Cliff Richard’s ‘Fabulous Rock ‘n’ Roll Songbook’ honors rock’s roots

By Ken Sharp

International music legend Sir Cliff Richard has earned the right to kick back and enjoy the spoils of a prosperous five-decade-plus music career. He’s tallied sales of a jaw-dropping 250 million worldwide. In his homeland of England, Cliff Richard and The Shadows served as a link between U.S. rabble-rousers like Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran and the future British Invasion sensations known as The Beatles.

Decades of hit music-making established Richard as a musical institution worldwide, except, perhaps, in America. He’s navigated a trickier path in the U.S., carving out eight Top 40 hits, including the Top 10 smashes “Devil Woman,” “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” “Dreamin’” and “Suddenly,” a duet with OIivia Newton-John for the “Xanadu” movie soundtrack.

Cliff Richard photo by Michelle KlobouncikRichard has shown no signs of slowing down. His covers CD “The Fabulous Rock ’N’ Roll Songbook” pays affectionate tribute to his rock and roll roots with joyous interpretations of signature classics originally rendered by Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and others. He recently announced a series of U.K. dates for his 75th birthday tour in fall 2015 (www.cliffrichard.org).

GOLDMINE: What inspired you to put together your CD, “The Fabulous Rock ’N’ Roll Songbook?”
CLIFF RICHARD: Since the advent of technology and the Internet, our industry has changed drastically. It’s much harder to sell records. People don’t buy records; they download single tracks. So therefore, working with my various record companies over the years, they’ve said, “Because we can’t guarantee any airplay at all, we need to do projects.”

So I did a project of love songs. I did an album of duets where I sang with Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Olivia Newton-John and Van Morrison, a whole bunch of people, and that worked really well. I then did a jazz album and that worked well, too. This time, I thought about the stuff I loved best, and that’s rock and roll. I thought I needed to coin a title, and I came up with one to compete with the Great American Songbook; I decided to call my album “The Fabulous Rock ’N’ Roll Songbook” (laughs).And, of course, every single song on the album are songs that I bought as a teenager. Elvis and the others started two or three years before I did; I was still at school when they first became successful. I was 14,  and I left school when I was 16-1/2 years old. So I still have those singles that I bought on my jukebox. I don’t like calling the songs on my album covers, because usually covers are songs that are hits while the original hit is still in living memory. Mine is really a revival of these songs.

Originally my first record was to be a cover of a song by Bobby Helms that was a hit in the States called “Schoolboy Crush.” My record would have been out within a year of his, so I’d call that a cover. I’m hoping I can revive the interest in the originals of the art form. Everything that led up to today came from that era.

Cliff RIchard Fabulous Rock 'n' Roll SongbookGM: The CD features your interpretations of songs by the likes of Elvis and the Everly Brothers to Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Did you ever get a chance to see any of these icons perform in their heyday?
CR: I saw the Everly Brothers live, and I saw Ricky Nelson when he came over much later in my career. I saw Buddy Holly on television, and I met with Eddie Cochran when he was touring here. Eddie Cochran is one of those people who I’ve got saved up for Volume 2.

GM: What were the circumstances behind your meeting with Eddie Cochran?
CR: He was touring the country at the time. We had a newspaper called the New Musical Express, and it was our big rock and roll newspaper. They had an awards show, and I won their Best Male Vocalist of England. All the winners took part in a show every year and did a concert. I don’t know what Eddie had won, but he was there, and I met him then. He was very James Dean-ish — very cool and laid back (laughs). I loved his music; I loved “Twenty Flight Rock” and “Sittin’ in the Balcony.”

GM: Your interpretation of Elvis’ “Too Much” and “Teddy Bear” is fabulous.
CR: I’m glad you like Elvis, because he is my inspiration. I firmly believe had there been no Elvis, there would be no Cliff Richard. I don’t think there would even be a Beatles. We all cut our teeth on him. He’s the one who gave this new art form a look, a shape and an attitude. Rock and roll would still have been around if there was no Elvis, but it wouldn’t have had the same shape.

GM: Being a huge fan of Elvis, didn’t you travel to Germany while he was stationed there in the U.S. Army to try and meet him?
CR: I knew he was there. I’d been on holiday in Italy, and we decided that we would drive back and take the circuitous route to Germany. We knew it was the house he was staying at because it had “I Love Elvis!” written all over the front yard and everywhere (laughs). My friends all said to me, “Now, you go up and knock on the door,” and I said, “No, no, I don’t know if I want to do that.” Anyway, I went up and knocked on the door, and somebody in a uniform answered it. I said, “I’m a singer from England and I’m such a fan of Elvis, I would love to say hello.” And he said, “Oh, he’s not here.” I think they told me he was in Paris. So I was so close.

