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Music: The British Elvis lives

Music | Cliff Richard keeps the faith in the world of pop music

Issue: "Motel 1600," Sept. 6, 1997

In January the Queen of England knighted Paul McCartney. In September Amy Grant, the former queen of contemporary-Christian music, will release her latest pop album. What most Americans don't realize is that, to Cliff Richard, royal honors and the challenge of living one's faith in the pop-music mainstream are nothing new.

"Sir Cliff" to his fans (he was knighted two years before the former Beatle), Mr. Richard has been among the world's most successful performers for the past 40 years. In England, his 118 hits (five more than Elvis Presley's UK total) are outnumbered only by his public professions of faith in Christ, the first of which he made in 1966 at a Billy Graham rally in Earl's Court. Yet, like Amy Grant, he has sometimes confused believers by recording almost nothing but pop songs.

To those who've heard his albums, especially I'm No Hero ('80), Wired for Sound ('81), Now You See Me, Now You Don't ('82), and Always Guaranteed ('87), his failure to succeed in the States is puzzling.

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On these, the producers Alan Tarney and Craig Pruess provided for Mr. Richard a slick yet rich pop-rock sound that has proved to be the most sympathetic setting to date for his agile, age-defying tenor. But, although he has placed nine songs on the American top 40-with "Devil Woman" ('76), "We Don't Talk Anymore" ('79), and "Dreamin'" ('80) hitting the top 10-his albums have sold poorly in the United States.

Now, however, thanks mainly to the Sir Cliff Richard Home Page (www.starnet. com.au/sheppard/2cliff.html) and mail-order catalogs that have begun to carry the singer's albums, making stateside reparation is easier than ever.

Two recent titles-one studio, one live-come from Heathcliff, the Tim Rice/John Farrar musical based on Wuthering Heights in which Mr. Richard has starred for the past two years. While not without merit, they are atypical in the context of his career. The same goes for At the Movies: 1959-1974, a two-disc set of songs he recorded during his rather Elvis-like movie years.

The Cliff Richard Collection: 1976-1994, on the other hand, a one-disc U.S. compilation released in 1994, presents a fuller picture. Although it excludes "Miss You Nights" (a gorgeous ballad that Mr. Richard once told CCM was his favorite performance) and "Whenever God Shines His Light" (a duet with Van Morrison that promises healing "in Jesus' name"), it does include his other recent hits and abundant reasons for considering him one of the finest pop singers to emerge during the rock era.

The priciest package is EMI's imported Cliff Richard Collection, a five-disc set first released in 1991. Although its music suffers from chronological gaps, it includes a revealing, 70-minute interview. "If I have had any sanity," Mr. Richard says at one point, "I put it down to the fact that I am a Christian, that Jesus is a restraining factor in everything that I ever do. I've always thought, 'What would I have felt like if really all I had was the music I played?'"

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