Reggae Turns 40 (In America, At Least)
Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" popularized reggae in America 40 years ago this month.
“The Song That Put Reggae on The Map” (WSJ) features a long interview with Jimmy Cliff and his band about the 40th anniversary of raggae’s coming to America. What interested me, though, was the intro:
When the movie “The Harder They Come” opened in New York 40 years ago this month, its impact wasn’t immediately felt in the U.S. The theme song and soundtrack, however, were a different story. The album featured a compilation of singles by reggae artists as well as a catchy title song by the movie’s star—singer Jimmy Cliff. The song was quick to popularize the new Jamaican music style, giving Mr. Cliff international visibility. The film, meanwhile, became an art-house hit in college towns and big cities, exposing a generation of Americans to reggae.
A handful of U.S. hits had already featured Jamaican beats—among them Millie Small’s cover of “My Boy Lollipop” (1964), Desmond Dekker’s “The Israelites,” the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (1968) and Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” (1972). But the springy rhythms of “The Harder They Come” opened the door for a new wave that influenced rock, soul and punk, from Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” to the Police’s “Roxanne.”
I was 7 at the time and my parents were country music fans, so I didn’t experience any of this contemporaneously. I first became consciously aware of the reggae form with Blondie’s “The Tide is High” cover in 1980 and retrospectively came to understand that “I Shot the Sheriff” was a reggae song. Indeed, when I saw the WSJ’s Twitter teaser for the article, “The 40-year-old song that put reggae on the map,” I naturally assumed Eric Clapton’s version of Bob Marley’s classic was the song. I was of course aware of Jimmy Cliff, although much later, but didn’t realize his role in popularizing the medium.
Additionally–and what prompted me to post to begin with–is that I would never have pegged ”Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or “Mother and Child Reunion,” the only of the pre-“The Harder they Come” songs mentioned that I’m familar with–as reggae inspired. I can see it now that it’s been pointed out to me, but it would never have occurred to me on my own.
At any rate, here’s Cliff’s classic: