On the Saturday in May of 1956, my friends Norman Mitham, Terry Smart, and I decided to go for a walk. Our plan was to spend some time in the park, browse through a few shops, enjoy a cup of tea at a cafe, and possibly stop by Marsden’s to listen to some new singles. However, as we passed by the newsagent’s, Aspland’s, we noticed a car parked outside.
This vehicle was a Citroën, painted in a shade of green, originating from France. Its unique design featured a curved back, which was not commonly seen in the rural area of Hertfordshire. Intrigued, we approached the car for a closer look. As we neared it, the sound of music drifted out from the open front window. It was the familiar tune of “We-e-e-e-ll, since my baby left me …” playing on the car radio.
“What is happening?” I asked in confusion. Norman, Terry, and I were all shocked and unable to speak. Suddenly, a man emerged from Aspland’s and quickly got into his car, tossing his cigarettes and newspaper onto the passenger seat. He started the engine and drove away, the strange music fading into the distance as his Citroën disappeared down the road.
I was completely amazed by what I heard! Norman, Terry, and I spent the entire afternoon discussing how fantastic it sounded and how we needed to figure out what it was. When I saw Norman at school on Monday morning, he was beaming with success. “I heard that song again on AFN!” he declared. “It’s called Heartbreak Hotel, and it’s by an artist named Elvis Presley!” We all had a good laugh about how silly the name sounded – Elvis? Who has a name like that? – but more importantly, I knew I had to get my hands on the song.
Elvis sounded like he was singing for me. To me. Nobody my age, no teenager, would ever have been inspired by Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, or wanted to be like them. Elvis was different. He sounded so young, so cool and so now, and his voice cut through everything else. He sounded passionate, and powerful. He sounded like he had secrets that you needed to learn.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t too concerned with the words of Heartbreak Hotel. It was simply a song about heartbreak, like many other fantastic rock’n’roll tunes. What truly captivated me were the rhythms, beats, and overall vibe of the music. It had a certain attitude and felt like something new was being created. In that moment, Elvis was revolutionizing rock’n’roll right before my very ears.
Right away, I was captivated by him. I became fixated on learning everything I could about Elvis. The first time I saw a picture of him, I was in awe of how effortlessly cool he appeared – that signature hairstyle! That sneering expression! And when I discovered he already had an album released, I knew I had to get my hands on it.
I landed a temporary job during my vacation, harvesting potatoes at a nearby farm. I spent the entire day hunched over, pulling potatoes out of the ground for a shilling per hour. Despite the boredom and back pain, it was all worth it when I finally saved up enough money and went to Marsden’s to purchase an Elvis Presley record. Although it didn’t include “Heartbreak Hotel,” I didn’t mind because there were plenty of new songs to enjoy.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first track, “Blue Suede Shoes,” with its passionate singing and energetic beats. “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” captured my heart with Elvis’s quavering vocals and tales of being abandoned. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was a personal favorite for its lively piano and emotional singing. Honestly, I loved every single song on the album.
My older sister, Donna, who was 13 at the time, also loved Elvis. In late 1956, I brought her to the movies to see him in Love Me Tender. She cried and asked to borrow my handkerchief. When she returned it, it was not only damp but also ripped.
I embarked on a resolute solo mission to transform myself into a mirror image of him. The first step was perfecting my quiff. I spent countless hours in front of the bathroom mirror, slicking my hair back and attempting to keep it in place with Brylcreem – a common practice among boys in Cheshunt. While I was proud of my Brylcreem abilities, it never quite matched the effortless look of a few loose strands from Elvis’ quiff cascading over his forehead. I was never able to replicate that.
My admiration for Elvis even had an impact on my eating habits. After learning from Girlfriend magazine that he enjoyed having peanut butter and jam (known as “jelly” in America) on his toast, I also started preparing mine in the same way. Though it took some getting used to, I eventually developed a liking for it. I convinced myself that if this is how Elvis eats it, it must be delicious!
After achieving success, people began referring to me as the “English Elvis” or the “British equivalent of Elvis”. However, I have always felt that the latter label overlooked one important detail: Elvis was not a query. I no longer rely on the question “What would Elvis do?” when faced with significant choices, as I did in my early years. That phase has passed. I left behind the persona of the “English Elvis” and embraced my true self, Cliff Richard, a long time ago.
Although I have accomplished a lot, I still feel indebted to him. There are numerous mornings where I wake up in Barbados, look out of my bedroom window at the Caribbean, and think to myself: how did I end up here from Cheshunt? The answer lies in Elvis Presley.