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Jimmy Cliff, Reborn

Reggae's greatest living icon regains the spotlight with 'Rebirth'

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

Jimmy Cliff (©UMe)

There is exactly one reggae singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame whose name is not Bob Marley. The truth, though, is that before Marley's first album was released outside of Jamaica, Jimmy Cliff was already an international star with several groundbreaking hits under his belt, and had already filmed his career-defining performance as Ivan, the singer turned outlaw in 1972's classic cult movie "The Harder They Come."

If the film's initial box office success was modest, its soundtrack -- built around pivotal Cliff tracks (including the defiant title song) and contributions from Toots and the Maytals, the Melodians and other defining reggae masters -- was hugely influential, a major gateway to Jamaica's distinctive alloy of island rhythms with R&B and gospel elements.

While Marley became the best-known ambassador for reggae music -- and perhaps the best-loved musician around the globe -- Cliff steadily continued working, enjoying hits into the ''90s (his cover of "I Can See Clearly Now" from the soundtrack to "Cool Runnings") and earning boundless respect from his peers. Bob Dylan said that Cliff's song "Vietnam" was the best protest song he had ever heard, and artists from Bruce Springsteen to Cher to Willie Nelson recorded such Cliff compositions as "Many Rivers to Cross" and "Sitting in Limbo." When Wyclef Jean inducted Cliff into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, he said that the singer inspired "all the kids that came from raw areas," and the singer's performance that night (and at his shows to this day) revealed that his clear, gospel-inflected tenor voice is truly as powerful as ever.

Now Cliff is back with "Rebirth," his first new full-length album since 2004, produced by reggae devotee Tim Armstrong of the ska-punk band Rancid (Armstrong also produced Cliff's "Sacred Fire" EP last year). The sound of the album, heavy on horns and organ over wicked bass rhythms, is remarkably faithful to the classic Jamaican records of the 1970s. The album includes versions of "Guns of Brixton," from the Clash's "London Calling" album, and "Ruby Soho," Armstrong's own band's biggest hit. "Reggae inspired and influenced punk," says Cliff. "On the other side of the Atlantic, the biggest representation was the Clash, and on this side, I think it was Rancid. So those two songs seemed like the most appropriate to cover."

On the phone from a tour stop in Louisville, Ky. ("the birthplace of one of the people I admire most in life, Muhammad Ali," notes Cliff), the pioneering singer speaks of his music, new and old; the plans for a sequel to "The Harder They Come," which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year; and his thoughts about reggae today. "Rebirth" includes a song called "Reggae Music," with lyrics that provide a detailed narrative of Jimmy Cliff's own history. "I needed to tell that story," he says, "to go forward to the roots again, back to my beginnings, and give that history of the music and the role I've played -- and what it will be playing in the future."

MSN Music: I have to ask about your voice, since it really sounds almost unchanged after 40 years. What do you do to take care of it?

Jimmy Cliff: Nothing in particular. I try my best to take care of myself, my health. There was a time when I kind of abused my body, the way I think a lot of us do. I didn't pay enough attention, didn't know the value of my temple. But I came to realize, my voice is my instrument, and if I don't take care of it, I have nothing. So I try to sleep and eat and exercise -- all the natural things we should all do. It sounds simple, but it's kind of hard to do.

More: Jimmy Cliff in New This Week

The sound of this album is remarkably similar to the classic reggae records of the '60s and '70s. Did you know that Tim was going to be able to recreate that style so accurately?

When I first met Tim, I saw how much of a connoisseur of reggae he was. He started talking to me about the instruments we used then, and then he went and got those same instruments to get that old sound. We recorded it live, but there were one or two tracks that were done before I put my voice on them, and when I heard those, I was amazed. It really motivated me to sing my strongest. But you know, back when I did the album with "Vietnam" and "Wonderful World, Beautiful People," I didn't continue on that same track. I went to Muscle Shoals and made more of a soul record. Lots of fans and critics were not happy that I didn't continue on the reggae path. So I always knew that chapter had to be completed. When this opportunity came with Tim, I knew it was time.

What is your feeling about the state of reggae music today?

From an international angle, I think it's still healthy and growing. I would like to see more writers and more artists stretching their talents. Music is inspiration, and I think this album will inspire them to say, "I can do that, I can write about those things." In Jamaica, there are some writers -- Queen Ifrica, I-Octane, quite a few others -- that give encouragement that the roots and culture part of the music is alive and well.

It does seem like the period when reggae was the most political was also when it was most popular and powerful.

Well, that was the time and era for that expression to come out in music. There were a lot of other people, not just reggae people, expressing those social things in music. But that era seemed to pass, and now we're in the era of bling bling, of girls and cars and superstars. But when I sing some of these songs -- "World Upside Down" or "Children's Bread" -- I see the young people in the audience seem to lap it up, they're thirsty for that. Writers today are not paying enough attention, because they don't hear it going on. But I think this album will re-inspire people to make those kinds of statements.

What is the latest news on the sequel or remake of "The Harder They Come," and what is your role in the project?

Since we were making the movie, I was always in an argument, a disagreement with Perry Henzell, the writer and director. I always said, "Why should my character, the hero, have to die? If you really want to show that crime doesn't pay, why doesn't my antagonist die?" So I wanted to write another movie, to show that good things can come out of a bad environment, like my character, Ivan, does.

I wrote a synopsis, and it was turned into a script. We're not quite satisfied with it yet, but it's there on the table, and we hope to finish developing it and start to shoot it sometime soon. So it's slowly moving forward.

Do you have a different relationship to the older songs -- to "Vietnam" or "Wonderful World" or the "Harder They Come" songs -- than you did when you first recorded them?

I think they have more extended meanings. "The Harder They Come" is still an anthem that rings true today, when we see what is going on in the world, with the imbalance of the socio-economic situation of people living on this planet. It has an even wider meaning today than it had back then. "Wonderful World," I've changed some of the lyrics when I sing it now. The line "there is a secret that nobody can repeat," now I sing that as "there is a secret that church and state won't reveal."

I'm glad I got the inspiration to write those songs. They definitely felt special when I wrote them, but as time goes on, we're still living in the same kind of situations, so that now they really feel timeless.

Alan Light is the co-author of Gregg Allman's best-selling memoir "My Cross to Bear." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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