AN industrial park somewhere between Wakefield and Doncaster is an odd place to find Britain’s most enduring pop star. Particularly one who spends most of his time at his home in Barbados. Or at his second home in the Algarve surrounded by 16 acres of vineyard.
It’s even odder that soul legend Percy Sledge should be sat nearby enjoying a plate of rice. Sipping a bottle of water behind him is Lamont Dozier, part of the legendary Holland–Dozier–Holland songwriting team responsible for more than 50 No. 1 hits for the Motown label.
To the left a door swings open and we see a cavernous room where 25 people are on a stage. At the centre is Sir Cliff Richard, 71 today, the boss of a project that sees him performing alongside a cast of soul music veterans, under the banner of Soulicious.
They’re all here to rehearse for the tour, which opens in Nottingham tomorrow night.
“It was all David Gest’s idea,” says Cliff, during a break for which he’s dressed down into a casual denim two piece.
“He’s a good friend of Gloria Hunniford and I got this call from her saying ‘I’m with someone you know’’ - I’d met David a couple of times. She puts David on the phone and he says ‘I think you should do a soul album. I can put it together for you’. And he started naming all these folks.
“And I said yes, if you can do it I will have died and gone to heaven.”
He gestures to the people sat alongside him and adds: “So I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Along the table are Percy Sledge and Lamont Dozier, plus Freda Payne, The 5th Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr, James Ingram and Jaki Graham, the only Brit on the tour.
The Soulicious album, which was at number ten in the mid-week charts, was recorded earlier this year in Memphis and New York.
Along with those joining Cliff on this tour, it also features Candi Staton, Brenda Holloway, Dennis Edwards of The Temptations, Peabo Bryson and Billy Paul.
The album was co-produced by Dozier.
“He was the boss,” says Cliff, which prompts a chuckle. “In our industry there are roles for lots of people. In this case David’s role was like an executive producer. I didn’t have any contacts in America but David knew everybody and was able to draw it together.
“But in terms of the musicality, Lamont was in charge, for 11 of the 15 tracks.”
It’s clear that Cliff is steering the ship for this tour. He does most of the talking.
And later, when they’re back rehearsing, he’s leading the cast of around 30 performers. It’s an impressive set-up. Giant screens flank the tiered stage, which is packed with the band, backing singers and dancers.
The tour was Gest’s idea.
“I felt that I shouldn’t go on tour this year. That I’d rather spend time promoting the album. It doubles the pressure. But we are having such a good time.”
He’s in a good mood, even managing a joke. As a TV crew mic him up before an interview he quips: “I’m wired for sound.”
During the interview he occasionally stands up to make a point.
“I still can’t get over why people spend money on downloading MP3s when the quality is a third of what a CD is... (rises from his chair)... my stuff is only available on the best.”
Much guffawing ensues.
As it does when he, rather oddly, says he won’t reveal what the format of the show will be.
“I can’t tell you what the show’s going to be like, that would be giving it away. If anybody thinks they know what it’s going to be like, it won’t be. I change my shows every single tour.”
Eventually he reveals it will feature duets from the album but also past Cliff hits and solo spots by his guests, performing their best-known songs. Which means you can expect When A Man Loves A Woman (Percy Sledge), Band Of Gold (Freda Payne), Up, Up And Away (Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr), Yah Mo B There (James Ingram) and Ain’t Nobody (Jaki Graham).
Lamont Dozier had the trickiest task of them all trying to pick a few songs from his huge back catalogue of hits for Martha & the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Isley Brothers. He’s also been a solo artist and a member of groups, hitting the US charts with What Goes Up Must Come Down and Why Can’t We Be Lovers.
“Why are you looking at me?!,” laughs Jaki Graham, when I ask who’s likely to be the troublemaker on tour. At 55 she is the baby of the group. As she and James Ingram point at a grinning Percy Sledge, Cliff misunderstands and responds as if I’m asking about egos.
“I don’t work with troublemakers,” he says, to much laughter. But he means it.
“You can’t afford to have musicians who are prima donnas. It’s got to be a great big team. We are all on stage together night after night. It doesn’t work as well if there is even one thorn in the flesh.
“I’ve not met anyone yet who doesn’t want to be here. So we won’t have any troublemakers.”
Then he joins in the fun and turns to Sledge: “Wll we Percy?”
“Not me,” laughs the 69-year-old.
“I’ll just sing my tearjearker and that’s it.”
Sledge’s track with Cliff on the album, I’m Your Puppet, is his first duet in a career that started in the sixties.
Says Cliff: “And of all the people in the world he chose me.”
“So many times different singers have asked to duet,” he grimaces behind his dark sunglasses. “But I’m Your Puppet is a song that I grew up with and I love it.”
There’s a general discussion then about the enduring appeal of Cliff, throughout which he looks suitably bashful. The conclusion seems to be that he’s a grafter.
“I watched him today for an hour and 15 minutes on stage with no stopping. My hair would grow back if I could do that,” jokesJames Ingram.
“This man is truly iconic and his work ethic is incredible,” says Billy Davis Jr. “This is the best work vacation I’ve ever had,” he adds, to much laughter.
He and fellow 5th Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo perform the Edwin Starr hit Oh How Happy with Cliff, who hadn’t realised that the former Nottingham resident died in 2003.
“Oh, he’s no longer with us? Oh no,” he says.
Adds Davis Jr: “I’m sure he’d appreciate it.”
As the interview wrapped up, I ask Cliff what he’ll be doing to mark his 71st birthday today.
And it seems he’ll be avoiding anyone who wants him to celebrate.
“I’ll be in Nottingham relaxing. The tour starts there on Saturday so I’ll be getting ready for that by having a quiet day.”
Then he adds with a grin: “And avoiding any of these who want to party.”
Cliff Richard opens the Soulicious UK Tour at the Capital FM Arena on Saturday October 15 2011. Tickets are £60 to £70 from the venue, call 08444 124 624 or visit www.capitalfmarena.com