As Sir Cliff Richard marks his 80th birthday on Wednesday, the pioneer of British pop will have ample reason to feel proud.
When he arrived in Britain from India as a young boy, his family had just £5 to their name.
They were the classic “humble beginnings” – from which Cliff has forged a remarkable career.
Yet even today, with 56 studio and live albums and 14 UK No1’s under his belt, friends say humble is still the word that best describes him.
And that, says confidant and biographer Mike Read, really is down to the power of all his friends.
DJ Mike, who has known Cliff for more than 40 years, says: “Through having a good circle of friends around him he has remained normal… as normal as you can be when you’re a major rock ’n’ roll star.
“To us, he’s just a regular guy. If he’s beaten in tennis, he’s beaten. If someone didn’t buy his records, he would think, ‘I’ll try harder at the next one’.
“He doesn’t have that elevated thing about him. If we went round to play tennis, it isn’t, ‘Oh, Cliff will provide the tea’.
“Someone would take cake and someone else would take scones.”
Cake and scones may not sound very rock ’n’ roll. But Cliff has travelled the globe for more than 60 years alongside legends including the Rolling Stones, Sir Elton John and The Beatles.
Aside from Elvis Presley, the Young Ones singer is the only artist to have had a UK No1 single in every decade from the 1950s to the 2000s.
He has sung for the Queen and holidayed with Princess Diana.
But, say his friends, you would never know – his humility and down-to-earth manner are the qualities that seal his enduring appeal.
Cliff was born Harry Rodger Webb in Lucknow, India, to parents Rodger and Dorothy. When he was seven the family came to Britain almost penniless. He left school with one O-Level, in English literature, and got a job as a filing clerk in Enfield, North London.
By then he had formed a vocal group with school pals after getting his first guitar at 16. His first love was skiffle – but Mike says it was hearing Elvis sing Heartbreak Hotel that turned Cliff into a rock ’n’ roll star.
He says: “Cliff always said without Elvis there wouldn’t have been Cliff.
“When he heard Heartbreak Hotel he thought, ‘Wow, what is that? I’ve got to do that’. And then he discovered he had a good voice.”
But while Elvis was his hero, he did not become a role model.
Mike, 73, believes it was Cliff’s humility that helped keep him grounded while Elvis’s life and career went off the rails. He says: “Cliff has always had good advice down the line, and good people around him.
“Elvis was surrounded by people who wouldn’t say boo to him. They were all on the gravy train, all yes men.
“But Cliff has always been surrounded by friends who have a sense of reason, a sense of well-being.
“He and his long-term manager Peter Gormley never had a contract – they shook hands and Peter said, ‘Cliff, if ever I’m not doing right by you, you can walk away’.
“It was a gentlemen’s agreement and a handshake. Peter was fantastic, he played a big part steering the ship.”
It was John Lennon – who would have turned 80 three days ago – who declared Sir Cliff to be the pioneer of British pop and rock.
He once said: “The first English record that was anywhere near anywhere was Move It by Cliff Richard. Before, there’d been nothing.”
Even with such high praise, Mike says Cliff never got ideas above his station, and has always put his music – and his fans – first. And he says that is all the more impressive given the company he kept.
Mike and Cliff regularly used to ski with Princess Diana, enjoying days filled whizzing down the pistes in Europe’s best resorts and evenings filled with laughter, games and song.
He recalls: “We’d get the guitars out, Diana would always say, can we have a sing-song later?
“William and Harry came down one night and were singing into Toblerone bars as microphones.
“William said, ‘Will you play Great Balls of Fire, it’s Mummy’s favourite’. It was an unusual band, that’s for sure.
“It was just fun. Diana could let her hair down, you could talk and have a laugh, feeling absolutely relaxed.
“The kids were quite mad, fearless. Mad Harry Wales… you’d think, wow, he looked immortal as he came down the slopes, he couldn’t care less.”
It is no surprise that Cliff’s friends, including the likes of Gloria Hunniford and Cilla Black, were all there for him at the lowest point of his life – when police raided his home in 2014 over an unfounded sexual abuse claim. The investigation was dropped and Sir Cliff later sued the BBC for breach of privacy over helicopter footage of the raid on his Berkshire home.
He said later: “Despite no charges being brought against me, and despite winning my privacy case, I’m sure there’s still people who believe that stupid adage, ‘No smoke without fire’.”
Mike says: “Everyone supported him because everyone knew he was a decent bloke. To go through something when you’re innocent can put you in a pretty bad place.”
Cliff’s 80th birthday tour is on hold until next year due to the pandemic.
But Mike is certain there will be plenty of time yet to enjoy his music.
He says: “I’m sure people say to Cliff, when are you going to stop? And I’m sure he’d say, why stop if I enjoy it?
“If you’re enjoying it, you want one more great album, one more great song, to add to your legacy.”
- Cliff Richard: The Great 80 by Mike Read is available now
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