In celebration of his 80th birthday and 60 years in music, Cliff Richard tells the story of his incredible life in this definitive autobiography. With a hit in every decade since the 1950s, Cliff Richard certainly has a story to tell: coming of age in1950s London, forging the way for British rock’n’roll with his unique sound, and now approaching his 80th birthday with record sales of well over 250m and counting. The original British teen idol, Cliff looks back on his humble upbringing, and how he went on to fulfil his wildest dreams through his trail-blazing music career. This is the story of a great British icon, celebrating 60 years in music, in his own words.
Why did you decide to write your autobiography as you near 80? Did you find it an enjoyable process?
Well, I have a lot of life to write about! It’s a lot to lookback on but, yes, I have enjoyed it. So many exciting things happened to me back in the late Fifties. People assume that pop music began with The Beatles in 1963, but it didn’t! It wasn’t just me: Billy Fury, Marty Wilde and Adam Faith were all playing rock and roll right at the start, as were our American idols, including the greatest of them all – Elvis.
Do you have fond memories of your childhood in India?
I do, but now they feel like memories of a film that I saw along time ago. I remember the heat, and potholed streets, and playing in dirty water up to my waist with my best friend, Lal, in the monsoon season. I remember eating curry with my fingers, and fighting kite battles with my dad. But my family had to flee India when I was seven, when it got independence. We did a three-week boat journey to England. I spent most of it throwing up!
Was your family life hard when you came to Britain?
Yes. My family and I were refugees. My dad arrived with £5 in the world – about £50 today – and he couldn’t get a job. My parents, my three sisters and I lived in one single room for nearly two years. I got bullied at school, because I talked differently to the other kids and my skin was darker from years in India – they hit me and called me ‘Indi-bum’. But I fought back. I’m a lot tougher as a person than people assume.
What do you remember about first hearing Elvis Presley?
I was fifteen and walking down the street with two schoolfriends when a car parked next to us. This amazing music came blasting through its open window: ‘Well, since my baby left me! I found a new place to dwell!’ The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I had never heard anything like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and it changed my life forever. Without Elvis Presley, there would have been no Cliff Richard.
How amazing was it to be a pop star at 17? Did you feel as if you were pioneering rock and roll in Britain?
It was incredible. One day I had a boring job as a credit control clerk in the company where my dad worked. I hated it. I was also singing part-time in a skiffle group, but skiffle didn’t really do it for me. So, I left and formed a rock and roll band. We got a record deal and wrote a song, ‘Move It’ and it went crazy. Suddenly I was on TV and radio and doing shows up and down the country to thousands of fans going crazy – and I was still 17! I couldn’t walk down the street without screaming girls chasing me. I loved it!
How did you stop being Harry Webb and become Cliff Richard?
Ha! This is a funny story! It was early 1958 and my band were still The Drifters, before they became The Shadows. A promoter offered us a gig but he said that he wanted to bill us with the singer’s name up front, like Bill Haley and the Comets. He said he would call us ‘Harry Webb and the Drifters!’ Noooo! The second that he said it, I knew it sounded all wrong! Rock ‘n’ roll was glamorous, and American, and ‘Harry’ sounded too British, too boring, too ordinary. I had never really liked the name very much, and I thought, Rock ‘n’ roll stars are called Elvis, or Chuck, or Frankie, or Buddy – not Harry! The Drifters and I went and sat in a pub and chose my new name. I walked into the pub as Harry Webb – and I walked out as Cliff Richard.
Wasn’t there violence at a few of your early shows?
There was! We got popular very quickly, and suddenly my picture was on the front of magazines, journalists were calling me the ‘English Elvis’ and girls were calling out my name and yelling that they loved me at our gigs! Well, they may have loved me but their Teddy Boy boyfriends didn’t. They got jealous and they tried to beat me up. It was pathetic. I wanted to say to the Teddy Boys: ‘If your girlfriends are so keen on me, YOU must be doing something badly wrong!’
Is it true that you didn’t like your first number one single, ‘Living Doll’, when you first heard it?
It is! When I was 18, I was in a movie, Serious Charge. I had to sing a song, ‘Living Doll’. I thought it was a bit weak and like pseudo-rock ‘n’ roll, but it turned out that it was written in my movie contract that the Drifters and I – they hadn’t quite become The Shadows yet – had to release it as a single. Bruce Welch from the band had the idea of rearranging it as a country song. We decided to give it ago… and the rest is history.
