On a Saturday in May of 1956, Norman Mitham, Terry Smart, and I went for a walk. Our plan was to do our usual routine: spend time at the park, browse a few stores, grab some tea at a cafe, and possibly stop by Marsden’s to listen to some new singles. However, while passing by the newsagent’s, Aspland’s, we noticed a parked car.
The vehicle was a green Citroën, a French make, with a unique curved rear. In the countryside of Hertfordshire, these were not commonly seen, so we approached it to take a look. Suddenly, the sound of a song drifted out from the open front window of the car. It was playing the lyrics, “Well, since my partner departed…”
Confused, we gazed at each other in shock as a man rushed out of Aspland’s, got into his car, tossed his cigarettes and newspaper onto the front seat, started the engine, and drove away. The strange music from the Citroën faded into the distance.
I was amazed by what I heard – something completely new to me! My friends Norman, Terry, and I couldn’t stop talking about how fantastic it was and how we had to figure out what it was. The following Monday at school, Norman was beaming with pride. “I heard that song again on AFN!” he exclaimed. “It’s called Heartbreak Hotel, and it’s by an artist named Elvis Presley!” We all laughed at how silly the name sounded – who names their child Elvis? – but more importantly, I knew I had to get my hands on the song.
Elvis’s singing seemed directed towards me, exclusively. Other singers, such as Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, did not capture the attention of someone my age. Elvis was unique. His youthful and modern sound stood out above the rest. His voice exuded passion and strength, and it seemed as though he held mysterious knowledge that one needed to discover.
Strangely, the lyrics of Heartbreak Hotel didn’t bother me much. It was simply a song about heartbreak, like many other great rock and roll tunes. What caught my attention was the rhythm, beats, and overall attitude of the music. It felt like something new and exciting was coming to life. I could hear Elvis shaping rock and roll into a new form right before my ears.
He captivated me instantly. I became consumed with learning all there was to know about Elvis. The first time I saw a picture of him, I was amazed by how effortlessly cool he appeared – that iconic hairstyle! That signature sneer! And once I discovered he had already released an album, I knew I had to get my hands on it.
I was hired for a seasonal job at a nearby farm to pick potatoes. For hours on end, I worked tirelessly, hunched over and pulling out potatoes from the soil, earning a shilling per hour. Despite the monotony and physical strain, it was all worth it when I finally saved up enough money to go buy an Elvis Presley record at Marsden’s. Although “Heartbreak Hotel” was not included, I didn’t mind because there were countless other new songs to enjoy.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first song, Blue Suede Shoes, with its lively singing and fast-paced rhythms. I was captivated by I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone, in which Elvis’s quivering voice shared stories of abandonment. I was in awe of Lawdy Miss Clawdy, featuring a playful piano, unique guitar sound, and emotional vocals. Honestly, I loved every single moment of the album.
I was not the sole family member who was enamored with Elvis. My older sister, Donna, who was 13 at the time, idolized him. In late 1956, I accompanied her to the movies to watch him in Love Me Tender. She cried uncontrollably. “Harry, can I use your handkerchief?” When she returned it, it was not only soaked, but also ripped.
I embarked on a resolute mission to make myself appear as similar to him as physically achievable. I started with the quiff, naturally. I spent countless hours in front of the bathroom mirror, slicking my hair back and attempting to secure it in place with Brylcreem – a popular trend among boys in Cheshunt. While I was satisfied with my skills in using Brylcreem, I could never quite achieve the same look as when Elvis had a few strands of his quiff fall loose and hang over his forehead. I was never able to replicate that.
My affection for Elvis even impacted my food choices. Upon discovering in Girlfriend magazine that he enjoyed spreading peanut butter and jam (or “jelly”, as it’s known in America) on his toast, I began eating mine in the same way. It took some getting used to, but I eventually grew to enjoy it. I thought to myself, “If this is how Elvis eats it, it must be delicious!”
After achieving success, I began receiving nicknames such as the “English Elvis” or the “British version of Elvis”. However, I have always maintained that the latter title overlooks a fundamental truth: Elvis was not a query. I no longer rely on the thought of “What would Elvis do?” when faced with important choices, as I did in my early days. That phase is behind me. I shed the persona of the “English Elvis” and embraced my true self, Cliff Richard, many years ago.
I continue to feel a great debt towards him. There are often mornings where I wake up in Barbados, stand up, look out my bedroom window at the Caribbean, and question: how did I end up here from Cheshunt? And the answer is Elvis Presley.