Harry Rodger Webb was born in India in 1940, and the Webb family moved to England in 1947. Harry grew up in North London and liked acting and making music. In 1956 his singing debut was with ‘The Quintones' in the local youth club. When his father gave him a guitar for his birthday he joined the Dick Teague's Skiffle Group. Skiffle was a revival of 30s jug music and soon Harry found himself the lead singer of a rock n roll band called the Drifters (1958). The difference between skiffle and rock’n roll was the bass player played a bass guitar and not a tea chest base. The band originally wanted to call themselves the Planets but thought better of it. The original members of the band were Harry (rhythm guitar), Ian "Sammy" Samwell (lead guitar), Terry Smart (drum) and Norman Mitham (rhythm guitar). They played a set at the 2i s coffee club in London.
In the late fifties this was the Mecca of British rock'n'roll at the time and had launched the country’s biggest rock'n'roll stars of the time, Tommy Steele and Terry Dene. The bar was originally owned by the two Irani brothers (hence the name) who sold it to two flamboyant Australian professional wrestlers, Doctor Death (Paul Lincoln) and 'Rebel' Ray Hunter who had transformed the originally languishing establishment into a thriving icon of the rock'n'roll era. From their appearance in the 2is Coffee Club offers began to appear and when the Drifters were asked to play at the Regal Ballroom in Ripley they were asked to change their name. Richard was a tribute to Little Richard and the decision to drop the‘s’ gave the singer the chance when called 'Cliff Richards' to get his name mentioned twice, as he corrected them. Cliff just sounded edgy. After hearing Elvis on the radio Cliff made up his mind he would be a rock’n’ roll singer and on stage he showed vitality and authenticity equal to an Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, but was no Elvis (his hero) clone. His talents were recognized quickly and he signed a recording contract with EMI. The producer, Norrie Paramor, had little faith in the Drifters however and brought in a couple of session men to improve backings which included a bass player. The intention was to release a Bobby Helms cover of his US hit, “Schoolboy Crush", with the B side a song written by Ian Sammy Samwell called “Move it.” Somewhere along the line the single was flipped and EMI and Cliff had a hit record.
On stage Cliff Richard adopted a Presley-style dressing in fingertip jacket, tight trousers and a quaff. He rarely smiled at his audience and held a curled lip sneer. Cliff featured regularly in the new kid’s pop program ABC TV’s “Oh Boy” (1958-1959). This was on the new commercial station which was popular and less constrained than the Six Five Special (BBC).
Jack Good the producer taught Cliff his stagecraft. Out went the guitar off came the side burns and he was tutored on how to perform to the camera with his eyes. The Beatles had jelly beans thrown at them by their adoring female fans, Cliff had old pennies thrown at him by jealous guys in the audience. He appeared in 20 of the 38 shows between 1958-59 and was the series' star attraction. His recording career continued with follow-up singles in the form of "High Class Baby", "Livin' Lovin' Doll", and "Mean Streak". It was on "Livin' Lovin' Doll" that The Drifters began to back Cliff in the studio and by that time, the band's lineup had changed completely with Jet Harris (bass guitar), Tony Meehan (drums) , Hank Marvin (lead guitar) , and Bruce Welch (rhythm guitar) now making up the Drifters.
When legal complications arose with the name of the band they changed their name to The Shadows. However it was Cliff's fifth single that cemented the foundation for his immense popularity. Throughout the early sixties Cliff and the Shadows were inseparable and became the biggest concert draw in Britain.
Tony Meehan (drummer) and Jet Harris (guitarist) left the Shadows, to team up as a pop duo with some success and Cliff continued to record poppy songs which were popular but by this time he and the Shadows had lost their rock’n roll routes. Despite Cliff’s fame in the UK and Australia, the band had mild impact in the United States. Cliff and the Shadows undertook their first Australasian tour in 1961 straight after his 21st birthday party. They played in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, and Adelaide. Since then he has undertaken more than thirty tours of the country and has had the third highest amount of hit singles of any artist in Australia. It was during the 61 tour that Cliff began to explore spiritual matters after the loss of his father. He would later say, 'Perhaps that is also part of the reason Australia is a very special place for me - it was there that I began a most important spiritual journey and began to grapple with my ideas about religion and mortality.'
Meantime back in the UK Cliff and the Shadows appeared in a number of films, most notably in The Young Ones. For the time this was quite a revelation and although tame by Rent standards in terms of subject content it did set the pattern for teen flicks which followed including Hard Day’s Night, the Monkeys, and of course the famous Young Ones comedy series.
Cliff and the Shadows remained popular throughout the sixties by recording softer middle of the road pop. Despite having influenced the new era of beat sixties groups, their music was less aggressive which broadened their appeal to an older audience. Cliff became a born again Christian in 1964 which influenced his career choice and selection of recording material. This did not drop his following but increased it further.
He was chosen twice to represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest and whilst he did not win the songs Congratulations (1968) and Power to all our friends (1973) sold well.
The Shadows split in 1968 and Cliff Richard continued to record without his band. During the seventies he became a TV personality appearing with Hank Marvin in Its Cliff (BBC). However by the mid seventies Cliff and friends decided it was time to bring back the old Cliff Richard and they recorded a new "rock" album entitled, I'm Nearly Famous (1976). The title was tongue in cheek and a reference to the absence of popularity in the US. British rockers welcomed the return of Cliff to his old style and many rock personalities including Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and Elton John was photographed wearing promotional button badges for the album.
In 1979 Cliff went to #1 with “We Don't Talk Anymore". which became his biggest-selling single with over 5 million copies sold worldwide.
Throughout the 80s he balanced his recording career with tours and always had a pop and gospel tour which he kept separate. Cliff Richard has remained a "Bachelor Boy" throughout his career giving rise to the occasional rumors about his sexuality. In 1974, he denied a rumour that he had asked his good friend Olivia Newton-John for her hand in marriage and later, his relationship with tennis player Sue Barker was the subject of much gossip, but they disappointed those who expected them to marry. Cliff Richard reached the pinnacle of his career when he was knighted in 1995. He was the first rock star to be so honored. During the last six decades Cliff Richard charted many hit singles and holds the record (along with Elvis Presley) as the only act to make the UK singles charts in all its active decades (1950s–2000s). It is estimated he has sold over 250 million records over the course of his career.
Worth a listen:
Move it (1958)
Living Doll (1959)
The Young Ones (1962)
When the girls in your arms
Devil Woman (1976)
Cliff and Van Morrison
Whenever God shines his light on you (1989)
Cliff and the Young Ones
Living Doll (1986)