At the time of their first meeting in early 1970 Jimmy Cliff knew nothing about Perry Henzell, an advertising executive eager to shed his corporate image and make a movie. He saw Jimmy Cliff, then a star in Jamaica and Europe, as the star of his maiden film.
In an interview with the Jamaica Observer in December, Jimmy Cliff recalls that meeting taking place at Dynamic Records in Kingston. He was there recording two songs — You Can Get it if You Really Want and Let Your Yeah be Yeah — both for Island Records.
“After the session finish I saw this bearded white man and he said, 'I'm making a movie. Do you think you can write some songs for it?' I sey, 'How yuh mean if mi think?! Mi can do anything!'” the artist recalled.
Later that year Henzell visited Jimmy Cliff in England and presented him with a script for his movie which became The Harder They Come. Premiering in Kingston at the Carib in June 1972, the groundbreaking flick with the song writer starring as Ivan, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
No golden anniversary plans have been announced, but Henzell's family said events are in the works. Perry Henzell died in 2006.
Though he had no serious acting credits, Jimmy Cliff was excited at the prospect of being cast in a movie. He had been a music star since the early 1960s, recording a series of hit songs for producer Leslie Kong including Hurricane Hattie, Dearest Beverley and Miss Jamaica.
Wonderful World, Beautiful People, another Kong production, was a big hit in the United Kingdom in 1969 and made Jimmy Cliff a rising star in Europe.
He said Henzell won him over with a pinpoint observation.
“He said, 'Yuh know, I think you're a better actor than singer.' Mi sey to myself, 'him rude!' but him right 'cause a acting mi used to do inna school. Nuh play neva miss mi,” said Jimmy Cliff.
The diminutive artiste empathised with Ivan, a naïve country boy who came to the big city looking to make it big in a corrupt music business.
As a youth from Somerton, St James, Jimmy Cliff encountered similar obstacles after arriving in Kingston. It was Kong's steady hand that brought him national prominence.
Henzell based Ivan on Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, a notorious gunman from Linstead who terrorised central and west Kingston in the late 1940s.
The Harder They Come made Jimmy Cliff an international celebrity. It was a sensation wherever it was released in Europe and the United States in 1973. Cliff wrote only one song for the just-as-gritty soundtrack, the title.
Jimmy Cliff has no plans to celebrate his signature role. He is currently recording songs for a new album.