Cliff Richard: An Elvis for Christ

Britain's Presley plays for Jesus

Cliff Richard in Hilversum, Netherlands in 1972. Credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty

London — It's fully an hour before the service begins and the well-scrubbed young Londoners are queuing between the Corinthian columns of All Souls Church. One of Britain's top entertainment personalities, Cliff Richard, once "England's Elvis," is making another of his witnesses for Christ.

Within half an hour the 150-year-old church is filled to its thousand capacity. Another couple of hundred chairs line the aisles. Two large rooms in the rear of the church are wired with loudspeakers for the overspill of patrons. Outside, another few hundred stand patiently, crowded as angels on the head of a pin, wrinkling their Sunday best.

* * *

Cliff is nearby having tea with the vicar of the church, Michael Baughen, and the vicar's family. They'd met once before when the vicar was a rector in Manchester and Cliff became the first pop singer to appear on one of the BBC's religious programs. In a small way, then, it's a reunion. But the conversation follows a familiar pattern.

The vicar is saying how grateful — jolly good for the young people and the church, he is — that Cliff is here today. Personal witnesses so valuable ... Standing room only ...

Cliff has heard it all before, for he does this two or three times each week. It pleases him. The estimated 15 million who watch It's Cliff Richard on the television Saturday nights; the 56 singles released since 1958 and all but one in Britain's Top 30; the successful tours of Europe and the Far East ... yes, they're satisfying, but standing room only here!

Cliff Richard is a busy man and it is unusual what he's doing, although he's certainly not the first performer to put down his heathen showbiz ways and publicly pick up the banner for Christ; Little Richard, Pat Boone, James Fox, Billy Preston and George Harrison have done the same, but not always to the same, enthusiastic call-and-response. In fact, Cliff indicates very strongly that he believes some of the personalities now singing Christ's praises aren't as sincere as they seem. More on that in a moment. But first a word from the pagan past.

Back then, in the Fifties, when it all began for Cliff, he wasn't Cliff at all, but Harry Webb. He'd been born in India in 1940 of English parents, had come to London when he was seven, first to live with a grandmother and then to share a single room with his parents and three sisters.

Like hundreds of working-class boys whose grades would keep them from a university classroom and polish, Harry turned to music, joining first an a capella group (singing "Heartbreak Hotel," among others), later picking up a guitar and singing in a skiffle band. Finally by 1958 he changed his name and copied his idol's — Presley's — act right down to the last wiggle.

Today Cliff says, "The reason I was always labeled Britain's Elvis was because everybody wanted a Britain's Elvis and I was sort of the nearest thing to it." In truth, it was as much Cliff's fantasy as the nation's. He wore Elvis' favorite colors: pink and black. He vibrated his legs like a cricket in hot weather. Even in a puffy paperback biography authorized a few years ago it was admitted: "His dark hair would be immaculate at the start of the act, but after a few bars it would begin to assume a carefully stage-managed kind of disorder. Such details could not be left to chance."

His first record, "Move It," had made him England's Number One and riots were de rigueur, with smoke bombs and firehoses sometimes used in crowd control. Little English buds were having themselves delivered backstage in packing crates, and Cliff was having a time. "I used to remember reading write-ups saying, 'He's got smoldering eyes,'" Cliff recalls, "so I used to go out there and smolder my eyes."

Suddenly there came a change in packaging. By 1958 Elvis was in the Army, turning into The Boy Next Door and Cliff was soon to follow — although the cleaning-up wasn't the government's, or his, idea but that of Jack Good, the gregarious Oxford graduate who was helping shape the course of pop in England through television. He picked Cliff to be the featured soloist on a new series, the now-classic Oh Boy!, and told him to drop the Presley bit. Cliff dropped the Presley bit. Why not? Elvis had dropped it, hadn't he?

Also like Elvis, Cliff began making films marked by thin plots, good supporting casts (Anthony Quayle, Laurence Harvey, Robert Morley, Ron Moody), a preponderance of songs, innocuous titles like Summer Holiday and Wonderful Life, and sizeable profits. His singles continued successful, too, so that by 1961, 12 of the 16 had reached Number One or Two.

