With 'The Harder They Come,' Jimmy Cliff Brought Reggae To America

By | August 20, 2019

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Left: Jimmy Cliff as Ivan in 'The Harder They Come.' Right: The poster and soundtrack art for the film. Sources: IMDB; Amazon.com

In 1973, reggae music came to America thanks to... Jimmy Cliff? Bob Marley fans might beg to differ, but The Harder They Come, a surprise hit movie starring Cliff, featured an immortal soundtrack that got the jump on Marley's landmark Catch a Fire by several months. With songs from Cliff, The Melodians, Desmond Dekker, The Maytals and other established Jamaican stars, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come was a one-LP primer on the music Americans had yet to discover -- but would soon come to love.

"The film was the springboard for reggae internationally," Cliff told The Telegraph. "It was the visual to go with the audio, to say here’s a new culture that you’re not used to. People had heard a few songs, but they were novelties. Having seen the film, they could think, 'That’s what it’s all about.'"

Without The Harder They Come, and the soundtrack that featured songs like "Many Rivers To Cross," "Rivers Of Babylon," and "007 (Shanty Town)," Jamaican music might not have become the international phenomenon we know today. 

The Soundtrack Is Packed With Classics

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A Still From "The Harder They Come" (tiff.net)

Almost every song on The Harder They Come's soundtrack is now considered a classic -- and several of them were already in that category before the movie started filming in 1972. Perry Henzell, the film's director, selected hit singles from as far back as 1967, and in fact, just one of the tracks -- "The Harder They Come" itself -- was written and recorded for the film. 

Jimmy Cliff's other three contributions are "Sitting In Limbo," "You Can Get It If You Really Want," and "Many Rivers To Cross," which has been recorded by dozens of artists over the years, though Cliff's version remains the definitive one.

The Melodians' "Rivers Of Babylon," based on a Biblical psalm, has become something of a modern Christian standard, and a cover version by Boney M is among the best-selling singles of all time in the UK. 

"Pressure Drop," by The Maytals, was covered by The Clash, Robert Palmer, and Keith Richards. 

Two other tracks are notable not just as good songs, but for capturing the street-tough "rude boy" culture that is part of the film: "007 (Shanty Town)" by Desmond Dekker and "Johnny Too Bad" by The Slickers. "Johnny Too Bad" and "Many Rivers To Cross" were later recorded by UB40 for the Labour of Love album.