Jimmy Cliff stays 'rock steady'

Reggae superstars are often granted a mythic status after they die - but Jimmy Cliff has managed to earn this celebrated status while still here on earth.

The Grammy-winning singer and actor - touring to support a new album of duets with Sting, Annie Lennox, Wyclef Jean, and the late Joe Strummer - is revered as one of the last remaining links to the Bob Marley era and a living personification of its enduring spirit.

"You know, the great thing about reggae is that it is an evolving musical form," says Cliff, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Paris. "Before, it was just Jamaican music. Then the first name that it had was 'ska,' and then from 'ska' it went on to become 'rock steady.' From 'rock steady' it became reggae and then the name stuck.... What I love is the evolution of it."

Cliff's latest release, "Black Magic" (Artemis Records), was produced by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and includes elements of rap, R&B, and hip-hop, adding a contemporary sound to Cliff's familiar island lilt.

"I call the album 'Black Magic' because it was like magic how everyone came together to record it," says Cliff. "I never set out to make an album of duets. It's just that people heard Jimmy Cliff was doing an album and gravitated to it. They all said, 'Hey, let's do a song together!' "

While many aging singers take their voices down an octave to avoid shredding the high notes, Cliff can still reach the sonic peaks of his younger days. Indeed, his intact vocal range and intense stage presence show that like Neil Young or Carlos Santana, Cliff is not a time-capsule curiosity but a legitimate musical force whose talent has not diminished.

"I love what we did yesterday but I'm not 'Yesterday Man,' and I'm not 'Johnny Come Lately,' " says Cliff. "I live with the time. I have been a creative artist and that's what I am."

His passion for performing was ignited more than 40 years ago when he was still James Chambers, an elementary school student in Kingston. "I started out as an actor in a school play, and one day when I was singing, some girls heard me and said they thought it was the radio. That was when I discovered that I had a voice.

I was rehearsing for the role of King Sugar in a play about when sugar was king in the Caribbean. I still remember my lines: 'I am monarch of all I survey/ My right there is none to dispute/ From the center all around to the sea/ I am lord of the West Indies!'" says Cliff with a laugh.

The ambition to be an international sensation is something Cliff shared with Ivan, the character he played in the 1973 film "The Harder They Come," a semiautobiographical story of a young musician's hardships that lead to a life of crime. That Jamaican film predated Bob Marley's superstardom and laid the groundwork for Marley's global popularity.

" 'The Harder They Come' was a movie without borders and it definitely helped break reggae into a wider market outside the Caribbean," says Cristy Barber, president of Bob Marley's own Tuff Gong record label, a subsidiary of Island Records. "When it first came out, the Vietnam War had ended and people in America were eager for something that was more than just protest music. They were looking for something to provide a little warmth and guidance - some 'positivity' and hope - and that's what 'The Harder They Come' did."

Cliff agrees: "It was a universal story, you know? The character I played could have been an Indian boy in Delhi or a Jewish boy in Jerusalem. And it came out at a time when it really captured the spirit and the energy in the universe. That's why it made the impact that it did."

In the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America, the film gave the poor and disenfranchised a folk hero and awakened dreams of liberation and revolution. "When I made 'The Harder They Come,' we had just come into independence and were finding our voice as a country - as a culture - and defining a whole new society," says writer-director Perry Henzell. "Jamaicans were saying: 'We're a nation now and we have something to say.' "

Cliff's songs, such as "Sitting Here in Limbo" and the film's title track, drove the record to multiplatinum success over the years and earned it the accolade of No. 1 soundtrack of all time in a 1992 ranking by E! Entertainment Television.

Its lasting impact is evinced by the mileage it gets from other performers. UB40 covered "Johnny Too Bad," while Elvis Costello, Joe Cocker, UB40, and Oleta Adams each covered Cliff's introspective "Many Rivers to Cross." The Clash, the late Robert Palmer, The Specials, and Smash Mouth each covered Toots & The Maytals' "Pressure Drop." And Keith Richards growled his own version of the "The Harder They Come."

The underdog story at the heart of the picture also served as a catalyst of positive change for people who saw it.

"I met this one woman in Hawaii years ago," Cliff recalls, "and she said to me: 'Oh, Jimmy Cliff! I was a dropout in school and now I'm a lawyer and I'm a teacher. And it was your music that got me to go back to school. And now I'm teaching my children - my students - with your music.' That's really success for me. It's not that I sold, say, this many records. Real success is meeting people like that."

Barbara Kopple, a two-time Academy Award-winning documentarian and film director, says she was similarly inspired. "When I was making 'Harlan County,' I was broke and my electricity was turned off, so I would have to walk home and take a bath by candlelight," she recalls. "And sometimes when I was feeling really sorry for myself, I used to sing that Jimmy Cliff song 'You Can Get It If You Really Want' with tears coming down my face."

Indeed, the film has inspired generations of filmmakers with its unflinching eye and gritty realism. Echoes of the story would show up in music-themed movies like "The Buddy Holly Story," "Purple Rain," "La Bamba," "8 Mile," and crime narratives such as "Scarface" and "City of God."

Such is the staying power of the film that New Line Cinema, the studio behind the "Lord of the Rings" franchise, has stepped up to produce a hip-hop-flavored remake of "The Harder They Come," directed by Stephen Williams, due out in 2005.

Cliff has no formal role yet in the remake, but he may serve as a consultant, and provide a song or two. But it doesn't disappoint him that rap - rather than reggae - fuels the soundtrack. "Reggae gave birth to hip-hop. We started it," he says. "We called it 'toasting,' and it became a national trend in Jamaica."

African-American and Latino communities picked up that sound from Jamaicans and West Indians in the US.

While much of hip-hop today is about the accoutrements of success, for Cliff it has always been about the music.

For fans of the original film who may not have attended one of Cliff's club performances, seeing him perform live is akin to watching Richard Roundtree's Shaft, Wesley Snipes's Nino Brown, or Pacino's Tony Montana walk off the screen and burst into song. But after 30 years of being greeted as "Ivan," Cliff doesn't object to the connection.

"I don't mind at all," he says with a chuckle. "It's the rebel that I am."

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