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sir cliff richard opry

Never mind that Sir Cliff Richard is an entertainment icon in the United Kingdom, a star since the late ‘50s, when he preceded the Beatles as the focal point of British rock. He has hosted television shows, starred in films that topped competition from the James Bond franchise in England and became a Knight Bachelor, and thus Sir Richard, in 1995.

Yet the lanky, amiable Englishman attracted little attention last April, as he struck a series of poses on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. Well, yes, his silver buckle, blue bandana and denim shirt may have turned heads, but odds are nobody recognized him as the legend who celebrated his 70th birthday three years ago by giving six concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Why was Sir Cliff strutting his stuff down the honky-tonk strip? Because he was in the midst of a shoot for his 2014 calendar, which features him captures him onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, vagabonding down a railroad track, hanging out near Marathon Music Works and otherwise celebrating the sound and feel of Music City.

His calendars have become annual sales phenomena in the U.K.; according to www.CliffRichard.org, total sales have exceeded 1.5 million. He focuses on a different locale each year; recently, his calendars have depicted him bare-chested on a beach in Barbados (where he has taken up citizenship) and frolicking with dolphins in Orlando. Still, Nashville – and Country Music – have special meaning for him, as indicated by his latest album. Recorded locally, produced by Steve Mandel, The Fabulous Rock ‘n’ Roll Songbook offers his rendition of early rock classics, some with a distinctly Country twist.

Talk about choosing Nashville as your 2014 calendar site.

Well, we didn’t actually plan to do it in Nashville. It’s just that sometimes we do it where I am. They like to get it done in that April/May period, because they get it on sale in October. I was in Nashville in April, so I said, “Look, just come down to Nashville.” We found some places to take pictures. And we did them there. They’re looking pretty good, actually. The one on the cover is a great shot – very rock ‘n’ roll and very Nashville. I’m in blue denims. I’ve got a guitar. And I’m standing on a railway track, with a huge railway line sweeping away into the distance in the background. It’s very American.

sir cliff richard broadwayYou have a shot on the WSM stage. I assume that wasn’t a live performance.

No, we set that up, but that was such a thrill for me. The last week we were in the studio, I got this message saying, “Would you like to be on ‘The Grand Ole Opry?’” I went, “Oh, my God, yeah, I would like to be!” That night, Vince Gill was the host of that portion. Charley Pride and I were the guests. So I got introduced by Vince, and that was a wonderful thrill for me! Most of the audience had no idea who I was. I think there were about four and a half thousand people, and probably 4,490 didn’t know who I was. So I made them laugh: I told them, “Please don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know who I am. I come to America, which has 300 million people, just to get away from the crowds!” Then I sang “We Don’t Talk Anymore” and the Ricky Nelson hillbilly rock thing, “Stood Up.” It was incredibly successful. I was so thrilled about the reaction!

You’ve also walked the CMA Awards Red Carpet, when the event happened at Madison Square Garden in 2005.

They asked me if I would walk the red carpet. The first thing I thought was, “I’d love to do that, but who the heck would know me?” So I cheated. I phoned Olivia Newton-John, who’s a really good friend of mine, and said, “Where are you?” She said, “I’m going to be in New York in a couple of days.” I said, “Would you be on my arm as I walk the carpet?” So she came out with me. Everybody was shouting, “Olivia!” I could see all the English television cameras, and all they could hear was people screaming and shouting and me waving back! I kind of faked it [laughs].

Tell us about your history with Nashville.

I recorded in Nashville around 1962. I did a couple of tracks. I can’t even remember what studio it was, but it became a No. 1 in Britain. It was called “The Minute You’re Gone.” It was kind of a Country song. But then I didn’t go back for many, many years. About eight years, I went back and worked with Michael O’Martian and a whole bunch of other people who co-produced and wrote songs for me on an album called Something’s Going On. That was a great trip. I loved it, and I went back again. I worked with Michael O’Martian doing a jazz album, called Bold as Brass. This year I went back and worked with a guy called Steve Mandel. We did a rock ‘n’ roll album, which I’ve entitled The Fabulous Rock ‘n’ Roll Songbook. It’s coming out in November in Britain. I discovered just about three weeks ago that this is going to be my 100th album! Can you imagine that? They’re predominantly studio albums, but I did film track albums, shows in the West End that had an album, and also compilation albums of the greatest hits, the Gold discs, the Silver discs … So there’ve been a whole bunch of albums, but they’re all valid releases, and therefore it’s my 100th!

