. Yet another example of Jimmy Cliff speaking to the struggle of the times and the injustice that he sees around him. More recently, Jimmy’s first album in more than a decade called refugees does the same. Before we talk about the album. What have you been doing for the last 10 years?
Cooling out. Chilling.
Have you been enjoying that? Oh, yeah. Paint me a picture of what a day in the life of Jimmy Cliff chilling out looks like. Okay. And any life
would be. I wake up first I’d like to wash. I don’t feel comfortable or I don’t brush my teeth. Okay, and then I have some breakfast at this present time. I am in Jamaica. So I have Jamaican breakfast.
What’s the Jamaican breakfast? So my can breakfast is fried plantains, rice and peas. Even though rice and peas is the evening meal. I have some in the morning. I’ve tasted to make rice and peas.
No, I haven’t.
It’s delicious. Delicious. I have vegetarian. Or shall I say vegan? I don’t eat any dairy products.
Yeah. And then what do you do with yourself the rest of the day? What did chilling out look like reading a book going for a walk?
Go for actually going for a walk is not completely correct. I’ve had a mishap so I don’t walk too well these days. Sorry to hear froze out disclose that. However, I’m not sad. I’m quite happy going around the yard. Sometimes it rains come out enjoying the sun, that’s half of the day gone. The other half of the day. I get ideas for songs, I get ideas, I don’t finish it, but I put them in my brain in my computer. So it goes like a song or refugees or a song that I put in my actual computer. And I was just doodling around one day and I saw the title. I really liked it. And so I worked on it and then I call a friend of mine whiteleys Sean who I know is very creative and we worked at it and late evening I prepare to go to sleep
Why Refugees Jimmy Cliff? Are refugees something that you have been concerned about of late?
Yes, indeed. But refugees is not just a song refugees has become a movement in the world. So I thought follow my pattern, you know, comment on what’s happening in the world. And that as you know, follow my pattern is something that concerned me Yeah. People all over the world from Africa to South America find refugees all over so I support the movement by making a song about it seeking
You obviously believe that the power of music can shift the way things are going in the world to some degree to
Yes, indeed because you know music is sound and sound affects everyone is very British and what is the effect some people border so? So you I found out that time ago in my career, that sound is something that affects everyone.
Yeah, it’s a stunning album. I think that my favourite track on the album might be the song bridges, which kind of reminds me of of many rivers to cross. Really. Tell me a little bit about that one.
Wow. One day I was walking around in New York, New York is kind of a special place for me because as it happens, that’s where I wrote and the rivers to cross. So I was walking around one bit and it just come to me the inspiration just comes to me and those new weeks start to fall I mean, I guess there must have been somewhere in my subconscious bridges over the Great Divide spreading it far and wide would love to guide and then it continued and continued and yeah, it went like that and I was pleased that the end of the day
Jimmy says his conversion to Islam is travels to Africa in search of his roots, and his newfound religious devotion have all influenced his music over time. The key now he says is to stay healthy following surgery for a broken hip.
I’m in fairly good shape. So I have to take the time to heal myself perfectly. So that’s where I am as far as health goes.
Jimmy Cliff what which is your favorite song from this album?
There’s something I can pick. What I’m going to go with a song for the people. You’re gonna left a field is called Full notes. Here does what it means what does that mean? It’s a woman’s private pot. Expect me to write that kind of song.
No. And why did you what led to that? Well, I write songs to write songs. And I write songs with a purpose I consider that a funny song the fullness of the fullness of God the fullness from the roots of it something I used to hear an elder man sing about his wife and I thought that was wow
You’re a man of all shades, aren’t you? I could just speak to you for hours, but I’d better let you go. Just finally though, given that it was more than a decade between albums, how was the process for you? Do you enjoy going through all of that again and putting this album together?
Yeah, I enjoy putting songs together making an album.
It won’t be the last one we hear from Jimmy Cliff, will it all? No, no, no, no, not the last one. I’m always thinking, you know, inspiration and ideas are all already coming to me. Right,
Jimmy Cliff, you have just been so wonderful to chat with. Thank you very, very much. You have to promise me that when you do release the next album, we can talk again, that I can promise I am not going to make promises. I don’t know. You’re not that kind of guy. You. You’re a country guy who believes in playing fair.
I really liked that.
Thank you very, very much.
Jimmy Cliff, the only living musician to hold the Jamaican Order of Merit, the country’s highest honour for arts and science. I hope you’ve enjoyed his story and will join me again same time next week for another episode of a breath of fresh air. Take care till we meet again won’t you do have lots of fun by now. You’ve been listening to a breath of fresh air with Sandy Kaye.