Still hungry for success

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Measured, majestic and mesmerising to a global fanbase of millions, Sir Cliff Richard has navigated through a tough few years, with his dignity restored, his faith as strong as ever, and a song or two in his heart as well.

While he carries it close to him at all times, Cliff Richard has never leaned too heavily on his faith. ‘For me, it has always been there when I have needed it, but like most other people, I tend to try to sort most of life’s problems out by myself! And yet, when I have truly reached out, the answer has always been there.’

On his way to reaching the ripe old age of 80 – a milestone Sir Cliff hit in October 2020 – the singer, actor, philanthropist and bona fide national treasure had probably expected to while away the latter years of his career without too much fuss or commotion. ‘I wouldn’t suggest you ever want things to quieten down,’ he says. ‘I will keep performing for as long as people keep turning up! Yet, at the same time, you don’t expect your life to be thrown into total disarray.’

That’s what happened when scurrilous, baseless rumours of child abuse landed at the singer’s feet. And in an era where some of our best recognised and most widely respected figures have been exposed for wrongdoings in the past, the star, whose career has spanned six decades, over 45 albums and 12 UK number one singles, found himself swamped by a police investigation and overzealous media reporting.

‘The speed of everything stunned me,’ he said in a TV interview shortly after police had closed the file, citing false accusations that had no basis in truth. ‘In 24 hours my entire life had been turned upside down – everything I thought, believed in and took for granted was suddenly being snatched away from me. It was appalling.’

Through the confusion, amidst layers of uncertainty and fear, Cliff, with faith and prayer on his side, began to steady himself. ‘It is incredible how the human mind can come to terms with the very worst things in life,’ he says. ‘Of course I feared it all, but as time progressed my worry wasn’t so much the police finding something, anything, to substantiate these claims, because I knew that could never be the case. For me, it was more about ensuring that I emerged out of the whole thing with my mental and physical health intact… that I would still be the same person.’

Cliff reveals one of the most important conversations he had at that time was with his good friend, John McElynn, who is also a priest. He told the singer that God believed him. ‘Although that was a statement that was so obvious from my point of view – because I knew I was innocent, and God knows, so of course he believes me – to actually have someone else tell me that really provided and reaffirmed in me the belief that I would get through the episode.’

Get through it he did.

It would be churlish to suggest the singer has emerged better for the experience, but what we might speculate is that rather than allowing a dark shadow to drag behind him, Cliff’s courage, determination and calmness has, ultimately, offered hope and inspiration. It has, if anything in 2020, also uplifted a fanbase who have had their own lives turned upside down by a global health pandemic that still grips us to this day.

‘You know, there is so much goodness and positivity out there. It is my belief that we can overcome so many of the ills we have in society and across the world,’ he says. ‘Sometimes it takes time, a lot of time, but we are resilient creatures, and we will always get there in the end.’

Although Cliff has ‘delved deeper’ with God more recently that at other times in his career, his faith is a constant, and has been since the Swinging Sixties when the singer was, arguably, at the peak of his powers, and the biggest ticket of all the solo artists in the UK.

‘I guess it all started at a time when I was struggling with fame and all that it meant… the intensity of it,’ he reveals. ‘I had, long before then, made a conscious decision that I was going to pursue my career first and foremost, and that would be at the expense of my personal life. And when you do that you have a sense that if you are successful there will always be people around you; there will always be someone to talk to and to share experiences with.

‘I’ve been lucky enough never to have had a long period in my career where I haven’t been recording or touring or whatever it is, so I have always had the company of others; but I do think there was a time in the Sixties when, after working really very hard, solidly, for a decade or so, it began to dawn on me that the path I had chosen was perhaps a bit more superficial than I had imagined.’

Certainly, Cliff won’t have been the first artist to have experienced the tremendous tangible, emotional unity of playing to a live audience; before having to juxtapose that with the solemn solitude that follows, where fans have headed home to their loved ones, and the so-called ‘main attraction’ finds themselves alone in a dressing room. ‘I struggled with the contrast, and with the reality of what my career meant in terms of a normality of life that I just wasn’t going to have. As a result I found myself talking to God and, I guess, turning to God. That was how it all started for me.’

The singer, who is the only person to have ever scored UK number one hits in five consecutive decades, admits his faith has always been there to light up the path. ‘I don’t think I would have made it through some very profound challenges and setbacks were it not for God.’

What’s interesting is when the singer embraced God so publicly all those years ago, immediately the public perception began to change. ‘There was more of a stigma attached to faith and belief systems back then,’ he says. ‘I think straight away I was known as clean-cut, clean living. The headline writers knew they were going to have to go elsewhere if they wanted to find a rebellious star doing something he shouldn’t!’ 

