Ska legend Jimmy Cliff is in party mode. He may be 70 years-old, but the Jamaican reggae icon fizzes with an energy that belies his years. And he still burns with missionary zeal at the prospect of playing his music live.

The singer and multi-instrumentalist, best known for classic tunes Wonderful World, Beautiful People, Many Rivers to Cross, You Can Get It If You Really Want, The Harder They Come, Reggae Night, and his iconic cover of Cat Stevens’s Wild World, is once again on the road, and is heading to Oxfordshire’s smartest festival – Cornbury. And he intends to make an impact, treating the crowd to his unique brand of uplifting, life-affirming and deeply soulful music.

“I’m a spiritual warrior,” he laughs, speaking from his home in Florida.

“I’m not tired and I’m still in my prime. The one thing I never imagined myself doing is retiring.

“Lately I’ve been looking at it and thinking, why would I want to retire? I’m not tired and am still in my prime.

“I have got recognition and still sell out my shows. It’s all good.”

Jimmy has been making music his whole life – writing his first tunes when he was at primary school. He scored his first hit with Hurricane Hattie when he was just 14. The tune was produced by long-term collaborator Kong, with whom he worked until the producer’s death in 1971.

Jimmy gained a towering reputation as a ska artist at home in Jamaica and was snapped up by Island Records. It was his 1967 album Hard Road to Travel, containing the song Waterfall, however, that launched his career worldwide, followed by the classic Wonderful World, Beautiful People.

His profile was further boosted by his appearance in Perry Henzell’s 1972 reggae film The Harder They Come, in which he played Ivanhoe ‘Ivan’ Martin – a young man who arrives in Kingston to seek his fortune as a reggae star, before descending into a life of crime.

The soundtrack was a global smash, introducing reggae to an international audience.

Further recognition came with Bruce Springsteen covering his tune Trapped. His subsequent album Cliff Hanger won a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 1985.

His own cover of Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now, from the Cool Runnings soundtrack in 1993 and his single Hakuna Matata, recorded with Lebo M, on the soundtrack to The Lion King two years later spread awareness of his sublime voice.

His songs are played widely. You Can Get it If You Really Want has been adopted as a rallying call by everyone from Nicaragua’s communist Sandinista National Liberation Front to, bizarrely, Britain’s Conservative Party. His 1970 song Vietnam is widely hailed as a classic and was described, at the time, by Bob Dylan as the best protest song he had ever heard.

His achievements earned him an Order of Merit from the Jamaican government – making him one of only two living musicians, along with Bunny Wailer, to hold the honour.

Where does he get his inspiration?

The Oxford Times:

“Creativity comes from a global force,” he says wistfully. “I’ve always wanted to do this and feel the greatest songs have not been written, the greatest stories have not been told and the greatest movies have not been done.”

His Cornbury debut, over the weekend July 13-15, will see him sharing a bill with Alanis Morrissette, UB40, Squeeze, Caro Emerald, Mavis Staples and more. He says he can’t wait to return to our shores.

“Remember that a piece of me is still in the UK. I lived there for 15 years and after all that time it is still inside me.

“I love going to the UK and seeing things I remember and excited at going there to perform.”

And can we expect all the hits? “There will be fans who want to hear older songs and wondering if I’ve still got the energy. But also people will want to hear newer songs and that pumps me up!

“They’ll hear new songs and new stuff not put out yet.”

He laughs, and continues: “I know that fans want to hear the songs they know. I once did a festival and didn’t do The Harder They Come, and people said ‘what happened... don’t you do that any more?’ in a hurt tone of voice. So there’ll be a combination of things and a lot of energy. My band are just in their 20s so you are going to love it.”

As he looks back over his career so far, do any highlights stand out? “There are different things in my career which I’m proud of,” he says.

“I’ll never forget hanging out and my first hit in Jamaica but also my first hit in England. That was a proud moment in my life – and so was doing The Harder They Come.

“The film was pivotal. A few people in the film had had hits before, like Desmond Dekker, but it really showed the culture of where the music came from. People didn’t know that I’m responsible for taking back Jamaican music to its roots.”

Religion and spirituality have always been important to Jimmy. After a trip to Africa in the 70s he converted to Islam, taking the name El Hadj Naïm Bachir. He has also followed Christianity and the Rastafarian faith, though now adopts a more inclusive spirituality while extolling the importance of science.

“I went through all of the organised religions searching to find one that fits me, but I didn’t fit into any,” he says.

“We live in an age of technology and everybody can learn so much on the YouTube or whatever, and I like to just hang out and watch and observe. We are living in a technological age but don’t let it swallow you up

“ Use it but don’t let it use you. It can swallow you up like a whale!”

“But the warrior in me is still spiritual!”

He laughs again and adds: “I try to take it easy but still like art and drawing and enjoy performing and singing – and still have ideas!

“I wake up in the night and write down ideas which have come from experience, struggles or imagination.”

And does he have a favourite song? “I’m going to be clichéd,” he chuckles. “I always say writing songs is like a woman giving birth to a child. They mean something to you and you’ll always love them. But the ones that mean the most are the ones from the new album.

“I’m looking forward so much to performing for you all... it’s been aeons since I performed in every little corner, so plan to come down.

“I can’t wait to see you!”

  • Cornbury Music Festival takes place at Great Tew Park, near Chipping Norton, from July 13-15. cornburyfestival.com