How did you stop being ‘the English Elvis’ and find your own voice?
Well, when I started out, I was basically an Elvis Presley impersonator. I had the quiff, the sideburns, the gyrating pelvis – the works! I guess I was a little bit of a tribute act. But where Elvis was seen as a rock ‘n’ roll rebel, that wasn’t me. What did I have to rebel against? I didn’t hate my parents – I loved them! I became more of an all-round family entertainer, which delighted me. I wanted to sell as many records as possible to as many people as possible -and that’s as true today as it was in 1959!
How did finding God in the 1960s affect your life?
It affected it in every way possible. My dad died when I was only 20 and left a big hole in my life. I was having so much success, with Number 1 singles, sell-out tours and hit movies, and yet I felt empty inside. I couldn’t help but think: There must be more to life than this! When I became a Christian, I thought I would have to give up my pop career to serve God. I announced I was retiring from music and wanted to be a teacher. But then I got offered the chance to do gospel albums and tours, and host religious TV shows, and the penny dropped: It’s not either/or! I can do both!
How did you refocus on your music career in the 1970s?
When I found God, I got distracted for a few years from my pop career. It had used to be everything to me, and now it wasn’t. I didn’t make an album for four years, my singles didn’t chart as high, and I focussed more on my faith and on hosting TV variety shows. Then, in 1975, Bruce Welch from the Shadows produced my album I’m Nearly Famous. It spawned two of my best-known singles in ‘Miss You Nights’ and ‘Devil Woman’. I suppose that you could call it a comeback, except that I say that I never make comebacks – because I have never been away!
Didn’t Elton John give you a helping hand?
Yeah. I never broke America – when I was young, that used to bother me, but now I’m glad that I never did, because I can walk around there in peace and quiet. My US label weren’t bothered about releasing I’m Nearly Famous, so Elton put it out in the US on his Rocket label and Devil Woman the single taken from it went top ten there.
Didn’t he also give you a very funny nickname?
Yes. Elton likes calling his male friends by female names –he always calls Rod Stewart ‘Phyllis’ and he called me Sylvia Disc because he said I was always ringing his management office to ask if my record had gone silver yet.
Is that true?
I couldn’t possibly comment!
Can you tell if a song will be a big hit as soon as you hear it?
Yes. No. Sometimes! I knew ‘Devil Woman’ was a great song as soon as I heard it, even though, as a Christian, I was initially wary of singing a song about a fortune teller! I could tell ‘We Don’t Talk Any More’ would be a big hit, but I didn’t know it would go to Number One. Nobody can predict that.
Who are your closest friends in show business?
I don’t have many super-close showbiz friends but the ones that I have, I’ve had forever. I met Una Stubbs in 1962making the Summer Holiday film and we just clicked. Since then, we’ve done movies, TV shows and even pantomimes together, and nearly 60 years on, when we meet up after a long gap, we pick up from where we left off! At the start of the 1970s, I played Belfast and a young, pregnant local radio reporter interviewed me: Gloria Hunniford. Our friendship is now 50 years old and rising! Glo came with me to court when I had my awful time a few years ago. That’s what true friendship is all about.
Did you find it traumatic to revisit that awful time – the South Yorkshire Police raid on your home, which the BBC showed live – for The Dreamer?
It turned my life into a nightmare. False sex allegations are the worst thing that could happen to anybody. They were a dark cloud that hung over my life for four years. I obviously always knew that I was innocent, but I had to put my life on hold while I cleared my name. It hurt me and damaged me. It feels good finally to get the chance to give my own, complete side of the story. I have been completely honest about the whole ordeal and how it affected me. If anything, putting it down on paper has been cathartic.
You’re about to turn 80 – does the landmark daunt you?
No, it doesn’t daunt me, although revisiting my entire life for this book has shown me just how long I have been alive. It’s all been an amazing adventure – so far! – and I feel very lucky to have lived the life I have. In some ways, I still feel 18 inside, like the young boy having a huge hit with ‘Move It’. After all this time, and all I’ve done, I feel happy with where I am in my life, with what I am and with who I am. And I don’t really think anybody can ask any more than that.