Cliff Richard – Part 1: “We Were Right at the Beginnings of Rock and Roll”

Cliff richardWhen a group that supports Christians in the arts reached its 40th anniversary, it seemed a good time to ask patron and co-founder Sir Cliff Richard about its evolution.

“I remember reading of Christian fundamentalist preachers in America burning rock and roll records and thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness – that’s me!'”

Sir Cliff was telling me what it felt like to be a Christian and a pop singer in the early sixties. If a phrase like “O my goodness!” seems a bit tame for a rock and roll singer, that only hints at the fine line he has sometimes had to walk in balancing different parts of his life.

The early 1960s were a very different time from now. After playing Hamlet on British television, John Byron came to faith. Joining up with an established London church, one of its members asked what he did for a living and then told him, ‘You cannot be an actor and a Christian’. When he asked what he should be instead, he was told, ‘A missionary – go to Africa’. And that is what he did.

Nigel Goodwin, the actor who told me this story continued, “The amazing thing was that he did not lose his faith, nor his gift as an actor. What he lost was his audience. Years later, shortly before I met him and heard this terrible story, he came back to England knowing that God had called him and gifted him as an actor. Sadly, he tried to pick up his career once more and died without ever achieving the success he had earlier.

“This story could be repeated hundreds of times right across the arts disciplines. It is why those in the arts who were coming to Christ in the early 1960s found each other and discovered that what they were hearing in their churches was largely cultural baggage, rather than biblical truth.

“All of us in the arts were under enormous pressure from the evangelical Church to come out of our gifting and calling unless we could make it more explicitly Christian in content.

“It was from this pressure that the Arts Centre Group (ACG) was formed after six years of prayer with Cliff Richard and others in the arts.”

Sir Cliff experienced that “unspoken pressure” too and recalled that when he came to faith, “the first thing I did was want to be like my friends who were in schools teaching religious instruction or helping run TEAR fund and things like that. I felt that maybe my lifestyle was not conducive to being an active participant in the Christian life.

“There were churches in America saying, ‘This is evil and of the devil and we’ve got to burn our rock and roll records.’ Now I couldn’t help but be affected by that; I got a feeling that people were ready to applaud my departure from show business if I did it. I don’t remember reading about burning things here. In England it never got that bad. But there was a feeling that rock and roll and Church didn’t go together. Classical music and Church worked all right, but rock and roll didn’t. So you tended to feel slightly cut off in some way; that there was something wrong.”

Not only did he face an apparent split between his music and his faith, but he felt a tension between his faith and his already promising career.

This pressure led him to an “embarrassing” incident. “I called a press conference. I was only 23 or so; my experience was pretty minimal and I would never do it these days. I believed in being honest, so I told them, ‘Look, in a couple of years, when I have dealt with my contract, I’m going to give up.’

“I went to a teacher training college and had an interview with the principle. Having told the press I was going to pull out, my producer, Norrie Paramor, said, ‘You know you say you believe all these things, why don’t you do a gospel album?’  I went, ‘OK, I will do that, then I can say “Goodbye” with a clean conscience.’

“Then I met the Billy Graham crowd and they asked me to be in a movie and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll do that’. Then a TV company from Newcastle asked me to do a series of six television shows, all based on parables.

“God doesn’t speak to us with a great big booming voice (unless you go and see the movies) but he does indicate what you should be thinking. I was suddenly aware that I could function as a Christian within this world. Of course, I got terrible press: ‘We knew he was kidding!’ this sort of thing. But at least I’d made a stand.

“If I lost my career, I don’t think God would dump me”Cliff and Billy Graham press

“I was surrounded by mature Christian people, who advised me. One of the big decisions I had to make was whether or not I would appear on the Billy Graham platform. I kept thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is public! Is it going to affect my career?’

“When I sat down one night and prayed about it with friends, I decided, ‘Look, if I believe this; if I know it to be true as I do, then it’s got to be more important than anything else. So if I lost my career, I don’t think God would dump me; there would be something else that I would perhaps have to do’. That to me was a huge step, that I could get up and say, ‘I actually don’t care what happens; I’m going to say what I believe’.

“It was the summer of ’66 at Earls Court, and a few months later I was doing a pantomime and we broke all Palladium pantomime box office records. I felt that was a major step in my life.”

If Sir Cliff saw that pantomime run as a reward for his faith, it was an achievement far outweighed by becoming the only artist to make the UK singles charts in all of its first six decades.

Forming the Arts Centre Group

“I met Nigel Goodwin at the church I was going to in Finchley,” Sir Cliff recalled. “He talked to me about his dream of having this Christian Arts Centre Group and I said, ‘I think it’s a fantastic idea!’ The dream was that it would be a place where artists could go and talk about what they feel, even though they might feel ostracised by the Church; that we could be a force together and then maybe move out. And I guess in a way, gently, that’s what happened.

David Winter, who was just beginning his twenty-year career at the BBC at the time, told it from his perspective: “Nigel Goodwin had been pressing for something to be done to bring together Christians who were professionally engaged in the world of the arts, media and entertainment. Cliff was keen on the idea, and joined with Cindy Kent (then lead singer with the ‘Settlers’ folk band), Ronald Allison (a BBC newsreader and later an ITV executive) and a young lawyer friend, David Thompson, who guided us through the practical and legal minefield we were entering.

