Congratulations to Sir Cliff, still able to Move It at 80

Dave Pope recalls the time he organised a Christmas street party in village, and told them a special guest would be calling in later on.

Sir Cliff Richard performing at Walcot Hall, near Bishop's Castle
Sir Cliff Richard performing at Walcot Hall, near Bishop's Castle

“Because it was Christmas, everyone thought it would be Father Christmas, he says.

It wasn’t. And when the special guest turned out to be pop superstar Cliff Richard, the street erupted into a frenzy of excitement.

Sir Cliff, as he is now, celebrates his 80th birthday today, and still has the looks and energy that many men in their 50s can only dream of. His 43rd studio album goes on sale at the end of the month, and Dave – a friend of the star since the 1970s – says the hardest thing for him will be that he can’t share the milestone with his fans. He would have been on a UK concert tour this week, had he not been forced to postpone it due to coronavirus.

Dave, a gospel singer and charity worker from Lower Gornal, Dudley, first met Cliff at a Billy Graham event in Amsterdam in the mid-1970s. A few years later the star invited Dave’s band, The Alethians, to support him in a series of charity concerts.

Cliff Richard with 'living doll' Sophie Poduval, Dave Pope's 14-month-old god-daughter, at a street party in Lower Gornal in December, 1993

This partnership also introduced him to Alethians keyboard player, Chris Eaton, who went on to pen many of Sir Cliff’s popular hits, including Saviour’s Day, O Little Town, and Golden.

Sir Cliff was born Harry Rodger Webb in Lucknow, India, in 1940, the son of a catering manager working on the Indian Railways.

When India was granted independence in 1948, the Webbs returned to the UK by boat, a journey which took three weeks, and in 1950 the family settled in a council house in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire.

As a teenager he became interested in skiffle music, and his father bought him his first guitar when he was 16. The following year he formed the Quintones vocal group, and he sang in the Dick Teague Skiffle Group.

Sir Cliff Richard celebrating his 60 years in showbusiness. Picture: Don Birch

But it was the rise of the American rock ‘n’ roll star Elvis Presley that would give a clue to where his future lay.

He became lead singer in a rock ‘n’ roll group called The Drifters – no connection to the American band of the same name – and was persuaded to change his name to Cliff Richard. Cliff was chosen to represent the rock of rock ‘n’ roll, and Richard a tribute to Little Richard. But the surname was also a cunning ploy to make sure people remembered him.

“I figured that people would introduce me as ‘Cliff Richards’ and I would then correct them and tell them it’s ‘Cliff Richard’, without the ‘s’. That way I would get two mentions,” he later revealed.

His 1958 debut Move It caused a sensation, and his chiselled features and distinctive black quiff led to him immediately being branded the English Elvis.

Cliff Richard in his younger days

Like many up-and-coming stars of the time, he made an appearance on Jack Good’s popular youth television series Oh Boy!

“It’s wonderful to be going on TV for the first time, but I feel so nervous that I don’t know what to do. I shaved my sideburns off last night... Jack Good said it would make me look more original.” he said.

In performance he struck a pose of rock attitude, rarely smiling or looking at the audience or camera. His late 1958 and early 1959 follow-up singles, High Class Baby and Livin’ Lovin’ Doll, were followed by Mean Streak, which carried a rocker’s sense of speed and passion, and Lionel Bart’s Living Doll. It was on Living Doll that the Drifters began to back Richard on record. It was his fifth record and became his first No. 1 single.

Cliff Richard performing in 2015

But as the success of Living Doll also created a legal headache, and as the song climbed the US charts, his backing group was forced to change its name to The Shadows to avoid confusion with American group.

The Shadows always remained contractually separate from Cliff, and received no royalties for records backing Richard. In 1959, The Shadows (then still the Drifters) landed an EMI recording contract of its own, and released three singles, two of which featured double-sided vocals and one of which had instrumental on both sides. In 1960 The Shadows topped the charts with Apache in several countries, setting them on a different path, although the band continued to collaborate with Cliff.

He also starred in a number of musical films, including the hit musical Summer Holiday.

Sir Cliff Richard, left and Dave Pope, right, with then Mayor and Mayoress of Dudley Councillor George Davies and his wife George at the opening of the Saltmine Trust offices in Dudley

After converting to Christianity, Sir Cliff continued his career going on to sell more than 250 million records and surviving the arrival of The Beatles, disco and punk while still scoring hits. He was knighted in 1995, the first rock star to be honoured in such a way.

But while his career has been a soaraway success, he has been unlucky in love. In his younger years, he was linked with numerous glamorous women, and had a high profile relationship with the tennis star Sue Barker. But although he said he was ready to settle down and have children when he marked his 40th birthday in 1980, he has remained the Bachelor Boy.

Dave Pope – who met the singer for a coffee only last week – says the secret to Sir Cliff’s youthful demeanour is that he has managed to avoid the temptations that many people in showbusiness succumb to, and always surrounding himself with a group of close friends.

“He’s an amazing professional, he is fun, and has got a rapport with the crowds,” says Dave, who at 72 is eight years Sir Cliff’s junior.

Dave Pope on a wine tour with Cliff Richard

“He is very professional, he expects the best from the people he works with, and he always gives his best, 110 per cent of the time.”

And he still pulls the punters in. Thousands flocked to the tiny Shropshire village of Lydbury North in 2017 to see him perform at Walcot Hall.

His 70th birthday, 10 years ago, came in the middle of a concert tour, where he jokingly appeared on the stage carrying a walking frame, and before the coronavirus, he planned to mark his 80th in a similar style.

And 10 years from now, will he be celebrating his 90th birthday with another album and an ambitious concert tour?

You would be brave to bet against it.

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