Jimmy Cliff thinks Oscar

Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff tells Garry Steckles he’s planning to act his way right to the top

A major Oscar for the Caribbean? I’d love to see it happen, and a combination of the wonderful movies that have come out of Jamaica over the past few decades, along with the unconventional movies that have dominated the last two instalments of Hollywood’s annual extravaganza, make me believe it’s not too preposterous a scenario.

Much more important than my opinions, it’s a belief that’s shared by Jimmy Cliff. And when Jimmy Cliff, reggae survivor, star of The Harder They Come, international hit-maker and recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, tells you he believes it’s something he can make happen, you listen.

I caught up with Jimmy the other day in his New York hotel room, a few days after his acclaimed entry into that rather exclusive music club, and he was absolutely brimming with enthusiasm. In the course of a wide-ranging conversation, we reminisced about the past, about reggae’s golden era of the Seventies, about his role in it, and about his plans for the future. One thing came through loud and clear: at the age of 62, Jimmy Cliff is more interested in what he’s going to achieve than what he did decades ago.

“I have not done all I am here to do,” he told me. “I am going to play big arenas, have international hits. Everyone inducted with me into the Hall of Fame had finished their careers, I’m still working on mine. The induction was the final act of phase one, now I’m getting set to start act two. I’m not Johnny Come Lately – neither am I yesterday’s man.”

Not only was Cliff looking forward to the release of Existence, his first studio album in almost five years, and his first major North American tour in just about as long, he was thinking Oscar.

And that, he assured me, is not just a passing thought.

“The next trophy I would love to be holding like this is an Oscar,” he had already told Caribbean journalists a few days after the induction, brandishing his Hall of Fame trophy.

Cliff has big plans well under way to do just that, and the vehicle for making it happen is a movie based on the life of the legendary Kingston gunman Wappy King, who even predates Rhygin, the 1940s ghetto gangster who was the inspiration for and namesake of Cliff’s Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin in The Harder They Come.

The script has already been written, said Cliff, who would, of course, have a starring role in the movie and also write the music. Still to do, he said, is the casting and arranging the financing – which brings us back to the past couple of best-movie Oscars. Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker, which captured ten and nine Oscars respectively, were made on absurdly low budgets by Hollywood standards – about US$15 million each.

With his already high showbiz profile raised considerably by his Hall of Fame induction, coupled with his solid track record in movies, Cliff’s Wappy King project should have little trouble attracting the sort of money needed to make it a reality.

And don’t forget, Jamaica already has a remarkable history, for a country of about two million people, when it comes to movies. In addition to The Harder They Come, the most famous, the island has already given us the reggae classics Countryman and Rockers, the gritty Third World Cop and Dancehall Queen, the romantic drama One Love, the side-splitting comedy Smile Orange and the excellent musical semi-documentaries Heartland Reggae and Bongo Man…the last-named featuring one Jimmy Cliff.

While I was talking with Jimmy about his new CD and upcoming concerts, we also reminisced about his first major North American tour – which happened to include the first of the hundreds of reggae shows I’ve seen over the course of four decades. The tour came a year or so after the 1972 release of The Harder They Come, and the show I caught was at Toronto’s venerable Massey Hall. It cropped up in our conversation when he was explaining the themes permeating Existence, which is essentially an examination of the human condition in the constantly evolving era of cyberspace and hi-tech. It’s a funny old world we live in, we agreed, and Jimmy promptly threw in the line “They say the world is upside down” from a classic reggae song.

I was instantly back in Massey Hall all those years ago, wondering who was the guy in fatigues, playing percussion, who was clearly the leader of Cliff’s backing band. I was a trifle apprehensive when Cliff introduced him to the audience, and said he’d be taking over the lead singing duties for a handful of numbers. How could a sideman compare with Cliff, I wondered? Then he started to sing – and what a voice.

It was the legendary Joe Higgs, the man who taught the Wailers – and dozens of other Jamaican stars – the intricacies of harmony singing, and although I didn’t realise it at the time I was getting a music lesson myself, as well as a rare privilege. Higgs, who died in 1999, performed major concerts outside Jamaica only twice, first with Cliff then, a year or so later, with the Wailers, when Bunny Wailer decided he’d had enough of touring and Higgs filled in on harmony vocals. Thanks to Jimmy Cliff, I had the chance to see the master – Cliff refers to him as the Father of Reggae – singing solo. Higgs, of course, was also the composer of “Upside Down”, the song that triggered those memories, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to thank Jimmy, wholeheartedly, for having presented me with one of my most treasured reggae moments.

We also reminisced about a long-ago evening in Kingston, when I spent an evening at Cliff’s New Kingston home and was involved in helping to choose which of two songs he’d just recorded would be released as a single.
“Two heavy songs,” he chuckled when I reminded him of the titles – “Material World” and “Seven Times Seven”. I didn’t remind him that after listening to each track a few dozen times I eventually cast my vote for “Seven Times Seven” – and “Material World” was the track that came out as a 45. So much for my musical judgement.

I hope the Wappy King movie gets made. I hope it wins a slew of Oscars. And I can’t wait to see Jimmy Cliff accepting the awards and dedicating them, as he did at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, to the people of Jamaica, the Caribbean, Africa and South America. And then tearing the place apart with a killer version of “The Harder They Come”.

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