Cliff Richard Biography

Harry Roger Webb, 14 October 1940, Lucknow, India. One of the most popular and enduring talents in the history of UK showbusiness, Webb began his career as a rock ‘n’ roll performer in 1957. His fascination for Elvis Presley encouraged him to join the Dick Teague Skiffle Group and several months later he teamed up with drummer Terry Smart and guitarist Norman Mitham to form the Drifters. They played at various clubs in the Cheshunt/Hoddesdon area of Hertfordshire before descending on the famous 2I’s coffee bar in London’s Soho. There, they were approached by lead guitarist Ian Samwell and developed their act as a quartet. In 1958, they secured their big break in the unlikely setting of a Saturday morning talent show at the Gaumont cinema in Shepherd’s Bush. It was there that the senatorial theatrical agent George Ganyou recognized Webb’s sexual appeal and singing abilities and duly financed the recording of a demonstration tape of ‘Breathless’ and ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’. A copy reached the hands of EMI Records producer Norrie Paramor who was impressed enough to grant the ensemble an audition. Initially, he intended to record the newly christened Cliff Richard as a solo artist backed by an orchestra, but the persuasive performer insisted upon retaining his own backing group.

With the assistance of a couple of session musicians, the unit recorded the American teen ballad ‘Schoolboy Crush’ as a projected first single. An acetate of the recording was paraded around Tin Pan Alley and came to the attention of the influential television producer Jack Good. It was not the juvenile ‘Schoolboy Crush’ that captured his attention, however, but the Ian Samwell b-side ‘Move It’. Good reacted with characteristically manic enthusiasm when he heard the disc, rightly recognizing that it sounded like nothing else in the history of UK pop. The distinctive riff and unaffected vocal seemed authentically American, completely at odds with the mannered material that usually emanated from British recording studios. With Good’s ceaseless promotion, which included a full-page review in the music paper Disc, Richard’s debut was eagerly anticipated and swiftly rose to number 2 in the UK charts. Meanwhile, the star made his debut on Good’s television showcase Oh Boy!, and rapidly replaced Marty Wilde as Britain’s premier rock ‘n’ roll talent. The low-key role offered to the Drifters persuaded Samwell to leave the group to become a professional songwriter and producer, and by the end of 1958 a new line-up emerged featuring Hank B. Marvin and Bruce Welch. Before long, they changed their name to the Shadows, in order to avoid confusion with the black American R&B group, the Drifters. Meanwhile, Richard consolidated his position in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon, even outraging critics in true Elvis Presley fashion. The New Musical Express denounced his ‘violent, hip-swinging’ and ‘crude exhibitionism’ and pontificated: ‘ Tommy Steele became Britain’s teenage idol without resorting to this form of indecent, short-sighted vulgarity’. Critical mortification had little effect on the screaming female fans who responded to the singer’s boyish sexuality with increasing intensity.

1959 was a decisive year for Richard and a firm indicator of his longevity as a performer. With management shake-ups, shifts in national musical taste and some distinctly average singles his career could easily have been curtailed, but instead he matured and transcended his Presley-like beginnings. A recording of Lionel Bart’s ‘Living Doll’ provided him with a massive UK number 1 and three months later he returned to the top with the plaintive ‘Travellin’ Light’. He also starred in two films, within 12 months. Serious Charge, a non-musical drama, was banned in some areas as it dealt with the controversial subject of homosexual blackmail. The Wolf Mankowitz-directed Expresso Bongo, in which Richard played the delightfully named Bongo Herbert, was a cinematic pop landmark, brilliantly evoking the rapacious world of Tin Pan Alley. It remains one of the most revealing and humorous films ever made on the music business and proved an interesting vehicle for Richard’s varied talents. From 1960 onwards Richard’s career progressed along more traditional lines leading to acceptance as a middle-of-the-road entertainer. Varied hits such as the breezy, chart-topping ‘Please Don’t Tease’, the rock ‘n’ rolling ‘Nine Times Out Of Ten’ and reflective ‘Theme For A Dream’ demonstrated his range, and in 1962 he hit a new peak with ‘The Young Ones’. A glorious pop anthem to youth, with some striking guitar work from Hank Marvin, the song proved one of his most memorable number 1 hits.

The film of the same name was a charming period piece, with a strong cast and fine score. It broke box office records and spawned a series of similar movies from its star, who was clearly following Elvis Presley’s cinematic excursions as a means of extending his audience. Unlike the King, however, Richard supplemented his frequent movie commitments with tours, summer seasons, regular television slots and even pantomime appearances. The run of UK Top 10 hits continued uninterrupted until as late as mid-1965. Although the showbiz glitz had brought a certain aural homogeneity to the material, the catchiness of songs such as ‘Bachelor Boy’, ‘Summer Holiday’, ‘On The Beach’ and ‘I Could Easily Fall’ was undeniable. These were neatly, if predictably, complemented by ballad releases such as ‘Constantly’, ‘The Twelfth Of Never’ and ‘The Minute You’re Gone’. The formula looked likely to be rendered redundant by the British beat boom, but Richard expertly rode that wave, even improving his selection of material along the way. He bravely, although relatively unsuccessfully, covered a Rolling Stones song, ‘Blue Turns To Grey’, before again hitting top form with the beautifully melodic ‘Visions’. During 1966, he had almost retired after converting to fundamentalist Christianity, but elected to use his singing career as a positive expression of his faith. The sparkling ‘In The Country’ and gorgeously evocative ‘The Day I Met Marie’ displayed the old strengths to the full, but in the swiftly changing cultural climate of the late 60s, Richard’s hold on the pop charts could no longer be guaranteed.

