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Ripley, a quiet unassuming little town on the fringe of the Derbyshire coal mining belt, is hardly the place one would associate with rock and roll history… Geoff Ford meets the people who were there on the night when Harry Webb became Cliff Richard.

The Regal Ballroom
Sylvia Beighton and Mick Peat revisit The Regal Ballroom Photo: Geoff Ford

Sir Cliff Richard, the elder statesman of British rock and pop turns 80 later this year, just two years after his last tour when he celebrated 60 years in the music business – Britain’s first true rock and roll star and still as popular as ever. In that time he has sold over 250 million albums worldwide, achieved 14 number one singles and seven number one albums while also having huge success in films, musical theatre and television shows that have all contributed to the legend that is Cliff Richard.

Remarkably, Sir Cliff has been at the forefront of the British music scene since 1958 when his debut single Move It shot to Number 2 in the charts. And it was at a performance in a northern mining town, earlier that year, that the young would-be rock and roll star made his debut performance as… Cliff Richard.

Up until then, the 17-year old Harry Webb had been fronting a three-come-four-piece group by the name of The Drifters. An appearance in a local pub near Harry’s home lead to a series of performances at a small bar in London. Here he was seen by Harry Greatorex who booked them to play in his hall in Ripley – with a change of name that would become a rock and roll icon.

Harry Greatorex had bought the Temperance Billiard Hall in 1956 and, after some alterations, reopened it as the Regal Ballroom. While the venue became the centre of the town’s night life holding twice weekly dances, Harry, known locally as Mr Entertainment, wanted to raise the Regal’s profile with the local teenagers by bringing one of the new rock and roll groups to Ripley from London.

The obvious place to head to was the 2i’s coffee bar at 59 Old Crompton Street, in the heart of Soho. This was the place to be for emerging young musical talent in the capital, with a reputation bolstered by the discovery there of Tommy Steele and Terry Dene.

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Cliff Richard
Cliff on his 2018 anniversary tour Photo: Geoff Ford

Meanwhile Harry Webb had met drummer Terry Smart while singing for Dick Teague’s Skiffle Group. Keen to play the new rock and roll, Harry and Terry left to form their own group with Harry’s school friend Norman Mitham on guitar.

The Drifters were born and spent their evenings rehearsing in the front room of Harry’s parent’s house in Cheshunt. They made their debut at the nearby Forty Hill Badminton Club, for the sum of ten shillings, before playing at the Five Horseshoes in Hoddleston in March 1958.

Here they impressed rock and roll fan John Foster, a truck driver at a sewage farm who was having a drink with some friends. Although John had more enthusiasm than experience, he had been to the 2i’s and was on speaking terms with Tom Littlewood who was responsible for booking acts for the 2i’s. John later remembered his first impression of the young Harry Webb: “Something told me he was going to be big, yes really big.”

When John suggested that he may be able to get The Drifters a gig at the 2i’s, the group were quite impressed and jumped at the chance to play this legendary venue with John as their manager.

One Saturday in early April The Drifters and John Foster caught the bus into London to audition for Tom Littlewood and that same evening The Drifters made their first appearance at the 2i’s. Although not the main act, The Drifters made a good impression and the booking became a two-week stint, albeit young Harry would need to leave early to catch the 10pm bus back to Cheshunt. During this residency, the group also met two figures who would become crucial in their rise to fame.

Ian Samwell was a guitarist in a skiffle group but with a love for rock and roll that drew him to The Drifters and he asked if he could become their lead guitarist.

When Harry Greatorex arrived at the 2i’s, it was the new four-piece Drifters that he saw and approached them with the offer of an appearance at his Regal Ballroom. With an offer of a £5 fee and £10 expenses John Foster immediately agreed but there was one condition that Harry Greatorex would insist on.

The trend, at the time, was towards a group having a named leader in front of the group’s name, such as Bill Haley and His Comets, Tommy Steele and the Steelmen, but Harry’s request for The Drifters to follow suit did not go down well with the group at first.

As Sir Cliff says in his 2008 autobiography My Way, My Life: I said, ‘No, we’re just a band, we’re called The Drifters.’

He said, ‘No, I need a name at the front.’

I said, ‘Well, you can’t have Harry Webb, that’s not on the cards.’

In that case,’ he said, ‘we’ll have to think of one.’

“Johnny Foster then came up with Cliff Richards,” Ian Samwell later recalled. “I said ‘Leave off the ‘s’ because everyone’s bound to say, ‘Cliff Richards’ and, when we correct them, they’ll have heard it twice.”’

The name would also pay tribute to one of Harry Webb’s idols, the American rocker Little Richard.

That was decided then, and Harry Greatorex called his local paper, The Ripley And Heanor News to place an advertisement for the Regal Ballroom declaring: Direct From The 2i’s Coffee Bar In London: Cliff Richard And The Drifters.

Cliff Richard
Cliff on his 2018 anniversary tour Photo: Geoff Ford

“Harry Greatorex was a good man,” says veteran local broadcaster Mick Peat, who was 18 at the time. “He did us proud. We had really good nights there on a Saturday. The week before Harry was telling us all that he had this group coming from London, he had heard them in a coffee house and they were fantastic! He said he’d got to pay them and he would have to put up the price a bit. It was usually a shilling (5 pence) to get in and he put it up to two bob (10 pence) on the night.”

“I had only just turned 17. I lived about 10 minutes away and used to go to the Regal quite a lot,” added Sylvia Beighton.

“It wasn’t a big dance hall but there was a little snack bar. There was a little stage and a dance area and seats around the outside.”

To get to their first engagement outside the capital on 3rd May 1958, Cliff and The Drifters caught the train and then the bus to Ripley. Outside the Regal they found a chalk board announcing their visit, but it was not a concert as we would recognise now.

“It was a dance and Cliff did things with everybody, held our hands, danced with us and everything,” Sylvia continued. “Being a girl of 17, and him being about the same age, I thought he was very, very attractive.

What struck me most was his lovely eyes and eyelashes. He was very good looking.

“I don’t remember any of the songs, but he danced with us. In those days we danced round in a circle, holding hands, like the Hokey Cokey, and he joined in with us, just one of us. He was just friendly with everybody. He wasn’t a big star or anything, just a normal, nice young man.

“Afterwards he and another of the band members walked a couple of the girls up the road to the bus stop, to get the bus to Heage. Later, when he played a bigger theatre, the ladies they had walked to the bus stop were in one of the boxes at the side of the stage. He saw them and blew them a kiss.”

In his autobiography, Cliff recalls the night was a great success: “It felt like the big time. The ballroom was packed and the audience seemed to love us. We missed the last train home and spent the night at the venue, exhausted but elated.”

The rest, as they say, is history. And the group’s historic first performance as Cliff Richard and The Drifters, at the Regal in Ripley, was eventually acknowledged with a blue plaque to mark the occasion. This was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of the event, in 2008, by the Mayor of Ripley, Councillor Robert Phillips-Forsyth. In a statement read to the fans on the night, Sir Cliff Richard said:

“The Ripley Regal was the first place I ever performed as Cliff Richard. I was so unused to the name that when I was introduced I was waiting for someone else to walk out onto the stage. The Regal played a huge part in my personal musical history.”

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