Cliff Richard: In an extract from his new memoir A Head Full of Music, Cliff Richard recalls his first encounter with the King – and how he fell for his music, style and way of being
That Saturday in May 1956, Norman Mitham, Terry Smart and I did the walk. We were planning to do the usual: hang out in the park, look in a couple of shops, have a cup of tea in a cafe, maybe call in at Marsden’s to listen to a new single or two. And then, outside the newsagent’s, Aspland’s, we saw the parked car.
Cliff Richard, It was a French car, a green Citroën, with a funky curved back. You didn’t see many of those in rural Hertfordshire, so we headed over to it for a gawp. And then, wafting through the open front window, we heard the song playing on the car radio. “We-e-e-e-ll, since my baby left me …”
Cliff Richard On Elvis Presley: He Had Secrets You Needed To Learn
Huh? What. Is. That? Norman, Terry and I stared at each other, open-mouthed. And as we did, a guy ran out of Aspland’s, jumped into the car, threw his fags and newspaper on to the front passenger seat, started the motor, and drove off. The alien-sounding music vanished down the road with the Citroën.
Cliff Richard, Wow! I had never heard anything like it in my life! Norman, Terry and I spent the whole afternoon gabbling about how great it had sounded, and how we had to find out what it was. When I saw him at school that Monday morning, Norman was grinning in triumph. “I heard that song again, on AFN!”
He proclaimed. “It’s called Heartbreak Hotel, and it’s by some guy called Elvis Presley!” Well, we all had a good hoot about what a daft name that was – Elvis? Who gets called Elvis? – But, more to the point, I knew I had to get the song.
Cliff Richard, Elvis sounded like he was singing for me. To me. Nobody my age, no teenager, would ever have been inspired by Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, or wanted to be like them. Elvis was different. He sounded so young, so cool and so now, and his voice cut through everything else. He sounded passionate, and powerful. He sounded like he had secrets that you needed to learn.
Oddly, I wasn’t that bothered about the lyrics of Heartbreak Hotel. It was exactly what it said on the tin: a heartbreak song, as so many great rock’n’roll tunes are. But what excited me about it was the rhythms of the music, the beats, the feel, the attitude. The sense of something being born. Here, right before my ears, Elvis was giving rock’n’roll a new shape.
Cliff Richard, Immediately, he obsessed me. I started trying to find out everything about Elvis that I could. When I first saw a photograph of him, I couldn’t believe how cool he looked – that quiff! That curled lip! And when I realised that he had an album out already, I absolutely had to have it.
I got a holiday job picking potatoes on a local farm. There I was, all day long, bent double and yanking spuds out of the dirt for a shilling an hour. The boredom and backache were all worth it when I had saved up the cash and was back down Marsden’s to buy Elvis Presley. Heartbreak Hotel wasn’t on the record, but I didn’t mind: there were so, so many new songs to love.
Cliff Richard, I loved the opener, Blue Suede Shoes, with its urgent vocal and frantic rhythms. I adored I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone, where Elvis’s trembling voice told tales of desertion. I worshipped Lawdy Miss Clawdy, with its honky-tonk piano, crazy twang and aching vocal. Heck, I loved every single note on the record.
I wasn’t the only family member hooked on Elvis. My eldest sister, Donna, who was 13 then, adored him. At the end of 1956, I took her to the pictures to see him star in Love Me Tender. She sobbed. “Harry, can I borrow your handkerchief?” When she gave it back, it wasn’t just wet through. It was torn.
Cliff Richard, I set off on a determined one-man mission to make myself look as identical to him as was humanly possible. The quiff came first, of course. I began spending hours in front of the bathroom mirror, sweeping my hair to the back of my head and trying to fix it in place with Brylcreem – I wasn’t the only lad in Cheshunt doing that.
I was quite pleased with my Brylcreem skills, but it never looked as good as when Elvis had just a few strands that broke loose from his quiff and hung over his forehead. I never managed to reproduce that.
My love for Elvis even influenced my diet. When I read in Girlfriend magazine that he liked putting peanut butter and jam (or “jelly”, as the Americans call it) on his toast, I started eating mine like that too. It was an acquired taste, but I managed to acquire it. This is how Elvis eats it! I told myself. It MUST taste great!
Cliff Richard, When I broke through, I started getting called the “English Elvis” or the “British answer to Elvis”. As I’ve always said, that second description ignored one basic fact: Elvis was not a question. I no longer think, “What would Elvis do?” whenever I have any big decisions to make, as I did in my earliest years. I’ve been through that. I stopped being the “English Elvis” and started being me, Cliff Richard, a long time ago.
I still feel like I owe him everything, though. I have many mornings when I wake up in Barbados, get up, gaze out of my bedroom window at the Caribbean, and wonder: how the hell did I get from Cheshunt to here? And the answer is Elvis Presley.