James Chambers took the name Jimmy Cliff to reference the heights he would climb as a musician, singer, and actor. Since Cliff’s birth during a hurricane in rural Jamaica, people believed he was special. Cliff’s dissatisfaction with country life led him to Kingston where he met Chinese-Jamaican record producer Leslie Kong, who helped launch his career with a 1962 hit, “Hurricane Hattie.” Cliff helped Jamaican music go global performing in the film The Harder They Come. Jimmy Cliff told me how his voice carried him out into the world.
Jimmy Cliff: I was in a classroom at school, and it was recess time, and I was singing. Some girls came in, and they said, “Where’s the radio?” I said, “What radio?” They said, “I heard singing on the radio here.” I said, “Oh yeah? That’s me!” So I said, “Ah ha, I got something, I know I got something here.”
Nick Spitzer: Well say a little something about the radio growing up in the countryside. Were you able to hear the radio from Kingston or the US?
JC: I remember the first time my father got a radio, we picked up the Jamaican station, which was only like one station really, but we could also pick up stations from Cuba and lots of Spanish stations and lots of stations in New Orleans. So year we picked up a lot of jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and yeah that was like my first introduction to American roots music.
NS: Now talk a little about moving to the city. What is it that motivates you to go to town a bit more and get out of country life?
JC: So I went to Kingston to go to Kingston Technical College to learn radio and TV. But my thing was, I want to be on the radio and on the TV, I don’t want to be making it. So I said to my woodwork teacher, “How do you write a song?” He said, “You just write it.” I said, “Okay,” so I just wrote a song, then I wrote a few songs. And I had these songs in my back pocket, and I got to Kingston with the hopes of getting them recorded. So I started inquiring, “How do you get songs recorded?” And they said you have to go to a producer. So I went to them all, and I got turned down. One night out of frustration I was walking on Orange Street, and I saw a sign: Beverley's
Records. Boom! A bulb went off in my head. I had this little song I was writing called “Dearest Beverley.” I went in, and there were three brothers, three Chinese brothers. And Mr. Kong said, “Okay sing us what you have.” So I sang the song, “Dearest Beverley.” And of course, it worked, the magic worked!
NS: As I listen back over the years to reggae and ska, there’s a kind of a split in the music between the sort of happy and then the very socially critical.
JC: Well it was the vast outlook that we had. We still had to struggle, you know, in the genes there were still the marks of slavery, and we had to rebel against the oppressors. And at the same time, we had to look that there must be a better way out. So I was one of those youths that having grown up in the ghetto, I didn’t take a gun. My friends said, “Here Jimmy, hold a gun.” Well I said, “I prefer to hold the mic, you know.”
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