By Salley Rayl
Updated February 18, 1980 12:00 PM

British pop idol Cliff Richard is like a right-hand-drive Rolls-Royce: the top of the line in his own country, but almost unknown in the U.S. At home, his lifetime 774 weeks on the singles charts is second only to Elvis’ 1,057, according to the Guinness records. And last New Year’s the Queen named him an officer of the Order of the British Empire, an eyebrow above the MBEs (Member of the British Empire) awarded the Beatles in 1965. But Richard, despite 42 albums and 72 British hits over two decades—and even a precedent-setting tour of the Soviet Union in 1976—had never scored big in the U.S. Now his current irresistibly melodic hit, We Don’t Talk Anymore, has stuck in the Top 10 for eight weeks. His tour here this spring is bound to be triumphal; his last foray, he recalls, “couldn’t compete with the Cuban missile crisis.”

He isn’t kidding. Richard, 39, is one of the rare rockers to stay on top so long. At a recent show, members of the New Wave band Generation X raved backstage about his high-energy Move It. “You should have seen their faces,” smiles Richard, “when I told them I recorded it in 1958.” When he appears on an ABC special in April, the host will be a onetime protégée of his who has since conquered America. “Cliff was incredibly helpful to me,” recalls Olivia Newton-John, who achieved a breakthrough when Richard picked her to co-host his BBC show in the late ’60s. “From him I’ve learned what it is to be a professional, a celebrity and remain a pleasure to work with. He’s bright, talented and youthful.”

Richard himself had never felt really mellow, he says, until he was born again in 1966. Skeptics said it was simply to keep spiritual pace with the Beatles, who were then sampling the Maharishi’s teachings, but as Richard puts it, “I had hits everywhere, and kids were screaming after me, but suddenly the whole thing began to tarnish.” He announced his intention to quit showbiz, but reconsidered six months later. “If a Christian says to me that rock is bad, I would have to say, ‘Hey, God created something bad?’ It’s only what people do with the music that can make it evil.” That in mind, he tours at least once a year with a gospel band, has cut three devotional LPs (royalties going to Christian charities) and appeared in two films for Billy Graham’s Worldwide Pictures. Cliff keeps his rock lyrics and life-style clean—to the point of publicly disapproving of premarital sex.

That stand, his bachelorhood and slim, boyish looks have triggered charges of hypocrisy or homosexuality, which he denies. Richard, who says he isn’t on the marriage market anymore, shares his tasteful four-bedroom suburban London home with his religious affairs manager, Bill Latham, and Latham’s mother, Mamie. Speculation about his private life doesn’t faze him. “People want to categorize everything and when they can’t understand something, they often make up their own answers,” he shrugs. “I happen to be the lithe type, not the butch Burt Reynolds type. Just because someone isn’t married doesn’t mean he’s homosexual.”

His main indulgences are a leased onyx-green Rolls and vacations in Portugal. But he often does Mrs. Latham’s shopping, seeking to avoid Elvis-like seclusion. Never one for airs, Richard was born Harry Webb in Lucknow, India, where his father was an electric-company clerk and his mother worked in a lamp factory. His family (with three younger sisters) returned to England when he was 8, and at 15—after finishing his required schooling—Cliff was mesmerized by a strange sound emanating from a tinny record-shop loudspeaker. “We laughed when the deejay said it was Heartbreak Hotel by a guy named Elvis Presley,” recalls Richard. But within weeks he’d formed a band and was doing duck-tailed, quiver-lipped impersonations of the King. He took the name Cliff Richard because it sounded more commercial; the band, in turn, soon changed its name from the Drifters (after the American soul group took off) to the Shadows, and Cliff’s pop career went into orbit. His Me and My Shadows LP in 1961 is regarded as the first British rock album, and his hold on the pop scene in the early ’60s was so tight that upstart groups like the Beatles had to flee to Germany for experience.

If there’s one reason he’s survived skiffle, ska, acid-, glitter-, country-, reggae-, pop-and punk-rock, says Richard, it’s because “Music is 100 percent of my work, not my life. Rock is fantasy. My social life is entirely outside the rock field, and that’s why I stay energetic and enthusiastic.” Not even the new rockers half his age can rattle Richard. “Hey,” he says, “it may be New Wave, but to me it’s the same old ocean.”