(He never was a success in America — not even after five visits to the US and seven shots on the Ed Sullivan Show. Only three of his songs ever appeared on an American chart, with the most popular, "Living Doll" in 1959 and "Lucky Lips" in 1963, climbing no higher than 30.)

With his dark, handsome good looks, an ordinary but comfortable voice (somewhere between tenor and baritone, in the octave below middle E) and an image that was blurred enough to satisfy everyone and antagonize no one, an audience was assured.

Again like Elvis, who'd fallen into the Hollywood money pit, Cliff was living The Good Life splendidly. He had closets and closets of fancy duds. Big cars. (He still has a weakness for both.) A large home in London with marble tables decorated with gold filigree and silver taps in the bath. A villa on the coast of Portugal.

And again like Elvis, Cliff was plagued by vanity — never wearing his glasses in public, fretting about his weight — and noted for a ferocious temper.

Another change in packaging: Shortly after his father's death the bassist in the Shadows turned him on to the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose movement he then left in 1964 to join another evangelical organization called the Crusaders. Two years after that, as he was making his first appearances at Anglican rallies and London's pop papers began calling him "Christian Cliff," he took the final public step, joining Billy Graham's Greater London Crusade, singing "It Is No Secret What God Can Do" to 25,000 people gathered in Earl's Court Stadium. The same year, 1966, he was confirmed a Christian and he put a teacher of divinity on his personal payroll. It was then, Cliff says now, he decided to chuck it all in and become a full-time man of God.

It wasn't fated to happen that way. Billy Graham wanted to get some more mileage out of Cliff and asked him to star in a religious flick which showed both the beauty of Christ and the horror of drugs. Meanwhile Cliff's manager suggested he finally do a gospel album ... and interviewers stood six deep.

"It was fantastic!" is the way Cliff remembers it today. "Suddenly my career was going to be used for Christian work. I suddenly became aware that one can make use of one's career."

If all this sounds as if Cliff were plunging into non-commercial waters, or severely limiting the size of his future public, be at ease: Wise business heads prevailed and not until February of this year — six years after his gospel LP — was one of his singles even slightly religious. In the past year he's also turned to the stage, appearing in London productions of Five Finger Exercise and The Potting Shed. And although he occasionally has the gospel group he tours with, the Settlers, as guests on his weekly half-hour show, the programming format follows a rigid family entertainment formula: bland songs sung blandly and corny Laugh-In styled blackouts pasted together with rather conventional choreography and pallid jokes mailed in by the fans.

"I'm aware that one can't take advantage of people," Cliff says, referring to his bent for evangelism. "I can take advantage of my career, but to be fair, if you've got a public, you have to earn the public, so you have to do a normal TV series along with the Christian stuff."

Not that Cliff's being a hypocrite. Not at all. If there's ever a choice to make, there's really no doubt: "I think of myself as a Christian who happens to be in show business, not the other way around."

Among hard-nosed Protestant evangelists, showbiz folk generally are regarded about as highly as pigs in heat. In his talks to teachers, pastors and parents, Cliff's trying to change that. He's also trying to effect minor changes within the industry itself.

"When I do a TV show, I grind the script down," he says. "In the past I wouldn't have cared too much about lyrics, but now I do. Now I feel the responsibility much more as an adult. I feel responsible to the public and if I feel that a 14-year-old is gonna hear a lyric that I sing and perhaps be misled by it, then I'd rather not sing it."

A fairly recent lyric of his own is relevant. This is "Yesterday, Today and Forever," more a recitation than a song and one in which Cliff challenges the current "popularity" of Jesus Christ and some of his contemporaries for going along with it:

When did you become superstar of this generation?

When did you become commercial property?

Everybody's got their own sweet lord

Hear them sing it, George H. and Sweet James T.

"It's a semi-gospel song," Cliff says. "Americans would call it God-rock. Isn't that awful? I really wrote it because I got very up ... no, I don't want to use 'uptight,' but that's what I mean, about everybody being able to record 'My Sweet Lord' and 'Oh Happy Day,' except me. If I did anything like that everybody would say: 'Oh, here comes the religious bit.' But everybody else could do it. As a Christian I felt that where they all missed out, although they were great records, was that they didn't know exactly who Jesus was."