Nowadays, the presentation of faith is a lot less one-dimensional – it doesn’t instantly judge or stereotype someone who says they are religious. As a nation, and as a global population of people, we’re just a bit smarter these days.

‘Faith has a much better image and is more realistic, and because a pop star comes out as religious – think perhaps Justin Bieber or Kanye West – it doesn’t then mean they become less interesting and won’t still do all the things that others do.’

Certainly, across music, sport, fashion and more, we are encouraged by today’s role models to open up and broach discussion. ‘It’s great we have the people and the platforms to share our experiences with God, and our conversations,’ he continues. ‘Of course, that relationship is a very personal and a very unique one for all of us, but in these days of social media, of incredible gadgetry enabling us to communicate with anyone at any time, we need to keep speaking the word. That feels really important to me, especially with all the other challenges that are going on around the world at the moment.’

Certainly, those challenges have evolved for Sir Cliff. It wasn’t so long ago our focus was on his almost greedy pursuit of scoring a chart-topping single in each decade. It all started with Living doll in 1959, a decade that also saw Travellin’ light (recorded with The Shadows) hit the top spot.

In the Swinging Sixties, seven of Sir Cliff’s records made it to the top of the charts – beginning with Please don’t tease in 1960, and concluding in 1968 as Congratulations made it to number one.

It wasn’t until 1979 that We don’t talk any more kept the run going the following decade, while the Eighties showcased a further evolution of sound and style, with spoof track Living doll (1985) and Mistletoe and wine (1988) doing the business. And completing five decades of number ones, Saviour’s day topped the charts in 1990.

‘I became aware of the run back in the Seventies, but it was never an intention to churn out tracks just to keep it going,’ he says. ‘I think if you focus too much on that it becomes a bit of a vanity project and you’re losing sight of the music itself; but while it went on, it was fun. Nowadays, it becomes more and more difficult to do something like that because the music industry is such a different creature. The big change, of course, is the technology – it permits us to do stuff now that we could only ever fantasise about in the past.

He continues: ‘You can take one voice and turn it into a choir by multi-tracking it; you can of course record absolutely pitch-perfect duets with someone you’ll never meet; and the producers of today know so many little flicks and tricks, and have such an array of ideas. It’s a pleasure to produce music these days… all the hard work has gone out of it! As an artist, the truth is you release an album nowadays with everything crossed, because all of the old rules have gone. You just never know what’s going to happen.’

And yet, while the creation and marketing of music has moved with the times, the sounds and interpretations still hark back to styles of bygone eras. ‘I have lots of respect for artists looking to reinvent old records, who respect golden genres of music by putting those sounds and styles into new tracks. Everything we hear today harks back to the Fifties and the rock ‘n’ roll era – it was the basis of so much, even more than the range jazz brought us.’

Cliff names Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran as two of his favourite present-day artists. Does he imagine some sort of rivalry? ‘I don’t think so!’ he laughs. ‘I don’t think any current chart artists are worried about me – we are in completely different areas and I had my time doing what they’re doing.

‘It’s a different world and in a way, I feel sorry for the young singers because there is so much competition and it’s so difficult to get noticed. That gives me even more admiration for those who make it, and there’s no reason someone like Ed Sheeran can’t be around for 50 years, like I have been.’

That longevity is undoubtedly down to a strong mind, the need to keep active – ‘you’ve got to keep walking, keep moving, keep oiling the joints everyday’ – but also a strong faith. ‘I have been very fortunate that my health has remained good – I’ve only ever spent one night in hospital and that was when I had my gall bladder removed. Other than that, I’ve never been sick, and I’ve always felt there is someone looking down taking care of me… but at the heart of it, you have to take care of yourself too. Don’t expect God to come to your rescue every time.’

As far as the pressures of making music today go, Cliff is certainly relaxed. Hugely wealthy and able to pick and choose his projects, after a traumatic few years, he finds himself in a good place.

‘I have slowed down a bit, but when the work comes, it’s ferocious. As I often say, run alongside the bandwagon rather than jumping on it. That way, if it crashes, you don’t crash with it!’

Having relocated to New York in 2019, Cliff splits his time between the US and holiday locations Barbados and Portugal. He has an outlook that is as bright and optimistic now as it was at any other point in his career, although his relinquishing of UK life has come with one casualty. ‘I miss a cup of tea. I mean, look, I can get tea here, but proper tea is the type you get up north – the kind of tea you can stand your spoon up in. I have progressed to drinking more coffee, that is true, but a cup of tea, not too much milk, and a fantastic piece of cake! I don’t think there are many better things in life!’

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