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BY: Gary Graff
After 56 years of recording, 250 million records sold worldwide and knighthoods in both Great Britain and Portugal, where he has lived for decades, Cliff Richard has “no expectations anymore”.
“I’m not thinking about having a No. 1 hit or a Top 10 album or being on ‘Top of the Pops’,” says the 73-year-old British pop icon. “If people want to hear me sing, I’ll sing because I still love it. That’s enough for me these days.”
Ironically, Richard has indeed had a Top 10 album recently. The Fabulous Rock ‘n’ Roll Songbook, a covers collection, debuted at No. 7 on the UK album charts and certainly has surpassed its maker’s modest expectations.
In his long career, Richard has had more than 130 Top 20 singles, albums and EPs in the UK, more than any other artist. He and Elvis Presley are the only artists to score British hit singles in each of the chart’s first seven decades. Eighteen of those singles have gone to No. 1, making Richard the only singer to have a chart-topping hit in five consecutive decades.
The story has been different in the US. There Richard has notched only eight Top 40 singles, with Devil Woman (1976) scoring his highest tally at No. 6. His comparative lack of success in the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll has been disappointing, Richard admits.
“Everybody wants to be successful in the States,” he says, “and I was going there five years before the Beatles. But my manager back then, who was a very wise man, said, ‘If you’re going to succeed there, you’re going to have to spend a good year there. Can you tell me which territory you’d like to give up in order to go there?’. I said, ‘I don’t want to give anything up’, and he said, ‘Then just cool your heels… You have a world to sing to’.”
Born Harry Webb in Lucknow, India, where his father was a caterer in the waning days of the British Raj, he returned to England with them when he was 8. Like many of his peers, he came to rock ‘n’ roll through British skiffle and above all, Elvis Presley.
“We weren’t too well off,” Richard recalls. “But we had a radio and a turntable, and I listened to the stuff my parents listened to. Then I heard Elvis and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is unbelievable’. I think thousands of us young men wanted to be like Elvis, and just a few of us got lucky.”
Richard formed his first band, the Quintones, in 1957. He subsequently joined a group called the Drifters, which later became the Shadows when they became aware of the better-known American group also called the Drifters. He adopted the stage name ‘Cliff Richard’ at the suggestion of a manager. In 1958, the Drifters released Move It, which reached No. 2 on the British charts and gave Richard both his first hit.
In the early 1960s, Cliff Richard and the Shadows were swamped by the first wave of Beatlemania.
“The first time we met was early on,” Richard recalls. “They had just put out Please Please Me (1963), and my guitarist (Bruce Welch) said they were going to come for a party. There were about 20 of us. Bruce brought out a guitar and said, ‘Have you got something coming out?’. Paul said, ‘Well, we have something’. And they sang, From Me to You (1963). Bruce and I looked at each other, and we said, ‘Good? There is no possibility this is going to be a flop!’.”
He never felt anything but respect from the Beatles as well, Richard adds. “John Lennon would tell people, ‘Before Cliff and Move It, there was nothing’,” he says.
The Fabulous Rock ‘n’ Roll Songbook is considered Richard’s 100th album overall, and it brings him back to his roots, featuring new versions of favorites by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Presley, before closing with a new song, One More Sunny Day. It has also gotten him back into the US: Former Smiths frontman Morrissey has invited Richard to open for his June 21 concert at Brooklyn, and Richard is working on some more dates in North America.
“That would be great,” Richard says. “I’m still aware of America. It’s where all the music I love came from.”