The other time I nearly met him remains a big regret of mine. I was promoting a single called “Devil Woman” in 1977 and I met with a journalist who said, “I hear you’re a big fan of Elvis. Well, I’m a friend of his, and he’s in Vegas. If you’d let my paper take the exclusive pictures, I could introduce you to him.” I said, “Let’s do it,” and then at the end of the interview I thought Elvis was going through a period where he had put on a massive amount of weight. Now, this is where I really was stupid. I said, “I know whenever he makes a movie he goes on a fantastic diet and comes out looking great.”

What I was thinking about was that I wanted to have a picture taken of me standing next to my hero looking the way he looked when he was my hero. Now, of course, Elvis died that same year, and I missed my opportunity. I always say to fans of mine, “If ever you have an opportunity to have your picture taken with somebody you really like, just do it.” I regret now not having met Elvis or having a photograph taken of us together to put on my rogue’s gallery. It was really stupid of me, I have to admit.

GM: The Shadows are a pivotal force in early British rock, pre-Beatles. Looking back, what was the mark the group made?
CR: Initially, I always wanted to be in a band, so I created a band called The Drifters. I was the singer of The Drifters. When I got offered my first record deal, the label wanted to title it Cliff Richard and The Drifters, and I said, “OK, fine.” Then I got an offer to do a tour, and my band from my school days was just not good enough, so I knew I had to find other players. So I found Hank Marvin, who became the lead guitarist, and Bruce Welch, who became the rhythm guitarist. During my first tour I met with Jet Harris on bass, and he joined the group. I created the band to play for me. In fact, I got them into the studio because Norrie Paramor, who was my producer, didn’t want to take the chance of me having a band that didn’t cut it in the studio. I said, “You have to hear them; they are fantastic!” So they came in one time, and after about three records, they played on every single one of my records from that day until they broke up as a band. The sounds they liked to make were very clean and distinctive and yet still aggressive; it was still aggressive rock and roll. What happened is Hank Marvin become the iconic guitarist. Chris Rea, for instance, always says he wouldn’t have started playing guitar if it wasn’t for Hank. Eric Clapton also said that he was influenced by him. So many great guitar players cite him as a big influence. That’s why it’s important that we should never forget the history of rock and roll. Apart from anything else and even now when I go to Portugal and turn my jukebox on, when I hear Roy Hamilton singing “Don’t Let Go,” which I’ve got on my new album, it still sounds so exciting. I’m hoping that the younger generation, if they get a chance — maybe via their parents — to hear my record, it might revive the interest in the old stuff.

Cliff Richard 1950s

Cliff Richard (shown here in the 1950s) isn’t fazed by those who mock his early work with The Shadows. “Well, John Lennon thought I was cool,” Richard says. The Beatle famously stated that there was “nothing” before Richard and “Move It!” Of course, he’s only defending the music of the day, and not the fashion.

GM: With the success of your 1959 single “Living Doll,” you proved you were not satisfied with tracing the same ground over and over. Was that a natural progression for you to continue evolving as an artist?
CR: I never wanted to sing the same sort of stuff. The very first record I heard of Elvis’ was “Heartbreak Hotel,” and when I finally got it, there was a ballad on the other side called “I Was the One.” I thought, “Wow!” Some people think rock and roll is just a tempo, but it’s a whole fantastic culture of music that encompasses everything — ballads, a bit of country and a bit of everything. So Elvis helped me to see that there was a wide range of stuff that you could do.

“Living Doll” was really, in a way, an accident. Very early in my career, within three or four months, I’d been offered a small tiny role in a black-and-white movie called “Serious Charge.” They wanted me to sing some stuff. I think I recorded three songs, and The Shadows — then still known as The Drifters — did a couple of instrumentals. One of the songs I did for the film was “Living Doll,” which was written by the famous writer Lionel Bart, who wrote some big musicals. We didn’t like it because it was very English; it was pseudo-rock to us. We didn’t read the small print on the contract, and the company came back and said, “We want this to be a single, and we have the right for it as a single.” And I’m thinking, “Oh, no!”

Add then, of course, Bruce Welch of The Shadows said, “Look, OK, we don’t like it like this, but what about if we just strum and do it like a gentle country song?” (Sings) “I’ve got myself a cryin’, talkin’, sleepin’, walkin’, living doll…” He strummed and I sang, and Hank played a bit and that’s the way it happened. We didn’t expect anything of it, because it hadn’t changed our minds about the song at that stage. When I look back now, it was inevitable that “Living Doll” would be a hit the way it was — and it was. I remember seeing it come in on the charts at something quite low, and then it crept up the charts and went to No. 1 and stayed there for about six weeks. So that was a very, very happy accident.

