As a quick look at our Wikipedia page will attest, you can’t really tell the story of Tearfund without mentioning the name of Sir Cliff Richard. Within a year of our founding, Cliff began fundraising, with the first in a long series of annual benefit concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.
This year marks 50 years since Tearfund’s birth, and 60 years that Cliff has been in showbiz. To mark this, he accepted an invitation to reminisce with us about his time with Tearfund, staying loved, Billy Graham and more.
When we met in an otherwise deserted All Souls Church in London, the small gaggle of Tearfunders present were all ‘feeling the love’. We wanted him to understand what his help and encouragement have meant to us, as a charity. It turns out, touchingly, that the appreciation is mutual.
Oh, and in case you have never met him, he is as lovely as you would hope him to be. And no, he still doesn’t look his age, though don’t ask me how old he actually is...
How did you first hear about Tearfund?
'I’d been a Christian for a couple of years, and I started thinking about giving some money away to people in need. I had a friend who had told me about Tearfund, and so I met George Hoffman [Tearfund’s first Chief Executive] and a couple of other people, and we went on to do a benefit concert at the Albert Hall. It was a very simple affair, really. And I think we raised enough money to buy a big 4x4 for the teams overseas.'
'Tearfund has probably done more for me than I've given to it, because I can't pay for what I've learned.'
That was your first of your Gospel shows for Tearfund. Do you have fond recollections of doing them?;
I do, actually. I look back with great relish at that time. Very early on, I thought that maybe I should retire from show business; it seemed wrong to be so well known and have money. Fortunately a lot of my friends said, "Look, there's no need to give up your job, you could use it, though." And it led, first of all, to doing charity concerts, singing music that expressed my new feelings about life. And so for me, to present it in music was a great thrill for me. It meant that I could have a career and still be able to speak and sing about the thing that was most important to me.;
When you sing, do you approach spiritual songs differently to secular songs?
Gospel music makes me think of black, soul singers in choirs, and there's really no good in trying to compete with them. So I coined a name for my own form of music: ‘rockspel’, because I'm a pop-rock singer. I then started to find songs that had been written by people like [Christian songwriter] Larry Norman... so I could still relate to the musical form, but it was special for me because I could sing about spiritual things.
It was never Bible bashing. And sometimes I'd sing a song that didn't mention God or Jesus at all, but I knew what I was singing about. It was a very special time for me. It was my learning period. I've changed over the years, but my faith is the same. In fact, I feel that I'm stronger in my faith now because it's seen me through so much.
How has the work you’ve done with Tearfund affected your faith?
'I've said many times that I feel Tearfund has probably done more for me than I've given to it, because I can't pay for what I've learned through you. It emboldened my faith, I think, because when my spiritual life started, the first thing that happened was that I started looking outwards. Becoming a Christian helped me to look away from myself, and there's so much else to look at. And when Tearfund came on the scene for me, it gave me a chance to travel the world, but as a different person. I visited countries where they didn't know who I was. I knew suddenly that there was this world of communities with no money, but also no choices.
'There was one instance where we went to Kenya, and it was the first time I'd seen what the money that people in Britain had given had done. And it was to do with young men and women with no work, and they created a place where these people could build beds, chairs, everything out of wood. And we had sent them lathes and things like that. And for them it was a miracle in itself, that they could now use lathes and make their stuff. And so I stood there thinking, "Well, this is it. This it what it's all about."'
I heard that you once said if you weren't a singer you would have quite liked to have worked for Tearfund…
'Someone did ask me, ‘What would you do if you weren’t a singer?’ And, because I was working with Tearfund, I thought, ‘I could probably work for the promotions section of Tearfund. I'm used to presenting things to people and it would be an extension of that.’ So yes, I thought that maybe if everything ended for me in my career…'
'I want to thank Tearfund for sending me out to places I would never ever have dreamed of going to before.'
If I handed you a microphone right now, and said, ‘Right. Go on Cliff, sing us a hymn or a gospel song, which song would you choose?
'I did a song called, Faithful One, written by a Christian friend of mine, Chris Eaton. And if you watched the Cilla Black funeral, I sang it there. It's a wonderful hymn about treading pathways that are steep but there's always the faithful one with me.'
This year we lost Billy Graham. And he was a big part of your life, because you went public with your faith at a Billy Graham rally at Earls Court in 1966. What do you remember about that?
'That was an important time for me, because that was the first time I ever said I was a Christian publicly. There had been all sorts of rumours and things. I was able to present it personally there.
'It was a shocking evening for me, really. I was so scared; you know when they talk about Jesus perspiring blood ... I didn't perspire blood, but they invited me up and I think I sang, It Is No Secret. And I held on to the podium as if I was going to fall over, but I got through it. I went back to my seat and I couldn't bend my arms. I still can't understand what happened – something coagulated.
'But, in the end it was the first time I publicly said that I was a Christian, and it was beneficial for me to do that.'
You sang with Billy right up until the 1980s. What are your recollections of all that?
'He is one of those people... There are a couple of people that I'm especially happy to have met, and one of them is Mother Teresa and the other one is Billy Graham – for different reasons.
'Dr. Graham would never forget people. Bill Latham [working for Tearfund at the time] came with me. And I introduced Billy to him. I said, ‘Billy, this is Bill Latham.’ We shook hands and had a little chat together. Then about three years later we went to meet him. I said, ‘This is ... He said, ‘I know. Bill Latham.’ I thought, ‘how can you do that?’ Because I tend to forget people quite quickly, unless I meet them regularly.
'There was nothing judgemental about his preaching. He simply said to me once, ‘I'm just an evangelist and my job is merely to present the case and that's it. It's up to people listening whether they go through with it or they don't.’
'I was very sad when he died. I always thought to myself, ‘If he does another evangelistic meeting somewhere, and he asks me to come, I’ll go.’ I never got the chance, though.'
Tearfund is 50 and and you've been singing for 60 years, this year. You've had a place in people's hearts even longer than us. I wondered what you would say is the secret of longevity and of staying loved a long time.
'When I first thought about this, after ten years of being in the business. It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn't a one hit wonder. And then I thought longevity was within my grasp.
'However, I discovered over the years that it takes a lot of work. You can't afford to just sit back and think, ‘Oh, people will all come.’ No. You have to keep on working at it. Tearfund must keep on. And there's too much happening in the world for it to stop. So there will always be reasons to keep going.
'So, if you keep busy and you keep listening to people's needs, then you will keep going. Well, you've already got longevity; 50 years is a darn long time.
'I want to thank Tearfund for sending me out to places I would never ever have dreamed of going to before. And I'm actually envious of the work that you do, and wish I could do more of it myself.'