Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Many Rivers To Cross. This is a powerful, heartbreaking soul song. We will start with the original by Jimmy Cliff, and then discuss covers of that song by Joe Cocker, and by Nilsson and John Lennon.
Jimmy Cliff and Many Rivers To Cross:
Jimmy Cliff is a Jamaican singer-songwriter, and also an actor. He was raised in St. James, Jamaica and began writing songs at quite an early age. He began a collaboration at age 14 with producer Leslie Kong. Kong secured a deal for Cliff with the major Jamaican record company, Island Records.
Here is a photo of Jimmy Cliff from about 1970.
Although Cliff had some commercial success with his early songs, his career really took off in 1972 when he starred in the reggae movie drama, The Harder They Come. That movie introduced people all over the world to reggae music, and is undoubtedly the best movie ever to feature reggae.
Cliff sang a number of songs in that movie, which was a showcase for Jamaican music.
The song Many Rivers to Cross was written by Cliff and included in his 1969 self-titled album. It is a heartwrenching song about a man who can’t seem to get a break. He has been deserted by his woman, and doesn’t know how to get to a better place.
As he describes it, “I merely survive because of my pride.”
Many rivers to cross
But I can’t seem to find my way over
Wandering I am lost as I travel along
The white cliffs of Dover
… And this loneliness won’t leave me alone
It’s such a drag to be on your own
My woman left and she didn’t say why
Well I guess I have to try.
Here is a live performance by Jimmy Cliff of this song.
Cliff has a really terrific tenor voice, which he uses to great effect here. The organ adds a funereal quality, and helps to make the song even more powerful. Anyone who is at a crossroads and can’t decide where to begin can relate to this song.
This is one of my favorite reggae tunes. I come back and listen to it whenever I am faced with a difficult decision. In addition to the versions we discuss here, this song has been covered by many artists, including Percy Sledge, Cher and Linda Ronstadt.
In the 2000 movie High Fidelity, John Cusack plays a record-store owner who is also a compulsive list-maker. When Cusack’s character makes a list of the top 10 songs to be played at his own funeral, Many Rivers to Cross is #1 on his list. And speaking of lists, this song was ranked #325 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Originally a Rastafarian, Cliff converted to Islam in the late 1970s. However, he now states that he is not aligned with any religion, but that “now I believe in science.” This physicist gives that remark a thumbs-up!
Jimmy Cliff has had a long and relatively successful career. Although all reggae musicians exist in the gigantic shadow of Bob Marley, Cliff is the only living musician who has been awarded the Order of Merit by the Jamaican government. And in 2010, Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Joe Cocker and Many Rivers To Cross:
We discussed Joe Cocker in our blog post on the Beatles’ song A Little Help From My Friends. So here we will give a brief review of Cocker’s life and his career.
Joe Cocker was a British blues musician. He is one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he produced relatively few original songs. Most of his best-known songs were covers of other tunes. However, he was a terrific bluesman whose best covers brought an entirely new take on a classic song.
In the late 1950s, Cocker was attracted to music by following the career of British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the artist who inspired not only the early Beatles, but an entire generation of British pop musicians.
Below is a photo of Joe Cocker performing on stage with the Grease Band, together with an extremely friendly fan. It is, of course, from the 60s.
Cocker then became interested in rock and blues. He had the good sense to pattern his vocal stylings after rockers like Chuck Berry, and in particular soul singers like Ray Charles. Ray Charles in fact inspired a pantheon of British blues singers, artists like Roger Waters, Stevie Winwood and Joe Cocker. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.
Cocker next worked his way through the British club circuit. Initially, he made little headway until he hooked up with Denny Cordell, the producer for British progressive-rock groups such as Procul Harum and the Moody Blues. With Cordell’s backing, Cocker was able to book larger venues and to work with more talented studio musicians.
After a couple of minor hits in the UK, Joe Cocker made it big time with his appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Cocker became an overnight sensation, particularly for his terrific cover of the Beatles’ song With a Little Help From My Friends. His career then took off like a rocket.
Once Joe Cocker gained fame through his exposure at the Woodstock Festival and in particular as one of the stars of the Woodstock concert movie, he continued to carve out an incredibly successful career as a blues vocalist.
Nearly all of his hits were covers of other songs. However, his versions always featured Cocker’s wonderful blues stylings, and his songs generally featured creative arrangements. Cocker also worked with some very talented producers and studio musicians.
Here is Joe Cocker in a live performance of Many Rivers to Cross, in Dortmund, Germany from 1992.
