3rd May 1958
When Harry Greatorex booked Harry Webb and his group for a performance in Derbyshire, he insisted on a change of name.
Ripley, a quiet, unassuming little town on the fringe of the Derbyshire coal mining belt, is hardly the place one would associate with rock and roll history. The town is probably best known for the magnificent arched roof at St Pancras Station in London, a product of the now closed Butterley iron works.
But here, in the Regal Ballroom, a young would-be rock and roll star made his debut performance as Cliff Richard. Up until then, the 17-year old Harry Webb had been fronting a three-come-four piece group by the name of the Drifters. An appearance in a local pub near Harry’s home lead to a series of performances at a small bar in London. Here he was seen by Harry Greatorex who booked them to play in his hall in Ripley – with a change of name.
The Regal Ripley, scene of the first performance of ‘Cliff Richard’
Harry Greatorex had bought the Temperance Billiard Hall on Ripley’s Nottingham Road in 1956 and, after some alterations, reopened it as the Regal Ballroom. While the venue became the centre of the town’s night life holding twice weekly dances, Harry, known locally as Mr Entertainment, wanted to raise the Regal’s profile with the local teenagers by bringing one of the new rock and roll groups to Ripley from London.
The obvious place to head to was the 2i’s coffee bar at 59 Old Crompton Street, in the heart of Soho. This was the place to be for emerging young musical talent in the capital, with a reputation bolstered by the discovery there of Tommy Steele and Terry Dene.
The bar had been transformed into a hot bed for rock and roll by two Australian wrestlers Paul Lincoln and Ray Hunter who bought it from the two Irani (2i’s) brothers in April 1955. As it’s reputation grew, the cellar venue at the 2i’s would be heaving with crowds of youngsters eager to witness what may be the next big thing in rock and roll. Although it was supposed to hold around 40 people, up to a hundred would be crammed in on any given night, shoulder-to-shoulder creating an electric atmosphere.
Meanwhile Harry Webb had met drummer Terry Smart while singing for Dick Teague’s Skiffle Group. Keen to play the new new rock and roll, Harry and Terry left to form their own group with Harry’s school friend Norman Mitham on guitar.
The Drifters were born and spent their evenings rehearsing in the front room of Harry’s parent’s house in Cheshunt. They made their debut at the nearby Forty Hill Badminton Club, for the sum of ten shillings, before playing at the Five Horseshoes in Hoddleston in March 1958.
Sir Cliff Richard on a later appearance in Derbyshire, at Chatsworth in 2004
Here they impressed rock and roll fan John Foster, a truck driver at a sewage farm who was having a drink with some friends. Although John had more enthusiasm than experience, he had been to the 2i’s and was on speaking terms with Tom Littlewood who was responsible for booking acts for the 2i’s. John later remembered his first impression of the young Harry Webb: “Something told me he was going to be big, yes really big.”
When John suggested that he may be able to get the Drifters a gig at the 2i’s, the group were quite impressed and jumped at the chance to play this legendary venue with John as their manager.
One Saturday in early April the Drifters and John Foster caught the bus into London to audition for Tom Littlewood and that same evening the Drifters made their first appearance at the 2i’s. Although not the main act, the Drifters made a good impression and the booking became a two-week stint, albeit young Harry would need to leave early to catch the 10pm bus back to Cheshunt. During this residency the group also met two figures who would become crucial in their rise to fame.
Ian Samwell was a guitarist in a skiffle group but with a love for rock and roll that drew him to the Drifters and he asked if he could become their lead guitarist.
When Harry Greatorex arrived at the 2i’s, it was the new four piece Drifters that he saw and approached them with the offer of an appearance at his Regal Ballroom. With an offer of a £5 fee and £10 expenses John Foster immediately agreed but their was one condition that Harry Greatorex would insist on.
The trend, at the time, was towards a group having a named leader in front of the group’s name, such as Bill Haley and His Comets, Tommy Steele and the Steelmen, but Harry’s request for The Drifters to follow suit did not go down well with the group at first.
Sir Cliff signs copies of his autobiography at a store in Derby in 2008
As Sir Cliff says in his 2008 autobiography My Way, My Life:
I said, ‘No, we’re just a band, we’re called the Drifters.’
He said, ‘No, I need a name at the front.’
I said, ‘Well, you can’t have Harry Webb, that’s not on the cards.’
In that case,’ he said, ‘we’ll have to think of one.’
Norman Mither remembered that no one objected to Harry being named as the leader of the group, but Harry Webb did not sound very rock and roll.
They all went to a pub around the corner, the Swiss, to discuss the matter: four would-be rock and roll stars and Harry Greatorex who, with his spectacles and raincoat over his arm, had more of the appearance of a civil servant than a music entrepreneur.
There was a singer, at that time, by the name of Russ Hamilton, so they began to play around with that, suggesting Russ Clifford, then Cliff Russard. Cliff: that sounds like a rock face, all very rock and roll.
“Johnny Foster then came up with Cliff Richards,” Ian Samwell later recalled. “I said ‘Leave off the ‘s’ because everyone’s bound to say ‘Cliff Richards’ and, when we correct them, they’ll have heard it twice.” The name would also pay tribute to one of Harry Webb’s idols, the American rocker Little Richard.