After that, we always listened carefully to songs — not to whether or not we liked the genre of music or whatever, but just to see, “Is this a song that we can do? Is this a song that we can fit into what our world is because we believe it could be a success?” So it’s not being on the bandwagon, but running alongside it so that you’re still influenced by whatever’s happening in the contemporary form of rock and roll but you’re not stealing anything; you’re just being influenced by whatever’s popular, I guess.

GM: After The Beatles hit the scene, you were one of the rare artists who came before that wasn’t bulldozed over completely by them.
CR: I feel that I played a part in their career because John (Lennon) or Paul (McCartney) said, “Well, Cliff and The Shadows have it sewn up here, so we’re leaving,” and they went to Hamburg. So I’m thinking in a way, we kind of drove them out. If we hadn’t driven them out and they had stayed, they might have been the ones who were bulldozed.

But as it turns out they went to Hamburg, and when they came back they had this whole new thing going. They had this whole thing about writing their own songs, and, of course, they took the world by storm. The only reason why I think we weren’t bulldozed away by them is we’d been singing five years before they’d got known. And in those five years I’d had three or four No. 1s, and I’d sold millions of records before they even released their first track. So in a way, it gave us the strength to be able to survive alongside them.

At that stage, I had a wonderful Australian manager called Peter Gormley. I had a bit of a worry and said to him, “No one’s writing about us. This last year that The Beatles made it in the States, they’re in the newspapers daily and none of us are. It’s just Beatlemania, Beatlemania, Beatlemania.” And he said to me, “Are your tickets sold out for your concerts?” And I went, “Yeah.” And then he said, “Are you still having No. 1 records?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, then what the hell are you worried about?” So that helped put everything into perspective for me, and after that, I felt OK.

There seems to be a cycle of five years where something else happens. Nowadays, it’s boy bands that come along, and they smash through everything. I’ve always felt in recent years — and certainly as I’ve matured as a person — that in fact any time something wonderful happens, even if you don’t necessarily like it or favor the way they sing or play, if something big happens in our world it rubs off on all of us. It’s good for our industry, and we’re part of that industry. So I’m less bothered about it now, and I’m glad that we have new people coming along. And of course when you think about “X Factor” — it’s shown us how many people can sing in our countries. When I go to a supermarket and you see some good-looking girl or guy standing there at the checkout counter and you go, “Oh, my God; we’ll probably see them on ‘X Factor’ next week, and they might well be able to sing.”

GM: Were you aware that The Beatles recorded a song in Hamburg that was a homage to The Shadows, “Cry for a Shadow”?
CR: Yes, I was aware of that. I wasn’t sure exactly what they meant by it.

GM: John Lennon was a huge fan of “Move It!” Did you encounter him at all in the ‘60s?
CR: Yes, we did meet. The Shadows and I were recording in Spain, and John Lennon arrived in the same town where we were staying with his manager, Brian Epstein; they stayed in the same hotel. We dined together and had breakfast together a couple of times. We didn’t talk a great deal. But God bless him, because I get kind of put down in many ways. I mean, journalists and comedians like to say, “Oh, Cliff’s so uncool!” and they make fun of what The Shadows and I did. They forget that we kind of started it all off. We were the first non-Americans to start doing this rock and roll music and making it our own.

So when John Lennon said, “Before Cliff and ‘Move It!’ there wasn’t anything,” that was wonderful to hear and have that behind me. If a journalist says anything to me about not being cool, I can say, “Well, John Lennon thought I was cool.” (Laughs.)

GM: You’re a huge star all over the world, and while you’ve had some hits in the States, the common perception is you never broke through here. But that’s not completely true. You had eight Top 10 hits in America, which is not the mark of someone who flopped.
CR: I didn’t do badly in America at all. The first time I ever played in America was in 1960, and we were still me and The Drifters. We did a show called “The Greatest Show of Stars for 1960.” Headlining the bill was Frankie Avalon. Bobby Rydell was on the show, as were The Clovers, The Crests, Clyde McPhatter and Sammy Turner. It was just fantastic. Three of us stopped the show every night — Clyde McPhatter, Bobby Rydell and me. I was so shocked when, during that period, I didn’t see my record company. I was singing “Living Doll,” and no one from my label came to see me perform.

