‘Look out! Cliff!’ It’s hard to believe now, but when Sir Cliff Richard’s first single Move It narrowly missed out on number 1 to Connie Francis’s Carolina Moon/Stupid Cupid in 1958, he was considered edgy, and the closest we had to our own Elvis Presley. Tommy Steele’s impersonation of ‘the King’ on Singing the Blues was too similar, and he soon began concentrating on his film career.
Unlike Elvis, Cliff was and is mainly a British phenomenon, and his cool image soon disappeared, to be forever replaced by that of the wholesome Christian entertainer. Not that it damaged his career. Cliff is the third biggest-selling artist in the history of the UK singles chart, behind The Beatles and Elvis, selling over 21 million in this country alone. This is the first of many staggering statistics – 67 UK top ten singles, 14 of which were number 1. Along with Elvis, he is the only act to make the chart in the first six decades, and is the only singer to have had number 1s from the 50s through to the 90s. This is the story of Living Doll, his first.
Harry Rodger Webb had been born in Lucknow, British India on 14 October 1940. The Webbs had a modest life, but following Indian Independence in 1948 they moved into a smaller semi-detached house in Carshalton, south London. The teenage Webb became keenly interested in skiffle, like so many future stars, and his father bought him a guitar for his 16th birthday. In 1957 he formed The Quintones, before becoming the singer in The Dick Teague Skiffle Group, and then The Drifters. This was, of course, not the US soul group of the same name.
Entrepreneur Harry Greatorex became their manager, and suggested Webb needed a name change if they were to get anywhere. He came up with ‘Cliff’– because it sounded like ‘rock’, and band member Ian Samwell thought Richard would make a great surname and could also serve as a tribute to Little Richard. Together with drummer Terry Smart and guitarist Norman Mitham, they were now Cliff Richard and The Drifters, and Move It, penned by Samwell, stormed the charts. Cliff was a sensation, with his good looks, scowl and rock’n’roll attitude. John Lennon even called it the first British rock record.
Subsequent singles High Class Baby in 1958 and Mean Streak in 1959 reached the top 10. By the time of Richard’s film debut, in the film Serious Charge (1959), the line-up of The Drifters had settled on Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch on guitars, bassist Jet Harris and Tony Meeham on drums.
Lionel Bart had been approached to write songs for the film. Bart had already won awards for his pop songs, and had helped discover Tommy Steele, before moving into musicals soon after. He was browsing a newspaper when he came across an advert for a child’s doll. 10 minutes later he had written the controversial lyric for Living Doll. Originally planned as a rock’n’roll song (as featured in the film), Richard was not a fan, and was horrified to hear it was going to be their next single. Producer Norrie Paramor told him they could record it any way they wanted as long as it got done. It was Welch that came up with the genius idea of slowing down the tempo and making it a country song. Previously, The Drifters had only accompanied Cliff in live performances. This was their recording debut.
Welch’s change of pace proved to be a masterstroke, and completely made the song, It’s still an ear worm now, as I can’t get it out of my head after relistening.
The problem with Living Doll, of course, is Bart’s lyrics. They really haven’t aged well, and it’s hard to match Christian crusader Cliff Richard with words that objectify women so badly. The easy-going charm of the tune cannot disguise the sinister, misogynistic lyrics that Cliff is crooning (and his crooning is really effective here – Living Doll is a great production by Paramor). The words are just plain odd at times, too. For instance, if they are taken literally, then Cliff is chuffed that, although his girl looks like a doll, her hair is in fact real, and what’s more, he’ll let you have a feel if you like. Even worse, Cliff seems to get jealous very easily, and is prepared to lock her in a trunk to keep her away from other men. I wonder if Cliff ever wonders what God thinks of him singing this? Of course, in 1959, nobody gave a toss about comparing women to dolls, and Living Doll became the biggest-selling song of the year. It also marked the beginning of the end of ‘Edgy Cliff’, with his sound becoming more family-oriented.
It was 27 years later that Cliff took the irreverent Comic Relief charity version of the same song back to the top alongside the cast of The Young Ones, and that’s the version I first heard, but we’ll hear about that when we get to 1986.
Written by: Lionel Bart
Producer: Norrie Paramor
Weeks at number 1: 6 (31 July-10 September) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*
Journalist Kim Newman – 31 July
Del Leppard singer Joe Elliott – 1 August
Dead or Alive singer Pete Burns – 5 August
Poet Edgar Guest – 5 August
Sculptor Jacob Epstein – 19 August
Actress Kay Kendall – 6 September
4 August: Barclays made history as the first bank to install one of those new-fangled computers.
26 August: The first Mini, an icon of the following decade, went on sale.