Jimmy Cliff, of all people, hadn't made a pure reggae album in decades. There had always been some reason. Early on, he mixed the music of his home country, Jamaica, with American pop and soul. Later, he lived in Brazil and Africa and drifted to the sounds of his adopted countries. In the '80s, he collaborated with funk stars Kool and the Gang. So when Tim Armstrong, tattooed frontman for punk-rock band Rancid, coaxed Cliff into the studio to return to his roots, the first thing Cliff noticed was how much he'd forgotten.
"We were planning to look back," says Cliff, 64, by phone from a tour stop near Connecticut, "but when I arrived, it was really satisfying, and I felt, 'I have to tap into this again.'"
What Armstrong and Cliff came up with, late last year, was "Sacred Fire," an EP with roots-reggae versions of The Clash's "Guns of Brixton," Rancid's "Ruby Soho," Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" and Cliff's "Ship Is Sailing." It's the first glimpse of Cliff's new direction with producer Armstrong — they're planning a full album, "Rebirth," in mid-July. "He made me reflect and remember the values of those things that we did then. He opened that for me and allowed me to look into that again," Cliff says. "There's a tendency to move on and create something new."
Born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, Cliff set out to be a pop star. A more experienced ska singer, Derrick Morgan, discovered Cliff and hooked him up with Leslie Kong, a Jamaican producer who helped him make early hits such as "King of Kings" and "Pride and Passion." It was Kong who produced the magnificent, all-reggae soundtrack for "The Harder They Come," a 1972 Jamaican masterpiece starring Cliff as Ivan Martin.
The soundtrack — containing Cliff classics such as "You Can Get It If You Really Want," "Many Rivers to Cross" and the title track, as well as equally great tracks by Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and the Melodions — instantly elevated reggae from Jamaican delicacy into global pop phenomenon. "It changed my life dramatically," Cliff recalls. "Because I'm the kind of person who likes to hang out and observe what's going on in the streets, or in certain places. I used to do that a lot. But having to become an international superstar, I can't do that comfortably! But it's all positive, you know."
By the time "The Harder They Come" came out, Cliff had actually begun shifting away from pure Jamaican music into a more international, rock-sounding direction. Part of this was because he was recording for Island Records, the independent label run by British reggae aficionado Chris Blackwell; Blackwell would eventually back Bob Marley and the Wailers, but during his time with Cliff he believed reggae-plus-pop was a hit formula. During this phase, Cliff put out perhaps his best solo album, 1969's "Wonderful World, Beautiful People." Although Cliff's voice and aesthetic immediately identified him as Jamaican and always showed his roots, he would only sporadically delve into reggae. Some of his best-known hits include a protest song, 1969's "Vietnam," and a cover of Johnny Nash's smash "I Can See Clearly Now," for 1993's "Cool Runnings" film.
Unlike his contemporary, the late Marley, who came to personify reggae internationally, Cliff has often reached beyond Jamaican music in his career, collaborating with a range of international stars, from Arabic rai singer-songwriter Khaled to the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart to Kool and the Gang. "He's never seen a need to pigeonhole himself, to say, even, 'I'm a reggae artist.' By 1966, he'd already recorded a soul album — 'Hard Road.' There's not a reggae song on that album," says David Katz, author of "Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography." "People who've written about the music can be dismissive of Jimmy Cliff because he had some pop hits. And that does him an extreme disservice."
For Cliff, the shifts back and forth between genres are just a part of a life of exploration. He has lived in several countries, for example, after relocating from Jamaica to England in the late '60s. And after growing up in a Pentecostal church, he has dabbled in various kinds of Christianity and the Nation of Islam, in addition to the Rastafarianism of his home country. "It's like going through classrooms," Cliff says. "Each classroom you go through, you take something from it until you graduate — that's how it works."
Cliff's wanderlust has been a defining characteristic for as long as he can remember. "It was one of my dreams as a child, growing up in my little village with my cousins," he says. "We used to walk together, and I used to say, when you look at the world map, 'This town is there, that town is there, that river is there.' I used to say, 'One day, I'm going to travel these places.' Doing it now is a dream come true, and very, very exciting."
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Ravinia, Lake-Cook and Green Bay roads, Highland Park
Tickets: $22-$60; 847-266-5000