Thirty years later, I had two records on the U.S. charts: “Stronger,” which came in at No. 16 on the Disco dance chart, and a song called “Some People,” from a failed album that came out a few years before, had made it onto the Adult Contemporary charts. EMI was throwing a big party for me, and I said to them, “Look, these two tracks have happened all by themselves, so there is an interest in my music in the States; let’s get going.”

And then the MD [music director] said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but EMI America is not excited by Cliff Richard material.” I went, “Oh, no; I wish they had told me that earlier.” I came to America eight or nine times, and each time I left, I had a record in the Top 30. “Living Doll” made Top 30 in the States; “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” “Devil Woman,” “Suddenly” with Olivia [Newton-John], “Dreamin’” and “Daddy’s Home” were all hits. I felt, “How can my U.S. record company do that to me?” I can understand that they may not be excited, but if I had an opportunity for a franchise for safety pins I’d take it. I have no great desire or love of safety pins, but it’s a way of selling and making money. So I firmly put the fault in a great way on the head of EMI America, because they didn’t help me at all.

GM: “Devil Woman” was one of your biggest hits in the States.
CR: With “Devil Woman,” I moved away from EMI America and went to Rocket Records, Elton John’s label. Elton got me, and he was right behind it and that song became a huge hit. So that proved to me given the same amount of support of my other records, I could possibly have made it bigger in America.But we made it to No. 4 with “Devil Woman,” and “We Don’t Talk Anymore” got to No. 6. I was really thrilled those both made the Top 10.

When I play some of my old records by other acts, they still sound as wonderful as they did when I first bought them. Sometimes technology hasn’t improved anything. Yes, in the long term, what you hear on a CD — which is far superior to an MP3 — what you’ve got is almost perfect sound. It’s almost impossible to have the same excitement on that kind of clarity of music that we had on analogue tape, which had almost a built in distortion.

I’d had big success with Bruce Welch together as The Shadows, and they had their own success. He started to produce records and my manager said to him, “If you can find some songs, why don’t you and Cliff get together and do an album?” Bruce said to me, “The one thing I’m gonna insist on is we don’t do anything like the stuff that we did together. We don’t want to do ‘Living Doll.’ We don’t want to do ‘Summer Holiday’; we don’t want to ‘Congratulations’ and all those other kind of mainstream pop rock.” And I told him I agreed with him. In my hands I had a song called “Devil Woman” written for me by Terry Britten. Bruce already had songs, too, and they were fabulous. So we worked together on the album, “I’m Nearly Famous.” When I played Bruce “Devil Woman” he went, “Oh my God; that is fantastic. That is exactly what I need!” So we got together and made that album, and it brought me back with album sales again.

My albums had not been selling that great compared to how my singles had been selling. “Devil Woman” was a big break for me. The press called it my “renaissance” period (laughs). Somehow, even though I hadn’t been anywhere, I’d kind of made a comeback. We thought “Devil Woman” would work on American radio, and we were right. Terry Britten went on to bigger things too, writing the song “What’s Love Got to do with It” for Tina Turner. Also, “We Don’t Talk Anymore” is just a classic. Alan Tarney wrote that and a whole bunch of other hits for me, like “Dreamin.’’

GM: You’ve always been driven and ambitious. Where does that come from?
CR: It’s hard to be self-analytical. I didn’t realize, for instance, that the drive had begun when I was 12-1/2 years old. I can quote that age because I was in Australia a few years ago when this woman wrote to me and enclosed a copy of a letter that I’d written from my school in England to her in her school in Australia.

My English teacher was encouraging us to write letters to make our English good. I wrote to this girl and went, “Dear Jennifer — I can’t remember her name — my name is Harry Rodger Webb. I live in England in a place called Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and I go to school there. I play football. I’m 12-1/2 years old and my ambition is to be a famous singer.”

Now I remember having the pen pal, but I don’t remember writing that. I thought my ambition really got fired up when I heard Paul Anka and Elvis and people like that, and I would have been 14 or 15 by then. But there it was. I’m thinking now because I had that ambition so young, it had time to burn within me, so by the time I made my first record I was off and running and really desperate to make it work.

And I guess once you have proven yourself and once you have success, you gain a lot of confidence. You feel so confident that you can start listening to other people’s songs and not think you’re the only one making anything good. You suddenly realize there are thousands of us all making fabulous records, and then I began to enjoy being in the industry. It also meant you could compete honestly knowing full well that when you released a record at Christmas you may be No. 1, but you may have to be satisfied with No. 2 (laughs). So I’ve never lost that sense of ambition. GM

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