Seventy-three years old but still, as his latest stageshow reminds us, reeling and rocking, Sir Cliff Richard also has a new album on the horizon. His one hundredth long player The Fabulous Rock'n'Roll Songbook (scheduled for US release in February by Rhino) is a rock-themed set that arrives some two years after his last, the R&B duets of Soulicious, and the album is just one half of the package - also new is Still Reelin' and Rockin': Live in Sydney, a two hour plus live spectacular shot at the Syney Opera House, and bristling with rock'n'roll oldies.
His own "Move It" is here, of course, and a barrage of other Cliff classics... "Dynamite," "Do You Wanna Dance," "Willie and the Hand Jive," "Please Don't Tease" and "Living Doll" for the real oldies fans; "My Kinda Life," "Devil Woman," "We Don't Talk Anymore" and "Wired for Sound" for 70s acolytes, and so on. Add a stunning stage show, extraordinary sound and even a few musical surprises, and it's hard to believe he's now midway through his sixth decade in active service. Here's to the seventh and beyond!
Previously unpublished in this form, the following is an interview with Cliff, dating from 1994.
Tell us how you became Cliff Richard?
“I didn’t like my name as a singer, I didn’t like Harry Webb at all. We got round to thinking of new names. I remember that in the last batch of suggestions there was Russ Clifford and I thought ‘oh no, that sounds like a ballad singer.’ So then someone else said ‘well, what about Cliff Russard?’ and I thought ‘Cliff is a rock face, so that sounds good.’ Then someone else said ‘what about Richards?’ and Ian Samwell said ‘let’s take the “s” off so you’ve got two Christian names, and Richard could be a tribute to Little Richard. So we stuck with that.”
Your first single was “Schoolboy Crush” until Jack Good (producer of television’s Oh Boy!) put his foot down...
“When my photos and records were taken to Jack, he played the b-side and said ‘well, if this Cliff Richard is coming on my show, he has to sing “Move It”.’ The record company said fine, it just turned everything around and said ‘okay, if this is going to be a big TV plug, we’ll do it’.”
You were a real regular on the show
“I kinda came in when Oh Boy! got started; Marty Wilde and I used to share the starring role, one week I’d be on, one week Marty. Jack said to me ‘you look a bit like Elvis, So cut your sideburns off and get rid of your guitar.’ And being a young singer I had no status or power, so I just agreed to do it. But it was the best advice I ever had, really.
“Then he said to me, ‘I want you to clutch your left arm across your right arm and hold your right bicep and drop your face down so your chin is pointing at the floor, but you’re still looking up at the camera...’ so I could smolder at the audience. Which is what I did.”
The new Elvis!
“The media, unbelievably predictable as ever, wanted something that would supposedly be England’s answer to Elvis. They got me! But I was relatively harmless really. I’d openly admitted that he influenced me, I tried to look like him, I had the curl of the lip.”
They had you follow him into the movies...
“Serious Charge really wasn’t very good, although it was pretty racy for the time. Its subject matter was a vicar who is compromised by a young guy who claims the vicar has molested him. It was very ahead of its time in that respect, and it got an X certificate even though it was not at all graphic, and the boy had made up the story anyway. The vicar wasn’t a little boy chaser.
“I think it was originally a b-movie, but then we had the hit and I think that’s why it took off.”
Whose idea was it to record your first album live?
“That was Norrie [Paramor]. I sang really badly, I had laryngitis at the time an d I wanted to cancel the sessions. But Norrie said to me ‘we can’t cancel the session, we’ve spent two hundred pounds on it. Two hundred pounds. I had to do it.”
You tried to stop EMI from reissuing it, didn’t you
“I begged them. But they told me ‘I’m afraid it’s already been out’ and I couldn’t stop them. So now it’s available, I’m afraid, this really bad Cliff Richard album.”
Your time as an out and out rocker was surprisingly limited... did you miss rock as you started to move into other territory?
“I chased the big hits, but I still did rock. You’ll find that on the flip of the singles as well. The band and I made no compromise. We played the music we wanted to, and our stage shows were always a rock’n’roll show.”
And then came America—your first tour was in 1960 with Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell...
“We stopped the show nightly, and I really thought we’d got the US by the throat. But I never saw the record company [ABC] once during that six week tour, and you know you can’t make it in the States without some kind of machinery chugging away on your behalf.”
That was the year the Shadows launched their solo career, too...
“They started doing their own records because they were a good group. A brilliant band. They had the misses, but Norrie never lost faith. One day he just said ‘let’s do another instrumental record and this “Apache” by Jerry Lordan came up.”
Is it true you played the bass drum at the start of “Apache”?
