Thursday, 17 November 2016

Cliff At Christmas

Over the years, I have often been asked about Cliff's 2003 Christmas album, how did it come about, whose idea was it, and why no liner notes? Below, is the press release that I wrote for EMI to help promote the album, which hopefully will answer some of those questions, and for those who missed having a liner note, hopefully this be a good alternative...

When Mistletoe and Wine went to number one and became the best selling British single of 1988, it also became representative of one of Cliff’s most successful genres: the Christmas song. Like gospel music, it is a body of material that speaks directly to Cliff’s roots, and one he enjoys celebrating. With both new and old recordings, CLIFF AT CHRISTMAS brings together – for the first time – a collection of Christmas favourites.

Due in part to the success of the single Millennium Prayer, and in part to the almost traditional association of Cliff with Christmas, even when he had Christmas hits that weren’t Christmas songs, Cliff has decided, this year, to create an album of purely Christmas repertoire. The idea was to cut eight new songs and put them on an album with some familiar favourites. Although four of the ‘older’ tracks would be remixed to bring them into keeping with the new recordings, there is the handful that appear in their original form, all digitally remastered, to remind us of the unprecedented run of Christmas hits that Cliff’s had ever since his version of O Little Town of Bethlehem was released in 1982. After all, no Christmas album by Cliff could be considered complete without the Christmas number ones like Mistletoe And WineSaviour’s Day and Millennium Prayer.

Nor could a Christmas album by Cliff be considered complete without his own stylish arrangements of seasonal standards like Silent Night, which interestingly enough, includes his own additional lyric of Mistletoe And Wine ‘just being played on the radio’ – but now with a new hidden extra.

Another is White Christmas, the Irving Berlin favourite that Bing Crosby recorded in 1942 for the film Holiday Inn, and has since been in the charts every year at Christmas from its first release all the way through to 1962. Though dozens of artists have recorded it over the years, Cliff has given his own originality to the song. As with the other traditional selections on the album such as Winter Wonderland, When A Child Is Born and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Cliff says, ‘if you’re going to do a cover version, it should be distinct from the original. So you bend or change the melody, the arrangement, and all the guitar riffs. There’s no need to do it the same way. In everybody’s mind, the original way is always going to be the definitive version. There’s no point in making it sound exactly the same as the original.’

From the list of new material, Let It Snow and Walking in The Air, recorded in Nashville, are probably among Cliff’s favourites. ‘I did those tracks with Michael Omartian and I loved working with him. He was fantastic. They were really done as test cases to see how we would gel together, and it worked really well. The piano on those two sound great.’

One listen to this 17-track album, which also includes a duet with European star Helmut Lotti, should forever put to rest the question of Cliff’s deep-rooted feeling for Christmas songs and for the traditional simplicity that they represent.

With Cliff’s proven instinct to spot potential hit material, and Christmas number one songs, a special radio edit of Santa’s List, co-written by Chris Eaton, who also penned Saviour’s Day, will be released on 8 December as the single Cliff has chosen to promote the album, and more importantly, to echo his own distinctive feeling for Christmas.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Me, Elvis and The Sun Collection

Before I was a writer and got published, one of my dreams was to write a sleeve note for an Elvis Presley album, and in the early part of 1975, I thought I was pretty close to fulfilling that dream. The album in question was The Elvis Presley Sun Collection, which was going to be released that summer and would collect together all of the recordings Elvis cut at Sam Phillips' famous Sun Studio in Memphis between 1954 and 1955 and place them on a 16 track album, that would also launch the then new RCA mid-price Starcall label. It would also mark the first time that all the Sun sides had appeared together on a single album. Previously the tracks, with the exception of I Love You Because (2nd version), had been spread over a couple of earlier compilations in 1959 on A Date With Elvis and For LP Fans Only, while Elvis did his national service in the U.S Army, and were then new to LP.

What is perhaps surprising, or maybe it wasn't when you consider the wealth of its material, is that the album was Elvis's most successful album of that year in the UK. It was released one month after his then latest studio album Today and fared much better in the British album chart, and for the first time in four years, was packaged without the usual live picture of Elvis in a white jumpsuit, but in a sleeve with a striking illustration that reflected the music inside, and was, in fact, based upon a photo that had been taken during Elvis's historic performance at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas on 11 October 1956.

I can't remember where or when I first heard about the project, but if my memory serves me correctly, it was probably through the pages of the New Musical Express as the project was the brainchild of NME writer Roy Carr, who had collected all the tracks together and had somehow persuaded RCA Records in the UK to release them. Neither do I remember if the project had to be approved by Colonel Tom Parker before it got green-lighted for release, but let's presume it was, and they usually were, isn't it strange that Elvis seemed genuinely surprised and amazed about the album's existence when a British fan handed him a copy during his Dinner Show performance at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas on 13 December 1975, and despite what some have assumed on various Elvis internet forums that I was that British fan who handed Elvis the album, I wasn't.

Back in Britain, before any of that, my first port of call was to Shaun Greenfield, then the RCA product manager in the UK, who looked after all of Elvis's UK originated albums, and as this was a UK only release, Shaun whom I knew and had met previously in London's RCA offices, was my best bet. I asked him about the project, and whether or not he was looking for any sleeve notes for the album. Shaun gave me all the details, and told me that it was Roy Carr's baby, and although it was expected that Roy would write the liners, he told me I was most welcome to submit some of my own. At that stage it was uncertain whether Carr was going to write any notes, but when you consider it was his project, and as he was one of Britain's most respected music journalists, it was pretty obvious to me that he wouldn't want some wannabe rock journo treading on his feet for a project that was obviously close to his heart.

The offer that RCA made me was simple. If Roy wrote the sleeve notes  then they would be used, but if he didn't, and if the notes I was going to write, were good enough, then they would use them on the album. In the end of course, and as we all now know, Roy ended up writing the notes, and they were the ones, along with a detailed discography that appeared on the back sleeve of the album. It was the first time ever that such a lengthy, informative and factual sleeve note had appeared on an Elvis album. At the time I started to write my notes (which weren't anywhere near as detailed or as lengthy as Carr's), it still wasn't certain if and when Roy would supply his, but as luck would have it, by the time I had written mine and sent then to Shaun, Roy had already completed his, which were now in the hands of RCA.

Listen here to a live audio recording of the British fan giving Elvis the album

The only copy of the notes I kept was my own personal copy which I had printed on the back of a blank white 7-inch record sleeve, which I decided in the end to send off to Elvis's father Vernon, while he was in Las Vegas during Elvis's December 1976 season at the Hilton Hotel. I thought this was the best bet to get my work seen by Elvis and acknowledged with his autograph, which in my letter to Vernon I had asked for. The sleeve was returned to me, duly signed "Best Wishes Elvis Presley" from Memphis Tennessee in February 1977, the same month that Elvis's new single Moody Blue was released in the UK. Unfortunately the signed sleeve got lost in a house move during the early 90s, and the only photographic evidence I still have to this day is in a picture cutting that my local newspaper, the Evening Argus, ran in September 1977, when I was the Sussex branch leader for the official fan club, in which I can be seen holding the signed sleeve, a scan of which I have included below.