Before The Beatles, it was the English Elvis who made the girls scream
In television clips from the late ’50s, Cliff Richard looks endearingly awkward, like a kid who’s seen Jailhouse Rock and King Creole a bunch of times at his local cinema, then went home to practice Elvis’s moves in front of a mirror. His hair is sculpted like the American teen idols’, and his expression is a bit dazed: Am I doing this right? What is happening here?
Cliff wasn’t the first British performer to adopt the trappings of U.S. rock’n’roll (that was Tommy Steele), and he wasn’t the best of that wave of boys aping the contours of the ones back in the States (that was Billy Fury). They had to be wild enough—one of the English guys was dubbed Marty Wilde, another Vince Eager—aimed to drive teenaged girls into a frenzy, but well-behaved enough to pass muster with the mums.
No one pulled off that trick as skillfully as Cliff Richard did: he was a phenomenon (and he, too, had changed his name, from Harry Webb, to one that had a chiseled sound to it, something crisp and direct). His debut album (also released as a pair of EPs), just called Cliff, was released 60 years ago this month, and it was the only LP by a British singer to sit in the nation’s top 10 chart, alongside Elvis, a group of soundtrack albums (South Pacific, Gigi, The King and I), the London cast album of My Fair Lady, and Continental Encores by Mantovani. It stayed on that chart for more than half of 1959.
In interviews, Richard—sorry, that’s Sir Cliff Richard, Knight of the British Empire—sometimes comes across as defensive, insisting that despite his lauded six-decade career (he’s still at it: friends of mine saw him just last year at the Royal Albert Hall), his stature in the official story of rock’n’roll hasn’t been duly recognized. He has a point. Tommy Steele, with his string of singles, most of them rather over-emphatically including the word “rock” in their titles (“Rock with the Caveman,” “Doomsday Rock,” “Grandad’s Rock” and so forth), may have gone to the post earlier, but it was “Move It” by Cliff Richard and the Drifters (later to be renamed the Shadows to avoid confusion with the American R&B group) that truly kicked things off for U.K. rock’n’roll. The song was patterned (by writer Ian Samwell) on U.S. rockabilly, and it knew its geography: the “brand new beat” is “hangin’ in the air like the Mississippi heat.” “Move It” was one of those rock songs that was about itself. “They say it’s gonna die,” the lyric goes. But what’s goin’ to replace it? Calypso? Fat chance.
Billy Bragg, in his book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, writes that when Richard sang “Move It” on Jack Good’s TV show Oh Boy!, which launched on ITV in late ’58, a Daily Mirror headline asked, “Is This Boy Too Sexy For Television?” (Apparently not: Cliff appeared on the show 20 times.) Which just seems like something the newspaper felt it had to say, imitating the initial mainstream press reaction to Elvis. It was rock’n’roll itself, not Richard, that was on trial. But imagine you’re a teenager in London, Liverpool, or Manchester, and you switch on the TV and you see a convincing English rock’n’roll group, something like Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Maybe you find Cliff Richard a little too studied, too obviously packaged. Behind him, though, are the Drifters/Shadows: bespectacled Hank Marvin on lead guitar (the James Burton to Cliff’s Ricky Nelson), Bruce Welch on rhythm guitar, Jet Harris on bass (he joined in ’59), Tony Meehan on drums (ditto). How many British kids looked over Cliff’s shoulders and decided to ask for a guitar for Christmas 1958?
Cliff was recorded in a couple of sessions in February 1959 at EMI’s Studio 2 (Abbey Road) in front of an invited audience of squealing girls. Not even RCA thought of doing that with Elvis, packing the room with teenagers whose screams of delight punctuate the collection of mostly U.S. rockabilly covers, plus “Move It,” and two instrumentals (Marvin’s “Driftin’” and Harris’s “Jet Black”) that point to the Shadows’ eventual hugely successful spin-off career. The band sprints through some predictable hits (“Ready Teddy,” “Donna,” “Too Much”), but they also dig deeper: the lead-off track, “Apron Strings,” was originally by Billy the Kid (not Billy the Kid Emerson), and “Don’t Bug Me Baby” by Milton Allen. “Down the Line” had been cut earlier by Roy Orbison at Sun Records. Cliff is a rockin’ little record, as important in the evolution of British rock as Billy Fury’s The Sound of Fury. What came next is part of why Cliff Richard is not often granted his spot in the telling of the tale.
For his second album of 1959, Cliff Sings, the repertoire was evenly split between tracks backed by the Shadows (Pomus & Shuman’s “The Snake and the Bookworm,” Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” a couple of Carl Perkins tunes) and standards (“I’ll String Along With You,” “Embraceable You”) on which a hesitant Cliff is accompanied by the unsubtle strings of Norrie Paramour. Already, bets were being hedged. Cliff Sings came out soon after the #1 hit “Living Doll,” a bouncy Lionel Bart song that Richard and his group performed in the film Serious Charge. Apparently, Cliff was not 100 percent on board. “It didn’t sound like real American rock’n’roll to us,” he’s said to have complained. He was right, of course, but from that point on, it was push-and-pull between “real” rock’n’roll and far tamer fare.
Cliff ended the decade with a co-starring role in the Brit-noir musical Expresso Bongo, playing a pop idol not unlike himself, discovered in a Soho hangout (Richard and the Drifters got their big break in the famous 2i’s coffee bar on Old Compton Street in London) and exploited by an unsavory manager, played by Laurence Harvey. It was a perfect part for Cliff—and Bragg calls it “the best movie about the roots of British pop”—but soon, like Elvis, he was trapped in a string of throwaway vehicles with accompanying soundtracks, beginning with The Young Ones in 1961. But unlike Elvis’s transformation, his was abrupt: it was as if Elvis had jumped straight from Loving You to Blue Hawaii.
It’s easy, especially from the U.S. vantage point, to think of Cliff Richard as a footnote. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, around a dozen singles of his were released in the U.S. on Capitol, ABC-Paramount, Dot, Bigtop and Epic, but only two–“Living Doll” and a version of “It’s All In the Game”– made the bottom of the top 30. It wasn’t until 1976, when he signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records, that he scored a top 10 hit in America with “Devil Woman.” Still, as much as he might have in common with someone like Pat Boone (there’s the wholesome piety thing, although Cliff always seemed more complicated, like there were secrets he wasn’t prepared to share), he shouldn’t be written off. He and his band showed a generation of young Brits that they could plug in and make their own noise, and we all know what that lead to.