“And a bit at the end. We took pictures and used them in the publicity campaign, Cliff Richard’s group makes its own record. And it was great for us because when we toured, the boys came to see Hank Marvin and the girls came to see me.
And for the next five years, the two of you were unstoppable.
“We’d have number ones and, sometimes, we’d just take over from each other at the top. We really had it sewn up.”
A lot of which is obscured by history’s insistence that everything started with the Beatles.
“When the Shadows recorded ‘Apache’ in 1960, the Beatles were still the Silver Beatles, touring with Johnny Gentle. If you play something the Beatles recorded back then, side by side with ‘Apache,’ one sounds like an unbelievable band, and the other sounds like a church hall group.”
Were you and the Shadows in competition with one another?
“Of course, but we remained friends and looking back, I think we were rather clever, really, because we recognized the power we had. You didn’t have bands and singers making it together in those days, so we had this double strength on our side, and maybe that’s what got us through that period of the Beatles and the Stones and the Liverpool sound, we still had this double edged sword we were thrashing around with.
“Psychologically, there was a bit of pressure because once the Beatles and the Stones and so on came through, the media forgot about the rest of us. When the Beatles went to the States for the first time, there was a period when they were in the newspapers every single day of the year, and it was only when that year had gone by that we started to say ‘wait a minute, why are we scared?’
“We were still on tour, we were still selling records, we were still in the Top 5 regularly. What more could we ask for? So the fear kind of left and we realized we were able to compete from out little corner and that’s what we did. We just forgot the rest of them, carried on, and they’ve all come and gone in the thousands since that time, and I’m still going.”
You were still topping the popularity polls, too
“When the Beatles first started, I was voted the most popular make singer in the world. That’s my favorite cup and I think it’s because everyone was so mad about the Beatles that they forgot about Elvis and voted me in instead.”
Still you were definitely moving towards the middle of the road. There was even that plan for you to make an album of Disney songs....
“They were just me experimenting with the band, trying something different. It didn’t come to anything.”
You were developing a very squeaky clean image by now, though....
“By the mid-1960s, the bands which had just broken through brought in a whole new breed of musician. People like myself and the Shadows were the tail end of Vaudeville; Vaudeville was still going, in fact, when we toured, I remember shows when we had stilt walkers and jugglers supporting us. Everything was very very pukka, very acceptable, very clean.
“Now you suddenly discovered your favorite pop stars took drugs and lived in caves in India with Maharishis, and threw television sets full of porridge out of hotel windows, and it changed everything. Anybody would look good compared with that. I got my goody two shoes image through being completely normal, which shows how perverse our society is, when what is seen as wholesome has an alienating effect on some people.”
Your public embrace of Christianity also influenced opinions of you...
“I always thought I was a Christian, but when I started to question myself about it, I realized I wasn’t. I always said I was because... because I wasn’t Jewish, I wasn’t Buddhist, so when they give you the forms to fill in and you come to the question about religion, you fill in ‘Christian.’ But suddenly I realized that being Christian was more than that, it was about making a commitment to this character named Jesus and I hadn’t done that.
“When I did, that’s when I knew... it made a big change in me, not so much to my music, I guess, although... I was going to say ‘indirectly,’ but in a way I suppose it was quite direct because when I became a Christian, I was seriously into doing the very best I could, so that even if people didn’t like me, they’d still have to say ‘well, he tries hard’.”
At the same time, you almost quit singing altogether...
“I suddenly found myself feeling ‘how can I be a Christian and a rock’n;’roll singer at the same time’? All my friends who were Christian were teaching religion in schools, working for charitable organizations, an I thought ‘oh dear, there’s them being proper Christians and here’s me rocking it up and having a great time. So I thought I’d get out.
“In a way it was a sign of my immaturity as a person and certainly as a Christian. I didn’t think it through but suddenly, when I thought I couldn’t do anything for my faith, Norrie offered me the chance to do a gospel album [Good News], I was offered concerts, the press started talking to me about nothing but my faith, and I got the chance to do a six show television series in the Go spot. And I thought ‘hang on, I can be a Christian in my business, I can make use of my business. So I stayed.”
It helps that you don’t preach all the time...
“There’s no problem saying to people that you’re a Christian, nobody minds that really. But it’s a problem when some people do become Christian, and they want to change other people. I’ve never forced my faith on anybody; when I do my gospel concerts, I actually advertise them as gospel concerts. I don’t get people into the hall thinking they’re going to hear ‘Devil Woman’, then sing them a hymn.
Apart from the Now You See Me album...
“That was actually a gospel album, which I didn’t tell anybody about. I gave it to EMI, played them the tracks and they didn’t seem to see it as anything different to what I’d done before, although in every lyric there was a definite Christian ethic.