“Our objects were simple: to provide somewhere for Christians in this field to meet, support each other and work on the issues raised and the opportunities created by our faith and our work.

“We were driven on by two things: Nigel’s enthusiasm, and Cliff’s generosity. We felt a place was needed for this new project to flower, but with Cliff’s help we got two! One was in the heart of London, the other in the Essex countryside. Eventually we realised that the kind of people we were hoping to draw in were too busy to spend quiet days in rural England, and our efforts were then concentrated on what we thought of as ‘Nigel’s pad’.”

To find a proper base, the friends drove around London, looking for the right venue. “We’d stop and pray, saying, ’God, is this the place? How can we tell what’s the right place?’” remembered Sir Cliff. “Finally we found a place. When we all agreed, we kind of assumed that that was an answer in itself. That’s how we did things in those days; it was all so early and so new.”

Once the ACG’s home venue was established, Christian artists could use it as a base to connect with their colleagues.

Sir Cliff continued, “We used to have these late nights after a show time, so that people who were doing shows could come – and an amazing amount of people came. We’d have a buffet dinner; we’d sit around on the floor; we’d have wine, talk and discuss.

Danny Williams, Moon River“We had some fantastic stories! I don’t know whether you know a black singer called Danny Williams? He had ‘Moon River’ and a couple of other songs. He came and really challenged us. He said, ‘I don’t know how you can believe in God’ and told us about the physical abuse that he had from his father, beaten to the bone with a whip – and of course he blamed that on God. But you could understand it. He had to deal with that. I don’t know whether we convinced him of anything, but we did present him with the love of a father that doesn’t do that; that in fact heals.”

To support Christian artists properly, local churches had to be encouraged to pastor their own artists and understand how faith and art go together. As a public face, and free of his earlier concerns, Sir Cliff was the ideal man to go out as an ambassador for the arts.

“We were prepared to be used by the Church when they wanted to have us,” he told me. “In those days, there wasn’t anybody else. We were right at the beginnings of rock and roll, the childhood of rock and roll, and everybody liked rock and roll. So anybody that sang it was held in esteem. So it was possible for me to relate really easily to them and for them to relate to me.

“A good friend of mine, Bill Latham, had a journalist background, and he used this journalese on me to go to churches and colleges. We we would never rehearse; we wouldn’t speak as such. We would do an interview – it left us free to joke. If he felt the need to move in another direction, he would just take me that way with questions; and it was a really successful way of presenting practicalities of being a Christian in a very contemporary world.

          “All of us have an intellect – on a scale of 10, mine’s probably 2”

As well as that everyday practicality, the group had to engage rationally with theology, and especially the interface of faith and art. That theology came from two major thinkers: Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker. Schaeffer was an American evangelical theologian and pastor, who founded the L’Abri Community in 1955 in Switzerland. Dutch professor Rookmaaker joined L’Abri and centred his career on urging Christians to take culture seriously. Many have lauded their role, but guitarist Gordon Giltrap, who was part of Cliff’s friendship circle at the time, told me that he found their approach too intellectual; he preferred relating to faith with the heart.

Sir Cliff shared that feeling somewhat: “It was kind of beyond me, really,” he admitted. “All of us have an intellect – on a scale of ten, mine’s probably two – but from number two you still have to think, ‘How do I believe this? Why do I believe it? But I understood enough of it to think they’re dealing with it in their way. Cliff RichardYou can’t really rationalise until you use your intellect. Sometimes it is just heart stuff. But for other people, who have an IQ at the top of the scale somewhere,  it’s almost too simple; they don’t trust simple things. They need to absolutely go through everything at a high level, intellectual way. I don’t fit that bill. Maybe as you say, Gordon was more concerned with the heart side of it.”

As time has passed, he has felt a growing distance with the organisation that he helped to found. “Things change. I have pulled back from things, but not pulled away. Also, there was a point when I’m thinking to myself, ‘No organisation should depend on one single person’. I didn’t feel too badly about it myself then, but I heard people say that and I thought, ‘Well, the Arts Centre doesn’t really need me; it needs God. As long as God is available, through the folks that run it, it can survive in any situation’

“As the Arts Centre Group, we said, ‘It’s OK to be a rock and roll singer! You could be an actor or dancer and be a Christian. You could definitely do that. And by taking it into churches, I think the Church realised. So I think we played a big role in helping the Church to understand that we are human beings and that all things are created by God, whether it’s the music you like or don’t. Everything, if it was created by God,” and he emphasises the next bit, “was created good.”

So althought being a patron is “just a name on a bit of paper, really,” Sir Cliff has deeper reasons for taking the role than helping out a charity.

“Because I had been a founding member, enjoyed that so much and had such a part to play in it, I didn’t want to cut myself off completely. I was very happy to still have my name attached to the Arts Centre, because it has meant so much to me.”

In the second part, Sir Cliff looks back on whether he’d live life differently a second time and talks about secularism, ageing and being cool. 

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