In England, the names Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard are often uttered in the
same breath. In the US, it would be lucky if Richard could achieve the
recognition level of Gilbert O’Sullivan.
But the 72-year-old singer is no
longer losing any sleep over it.
“I’m not worried about it, I have enough
work,” said the legendary British rock pioneer in an jovial manner last week
from the conference room of a posh London hotel.
“I’m philosophical about
it now, I don’t spend my nights weeping I didn’t make it big in America. At
least I have a place I can go to where I’m not recognized.”
no reason to sound so chipper, having just completed a 60-minute television
interview for Channel 1 ahead of his two performances on July 11 and 13 at the
Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. But the first thing you notice about talking to Richard
is how genuinely affable he appears. And the second thing is how closely his
speaking voice resembles that of another British rock pioneer – Paul
Richard, who scored an astonishing 43 Top 20 hits in England
between 1958 and 1969 and was considered to be Britain’s answer to Elvis, was a
huge star when The Beatles were still playing four sets a night in Hamburg. They
rose out of the same grassroots skiffle movement that conquered England in the
mid-1950s and captivated the heart of the teenager (born Harry Webb), who had
moved with his family to Hertfordshire, England from his native India at age
“Skiffle was homemade music, as it made it possible for people
like myself to become involved in some way without a lot of skill,” said
Richard. “I learned how to play guitar and got good enough to play and sing in a
skiffle group in my local town.”
“One day the drummer and I were talking
over coffee, and he asked me if I liked playing skiffle. I answered that I did,
but I preferred rock & roll. He answered ‘I do too.’ So we quit and formed
our own rock & roll group.”
After a few incarnations, that morphed
into The Shadows, and Harry Webb evolved into Cliff Richard.
think my name was good for a rock & roll singer. All the Americans had names
like Buddy Holly, Rick Nelson or Jerry Lee Lewis. Harry Webb just didn’t sound
right,” he said. “Somebody suggested Cliff, and I thought, ‘Cliff is a rock,
rock & roll, that’s good. Then the producer of my first record suggested
Richard as a tribute to Little Richard.”
Together, Richard and The
Shadows ruled the musical roost in England, becoming the country’s first
homegrown rockers beginning with the Presley-esque rocker “Move It” in 1958.
Even John Lennon was quoted as saying “before Cliff and The Shadows, there had
been nothing worth listening to in British music.” And with his leather jacket,
greaser sideburns and a pouty snarl, the first phase Richard channeled Presley
until the distinction was blurred.
“I wanted to be Elvis, not just be
like him. He was the big inspiration for thousands of people like myself and I
was lucky enough to do something about it,” said Richard.
“They called me
Britain’s answer to Elvis, but only later did I realize that there was no answer
to Elvis – he wasn’t a question, he was a statement, a fact. I was just happy to
wake up one day and read in one of the music papers: ‘Elvis and Cliff battle it
out on the charts.’ I was so happy and thrilled, thinking ‘this is it, I’ve made
it.’” The Shadows, formed as Richard’s backup band, became stars in their own
right beginning with their first hit, an instrumental called “Apache” featuring
a tribal drum beat played by Richard.
“I needed a band, so I got them
together to play for me, but it was obvious they were very good players, and
when they got the opportunity to record on their own, I helped them as best I
could. But playing that short drum introduction on ‘Apache’ we were able to tell
the press that I played on the new Shadows record. But they didn’t need me, the
record was fantastic.”
With hits like “The Young Ones,” “Livin’ Doll,”
“Bachelor Boy” and “Summer Holiday,” Richard continued riding the wave of
success unchallenged until The Beatles and the long-haired generation of rockers
who emerged in the ‘60s. Attempting to compete with the encroachment by adopting
a more mainstream pop sound, Richard fared far better than most of the
pre-Beatles stars, but the move left him outside the “British Invasion” that
conquered the US in the mid-1960s.
“During the British Invasion, anyone
British who released a record got into the Top Five in America. I had a song
that I wanted my record company EMI to put out – a country song called ‘The
Minute You’re Gone,’ and they said they didn’t think it was right for the
market,” said Richard.
“I was so angry, but there was nothing I could do.
And I found out later that EMI America wasn’t really excited by my music, so I
never got any help from them.
Even so, I had nine Top 30 hits in the US,
but you really need a concerted effort and big machine behind you to make it
Despite the relative lack of success in the US, Richard remained
a household name throughout Europe, as he transitioned into a breezy,
Eurovision-style crooner, spurred by a new-found Christian belief that drew him
away from his rock & roll origins.
However, his inner rock star
beckoned and in 1976, with supporters who had been fans in their youth, like
Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and most actively Elton John, Richard released a
“comeback” album of sorts, I’m Nearly Famous, featuring the hard-rocking “Devil
Woman.” It once again almost made him a star in the US.
called me and asked me if he could release the album in the US on his Rocket
Records, because EMI wasn’t going to release it,” he said. “Elton was committed
to it, promoted it and I went out on tour, and to prove my point of the need for
backing, we got a number four and a million-selling record.”
continued to have sporadic successes over the next decades on both sides of the
Atlantic, one where he remained a revered institution, the other where he was
hardly known. Collaborations with John, Mark Knopfler, Freddie Mercury, Stevie
Wonder and Van Morrison gave proof to the esteem in which he was held by his
peers, and his occasional reunions with The Shadows have been marquee events.
Having quickly sold out his announced show in Israel, promoters added a second
show for fans who recall Richard’s heyday.
“I’m thrilled about the
turnout, because I was dubious since it’s been a long time since I’ve had a hit
in Israel. One show would have been fine, and two is great.
But even if
it was a half-filled arena, we would still go out and put on a great
And the entertainer in him still won’t allow him to forget about
breaking into the US market 55 years after his first record was
“I’ve never given up on America. I think that Las Vegas would
be a perfect place, because 40 percent of the people who go there aren’t
American. I could go there and play to people who are foreigners.
it could still happen for me there.”
Even Elvis would have been awed by
tenacity like that.