Jimmy Cliff

Jamaican musician Jimmy Cliff is best known for introducing reggae to an international audience


International reggae star Jimmy Cliff, born James Chambers on April 1, 1948, in St. James, Jamaica, began making music as a child. In his adolescent years, he began releasing singles and finding fame in Jamaica. As a result of his role as a troubled musician in the film The Harder They Come, Cliff burst onto the international music scene, where he remained for years to follow. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2010.

Early Life

Jimmy Cliff was born James Chambers on April 1, 1948, in Somerton District, St. James, Jamaica. He began his career as a musician, singer and actor by writing songs while still in primary school there, and later developed his talents while at Kingston Technical High School.

While receiving his secondary education, Cliff began entering local talent contests and pursuing potential producers. By the time he was 14, Cliff had released several singles, including “Hurricane Hattie” — the hit that launched his career. Soon after, he was producing local hits regularly and garnering attention throughout his birth country. In 1964, 16-year-old Cliff was chosen to be one of Jamaica’s representatives at the World’s Fair. He then signed with Island Records and moved to the United Kingdom. In the late 1960s, Cliff’s career took off, and he began collaborating with and receiving recognition from well-known musicians, including Bob Dylan.

Commercial Success

Cliff began acting when he was in his early 20s. He starred in, and produced much of the soundtrack for, the reggae film The Harder They Come (directed by Perry Henzell) in 1972, which met great success around the globe, bringing reggae to an international audience for the first time. The movie was also known as one of the top college campus attractions of its era. The soundtrack featured four songs by Cliff and songs by a number of other artists, including Desmond Dekker.

The film began reaching theaters in 1973 — the same time the Wailers’ (Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer) breakthrough international album was released. “That was an incredible one-two punch that knocked out America for Jamaican music,” reggae historian Roger Steffens told the Los Angeles Times. “In some ways,” he added, “The Harder They Come was even more influential, because there were so many different artists featured on the soundtrack of the movie from the rock steady…and early reggae eras.”

With reggae suddenly high on the music industry’s radar, Cliff’s success continued to grow. He released a series of albums, toured for several years, recorded with well-known artists, including Kool & the Gang, Sting, Annie Lennox and the Rolling Stones, and won a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album. In 1988, his song “Shelter of Your Love” was featured in the hit filmCocktail.

In 1995, Cliff collaborated with another musician on the song “Hakuna Matata” for the soundtrack of the film The Lion King. The song was also released as a single. In 2002 he performed at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, and the following year, a song of his was included in the soundtrack of the film Something’s Gotta Give.