Here Joe Cocker gives a terrific blues adaptation of this moving soul song. I just love his respectful but creative take on Jimmy Cliff’s tune.
The lovely keyboards here are courtesy of Cocker’s longtime bandmate Chris Stainton, who played with Joe Cocker’s Grease Band back in the 60s. The two backup singers on this song also give a satisfying semblance of a gospel chorus. Finally, there is a lovely short saxophone solo right at the end, courtesy of Deric Dyer.
I guess everyone has a personal list of favorite musicians who have not yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In my own case, Joe Cocker and Dire Straits would be right at the top of the list. It’s hard for me to see why Joe Cocker was not inducted many years ago. Recently, rockers such as Billy Joel have been campaigning for Joe Cocker. My feeling is that by any rational assessment, he should be a member.
Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014. He is deeply missed.
Nilsson & John Lennon and Many Rivers To Cross:
Harry Nilsson, also known simply as Nilsson, was an American singer-songwriter who became famous in the late 1960s. He was one of those artists who on several occasions seemed poised to become a superstar, but never quite made it.
Nilsson had a beautiful tenor voice with a terrific range. As a young man he worked the night shift as a computer specialist at a bank, but during the day he wrote and performed songs.
He had a first break in 1966 when he signed a contract with RCA Records and released an album. That album caught the attention of both the Beatles and the Monkees.
Nilsson’s career then took off in the late 60s. He produced a cover of the Fred Neil song Everybody’s Talking. That song was featured in the smash 1969 motion picture Midnight Cowboy. As a result, Nilsson won a Grammy Award for the song, and the single made it to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 list.
Nilsson followed that up in 1971 with a cover of the Badfinger song Without You. This song featured absolutely lovely vocals by Nilsson. On the same album was the novelty song Coconut (“put de lime in de coconut, drink ‘em both up”), and the song One, which later became a bit hit for Three Dog Night.
At this point, it looked like Nilsson would become a major star, either as a singer or songwriter, but this never occurred. One thing that held him back was his reluctance to go on tour, and his decision to concentrate instead on studio work.
In 1973, John Lennon was temporarily separated from Yoko, and he moved to Los Angeles. There Lennon got together with Nilsson and planned a musical collaboration. Unfortunately, the Nilsson-Lennon relationship became known more for their alcohol and drug binges than for their music.
Below is a photo of Harry Nilsson and John Lennon being ejected from the Troubador Club in Los Angeles, after the drunken pair had been heckling a performance by the Smothers Brothers in March, 1974.
Despite their co-dependency issues, Lennon and Nilsson did manage to produce some music together. Here is the audio of one such collaborative effort, a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers to Cross. This was a cut from Nilsson’s 1974 album, Pussycats.
This is really a beautiful cover of this haunting song. The voices of Nilsson and Lennon blend together in a very pleasing way. The instrumentation is quite lovely, particularly a bright guitar solo in the middle.
In addition to some photos of Nilsson and John Lennon, plus pictures of some large bodies of water, the video here also features a photo montage of historic moments — including Martin Luther King; Rosa Parks; Nixon’s visit to China; Krushchev and Kennedy; Gandhi; Gorbachev and Reagan; Waco; and 9/11.
An interesting side note is that Ringo Starr is playing drums on this song, and Klaus Voormann is on bass.
Klaus Voormann is a fascinating character in 60s and 70s rock music. A German bass player, he was a member of Manfred Mann’s band during the mid-60s. Klaus was a good friend of several of the Beatles; in fact, he moved into the Beatles’ London flat with George Harrison and Ringo Starr, when John and Paul moved out to live with their partners.
Like John Lennon and so many other European rock musicians, Voormann had attended art college before going into music. Klaus produced the artwork for the Beatles’ epic album Revolver, and also in the 1990s he designed the artwork for the Beatles Anthology.
In the photo below are, from L: Klaus Voormann, Peter Green and Duster Bennett (?), in a London recording studio in June 1971 working on the album “B.B. King in London.”
When the Beatles broke up, there was some discussion that Voormann might join up with Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo in a new group, The Ladders. However, nothing became of this idea, although Voormann did sit in on various recording sessions with various former Beatles members, and performed for a while with the Plastic Ono Band.
We’ll finish with a few more remarks about Harry Nilsson. He was deeply affected by the assassination of John Lennon and spent a lot of time working with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
In 1990, Nilsson discovered to his dismay that his financial advisor Cindy Sims had embezzled all of his earnings. Although Sims served a couple of years in prison, she never made restitution, which left Nilsson in a deep financial hole. In January, 1994, Harry Nilsson died of heart failure.