Jimmy Cliff talks auditioning Bob Marley, teaching Tessanne to deejay
The story of reggae music is one that is best told by those who lived it, and for that reason, ska, rocksteady and reggae icon Jimmy Cliff will be writing the true story of the music. “So many of the books about reggae are written by foreigners. I...
The story of reggae music is one that is best told by those who lived it, and for that reason, ska, rocksteady and reggae icon Jimmy Cliff will be writing the true story of the music.
“So many of the books about reggae are written by foreigners. I am going to write the truth about the music, as well as the spiritual culture called Rastafari,” Cliff told The Gleaner.
A seminal figure in Jamaican music, Cliff, more than most, has the creds needed to make this a New York Times bestseller. Early in his career, he was affiliated with influential Chinese-Jamaican reggae producer Leslie Kong, for whose father’s ice cream shop, Beverley, the astute Cliff had dedicated a song titled Dearest Beverley. Cliff, guided by singer Derrick Morgan, subsequently recorded the song for Kong, and ended up working as a tester for the newly formed Beverley’s record label.
A tester, he explained, was the person who would audition an aspiring artiste, listen carefully to his songs and choose which ones – if any – the label would possibly be interested in releasing.
START OF MARLEY’S CAREER
“So, we were actually the A&R (artiste and repertoire), but in those days it wasn’t called that; we were simply testers. Derrick (Morgan) was the senior tester to me, but one day while I was alone, a young artiste came in with five songs. He sang all of them, and I listened to them and selected three. When Derrick returned, I made him listen, and he selected the same three. Leslie Kong listened and selected the same three, and that was the start of the career of one of Jamaica’s greatest artistes,” the Grammy winner recounted.
That singer was Bob Marley, and the songs chosen were Judge Not, One Cup of Coffee and Terror. Judge Not is, officially, Bob Marley’s first recorded single. It was recorded at Federal Studios and released on Kong’s Beverley’s Records label.
“I could say, ‘Yeah man, a me give Bob Marley him start.’ But I just happened to be in that position at that time. Right place at the right time, the universe works like that. We had previously auditioned another singer, Desmond Dekker, for Beverley’s, and he and Bob were working as welders at the same place, so he went and told him about it,” Cliff further explained.
According to Cliff, Bob Marley came into the music at the time of ska, which was very upbeat because of the time it was created. “Ska came along at Independence time, and people were ‘upfull’. But then, the music slowed down to rocksteady, because people started asking questions, ‘What are we rejoicing about?’ So rocksteady was the era of the rude boys with their ‘skeng’ and button-up shirt. The ‘skeng’ was our name for the ratchet knife. And then the music moved to reggae with the spirituality,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee shared.
Cliff has a treasure trove of stories, which are certainly not limited to any particular era of music. He shared that he was the first person who took ‘Voice’ winner Tessanne Chin overseas on tour. That proved to be quite an eye-opener for the young singer, who was eager to learn from a master of the craft.
“I was the first person to take her abroad, and I said to her, ‘If yuh going to be on the road with me, yuh haffi deejay.’ Well, she started deejaying, and she is great. Tessanne can deejay!” he said, sounding like a proud dad.
Cliff, who recently released his latest single, Human Touch, is also working on a new album.