Pop singer Sir Cliff Richard, OBE, enjoyed one of the most storied musical careers in his native England and throughout much of the world, with an estimated 250 million records sold worldwide and over 100 Top 20 singles in the U.K. including more than a dozen No. 1 songs in five consecutive decades, a feat matched only by Elvis Presley. Despite this, Richard remained only a modest success in the United States, where he enjoyed eight Top 40 singles, including the million-selling "We Don't Talk Anymore" (1979). His efforts in the States stood in sharp contrast to his standing in England, where he was credited for releasing the country's first rock song, "Move It" (1958), backed by the celebrated instrumental group The Shadows. In the 1960s, Richard segued successfully to mainstream pop while also enjoying a side career in movie musicals. Though his star was dimmed by the British Invasion, he rebounded in the 1970s by returning to his rock roots, which generated hits on both sides of the Atlantic like 1976's "Devil Woman." Though his tenure on the American pop charts ended in the early '80s, Richard remained astonishingly popular for the next three decades, scoring a slew of chart-topping singles and Top 10 albums as he approached his sixth and seventh decades. Despite a lack of support from British radio, Cliff Richard surpassed many of his rock peers by remaining not only relevant, but also wildly successful for over a half-century.
Born Harry Rodger Webb on Oct. 14, 1930 in Lucknow, India, Cliff Richard was the son of Anglo-Indian parents; his father, Rodger Oscar Webb, managed a catering company that serviced the Indian Railways, while his mother, Dorothy, was the dormitory matron at a girls' school. Following Indian independence in 1947, the family moved to Surrey, England, where Richard became interested in the skiffle music scene. He obtained his first guitar from his father at the age of 16 and formed a vocal group, the Quintones, in 1957. Soon after, he joined another act, the Drifters, which bore no relation to the American R&B group of the same name. He adopted his stage name - inspired by his love for Little Richard and the alleged suggestion of strength and might associated with the name "Cliff" - for the group's first single, "Move It" (1958). Penned by Drifters guitarist Ian Samwell on a bus ride to Richard's house, the song was actually the B-side for a cover of Bobby Helms' "Schoolboy Crush," which was originally intended as Richard's first release. For whatever reason, the flipside became the promoted song, which rocketed to No. 2 on the U.K. singles charts, minting Richard as an overnight sensation.
The song was later credited by a number of sources, including John Lennon, as the first official British rock record, along with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates' "Shakin' All Over." It was quickly followed by a slew of equally upbeat rockers, including "High Class Baby" and "Living Doll," which provided Richard with his first No. 1 single. For these and other songs, Richard was backed by a new lineup of the Drifters, anchored by the formidable guitarist Hank Marvin and the rhythm section of Jet Harris and Tony Meehan. When "Living Doll" entered the American Top 40, this incarnation of the group changed its name to the Shadows in order to avoid legal issues with the American act. During this period, Richard also made his film debut with the Shadows in a youth drama titled "Serious Charge" (1959), which was quickly followed by "Expresso Bongo" (1959), an acidic satire of the music business with Laurence Harvey as a sleazy music promoter who attempts to fashion naïve singer Richard into a pop sensation.
Like Elvis Presley before him, Richard's early singles with the Drifters/Shadows were marked by a carefully calculated insouciance that earned him the ardent devotion of female fans on both sides of the Atlantic. But with the success of "Living Doll," Richard also took a page from Presley's post-1960 career by recording more mainstream, pop-friendly material, often with an orchestra in place of the Shadows. The tonal shift proved even more popular than his early sides, with such singles as "Travellin' Light" (1959), "I Love You" (1960) and a cover of "It's All in the Game" (1963) providing him with additional No. 1 and Top 5 hits. His success in the music field translated to the movie industry as well, where he reigned as the top British box office attraction from 1962 to 1963 on the strength of such lightweight musical entertainments as "The Young Ones" (1961), "Summer Holiday" (1963) and "Wonderful Life" (1964). But like so many British pop acts of the early 1960s, his tenure as a Top 10 hitmaker was effectively ended by the rise of the Beatles in 1963. In spite of this fact, Richard continued to mine chart hits into the mid-1960s, reaching the Top 10 again in 1965 with "The Minute You're Gone" and then again in 1967 with "The Day I Met You." By this point, however, religion had supplanted pop music as the focus of Richard's life.