Does recording in Nashville bring something different out in you as an artist?

I think it does. Nashville is a unique place. I think of it almost as being the musical hub for the planet. A lot people I know moved from L.A. to Nashville. L.A. is still a great place to go and record, although I’ve only recorded a couple of times over there. But everything in Nashville seems to be about music, either playing it, singing it or writing it. I was being driven to one of the locations, and the driver said he was a bass player! He plays bass professionally. The waiters and waitresses are waiting to either sing or write. So the whole place is abuzz about music. I like the feeling that you get when you go into the studio. We pretty well recorded this new album. The five musicians included two guitarists; one of them was the producer. I could see him in the booth next to me; there was a glass panel between us. I could see the drummer. I could see the bass player. I could see the other guitarist. I couldn’t see him, but I knew where the pianist was. And we sang and played live! It was just fantastic!

Is that unusual outside of Nashville?

It’s not as though it can’t happen anywhere else. It’s just that nowadays, with the contemporary way of recording, you tend to overdub all the time. It’s almost not necessary for the singer to be there until the tracks are all made. Because these are iconic rock ‘n’ roll songs, we tried to get what might have happened in those days, except of course the musicians are different; they play differently. Of course, the technology allows us to sound different. But it was great fun. When I started recording with my band, the Shadows, you could see everybody. In fact, we didn’t even have sound booths. Only the drummer had something around him to stop his sound coming down everybody else’s microphones. Otherwise, we stood almost in a circle, counted in, and sang and played it live. I always hoped that I wouldn’t make a mistake. If they all did a great track and I made a mistake, we’d just have to do the whole darn thing again. In fact, in my liner notes, I wrote, “It felt like it was the Fifties, that I was in Studio 2 Abbey Road, and that I was with the Shadows.” In fact, none of those things was true! But it was Blackbird Studios and I was singing live with the band! When the guitarist has a solo, he just stopped playing what he was playing and did the solo. We didn’t overdub any solos. The only overdubbing we did was because we needed some extra keyboard sounds, so the guy played something else a couple of times. Otherwise, it’s a live-feeling album, which means it’s going to be fantastic fun to replicate onstage. We did the live stuff at Blackbird Studio. Then I kind of wanted to cheat: I said, “Give me the luxury of listening to these tracks and seeing whether I can improve my performance here and there.” Steve let me do that, but that didn’t change the fact that feeling is so different when you do it live.

On your version of “Wake Up Little Susie,” Vince Gill sings the Everly Brothers harmony with you.

Steve Mandel knows him. I said to him, “I’ll put on the high harmony. I’ll sing Phil Everly’s part as well as my own.” And he said, “You can do that, but what about if I could get someone like Vince Gill to sing that?” I went, “Oh, yeah, but he’s pretty busy.” But he came, and what a gentleman he is. He’s Country monarchy, isn’t he?

What role does Country Music play in shaping your musical and vocal style?

A lot of Country Music was huge hits worldwide. They weren’t just Country hits. “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” the Charley Pride hits … That’s where some of the best rock ‘n’ roll comes. It’s that hillbilly rock ‘n’ roll, that shuffle beat; it’s great music. The Country world has presented us with more emotional songs than almost anybody else has. They had a knack of writing about everyday happenings. In Britain, people make a joke of it, but I still think one of the classics is (Tammy Wynette’s) “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” It’s unbelievable, the way that’s done. Many families, when they’ve had a relationship breakdown, have gone through that whole business of how to keep it from the kids. That’s not something to laugh at but to applaud! Country Music has been very influential in all sorts of ways. I mean, what is rock ‘n’ roll? It’s a fusion of gospel, Country, hillbilly, maybe a little bit of jazz thrown in … It’s a combination of all those things, and over the years it’s become its own art form, thank goodness. I have a great respect for Country Music and the Country musicians.

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