The 1968 Eurovision Song Contest offered him a chance of further glory, but the jury placed him a close second with the ‘oom-pah-pah’-sounding ‘Congratulations’. The song was nevertheless a consummate Eurovision performance and proved one of the biggest UK number 1s of the year. Immediately thereafter, Richard’s chart progress declined and his choice of material proved at best desultory. Although there were a couple of solid entries, Raymond Froggatt’s ‘Big Ship’ and a superb duet with Hank Marvin, ‘Throw Down A Line’, Richard seemed a likely contender for Variety as the decade closed.

The first half of the 70s saw him in a musical rut. The chirpy but insubstantial ‘Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha’ was a Top 10 hit in 1970 and heralded a notable decline. A second shot at the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Power To All Our Friends’ brought his only other Top 10 success of the period and it was widely assumed that his chart career was over. However, in 1976 there was a surprise resurgence in his career when Bruce Welch of the Shadows was assigned to produce his colleague. The sessions resulted in the bestselling album I’m Nearly Famous, which included two major hits, ‘Miss You Nights’ and ‘Devil Woman’. The latter was notable for its decidedly un-Christian imagery and the fact that it gave Richard a rare US chart success. Although Welch remained at the controls for two more albums, time again looked as although it would kill off Richard’s perennial chart success. A string of meagre singles culminated in the dull ‘Green Light’, which stalled at number 57, his lowest chart placing since he started singing. Coincidentally, his backing musicians, Terry Britten and Alan Tarney, had moved into songwriting and production at this point and encouraged him to adopt a more contemporary sound on the album Rock ‘N’ Roll Juvenile. The most startling breakthrough, however, was the attendant single ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’, written by Tarney and produced by Welch. An exceptional pop record, the song gave Richard his first UK number 1 hit in over a decade and also reached the Top 10 in the USA.

The ‘new’ Richard sound, so refreshing after some of his staid offerings in the late 70s, brought further well-arranged hits, such as ‘Carrie’ and ‘Wired For Sound’, and ensured that he was a chart regular throughout the 80s. Although he resisted the temptation to try anything radical, there were subtle changes in his musical approach. One feature of his talent that emerged during the 80s was a remarkable facility as a duettist. Collaborations with Olivia Newton-John, Phil Everly, Sarah Brightman, Sheila Walsh, Elton John and Van Morrison added a completely new dimension to his career. It was something of a belated shock to realize that Richard may be one of the finest harmony singers working in the field of popular music. His perfectly enunciated vocals and the smooth texture of his voice have the power to complement work that he might not usually tackle alone. The possibility of his collaborating with an artist even further from his sphere than Van Morrison remains a tantalizing challenge.

Throughout his six decades in the pop charts, Richard has displayed a valiant longevity. He parodied one of his earliest hits with comedy quartet the Young Ones and registered yet another number 1, while still singing religious songs on gospel tours. He appeared in Time and in John Farrar and Tim Rice’s hugely successful Heathcliff (his own Songs From Heathcliff was drawn from the show). He sued theNew Musical Express for an appallingly libellous review, far more vicious than their acerbic comments back in 1958. He celebrated his 50th birthday with a move into social commentary with the anti-war hit ‘From A Distance’. He was nominated to perform at the celebrations for VE day in 1995, appearing with Vera Lynn, and has now been adopted as her male equivalent. It was no surprise, therefore, to learn that he was to be knighted for his services to popular music in May 1995. Richard’s long-held belief that most UK pop radio stations have an official veto on his tracks seemed to be proven in September 1998, when he distributed a heavily remixed promo of his soon-to-be-released single, ‘Can’t Keep This Feeling In’, under the pseudonym Blacknight. It was instantly playlisted by youth-orientated stations all over the country, and went to number 10 in the singles chart the following month. The singer was further angered when DJ Chris Evans, owner of Virgin Radio, announced that he wanted the station’s entire stock of Richard’s records ‘thrown out’. In an unprecedented move, BBC Radio 1 responded by clearing its morning schedules for a four-hour tribute ‘Stand Up For Cliff Day’ hosted by Jill Dando. Such was the demand for tickets to his November/December 1998 Royal Albert Hall concerts celebrating 40 years in showbusiness, that a further 12 performances were scheduled for March 1999. At the end of the year he was criticised for being opportunistic when he combined the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ into ‘The Millennium Prayer’. Tacky though it was it still reached number 1 in the UK.

A new musical based on the singer’s life, created and devised by Trevor Payne, Colin Rozee, and Mike Read, opened in Liverpool in February 2003. The show transferred to London’s West End in March for a limited season. And so he goes on - Sir Cliff Richard has outlasted every musical trend of the past six decades with a sincerity and commitment that may well be unmatched in his field. He is British pop’s most celebrated survivor.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

Filter Results