Jimmy Cliff is an icon of Caribbean culture.
Coming of age as his native Jamaica grasped its independence, he was surrounded by music - from the swinging sounds of R&B and jazz, through to the island's own burgeoning ska and calypso communities.
Earning his first hit - 'Miss Jamaica' - as a teenager, he continually pushed himself as a songwriter, refusing to be boxed in.
Perpetually ambitious, he became one of Jamaica's first international stars, scoring bona fide hits in the UK, Europe, and in the United States.
Taking a starring role in seminal movie The Harder They Come, he also sang the unforgettable theme song.
Returning to the UK for a special performance at House Of Common in London on August 26th, Jimmy Cliff will roll back the years for a set littered with smash hits.
Clash caught up with this inimitable reggae icon to locate the secret of his age-defying success...
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What can fans expect from your House Of Common set, Jimmy?
Well, I know what the fans expect. They always expect music that they know but from my point of view, as the artist, I always like to do something new. Whether one or two or three new tracks that they don’t expect… so that’s what they can expect!
What does London mean to you?
Well, it’s my second home! lived here for, what, 15-20 years... that’s a long time! Anywhere that you stay for a good time, part of you is left there or you take part of that city with you.
I’ve lived here over 15 years so every time I come to London I say: “I’m coming back to my second home!”
Who did you look up to through your career?
Ahhh, there were Jamaicans like Derrick Morgan, Prince Buster and Higgs & Wilson, who later broke up and became Joe Higgs. Also American artists like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Fats Domino… and so on!
You have a very busy schedule - do you have time to listen to much other music? Is there anyone you're feeling at the moment?
At the moment, I haven’t got into what I normally get into which is that I like to be current with whatever is happening in all genres of music. I like listening to a lot of African music, reggae (of course), R&B, rap, jazz... I listen to them all. I just like to be current!
What would you say is the greatest achievement that you are most proud of?
Well, I have done some of the things which I actually wanted to do when I started out, including acting. I’ve done one great movie (laughs) and a few others. I think they’re all great as well but I was the star of that one, so The Harder They Come was a very influential movie in both the music and film industry. But then I had other movies after that with Club Paradise, Marked For Death, and Bongo Man. So that is something I’m proud of because I first wanted to be an actor. However when I got my first #1 in Jamaica that was a big thing. When I first heard myself on the radio in Jamaica that was a VERY big thing!
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You're always looking ahead to the future, where does that drive come from?
I recognise and realise, FINALLY, that what I’m doing is what I’m here to do! There was a time when I didn’t accept that. I used to always look around and say “wow, why am I not this and that” but now I realise and acknowledge that I’m doing what I’m here on this planet to do. Why am I still at it?? Because I’m not through yet!
House Of Common is of course curated by Madness...
I know about Madness, we’ve met. First of all, the name ‘Madness’ is from a Prince Buster song (Jimmy sings: “Madness, they call it Madness, I call it Gladness”) so I was curious to meet them. I met them for the first time at a festival in California and it was cool to meet them. Then about a year or so ago we met again, had a chat and did some pictures together - they’re cool guys!
Are you working on any new material at the moment?
I have enough recorded material now to put out two albums but I am not so satisfied with all I’ve got to say this is the kind of album I really wish to put out right now. I don’t want to just put out an album. When I put out an album it has to have something people can connect with so yes, I have a LOT of material but I’m not quite ready to put the album out.
You've always been known for having incredible energy on stage when you perform. Where do you get your energy from?
I think it’s an in-born thing. I remember one day I was recording in Jamaica and there was a singer that I used to hear as a schoolboy in Jamaica, called Laurel Aitken. He came back to Jamaica to do some recordings and we’re doing a session for Beverley’s Records.
I was recording my song and I was there, you know moving about, up and down (Jimmy dances about from side to side) and Laurel looks at me and he says “Weird… This guy's a boxer! He’s a boxer man!”
When I feel music, I just have to move!
You must've played countless festivals in your time... Can you share with us the funniest moment you've seen or been involved with? Any funny stories?
I was doing a festival in Germany and I went out in the audience. I always like to do this incognito, you know, go in the audience and just move about and I feel how they feel, you know? I was doing that at this festival in Germany and this guy walked up to me and clutched me by the arm and put the arm behind my back like he wanted to break it! I stopped him and said “woah, woah, woah, woah whatcha doing that for!?”
Luckily I still have a good right hand! (Jimmy right hooks his palm in the air, laughing away) I got him off me and went backstage and started telling the story and everyone said “Nahhhh that didn’t happen” and I replied “yeah it happened!”
You've gone through some incredible chapters in your life. What's next for Jimmy Cliff?
I think this is a quite an interesting name for the festival “House Of Common” Clever! OK, I have another movie to do. For the longest while we’ve been working on the sequel to The Harder They Come and we have a script now. We’re not totally satisfied with it but it’s a good script to show to people to say we’re ready now, give us the money to do it!
So, we are at that stage, and that could happen next year, could happen later this year. We’ll see but it’s something I’m looking forward to. And of course, putting out my next music! When I finish this leg of the tour, I’m going back to Jamaica to do some more recordings so I have some new songs I’m going to record.
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House of Common takes place on London's Clapham Common on August Bank Holiday Monday (26th).
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