* * *

"I organize the Christian side of Cliff's diary."

Bill Lathem talking. He's the schoolmaster Cliff hired six years back. Bill tells you he had known Cliff's family well, that he'd had Cliff's youngest sister in his religion class four years running when Cliff — "looking for answers" — came to him and they began to talk. Soon after, Bill says, Cliff asked him to join "the family." He now shares Cliff's home in the Finchley section of north London.

"It depends of course, but over the past year or so, I'd estimate Cliff's been averaging two or three meetings a week," Bill says. "About one-fourth of his week is spent on specifically Christian work. He goes to some church nearly every Sunday and maybe you'll hear about it, probably you won't ... and then Cliff will talk to a school meeting of 20 people and no one ever will know about it except those 20 people. Cliff doesn't like to give this aspect of his life too much publicity."

Bill talks avidly about The Art Centre Group, not a bunch of neighborhood watercolorists as its name hints, but an organization formed to contact show people — what Bill calls "non-Christians who are looking" — and offer them the retreat facilities of the Centre homes. One of these is a townhouse in London, the other was formerly Cliff's country estate in Essex. Bill says Cliff has his estate — swimming pool, squash court, etc. — on permanent loan to the Centre. Cliff is also one of the Centre's founders and financial backers.

"You can imagine how many invitations Cliff gets," Bill says, talking about Cliff's diary again. "I wish the churches would realize there are more churches than there are Sundays. They come from all directions — Cliff is open to any denomination, any group — but it tends to be the protestant wing of the church, and the evangelical part of that wing, that asks for him. It's known that's Cliff's preference.

"When Cliff and I sit down to figure which invitations he can accept, it's just a matter of selecting which ones can make the best use of what Cliff has to offer: his facility to communicate with people. We generally prefer going to a church that is 'live,' has some switched-on people, than to a church that's dead. Or maybe we'll decide on a church because of its strategic location or symbolic significance."

The All Souls Church satisfied every demand: because it is flanked on three sides by the BBC, it is known as "The BBC's Church"; it is the only church ever designed by John Nash, London's noted 19th century architect (he also remodeled Buckingham Palace); and it survived, however shakily, a pounding German aerial bombardment during World War II. Usually, Bill Lathem goes to church with Cliff, with a packaged "dialogue" being substituted for the regular sermon. This week Bill had another appointment and Cliff engaged Vicar Michael Baughen in public conversation instead.

Cliff's fans were seated as primly and quietly as he was, filling the pews and aisles, sitting on the steps leading to the packed-solid galleries. During the early part of the service Cliff read two verses from the New Testament. Now he sat with the vicar on a makeshift plywood platform, surrounded on three sides by expectant upturned faces. It was time for the main event.

The vicar opened with a question about Jesus Christ Superstar. Cliff said a lot was left out of the play and it was up to all of us to keep it in. He said he thought the songs might start some people thinking about Jesus, but for Heaven's sake, "Rod Stewart is a superstar and there are lots of Rod Stewarts and lots of superstars, but Jesus isn't to be brought down to that level, for Jesus is the son of God."

The vicar asked how Cliff managed to have a "personal relationship" with Jesus. Cliff said it was impossible to have one with Napoleon or Nelson — tittering from the fans — because they were dead, but "Jesus ain't dead!" And that, Cliff said, made Christianity better than other faiths, because it was the only one with an authenticated resurrection. When Buddha died, Cliff said, his final words were, "I'm still looking for the truth," while Jesus said, "I am the way." Buddha was a good guy, Cliff said, but history was full of good guys.

At the end of the service, the vicar announced a quesion-and-answer session to follow, so for all those who didn't wish to stay, this was the time to leave. Only a few moved quietly to the exits. As ushers collected questions, the vicar urged everyone to "forget you are in church." Nodding toward the two guitars Cliff had brought, he added, "It's time to tune up and tune in."

The dialogue resumed. Cliff told how Jesus helped him when he was depressed about one of his television shows. He said being christened didn't make you a Christian — you had to accept Christ as an adult. Asked about material things, he said he didn't think the Lord expected us to walk around in sackcloth and ashes: "We do live in today's world and I think God understands that." He quoted some more from the Bible and then he sang and sang and then sang some more.