“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.