Richard became an active Christian in 1964 and, for a brief period, considered ending his rock-n-roll career. However, he soon found a way to balance his secular career with his faith by dividing his recorded output between songs with the Shadows and Christian groups, as well as campaigns with Billy Graham crusades and appearances in Graham-backed pictures like "Two a Penny" (1967). The following year, he was at the center of a major scandal involving the Eurovision Song Contest. Richard's song "Congratulations" (1968) had been selected as the United Kingdom's entry for the Continental song competition, and was widely considered the favorite to win. However, his number was trumped by the Spanish entry, Massiel's "La La La," by just one point. Rumors soon circulated that Spanish dictator Francisco Franco had somehow rigged the voting in favor of his country's song, which would allow Spain to play host to the contest in 1969. The resulting controversy brought an end to voting by national juries, while also minting "Congratulations" as another No. 1 hit for Richard.
For much of the 1970s, Richard concentrated on hosting a variety series, "It's Cliff Richard" (BBC, 1970-76). He relaunched his music career in spectacular fashion with the 1975 album I'm Nearly Famous, which featured a Top 20 single in "Miss You Nights" and a Top 10 single in both the U.S. and U.K. with its follow-up, "Devil Woman." The media on both sides of the Atlantic trumpeted the record as his bona fide comeback, though it would be another three years before he would enjoy another chart hit with "We Don't Talk Anymore." The melancholy ballad was his first No. 1 hit in the United Kingdom in over a decade and a Top 10 hit in America, where he became the first artist in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 to reach its Top 40 in four consecutive decades. After being named an Officer of the British Empire in 1980, he enjoyed a boom period for much of the next 10 years, scoring additional Top 20 U.S. hits with "Dreamin'" (1980) and "Suddenly," a duet with Olivia Newton-John from the "Xanadu" (1980) soundtrack.
Though his tenure as a pop star in America soon faded, he remained a Top 10 artist in the U.K. for the next eight years, scoring No. 1 hits with a 1986 remake of "Living Doll" that featured the anarchic comedy team The Young Ones - who had taken their name from his 1961 feature film - and the 1988 Christmas song "Mistletoe and Wine," which became his 12th U.K. No. 1. A second holiday hit, "Saviour's Day," duplicated the feat in 1990. Between chart-topping songs, he found time to appear in the West End musical "Time" (1986), a science fiction fantasy penned by fellow British rocker Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five. The show's soundtrack also yielded two Top 20 hits for Richard that same year. Richard closed out the 1980s with a lifetime achievement award from the British Phonographic Industry's BRIT Awards - the English equivalent of the Grammys - and a two-night stand at Wembley Stadium to celebrate, among other accolades, his status as the first British artist to release 100 singles.
Richard continued to find success as a singles and album artist in the 1990s, including the chart-topping Cliff Richard - The Album (1993), and became the first music performer to be appointed a Knight Bachelor in 1995. But he also found himself increasingly at odds with the British music industry, largely over issues of age and pop tastes. Believing that radio stations were refusing to play his new songs, he released a 1998 single, "Can't Keep This Feeling In," under the name Blacknight. The song was featured prominently on radio playlists until it was revealed that he was the artist on the song. The following year, EMI balked at releasing a 1999 single, "The Millennium Prayer," on the basis that it lacked commercial potential. Richard then released the song through an independent label, Papillion, after which it shot to the top of the U.K. singles chart and remained there for three weeks. He continued to defy industry perceptions by scoring Top 10 and 20 albums well into the new millennium, including a collection of covers titled Wanted (2001) and the holiday album Cliff at Christmas (2003), which generated a Top 5 single, "Santa's List."
Richard also reunited with the Shadows for the band's final tour of the U.K. shortly before releasing another Top 10 record, Two's Company (2006), which compiled new and previously released duets with Elton John, Barry Gibb, Brian May and Olivia Newton-John. In 2008, he celebrated his 50th year in show business with an eight-CD box set titled And They Said It Wouldn't Last (My 50 Years in Music). A single celebrating the anniversary, titled "Thank You for a Lifetime," rose to No. 3 on the U.K. singles chart that same year, which was soon followed by a reunion with the Shadows in 2009. Though billed as a second "farewell" tour for the band, it continued for another year and yielded a new album, Reunited, which rose to No. 4 in 2009. The following year, Richard celebrated his 70th birthday with a series of six concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London and a collection of pop standards, Bold as Brass (2010), which became his 40th Top 10 album in the U.K. A collection of duets with American soul singers, titled Soulicious (2011), became No. 41.
By Paul Gaita