Jimmy Cliff, OM, was born James Chambers on 1st April 1948 in Somerton District, St. James, Jamaica. He is a ska and reggae musician, multi-instrumentalist, singer and actor.
He began writing songs while still at primary school in St. James, listening to a neighbour’s sound system. In 1962 his father took him to Kingston to go to Kingston Technical school.
He convinced Leslie Kong to produce his songs while still in school. After two singles that failed to make much impression, his career took off when “Hurricane Hattie” became a hit, while he was aged 14. It was produced by Kong, with whom Cliff remained until Kong’s death from a heart attack in 1971.
Cliff is best known among mainstream audiences for songs such as “Wonderful World, Beautiful People”, “Many Rivers to Cross”, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, “The Harder They Come”, “Reggae Night” and “Hakuna Matata”, and his covers of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” from the film Cool Runnings. He starred in the film The Harder They Come, which helped popularize reggae across the world, and Club Paradise. Cliff was one of five performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.
In 1964, Cliff was chosen as one of Jamaica’s representatives at the world’s fair; and in the same year Cliff was featured in a program called “This is Ska!” alongside Prince Buster, Toots and the Maytals, and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. He soon signed to Island Records and moved to the United Kingdom. Island Records
In 1972, Cliff starred as Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin in the classic reggae film, The Harder They Come, directed by Perry Henzell. As the film tells Martin’s story, he is a young man without funds. Arriving in Kingston from the country, he tries to make it in the recording business, but without success. Eventually, he turns to a life of crime. The soundtrack album of the film was a huge success that sold well across the world, bringing reggae to an international audience for the first time. It remains one of the most internationally significant films to have come out of Jamaica since independence. The film made its debut at London’s Gaumont cinema in Notting Hill on 1 September 1972. In 1975, Cliff sang on the first season of Saturday Night Live, episode 12, hosted by Dick Cavett. After a series of albums, Cliff took a break and traveled to Africa (the Nigeria-based Jamaican writer Lindsay Barrett was instrumental in Cliff’s first trip there), and subsequently converted to Islam, taking the new name: El Hadj Naïm Bachir.
Cliff quickly returned to music, touring for several years before he recorded with Kool & the Gang. In 1984, Cliff appeared at the Pinkpop Festival in Landgraaf, Netherlands. During The River Tour, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band added Cliff’s previously little-known song “Trapped” to their live set; it achieved great prominence when included on 1985’s We Are the World benefit album. The follow-up, Cliff Hanger (1985), won a Grammy Award for ‘Best Reggae Album’, though it was his last major success in the United States until 1993. Also in 1985, Cliff contributed to the song “Sun City”, a protest song written and composed by Steven Van Zandt and recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid to convey opposition to the South African policy of apartheid. Cliff then provided backing vocals on The Rolling Stones’ 1986 album Dirty Work, and appeared in the comedy Club Paradise, co-starring with Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole, and contributed several songs to the soundtrack, including “Seven Day Weekend”, which he sang with Elvis Costello. In 1988, his song “Shelter of Your Love” was featured in the hit film Cocktail.
Cliff appeared in the film Marked for Death in 1990, performing “John Crow” with the Jimmy Cliff Band. His recording of “You Can Get It If You Really Want” was used as a campaign anthem by the Sandinista National Liberation Front in the 1990 election in Nicaragua. In 1991, performed at the second Rock in Rio festival in Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He continued to sell well in Jamaica and, to a lesser extent, the UK, returning to the mainstream pop charts in the U.S. and elsewhere (#1 in France) with a version of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” on the Cool Runnings film soundtrack in 1993. In 1995, Cliff released the single “Hakuna Matata”, a collaboration with Lebo M, a song from the soundtrack of the film The Lion King. He and Jack Logan were guest stars in the Cartoon Network talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
The Jamaican government under P. J. Patterson honoured Cliff on 20 October 2003, by awarding him The Order of Merit, the nation’s third-highest honour, in recognition of his contributions to the film and music of Jamaica.
In September 2009, he was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, following a campaign on his behalf by the American Charles Earle. Cliff reacted to the news by saying, “This is good for Cliff, good for Jamaican music and good for my country.” On 15 December 2009, he was officially announced as an inductee and was inducted on 15 March 2010 by Wyclef Jean.
He is the only living musician to hold the Order of Merit, the highest honour that can be granted by the Jamaican government for achievements in the arts and sciences.