Hello there! This week our blog features a reggae tune from the early 70s called Sitting In Limbo. We will first discuss the original version by Jimmy Cliff. Next, then we will review a cover by The Jerry Garcia Band and finally one by The Neville Brothers.
Jimmy Cliff and Sitting in Limbo:
In my opinion, the three greatest reggae singers are the incomparable Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert, lead singer for Toots and the Maytals. Each of them played a role in transforming reggae music from a provincial Jamaican style to a world-wide phenomenon.
Jimmy Cliff is a Jamaican singer-songwriter, and also an actor. He was born in St. James, Jamaica in 1948; and he began writing songs at a precociously 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.Embed from Getty Images
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. Cliff sang a number of songs in that movie.
The Harder They Come is undoubtedly the best movie ever to feature reggae (OK, there is not a tremendous amount of competition for this honor). The film introduced people all over the world to this musical genre.
The song Sitting In Limbo appeared on a 1971 album, Another Cycle. The song was co-written by Cliff and his producer Guilly Bright, and the album was recorded at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
Although Sitting In Limbo was a cut on that album, to the best of my knowledge it was never released as a single. The tune describes someone who is biding his time while waiting for a breakthrough.
Sitting here in limbo
But I know it won’t be long
Sitting here in limbo
Like a bird without a song
[CHORUS] Well, they’re
Putting up resistance
But I know that my faith
Will lead me on
Sitting here in limbo
Waiting for the dice to roll
Sitting here in limbo
Got some time to search my soul
I don’t know where life will lead me
But I know where I’ve been
I can’t say what life will show me
But I know what I’ve seen
So here is Jimmy Cliff in a live performance of Sitting In Limbo.
Sitting In Limbo is not as well known as many of the songs that we feature in our blog. However, I really enjoy this sweet and gentle tune; and it has now been covered by about 35 different artists. Cliff has a terrific tenor voice, which he uses to great effect here.
The song Sitting In Limbo received some attention when it was included in the soundtrack of the 2013 zombie apocalypse movie Warm Bodies. Below is the poster for that film.
In the movie this tune takes on a new meaning, as the film describes packs of zombies who hang around in abandoned airports. There they wait to see if they will continue to feed on the living, or whether they can eventually transform back into human form.
Jimmy Cliff has had a long and relatively successful career. Although all reggae musicians are eclipsed by the gigantic shadow of Bob Marley, Cliff is the only living musician who has been awarded the Order of Merit by the Jamaican government.
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!
In 2010, Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We salute him and his long, successful career.
Jerry Garcia Band and Sitting in Limbo:
Jerry Garcia was one of the more important rock musicians of the 20th century. He was born in 1942 in San Francisco, and developed a serious interest in music at an early age. His father had been a musician and his mother was accomplished on piano.
Jerry began playing bluegrass and folk banjo. He formed bands with various colleagues, and in 1965 was a founder of the Grateful Dead. Jerry was the lead guitarist for the band, which continued for the next three decades as one of the best-known psychedelic-rock bands.
Jerry was known for his eclectic technique; his guitar playing displayed elements of folk music, jazz, blues, country & western, and rock ‘n roll. Furthermore, Garcia relied heavily on improvisation. He was reputed to never play a guitar solo the same way twice.
The Grateful Dead visualized themselves as a musical collective, and all of their members had input into their songs. However, most outsiders saw Garcia as the leader of the Dead.
The Grateful Dead spent much of their time touring. They would perform an incredible number of concerts each year. So it is rather amazing that Jerry Garcia found time to devote to a number of side projects.
Probably Garcia’s most important project was the Jerry Garcia Band. That band’s membership changed nearly every year; however, one long-standing member was bassist John Kahn. Apparently Kahn had significant input into the choice of songs for the Jerry Garcia Band. Below is a photo of the Jerry Garcia Band from 1983.
Like the Grateful Dead, the Jerry Garcia Band had exceptionally diverse musical interests. The group specialized in R&B music, but included strains of reggae, gospel music and American folk tunes.
Among the Jerry Garcia Band staples were several reggae songs: some from Bob Marley; a few from Peter Tosh; and also some Jimmy Cliff songs. Here is the Jerry Garcia Band in a live cover of Cliff’s Sitting In Limbo.
