Jimmy Cliff


By Jeremy Miles

It is 45 years since a young teenager called James Chambers walked into a record shop in Kingston, Jamaica, and told the owner that he was a singer and wanted to be a star.

For Chambers it seemed the most natural thing in the world. After all, as he says: "I was making music from the day I came out of my mother's womb."

Indeed he was so confident that he had something special to offer that he even changed his name to Jimmy Cliff, saying that it better described the heights to which he aspired.

Happily, he had placed himself in the hands of one Leslie Kong, a man who would soon be revered as one of the greatest producers in Jamaica.

Although they didn't realise it at the time, a reggae legend was about to be born. With help from British Jamaican record boss Chris Blackwell, Jimmy Cliff really was destined for stardom.

He swept into Britain full of the confidence of youth and, together with some brilliantly conceived material, found favour with European ears. He would soon score a series of hits with songs like Wonderful World Beautiful People, Vietnam and Wild Wild World, numbers that crossed over to the pop charts and kicked open the doors for people like Bob Marley and The Wailers and Toots and The Maytals But, as he prepared to head for Bournemouth for his only UK gig this year, 60-year-old Cliff told me that becoming a star in the UK wasn't quite the picnic that it looked.

First he had to get used to being a stranger in a strange land and then there were a few prejudices to overcome. Speaking from New York, Cliff, who plays Bournemouth Opera House on Wednesday, April 16, recalled how arriving in England in 1965 was a bizarre experience for a young man who had barely been outside the West Indies.

"It was very, very strange... and extremely cold! I'd never seen houses with fireplaces and chimneys before. It's funny but I remember thinking, No wonder everyone wants to come to England - there must be so much work. Look at all those chimneys.' I thought they must all be factories."

London in the mid-60s was far from the multi-cultural cosmopolitan city it is today and Cliff soon found that being black had its problems.

"The record company got me this small flat in Earls Court which was fine - until the landlady saw me and told me I'd got 24 hours to get out.

"The person who got the flat for me was a brown-faced Jamaican with kind of wavy hair which apparently was OK but I was just too black for her."

He stood his ground though: "I said, This is my home. You want me out you're going to have to put me out on my head'." It was the first of many battles and today Jimmy Cliff says he feels that, partly because of artists like him, the world is at least in some ways a better place.

"Humanity has grown, people have grown. The essence of racism is ignorance. Universal music has helped change that."

He stresses there was no grand plan: "I'm just a creative person. It wasn't that I set out to change humanity but the songs I wrote like Wonderful World, Beautiful People were about how I wanted to see the world."

Getting his music accepted in England was a struggle too. "Reggae wasn't really known in the UK at all in 1965. The only person anybody had heard of was Millie Small who'd had a hit with My Boy Lollipop. Apart from that there were just a few underground things from people like Prince Buster and Derek Morgan, it was the ska era. In the colleges and universities where I was playing, getting my music noticed was an uphill climb but it paid off. "

Inspired by the American and Cuban hits he'd heard on the radio back in Jamaica, Cliff's music was accessible enough to make its presence felt.

He insists he never once contrived to produce a crossover hit. " I simply did what I felt I had to do creatively. I was never deliberately trying to cross over. I didn't even know what it meant.

"It just felt right to add some cello and strings to some tracks that I'd done in Jamaica and take them to another audience.

"There were quite a few Reggae purists who criticised it at the time but now I can look back and laugh."

Indeed he can. When Jimmy Cliff arrives in Bournemouth to take the stage at the Opera House tomorrow night it will be almost 40 years to the day since he played his first-ever gig in the town.

That night, in April 1968, he was just another visiting act performing at The Ritz Club - a long forgotten venue on the West Cliff that was eventually destined to have the Bournemouth International Centre built on top of it.

Few people at that show would have imagined that four decades on the young reggae singer would still not only be working but also famous as anJimmy Cliff plays the Opera House in Bournemouth on Wednesday, April 16.

© Jeremy Miles 2022