Cliff Richard - rocker of ages

WHEN Cliff Richard took the stage of the Regal Ballroom in the Derbyshire town of Ripley for his debut performance, few people expected rock'n'roll would survive. Fewer still believed in a future for its surly young advocate, with his greased back hairstyle and pelvic thrusts.

Yet more than five decades on, the rowdy musical import from the US has become a global cultural force. The singer, meanwhile, may nowadays favour a bent-kneed shuffle over erotic gyrations, but he remains forever a young one.

In fact, Sir Cliff will turn 70 this Thursday, an age when he thought he would be ensconced in a retirement home, "living off cornflakes and watching Coronation Street".

Hide Ad

Instead, he will mark the occasion with a series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, performing on six nights out of seven over the coming week. Tomorrow, meanwhile, marks the release of Bold As Brass, his new album.

At the same time, Richard has released a 2011 calendar for his adoring and loyal fanbase. The images therein serve as a PR exercise for septuagenarians the world over. October, for instance, features the entertainer strolling nonchalantly along white sands, with his tanned chest bare but for a thicket of dark brown hair.

That he boasts the same 30-inch waist as he did in his heyday is testament to his self-discipline. He may enjoy two glasses of a red wine a day, but he is a regular tennis player, and swears by lecithin, a supplement derived from soya beans, meat and eggs designed to curb the human body's ability to form fat.

While he has tried less conventional approaches such as Botox to retain his youth, a regimented diet is the mainstay of his routine. Believing that each blood group reacts adversely to certain kinds of food, Richard avoids dairy, red meat, and potatoes as part of his Blood Type diet, instead eating fish, turkey, chicken, and rice.

It is, he said last week, a small price to pay. "They said I had the body of a 45-year-old," he beamed. "I couldn't wait to tell my friends, I was so flattered."

Although his musical canon has become the soundtrack of middle England, Richard actually hails from distant shores. Born in Lucknow, India as Harry Rodger Webb, his family left for the UK when he was seven with just 5 to their name. Settling in a council house in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, his father found work making electrical goods, while his mother took employment in a factory.

Hide Ad

Their son did not appear destined for great things after failing his 11-plus. In secondary school, he was firmly reprimanded for playing truant. The reason? To see a concert by Bill Haley and the Comets. It was the first sign that the young Richard had a deep love for the music of America. He picked up the guitar, and at the age of 17, cut a demo disc with a 10 loan from his parents. By 1958, he had teamed up with group of skiffle players known as the Drifters. Together, they secured a contract with EMI and a coveted residency on the ITV music show, Oh Boy!.

None other than John Lennon hailed his debut single Move It as the first authentic British rock record, while an apoplectic New Musical Express condemned the singer for his "violent hip-swinging exhibitionism." Lest there be any doubt about the magazine's view, the article carried the headline: "Is this new boy singer too sexy for Britain?"

Hide Ad

The controversy gathered pace, and before long, the BBC issued a stern edict warning that any shots of Richard should be kept above his waist. One MP even demanded that he be banned from the airwaves, branding him "a corrupt influence on vulnerable teenagers". When Richard ventured north for a concert at Glasgow's Empire Theatre in 1959, military police were deployed to maintain law and order.

In the 1960s, his subversive image mellowed, and Richard went on to achieve astounding mainstream success with saccharine family favourites such as Summer Holiday and Congratulations. His appearances on Sunday Night at the London Palladium drew television audiences in excess of 20 million.

Towards the end of the decade, Richard found God, and started combining his musical career with visits to religious youth groups, churches, and hospitals. "I think the reason I like to talk about spirituality is that deep down inside all of us, if you can sort out the inner person, you can enjoy all the other things," he once said. "You have control - it doesn't control you."

For decades, there has been a constancy to Richard's public and private lives, and he has never been tarnished by scandals involving drugs or alcohol.

"Some people want to live like that, it's up to them," he says. "They do it because they get angry with their lives. I don't do it because I'm happy with my life."

Professionally, he has lately enjoyed only sporadic chart successes allied to around three months of touring every year. But this week's shows at the Royal Albert Hall are a sell-out. A reunion tour with the Shadows last year proved equally popular, with all 250,000 tickets being snapped up. While it is unlikely he will enjoy a number one single from Bold As Brass, his 88th album, he can at least take heart from the 250 million albums he has sold over the course of his half-century in showbiz.

Hide Ad

When not performing, Richard, who has an estimated fortune of 40m, maintains homes in Surrey, Portugal, New York, and Barbados. Fiercely private, he is surrounded by a close-knit group of long-standing associates. His manager, Bill Latham, a former teacher, has been with him for 40 years and once shared his home. Gill Snow, his secretary, has worked with him for 39 years. John McElynn, a former priest who looks after his homes, has been a friend for the past decade.

Richard has always rejected requests to discuss his sexuality, but claims that on two occasions, he considered marriage (firstly to dancer, Jackie Irving, who became Mrs Adam Faith, then to Sue Barker).

Hide Ad

As he prepares to enter his eighth decade, the singer, who started out imitating Elvis only to end up giving renditions of the Lord's Prayer, is not phased by mortality.

The age of 70, he believes is the "new 50," and he is intent on playing his beloved game of tennis even at the ripe old age of 100.

"The treadmill I'm on won't stop until I want to get off and I'm not sure I want to get off now," he said. "I keep talking about slowing down, but it's difficult when I have that wish to keep singing. Retirement's not in my vocabulary at the moment."