This is from a concert in March 1980. I really enjoy it because it represents an excellent example of Jerry Garcia’s improvisational style. Jerry throws in a 6-minute solo that wanders around in a delightful manner. Following Garcia’s guitar solo, keyboardist Ozzie Albers also contributes a long solo. Again, Albers’ solo negotiates several twists and turns before building to a satisfying conclusion.
It is great to see Jerry and his mates using Jimmy Cliff’s reggae tune as a jumping-off point to embark on a long jam session, showing off Jerry’s ability to improvise on the fly.
The Grateful Dead were a unique group in many ways. In their early years they traveled around with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, where they gave free concerts and passed out drugs to their audiences.
Over the years, the band’s intensely loyal “Deadheads” fans would frequently follow them on tour. Since every concert playlist was different, their fans could compare different performances. The Grateful Dead trademarked a number of stickers, T-shirts and other paraphernalia. They sold a slew of tickets, and millions of records.
The counter-culture ensemble made a fortune off their brand. At many concerts, you could be hassled for trying to take a video of the band. However, the Dead would allow fans to plug their gear into the soundboard, so there are a plethora of videos and CDs of the Dead in concert.
Decades of drug abuse eventually took their toll on Jerry. He suffered from diabetes and once lapsed into a 5-day diabetic coma. This was exacerbated by the nearly non-stop touring of the Dead. As a result, Jerry’s health declined significantly in the early 90s. Occasionally, he had to be reminded what tune the band was playing, and at least once appeared to fall asleep during a concert.
The Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. However, Jerry did not attend the induction ceremony.
Around 1994, Garcia resumed his heroin habit in an effort to deal with the pain he was experiencing. In the summer of 1995 he entered into rehab. However, on August 9, 1995 Jerry Garcia was found dead in his room at a rehab clinic. He was 53 years old, and had heroin in his system.
Jerry Garcia was a titanic figure in rock ‘n roll. He is the most widely-recorded guitarist in history, with over 2,200 Grateful Dead concerts on tape, plus another 1,000 Jerry Garcia Band concerts.
It is now almost 25 years since Jerry passed away. Several members of the Grateful Dead have now re-united as “Dead & Co,” with guitarist John Mayer filling in on lead guitar. John Mayer is immensely talented, but we still miss Jerry.
The Neville Brothers and Sitting in Limbo:
The Neville Brothers (Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril) hailed from New Orleans. Unlike many bands with “brothers” in their name, the Neville Brothers were actually family, their heritage a mixture of Native American, Caucasian and African-American.
In 1976 they formed a group in order to participate in a recording session organized by the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a group that was led by their uncle George Landry, known professionally as Big Chief Jolly. Below is a photo of the Neville Brothers.
In 1988, the brothers released a song called Healing Chant from the album Yellow Moon. Healing Chant won a 1989 Grammy Award for best pop instrumental performance.
The Neville Brothers had a devoted following in NOLA. Not only did they live in the city (except for Charles who was a Massachusetts resident), they would often perform in their home town. For many years, The Neville Brothers were the closing act in the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
However, following the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, Cyril and Aaron moved out of NOLA. For a few years they no longer performed there, until they returned to the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2008.
The brothers would assemble as a group for various concerts, but they also carried on with individual projects. Art Neville formed a funk band called The Meters, and was eventually joined by his brother Cyril on percussion. And Aaron Neville had a highly successful solo career.
Aaron first had a big hit in 1967 with the song Tell It Like It Is. He had a couple of big hits in duets with Linda Ronstadt in the late 1980s. Then in the early 1990s, Aaron issued a couple of country albums. He won a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, becoming one of the few African-American musicians to win a country Grammy.
Here are the Neville Brothers in a live performance of Sitting In Limbo.
This performance took place in October 1991 at New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium. It features Art Neville on keyboards and lead vocals.
This is a great soulful R&B version of Jimmy Cliff’s reggae tune. It is no wonder that the Neville Brothers had such a faithful following in New Orleans, as they are a tight and talented ensemble.
This video also serves as a shout-out to Art Neville, who passed away on July 22, 2019. He was preceded in death by his brother Charles Neville, who died of pancreatic cancer in April 2018.
The Neville Brothers were extremely talented and versatile musicians. They made individual contributions to a number of different genres including funk, R&B and soul music. When they came together as a group, they were symbols of the musical heritage of New Orleans.
We salute the surviving Neville Brothers, and wish them all success.