That was decided then, and Harry Greatorex called his local paper, The Ripley And Heanor News to place an advertisement for the Regal Ballroom declaring: Direct From The 2i’s Coffee Bar In London: Cliff Richard And The Drifters.
“Harry Greatorex was a good man,” says veteran local broadcaster Mick Peat, who was 18 at the time. “He did us proud. We had really good nights there on a Saturday and sometimes on a Thursday. Harry used to get skiffle groups in, sometimes local groups. If someone could string ten songs together they got a gig.
As teenagers Sylvia Beaton and Mick Peat were both at the first performance of Cliff Richard in Ripley
“The week before Harry was telling us all that he had this group coming from London, he had heard them in a coffee house and they were fantastic! He said he’d got to pay them and he would have to put up the price a bit. It was usually a shilling (5 pence) to get in and he put it up to two bob (10 pence) on the night.”
“I had only just turned 17. I lived about 10 minutes away and used to go to the Regal quite a lot,” added Sylvia Beaton. “All the local teenagers used to go to see the local bands, like the Blue John Skiffle Group and Lee Sheridan and Twenty Five-Five. Harry Greatorex was a very nice man and everybody liked him.
“It wasn’t a big dance hall but there was a little snack bar. There was a little stage and a dance area and seats around the outside.”
“The Regal was typical of the dance halls of that era,” says retired police officer John Allen, who was also at Cliff’s first performance. “The girls would be on one side and the boys on the other, eyeing each other up. On occasions there would be recorded music but usually there would be live sessions.
“I would have been 17 and my mother worked at the Regal Ballroom on the admissions as you go in and sometimes in the snack bar. For those of our age, 17 to 21, that was the major function in the town. There was no alcohol served, I used to nip over the road for a pint,” he laughs.
To get to their first engagement outside the capital on 3rd May 1958, Cliff and the Drifters caught the train to Derby, with all their gear, and then the bus to Ripley. Outside the Regal they found a chalk board announcing their visit, but it was not a concert as we would recognise now.
“It was a dance, a bop, we used to rock and roll,” Mick explained. “There were quite a lot of people there.”
John Allen in 1958 (photo by kind permission of John Allen)
“It was a dance and he did things with everybody, held our hands, danced with us and everything,” Sylvia continued. “Being a girl of 17, and him being about the same age, I thought he was very, very attractive. What struck me most was his lovely eyes and eyelashes. He was very good looking.
“I don’t remember any of the songs, but he danced with us. In those days we danced round in a circle, holding hands, like the Hokey Cokey, and he joined in with us, just one of us. He was just friendly with everybody. He wasn’t a big star or anything, just a normal, nice young man.
Sylvia and Mick rock ‘n’ roll back the years outside the Regal Ballroom
“Afterwards he and another of the band members walked a couple of the girls up the road and across the market place to the bus stop, to get the bus to Heage. Later, when he played at the Gaumont in Derby, the ladies they had walked to the bus stop were in one of the boxes at the side of the stage. He saw them and blew them a kiss.”
In his autobiography, Cliff recalls the night was a great success:
“It felt like the big time. The ballroom was packed and the audience seemed to love us. We missed the last train home and spent the night at the venue, exhausted but elated.”
Sir Cliff Richard on a later appearance in Derbyshire, at Chatsworth in 2004
Things moved quickly on the group’s returned to London. John Foster got them a couple of bookings in talent shows at the Gaumont, Shepherd’s Bush. By the second show Cliff and the Drifters were attracting an army of screaming girls fans, but Foster also invited the well known agent George Ganjou.
Although he knew nothing of rock and roll, George was a friend of Norrie Paramor, A&R man at EMI’s Columbia record label. Cliff and the Drifters gave George a demo disc, which he passed on to Norrie, and the reaction of Norrie’s daughter to the record convinced him to sign the group to Columbia.
Cliff’s first single Move It, written by Ian Samwell, was released on 29th August 1958 and went on to reach number 2 in the UK singles chart. It was hailed as the first true British rock and roll record.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Slightly inaccurate wording of the Blue plaque marking Cliff Richard’s debut
And the group’s historic first performance as Cliff Richard and the Drifters, at the Regal in Ripley, was eventually acknowledged with a blue plaque to mark the occasion. This was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of the event, in 2008, by the Mayor of Ripley, Councillor Robert Phillips-Forsyth.
Afterwards the Leader of Ripley Town Council, Cllr Juliette Blake said of the unveiling: “It was excellent, the event was very well supported by people in the town and by many very keen Cliff fans from further afield.”
In a statement read to the fans on the night, Sir Cliff Richard said:
“The Ripley Regal was the first place I ever performed as Cliff Richard. I was so unused to the name that when I was introduced I was waiting for someone else to walk out onto the stage.
“The Regal played a huge part in my personal musical history and I am thrilled that this is being marked by a plaque to mark the 50th anniversary – 50 years to the day since that first performance.
“My thanks go to all who initiated this recognition and I hope you all enjoy the occasion.”