Cliff the duetist
By Pat Murphy
The fifth installment in an occasional series marking Cliff’s 60th anniversary in the music business. The focus this time is on Cliff the duetist, a career dimension that
blossomed in the 1980s.
Interestingly, all of the tracks mentioned are ones where Cliff was invited to guest on other people’s projects. While the material often turned up later on Cliff’s own albums, that wasn’t the initial destination.
No doubt, some of the invitations were influenced by the prospect of Cliff’s presence boosting sales. But I suspect that an appreciation of the musical skills he’d bring to the table was also a consideration.
Organized chronologically, here are 10 very worthwhile duet outings.
Suddenly (with Olivia Newton-John)
This wasn’t Cliff’s duet debut, but it was the first to be released as a single A-side. It’s from Olivia’s problematic movie Xanadu, which Cliff didn’t appear in, although his voice was used on the soundtrack. Given their long personal and professional association, it’s no surprise that it works well.
She Means Nothing to Me (with Phil Everly)
If I was choosing an all-time Cliff Top 10, this would probably be on it. To quote one commentary: “Cliff, Phil and the band rock the plaster off the ceiling.”
The track’s genesis likely comes from Phil’s guest appearance on the 1981 Hammersmith Odeon concert filmed for the BBC’s Cliff documentary series. Subsequently, Cliff was asked to duet on two songs for the album entitled Phil Everly. The session’s second song – I’ll Mend Your Broken Heart – is a pleasant Everlys-style ballad, but She Means Nothing to Me is pure gold.
All I Ask of You (with Sarah Brightman)
This was an early instance of Cliff stepping outside his normal métier. All I Ask of You is a “bigger” song than previously associated with him and Sarah Brightman’s classically-tinged soprano isn’t what you’d have expected him to team up with.
Still, Phantom of the Opera composer Andrew Lloyd Webber invited him to record it, coinciding with the show’s London opening and the lushly romantic result was a big hit.
Slow Rivers (with Elton John)
It’s no secret that Elton is a long-time admirer of Cliff’s work, dating back to when his mother took him to see Stars in Your Eyes at the London Palladium in 1960. So a duet between them was a natural.
Recorded in 1984, Slow Rivers made its first appearance on Elton’s 1986 Leather Jackets album. It’s an atmospheric, moody piece that should’ve been a bigger hit.
Whenever God Shines His Light (with Van Morrison)
This caused consternation in some quarters. Why, the question went, would an artiste of Van’s stature lower himself to record with a mere, tinselly pop star like Cliff. It was really too sacrilegious to contemplate!
Van had no problem answering. As a teenager, he had often listened to Cliff on the likes of Saturday Club. So why wouldn’t he invite a collaboration?
As things transpired, it’s a good record. Van’s gruff tonsils take the lower bit while Cliff lightly glides above. You could even describe it as an exercise in complementarity.
If It Were Up to Me (with Vincenzo La Scola)
The late Vincenzo La Scola was an Italian operatic tenor who guested on a track from Cliff’s 1998 Real as I Wanna Be album. Consequently, it was no surprise to see Cliff turning up on Vincenzo’s own album the following year.
Their voices, to put it mildly, are a stark contrast. While Vincenzo was a powerful tenor who’d been likened to Enrico Caruso, Cliff has always been a microphone singer. Indeed, he’s self-deprecatingly observed that without a microphone he’d be inaudible beyond the first row.
The contrast works well on If It Were Up to Me, one of two new Cliff duets on La Scola’s album. Written by Peter and Michelle Wolf and recorded at their studio in Austria, it’s a pretty decent song. The lyric is aspirational, if perhaps naïve, and the melody establishes a grip on you.
I like it.
Reunited (with Lulu)
This first surfaced on Lulu’s Together album, a collection of duets with 14 different acts. The song, of course, was originally a hit for the rhythm and blues duo Peaches & Herb.
Unsurprisingly, Lulu’s vocal is strong and gritty, just as you’d expect from her. Wisely, though, Cliff doesn’t try to compete in the bluesy stakes, opting instead to do his own light soul thing. The combination works.
Danny Boy (with Helmut Lotti)
After the prior collaborations with Sarah Brightman and Vincenzo La Scola, I wasn’t surprised to read that Cliff was going to guest on the Pop Classics in Symphony album by Belgian tenor Helmut Lotti. But I was astonished to discover that the song would be Danny Boy. In truth, I thought he’d taken leave of his senses.
But it came together nicely, so much so that it was reused three years later on Cliff’s own Two’s Company album.
There’s a DJ in Cork City, Ireland, who rates it as the best recorded version of Danny Boy. Although I wouldn’t go that far, it’s certainly an effective rendering.
I Could Be Persuaded (with the Bellamy Brothers)
The Bellamy Brothers had an American country hit with this song back in 1990 and I believe their version with Cliff was recorded during his 2004 Nashville sessions. However, it didn’t see the light of day until the Brothers 2009 Anthology album. To the best of my knowledge, it’s never appeared on a Cliff release. And that’s a pity because it’s a real cracker.
Taken at a brisk pace, it’s a modern country rocker that would’ve easily fitted with the material on Cliff’s Something’s Goin’ On. In fact, it would have been a natural single.
The Air That I Breathe (with Albert Hammond)
Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood wrote this song, which first showed up on Hammond’s 1972 It Never Rains in Southern California. Then the Hollies had an international smash with it in 1974.
This duet version comes from Albert’s Legend album and it’s a real beauty. To quote Albert from the liner notes: “I admired him when I was little … and he came to the studio with the utmost simplicity and naturalness. We had never sung together before, but the song was perfect after only one take.”
So there you have it, 10 duets ranging over 30 years. You’ll have been familiar with many of them, but I’ll bet some others surprised you.
A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.