Jimmy Cliff was reggae’s ﬁrst international star and remains its greatest living ambassador, having taken the music of Jamaica to all corners of the world. He had hits outside of Jamaica as far back as 1969, when “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” reached Number Six in Britain and Number 25 in the U.S. Yet his career breakthrough came in the Seventies, with the release of the soundtrack to The Harder They Come. That album served as a primer on reggae music for the uninitiated, and half of its tracks were by Jimmy Cliff. They included three songs that have become reggae standards: the ebullient “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” the anthemic “The Harder they Come” and the hymn-like “Many Rivers to Cross.”
In addition to writing and singing those songs, Cliff starred in the ﬁlm. The Harder They Come was the ﬁrst feature ﬁlm written and directed by a Jamaican and shot on location using an all-native cast. Cliff played a budding singer from the Jamaican countryside who gets caught up in the renegade world of drugs and violence in the slums of Kingston. The movie became a huge success in Jamaica and a cult classic elsewhere. The soundtrack, released in America on Chris Blackwell’s Mango label (a subsidiary of his Island Records) in 1973, proved to be a steady seller, though it didn’t enter Billboard‘s album chart until March 1975 – still a full two months before Bob Marley and the Wailers ﬁrst cracked the U.S. charts with Natty Dread.
Jimmy Cliff was born James Chambers in St. James, Jamaica. He adopted the stage name “Cliff” to acknowledge the heights he intended to climb. His ﬁrst recordings date back to 1962, and two of his songs (“Ska All Over the World,” “Trust No Man”) were included on a 1964 anthology, The Real Jamaican Ska, released in the U.S. on Epic Records. Hooking up with legendary Jamaican producer Leslie Kong, Cliff unleashed a string of hit singles in his homeland throughout the Sixties, including “Hurricane Hattie,” “Miss Jamaica” and “King of Kings.” He was among those chosen to represent Jamaica at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.