Photo : (Left) Jimmy Cliff (David Redfern / Getty Images), (Right) Sam Cooke
Cover and Carousel Photo : Jimmy Cliff (Festival Rolling Saone)
Written by : DJ Bo
I get accused a lot of romanticizing older things, which I push back against. There’s a lot of crap from the past, or just simply things of a certain vintage that I don’t connect with. Sam Cooke is one of those cats. His stuff with the Soul Stirrers I get, and he’s got some fun singles, but his gospel-infused spiritual soul crown, to me, is worn by another.
One thing I like about the past, however, is finding the hidden gems. It’s sonic archeology, uncovering and presenting things that might not be just covered by dirt, but grow from it like a flower. Shit, there’s a reason they call rummaging in record shops “digging.”
And really, although sometimes we stumble-bumble onto King Tut’s tomb, it’s really the same as anything: the directions to the pyramids is the same as to Carnegie Hall (“practice, practice, practice”).
And so we have the GOING THROUGH PAGES Rock N Roll Book Club which I run over here in Shanghai, China. We read, meet, and discuss rock ’n’ roll books. It’s a social group, yes, but also just a support group for sound shovelers. We’re 30 meetings in, and the 31st is in two Tuesdays, on August 31st.
So I began prep for the next book, “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How The Swampers Changed American Music” by Carla Jean Whitley, about the recording studio in rural Alabama that birthed classics from the Rolling Stones and others. Your brain might not know “Muscle Shoals” but your tapping toes know their distinct bass drum. These are the funky chubby boys Lynyrd Skynyrd warned you about.
In the book there's like one and half flippant lines about one of the great voices in music. That made me stop and bust out the chisel. Cause one of the voices of my personal temple of boom called from way down: Jimmy Cliff.
Jimmy Cliff is where I get the Sam Cooke-vibes from. Most known for starring and soundtracking the Jamaican cult-classic flick “The Harder They Come,” his voice has the sweet, lonely gospel cry that touches me. He’s the one that when he wails “Many Rivers to Cross,” he brings the salt-water in the? Jordan from The Bible to the headphones.
While “The Harder They Come” is sometimes labeled as a biography of Cliff, his journey took a different path. He didn’t fester in the Kingston slums to find success, he was quickly recognized and jettisoned right out. Before “The Harder They Come,” he was sent to England to record a northern-soul type-tune “Waterfall.”
The other side of that 45 single is “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” which is not to be confused by “Wonderful World” by…Sam Cooke. “Wonderful World” Is a cute little ditty. I like it; it’s fine. “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” is something else. The opening lyrics, written by Cliff, are
“Wonderful world, beautiful people
You and your girl, things could be pretty
But underneath this there is a secret
That nobody can reveal”
It doesn’t bother with niceties like rhyming and strict meter. This is Book of Revelation Babylon type-shit: those city lights might be bright, but they illuminate only darkness.*
So while Cooke’s “Wonderful World” was a hit, and is even today an anthem for anyone who failed certain school subjects, Cliff was still a critically acclaimed prospect. Bob Dylan was a fan, but not Bob down the street.
And so around 1971, Jamaica-born Cliff found himself in rural Alabama, a long way from the cocktails in London or the rum bars in Kingston. After all, Sheffield is in a dry county, amongst its other blue laws. Probably designed to keep someone like Cliff out as much as anyone. But here he was in Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
His mission was to record an album, and one that ironically was not destined for it’s launching pad. The album that would be recorded, “Another Cycle,” never got a full release in the USA, with copies only released in the UK, Europe, and Jamaica.
His accompaniment was the previously mentioned Muscle Shoals swampers, the same core guys that backed Aretha Franklin up on “Respect” and who when Paul Simon went looking for the funky black guys, was told they were there, but were a lot more pale than Simon might have expected.**
Cliff put out the album in it’s limited release, and it did absolute squat. It became hardly a footnote to the guy known for “Harder They Come.”
But now in 2021, powered by my digging gene, responsibility for my book club, my love of Cliff’s voice, (and the same depression pushing me to write this at 5:51 am on August 20, 2021), I wanted to hear this shit.
And no, it’s not on YouTube (or Spotify, or QQ in China). Nor is it available on that evil thieves crutch of torrent websites. Some vinyl copies are found second-hand on resellers sites, but since the book club is coming up, I didn’t want to wait for that.
More digging revealed the songs are part of a disc of a digital release of a Jimmy Cliff boxset on Amazon.com. The tracks from “Another Cycle” are on there, even though it's not labelled specifically as being from that album. It’s got 4 ratings and most of those from 10 years plus. See for yourself.
So I bought the album, a surprisingly rare find for an artist who is a Rock N Roll Hall of Famer and one of the top music legends of his home country.
And…it’s a revelation, a book of them. We got a singer rooted in reggae backed by a country-soul unit, and it pours like fine wine. It moves from the deeply spiritual “Another Cycle” to “Oh, How I Miss You” with the one song from the album that did live on, “Sitting in Limbo” right in-between.
The songs stretch out like nothing else in his catalogue, with two over 6 minutes, allowing the vibrations to sink in deep.
I’ve only begun listening to this album, but I can tell we’re going to have a long relationship.
These are the things that make it worth it. Under the shadow of Sam Cooke and Cliff’s other successes, and just crusty time. This piece had been hiding in the shade of history, just waiting to be discovered. From likely a few weeks in Alabama in the early 70s, to a few sentences in a book, to my ears here in Shanghai, to your eyes now, this work by Jimmy Cliff lives on for “Another Cycle.”
*Know who got this? Devo. Check out their tune titled the oh so similarly themed “Beautiful World.”
**Hip Hop sidebar: Simon went down to record “Take Me to the Mardi Gras.” That song was covered by Bob James…and you KNOW that one. It’s an essential hip hop breakbeat and was sampled in everything from “Straight Out of Compton” by NWA and numerous tunes by Nas, 50 Cent, etc.
DJ BO is a DJ, event producer, media dude, and peripatetic from the USA and based in Shanghai, China. You can find him here:
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