Rock history notes: Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman” becomes his biggest hit

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The week of Aug. 14, 1976 saw veteran singer Cliff Richard enter the U.S. pop charts with the biggest hit of his career, “Devil Woman.” The song is remarkable not only for its chart-topping popularity, but for the style departure it represented for the British singer.

Cliff Richard and 1970s rock

Before “Devil Woman,” Cliff Richard probably had more in common with Neil Sedaka and Buddy Holly. His songs were typical love interest-oriented tunes popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Richard’s voice even sounded different–his earlier records found him sounding like a fresh-faced young man. With “Devil Woman,” his voice is a bit lower, edgier, and the song’s content is darker than his previous efforts.

The rock styles of 1976 ranged from Rush’s progressive rock that lent itself to concept albums like “2112,” to the country-tinged, heavy guitar riff sound of the Eagles, and blues-based heavy metal by Deep Purple and others. None of these styles would seem to have anything to do with Richard’s music. Except, “Devil Woman” fits in. The searing guitar, moody piano, and thumpy, pliable drums, create a danceable line that might make listeners forget it’s a song about getting cursed.

Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman”

Naively, I thought that if “Devil Woman” charted at all, it would have been around Halloween. Of course, at least in some Midwestern states, that is when the song gets the most airplay. Instead, “Devil Woman” reached its peak chart position in the U.S. during the week of Aug. 14, 1976. It reached number 5. The song stayed on the U.S. charts all year, eventually dropping to number 55 at the end of 1976.

“Devil Woman” can be found on Richard’s “I’m Nearly Famous Album,” that was released April 1976. The joke of the album’s title is that Richard had enjoyed an almost 20-year career at that point. Recorded at famous Abbey Road Studios, the song is kept relevant by the numbers of bands (famous and not so), that cover it regularly.

“Devil Woman” can also be found on Richard’s “40 Greatest Hits” album– a collection of his singles that charted worldwide. The album was released in 1977.

There is something spooky about the song aside from its title. The opening strains are a persistent piano motif accompanied by well-placed drum kicks. When the song is to kick into gear, a drumbeat that sounds like a slamming door, pounds. Richard’s vocals are underscored by backup singers producing “oohs.” The bass and guitar are moody and produce a nice groove. The tension is built when the guitar shoots into the lead, or soars into a solo.

The song is narrated by a man who thinks he’s been cursed by a black cat that crossed his path. He goes to a gypsy, who reads his palm, and he is entranced by her big, green eyes and long, black hair. He realizes that she was the one who cursed him in the first place. The lyrics are simple enough; the instrumentation adds depth and texture. This song is not like Richard’s other hits. There is nothing here that can be sung with any level of innocence. “Devil Woman” is a cautionary tale.

 

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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2 responses to “Rock history notes: Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman” becomes his biggest hit”

    • Yes, it is a cautionary tale–it provides a warning. The whole idea of “innocence” refers to how Richards couldn’t use his previous performance approaches because he was too wholesome. In my opinion.

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