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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Jimmy Cliff: 'Tunnel vision' propels reggae master

Jimmy Cliff never seemed to understand how impossible his dreams were.

"I couldn't see anything else," he said. "It was tunnel vision."
A skinny kid from a Jamaican village, he wanted to be a music star. He even changed his surname from "Chambers" to "Cliff," to reflect the highest point in his homeland.
Then it all came true. It peaked this spring when Cliff - alongside Abba, Genesis and more - was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"The evening's stand-out performance was Jimmy Cliff, who won over the crowd from the moment he squeezed his eyes shut and rolled out his velvety voice," Rolling Stone wrote.
Now his first American tour in five years, including a Common Ground show, is drawing praise. "He kicked, danced and shimmied across the stage with infectious glee," the Billboard trade paper said.
That's not what you'd expect from a 62-year-old, but Cliff has defied all reggae patterns.
"In school, I loved the arts," he said. "My parents loved me, but they were pious Christians" and didn't like the rowdy reggae sound.
At 14, his dad took him to Kingston Technical School, where he was supposed to learn how to repair radios and TV sets.

His spare time was spent on music; that's when he talked a local merchant, Leslie Kong, into becoming a record producer. "He had a music store, so I knew he liked music."
Kong may have been the first reggae hit-maker with Chinese roots. Cliff would break other traditions.
His song "Many Rivers to Cross" inspired a filmmaker to make the 1969 "The Harder They Come," with Cliff as a country kid who finds big-city crime and music. Critic Leonard Maltin called it a "crude but powerful film (that) almost single-handedly launched reggae music's popularity in America."
Cliff would continue to be a media event. He appeared on-camera in "Club Paradise" and on the sound-track of other films. His cover of "I Can See Clearly Now" reached No. 19 on the Billboard charts, after being heard in "Cool Runnings." His music was in "Cocktail," "Hitch," "Something's Gotta Give," "Mission Impossible III" and more.
Still, he's never stuck to an easy-breezy sound. "I've always wanted to push the envelope," he said.
His songs ranged from the somber "Vietnam" - which Bob Dylan called "the best protest song every written" - and "Trapped" to the upbeat "You Can Get It If You Really Want."
Mostly, Cliff has proven that last one; he gets what he really wants. This year, he wanted to return to American audiences. "They are a little more open (than Europeans)," he said. "They get excited."


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