The fact that teenaged Jimmy Cliff introduced teenaged Bob Marley to legendary Chinese-Jamaican producer Leslie Kong in 1961—hence, helping Marley get his first record made—should be reason enough to put Cliff in the reference books as an Important Contributor to Reggae Music.
But Cliff deserves to be there on his own merits as well, even though some critics unfairly consider him reggae’s ultimate also-ran. But fact of the matter is, Cliff was a huge star—and huge in places like South America—long before Marley. And his star-making turn in the 1972 cult classic film The Harder They Come, was instrumental in introducing reggae to much of the Western world. And the ultimate proof of his talent lives in the basic fact that songs he wrote and sang on the soundtrack album—“Sitting in Limbo” and “Many Rivers to Cross”, for example—sound as potent and compelling today as they did 30 years ago.
But much like the outlaw Ivan that he portrayed in The Harder They Come, Cliff, now 54, has always gone his own way. He turned away from Rastafarianism in 1973, becoming a Muslim. He split from Island Records that same year, a move that was close to career suicide as he was denounced in his homeland for abandoning his religious and cultural roots.
But he managed to bounce back and hang on despite the fact that 1988’s acclaimed Hanging Fire ended up being his last original studio album of new material for a major U.S. label. Oddly enough, Cliff’s 1993 cover of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, for the movie Cool Runnings provided one of the biggest hits of his career, despite the fact that it was recorded when Cliff’s career had all but stalled out. And The Harder They Come remains one of the best reggae albums ever, bar none.
So, why has Cliff—as reggae’s true elder statesman—been denied the same sort of adulation as Marley? Well, for one thing, he’s alive; for another, his output of recent years makes it clear that Cliff’s creative peak did, indeed, come early in his career.
Still, that’s not to say that Cliff hasn’t has a strong and varied career, as evidenced on his latest best-of collection, We Are All One. The album, released by Columbia’s Legacy label, offers a solid mix of old and new—the new stuff, which seems to dominate, is from (not too surprisingly) his four Columbia Records albums recorded between 1982 and 1988.
While We Are All One, then, is pretty much the best of Cliff’s Columbia years, the label makes no effort to downplay that fact in its promotional materials, instead noting that nearly a dozen of the 15 tracks on the album represent the singer’s “half-decade association” with the label.
Unfortunately, much of his output during that time was slick and over-produced; more pop than true reggae. While “Peace Officer” and “Treat the Youths Right” (both from 1972’s Special) are solid offerings, “Reggae Night”—recorded with Kool & the Gang in 1983—is a sorry foray into the dance market.
Still, We Are All One shows Cliff to be a true musical seeker, unwilling to settle for one style, as he veers between ballads (“Many Rivers to Cross”) to reggae-pop (“Hanging Fire”). Cliff purists might complain that there’s not enough focus on his early material, but to this listener, this is a fine collection that will appeal to both Cliff fans and those interested in exploring his long and varied career.