That Jimmy Cliff has spent the better part of his 41-year career in the shadow of Bob Marley is arguably the most egregious of pop music’s many injustices. Matter of fact, if the Tuff Gong was alive today, he would no doubt say, “Amen.” Hell, he knew that he was as much influenced by Cliff as Cliff was influenced by him; that together they created/refined reggae and took it international.
In a very real sense, they were two sides of the same coin, yin and yang, brothers of different mothers. Marley was born in St. Ann on February 6, 1945, Cliff in St. James on April 1, 1948. Both were mentored by Joe Higgs. Jimmy recorded his first hit, “Miss Jamaica,” for Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label and helped Bob record his Beverley’s debut “Judge Not.” In ’63 both men scored their first number one hits (“Simmer Down”; “Dearest Beverley,” respectively) for Kong. In ’69, Johnny Nash’s reggae-lite cover of Marley’s “Guava Jelly” was an international pop smash; ditto for Cliff’s own “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.”
In 1971, Cliff became the first reggae star to be signed to an exclusive contract with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records label; the following year, his lead role in The Harder They Come and performances on its soundtrack made him reggae’s first international superstar. In ’73, Cliff’s conversion to Islam and signing to Warner Brothers’ Reprise imprint alienated the folks at home. Deprived of his star act, Blackwell gave the Wailers (Marley, Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh) a shot.
Y’all know what happened next: Bob, Peter, Bunny and their dreadlocked Rastafari peers were the purveyors of “real” reggae music while Jimmy, whose steez was every bit as authentic and brilliant, was stigmatized as “soft.” To his credit, JC kept on keeping on. He toured Africa, Brazil and all points East, West, North and South, won a Grammy in 1985 for his Cliff Hanger album, founded an annual festival in Jamaica that has raised hundreds of thousands for the downpressed and has recorded over 20 albums, most of which are still in print. He’s the Energizer Bunny of reggae music.
Cliff’s new album Black Magic proves once again that he is an artist not to be slept on…ever. Produced by Dave Stewart, the 16-track disc features cooley-cool guest shots from the likes of Annie Lennox, Kool and the Gang, Sting, Wyclef Jean, Jools Holland, Joe Strummer and tennis legend Yannick Noah. (Caveat: Don’t bother comparing Black Magic to True Love, Toots Hibbert’s all-star session that surfaced earlier this year. The latter featured revamps of Maytals classics while 14 of Black Magic’s 16 tracks are first-time recorded Cliff originals.)
Album opener “I Want I Do I Get” is a tasty bit of electro-percolating dancehall that while no earthquaker, let’s you know that the artist is down with the young folks. “People” is a loping blend of country-rock swerve, dancehall groove and Sting’s choral smoove (“People let’s get together and show our power to the world”). “Jamaica Time” is a short but sweet “better-days-soon-come” message to the folk back home. “Dance” is a buoyant reggae-calypso set off by a flava-full Wyclef freestyle that flows nice-nice into “Plastic Fantastic People”’s uprocking electro reggae groove.
Halfway through “Love Comes”’s infectious convergence of Annie Lennox’s Eurythmics-tinged harmonies, Cliff’s honeyed melodies and Bounty Killer’s lusty riddim riding, you get it: just as he’s done with ska, rocksteady, R&B, pop, rock and soukous in past recordings. Via these Black Magic songs, Jimmy Cliff is remake/remodeling dancehall in his own image.
Beginning with a synth-crackling “Whoosh!” that seems to say, “Now that you got it, hang on!,” “Black Magic” steady rolls a Junkanoo-cum-R&B groove over/under a Cliff croon and an irresistible choral hook, (“She’s got it working night and day”). “The World Is You