The news is out that Jimmy Cliff is preparing to reprise his role in the very popular early 1970s Jamaican crime movie, The Harder They Come. The film was highly successful, with its accompanying soundtracks being responsible in no small way in bringing Jamaican reggae music to an international audience, while Cliff’s acting role transformed him, almost overnight, into an international superstar. But who and/or what was responsible for unearthing and bringing to prominence this poor boy from the hills of Somerton in St James, Jamaica, to be now considered perhaps the most iconic figure behind Bob Marley in the Jamaican entertainment business?
The answer must surely lie with Cliff himself, or with those who worked closest with him during the embryonic stages of his musical development. Two such persons must surely be Derrick Morgan, the man who auditioned and helped Cliff to put out his first successful recording, and Leslie Kong, a Chinese-Jamaican who sponsored and produced that recording. They were the catapulting forces that sent Cliff on the road to success.
Morgan, the King of Ska, and an experienced singer, who at one time had some half a dozen songs on the Top 10 charts, was particularly crucial to Cliff’s future career. In a 2007 interview with me on Klas Sports Radio, Morgan explained: “Jimmy Cliff came to my house looking for me, saying that Leslie Kong sent him to me. It was the first I was seeing Jimmy and the first he was seeing me. He said this man named Leslie Kong said I should listen to a song he (Jimmy) had, and if it sounded good, he should take me back to Leslie. Jimmy had a song called Dearest Beverley, and he sang it to me. It was a slow ballad and I told him that that wasn’t going on those days. He said he had another one called Hurricane Hattie. And so we help out Jimmy and set up that one, and then he took me to meet Leslie. Leslie asked me if I listened to Jimmy, (him didn’t name Cliff at the time, is Leslie name him Cliff, I don’t know why). Then, he ask me if I know any musicians, and I told him about The Drumbago All Stars, and I went and called Drum for him, and he went through some rehearsals with us before the recording session,” Morgan said. With one ‘shot’ Morgan had brought both Cliff and Kong into the recording business.
Hurricane Hattie, the ska song Cliff had written about a deadly 1961 tropical cyclone that narrowly missed Jamaica, was a number one hit and one of the most popular recordings in Jamaica during 1962. Cliff’s follow-up hit, Miss Jamaica, was equally devastating, as he serenaded his Miss Jamaica with the lyrics:
“Roses are red, violets are blue
believe me, I love you.
Let’s not be apart
cause you’re the rose of my heart
and sweet Rose, you’re my queen.
You’re my Miss Jamaica, I’m crowning you myself“.
Just like the character Ivan, which Cliff played in the movie, he came to Capital City Kingston in 1961 at age 13, in search of a better life. Dropping out of high school, he went in search of a job, with a recording career being his priority. The only avenue of opportunity open to aspiring artistes at the time was to record for one of the popular sound systems that would exclusively play the acetate recording on their set, at dances and sound system contests.
Records were seldom made for commercial purposes, and sometimes were never released to the public and radio stations until years after. Cliff’s first song, Daisy Got Me Crazy, was recorded for Count Boysie’s Sound System at Federal Recording Studios. Cliff was never paid, nor was the song released. His second recording was produced by another sound system operator, named Sir Cavaliers, but nothing seemed to be happening, until one night, while walking around, trying to get a song recorded, Cliff came upon this all-in-one restaurant, ice cream parlour and record shop called Beverleys, operated by three Chinese brothers and situated almost at the intersection of North and Orange streets in Kingston. Suddenly, he got an idea:
“Maybe if I were to write a song called Beverley, they would sponsor it,” he thought. Cliff duly took the song to them, but they initially refused, claiming that they were novices in the field of record production. Proceeding to sing the song, as a way of persuading the brothers, Cliff managed only to elicit laughter from two of the brothers, but one named Leslie seemed serious and decided to take on the risk. It was then that Leslie ordered Cliff to find the very experienced Derrick Morgan to decide his fate, by way of an audition. The result saw Cliff recording a number of successful blues and ska singles for Kong, between 1962 and 1964. They included Miss Jamaica, Kings of Kings, One Eyed Jack, Since Lately and Trust No Man, mainly written by Cliff.
In 1964, Cliff was part of a contingent sent to New York’s World Fair to promote Jamaica’s ska music and dance craze. His performance attracted the attention of music mogul and Island Record Company’s boss, Chris Blackwell, who invited Cliff to work in England. He moved there for good in the mid-1960s and recorded for Blackwell several songs, geared towards the underground rock market.
His career in England really took off in 1969 with the triplet of hits, Wonderful World, Vietnam and the Cat Stevens-penned Wild World, which reached the UK Pop Top 10, and elevated him into the international pop world. A year earlier, his entry, Waterfall, in the Brazilian music festival earned for him a considerable following and job offers there and in Europe. His next move as the gun-tooting, reggae-singing star in the Perry Henzel 1972 film The Harder They Come made him a hero almost overnight. Now 43 years later, Cliff entertains ideas of reprising his role in the movie.