“But as they weren’t bothered about it, I didn’t tell them and it became the first gospel album I’ve had in the Top 30. It got to #4 and the single got to #10. Normally when I release the gospel records, EMI release them at a different pitch and campaign my ‘ordinary’ records, which disappoints me. But I can understand it....
“But I think a lot of people create problems for themselves because they not only want to change everybody around the they want to change what they themselves are as well. God does make a change in your life, but he doesn’t necessarily ask you to change your career as well, not unless you happen to be a burglar or a rapist by profession.”
Probably the biggest change in your early career, aside from the Shadows break up (in 1968), was parting company with Norrie in 1972
“I’d worked with Norrie since my first record, but he came to me and said ‘I feel you’re champing at the bit a little, but I can’t do anything more for you, I can’t take you any further.’ So I went into the studio with Dave Mackay and the very first single we released, ‘Brand New Song’ became my very first flop. It flopped. I felt awful!
“But Norrie told me to weather it out; it was a new sound, a new team, things would get back on course. And of course he was right. ‘Power To All Our Friends’ sold a million and a half.
Thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest!
“Having done Eurovision the first time [with Congratulations] and lost, but still sold two million records, I realize that it is just a great showcase for an artist to get their record played to nearly 400 million people. I remember telling my band, ‘it’s just like doing Top Of The Pops, and if just one in every 400 people buys the record, we’ve got a million seller.”
You also made your final movie, Take Me high—which didn’t do so well, but all of a sudden, you started making genuinely great records again.
“My recording career was just cruising along, there was nothing exciting happening, because I’d been doing so much acting. I knew I had to either give up singing and concentrate on acting, if that’s what I really wanted to do, or vice versa. And when I thought about it, I knew that my first love was rock’n;’roll, that was probably what I’m always going to be best at, so I decided I’d go for it.”
You returned to the theater stage in the 1980s... first Time, then Heathcliff...
“I first thought of doing Heathcliff when I left school, I really wanted to do it. Then it really started forming in my head in the late 1980s, but it didn’t seem right at the time. But then I was talking to a director friend of min, Frank Dunlop, and I told him ‘I’d love to do this, and I’d love you to do it with me’, and he said ‘that’s a terrific idea.’ If he’d said ‘oh no, that’s a horrible idea,’ I’d not have bothered doing it.
“But he thought it was great, so we got Tim Rice, who also thought it was a great idea, and John Farrar, who’d been reading the book and couldn’t understand why no-one had done it before us. So it was about three years we’d been thinking of it....”
By then, of course, you’d completely re-established yourself—a process which began with 31st of February Street... the “(You Keep Me) Hanging On” hit... oh, and “Honky Tonk Angel.” A single that you had withdrawn....
“I’d just released it and it was just about to go into the chart. I was going to perform it on television, on Russell Harty Plus. Everything looked good. Then, two nights before the TV show I was at a Christian meeting and this girl stood up during open question time and said ‘did you know your new son g is about a prostitute?’
“I said ‘you’re kidding, of course it isn’t.’ I’d heard about honky tonk bars and I thought the song was something to do with that. So I called my manager Peter Gormley, and he said ‘I’ve never heard that, let me look into it.’ He made a call to LA and, sure enough, a honky tonk angel isn’t exactly a prostitute, but she is a woman o ill repute. So I talked to Russell Harty and told him I wasn’t prepared to sing the song any ore and wanted to do something else.
“He said ‘okay, we’ll let you off, but only if you come on television and tell us why.’ So I went on, explained why I couldn’t sing the song and performed something live with my guitar instead of miming to the single. And the record failed.”
That was your last record with Dave Mackay; you started working with Bruce Welch and immediately scored with “Miss You Nights”—the first in a whole new wave of hits. It must have been like starting out all over again—except the old records were still there, and you topped the chart with 40 Golden Greats!
“I’d had a series of best ofs, and best of volume twos released over the years, but EMI started the Golden Greats series. The first release was the Beach Boys and it did phenomenally well, so they came to me and suggested doing one on me. My first response was ‘why? My records were all out on these other compilations.’ ‘Who’s going to want to buy them all again?’ But I finally succumbed and it turned out there was a huge market for it.”
And all without any scandal, controversy, public revelations... how have you managed to avoid it all?
“I came to the conclusion years ago that sexuality is a part of life and a fact of life. More men go to see Olivia Newton John than women, more women go to see Cliff Richard than men. So the sexuality, the sensuality, is a part of life, part of what being male or female is all about. To play on it seems ridiculously unnecessary. Many artists do that, really play on it, and all I think is that they look so tacky.
“I’ve never wanted to shock anybody, I can’t see any point. It’s too easy. I could just drop my trousers on stage and it would be the most shocking thing anybody’s seen in years.”
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition.