Jimmy Cliff at the Grafton on Sunset Hotel in June. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
After one take of Jimmy Cliff's new song "Blessed Love," producer, fan and lifelong punk rocker Tim Armstrong offered a quick assessment: "I think we got it." Not entirely.
Armstrong, best known as the scratchy-voiced leader of Oakland punk outfit Rancid, looked to the reggae legend for his feeling. "Fine, fine, fine," said Cliff, rocking forward and holding his hands together as if in prayer. Armstrong suggested doing another take. Cliff, at first, seemed indecisive. Armstrong recognized that cue and nodded to his band to get ready for Take 2.
"I'm an introverted character," Cliff said about an hour later. "Tim has a nice little way of making me come out of my cocoon. At the same time, there's a part of my character that loves to be flexible. That's why I went into different genres of music instead of just singing reggae. If I go to Peru and hear a rhythm, I want to adopt it. Tim helps bring out that side."
In his role as producer, Armstrong has gone from idolizer to collaborator, one of a growing number of working artists to make new songs with one of his heroes. Among the recent examples: Wilco'sJeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples, the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and Mac ("Dr. John") Rebennack, and, perhaps most unexpected, Gorillaz architect Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack.
Armstrong's mission, like the others', is not to add a modern hipness to a veteran artist but to instead help a star rediscover why he or she fell in love with music in the first place.
Last November, Cliff was encamped in the Hollywood studio Sound Factory, working with a group of younger musicians he barely knew on what would become his first album since 2004, "Rebirth," due Tuesday. At 64, he is one of reggae's foremost ambassadors; once the young star of the 1972 Jamaican crime film "The Harder They Come," his rebellious streak and willingness to reinvent has made him a hero to punk rockers like Armstrong. The gospel backing vocals had yet to be added to "Blessed Love," but already present was Cliff's resolve. His is a sweet voice tinted with age, yet one almost stubbornly optimistic.
The results of these recent collaborations have proved to be vital, with each work, to use Cliff's word, "reenergizing" the artists in different ways. In the case of Dr. John, Auerbach on "Locked Down" had the artist experimenting with instruments he had hadn't touched on record in two decades. It also gave Dr. John the best chart debut of his career when it bowed at No. 33 in the U.S. in April. For Womack, a soul great who long ago worked with the likes of Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin, Albarn used electronics to put the emphasis on the cracks in the artist's ripened voice on "The Bravest Man in the Universe." The album bowed at No. 6 on Billboard's dance/electronic chart.
"When you have been making records as long as Mac, Jimmy, Mavis or Bobby has, it's easy to fall into a predictable approach," said David Bither, senior vice president at Nonesuch, the label home of the Black Keys and Dr. John. "But when you see your own music through people as talented as Jeff, Damon, Dan or Tim, you rediscover it. You're appreciating things you had forgotten about or taken for granted."
Sometimes what's been forgotten is a legacy.
"I was shocked," said Womack, 68, of the moment Albarn said he wanted to record an album with him. "I wasn't surprised. I was shocked. Why do these people want to hear me? I had just turned 68, so what is there for me to do? When I talk about Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley, unlike those kids I actually knew those people."
And yet, said Womack, "I've never gotten this kind of attention for any album I've ever recorded, and I've recorded 30 or 40 albums."
Back in the groove
That Womack is alive is something of a miracle. He survived prostate cancer, was operated on for colon cancer (the diagnosis proved to be negative), had trouble kicking pneumonia and this year lived on machines after he said his lungs shut down for 10 days.
Two days before talking to The Times, he said he was on stage for two hours in Houston, one hour longer than doctors had advised. Womack said he was still a little "dizzy" but brushed it off: "Everyone's got personal problems."
Womack's career resurrection began in 2010, when the 44-year-old Albarn wanted Womack to lend his vocals to his genre-shifting, electronics-heavy project Gorillaz. Womack was skeptical, thinking Albarn wanted to hear the raspy swing Womack brought to '70s classics like "That's the Way I Feel About Cha."
Recalled Womack: "I said, 'What if I come in a wheelchair? Will you be disappointed?' He said those were excuses. They weren't excuses. I just thought he was giving me a lot of credit for something I had done 35 years ago."