Bittersweet, The Clifford T. Ward Story, by Dave Cartwright
Initially I thought that, necessarily (for reasons, I hope, that should be self-evident) this review will be much shorter than my customary fiction reviews, but in fact, that’s not the case; nevertheless, I hope it will give you sufficient reason for seeking the book out, if for no other reason than to sustain interest in this enigmatic figure in late twentieth century music, and the music itself, of course. Music is one subject of interest, very precious & valuable to me, on which I try to avoid being prescriptive or judgmental, because it is very much a subjective choice, and therefore personal & unique to the individual. This book, like many such biographies, I think I am right in saying, is effectively a labour of love by the writer, who is a musician, rather than a biographer, but in addition to having known the subject himself, even if only tangentially, he has obviously spent a lot of time, to his credit, interviewing the family and friends of the subject, some of them mutual, and using documentary sources, some of which were provided by the subject himself.
The book, which is a modest (in terms of presentation), albeit professional product, has actually been published twice: the first time in 1999, when Ward himself was still alive; and the second edition, the one I read, was published in 2003, with the ISBN 1-901447-18-9. It was lent to me by a friend, who is also a singer, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn about the life & career of a singer who was known to me from his best-known output (i.e., the ones which got radio play), but that couldn’t prepare me for what I discovered about this complex, eccentric character who should have been better known, rather than more successful, because like many creatives in his position, success, such as it was, was something he found very difficult to deal with: to the extent of stubbornly and, it would seem, deliberately going out of his way to thwart. This also restricted the extent to which he would be known and his music appreciated, of course. The author, according to his ‘bio’ at the back of the book, has been [sic] a musician and songwriter for over thirty years, so he will be well versed in the gamut of interpersonal relationships in the music business, and the characters who inhabit it; many of whom, both well known and (to me) hitherto unknown, he mentions because of their association with CTW, instead of for reasons of tawdry self-aggrandisement. At the time of writing, Cartwright lived in the city of Worcester, and this is very much a book with the west midlands of England at its heart, and it has been the cradle of creativity for many British musicians of varying levels of influence & appreciation.
Clifford Thomas Ward was born in Stourport-on-Severn, 30 miles south west of Birmingham (“a popular day-trip excursion from the sombre, stiff-lipped canal towns of the Black Country … in the post-war boom of the 1950s”), on the 10th of February, 1944 (apparently simultaneously with the birth of PAYE income tax), the fifth child of Frank & Kathleen Ward. What surprised me most of all in this book, notwithstanding the revelations about Cliff’s complex (and often maddening) personality, from what little I knew from hearing his best known songs played on the radio latterly, courtesy of the now also-departed Terry Wogan, one of CTW’s champions, was that he retained his strong local accent, which he would accentuate, and also lapse into the vernacular dialect, when it suited him; often for comic effect, as he was known to have a sense of humour which encompassed the juvenile; but then again, his formative years were the period of ITMA and The Goons. When he was an adolescent, music was undergoing a seismic development, due in no small part to the influence of American artistes, churlishly oft-lamented by some, but unarguably irrevocably influential, and the teenage Cliff was drawn to music performance, like so many others in that first flush of realisation of independence, after decades of enforced deference to their elders; so he became a singer in several local beat combos, but he never learned to play the piano the traditional way, which caused no end of problems for conventionally-trained (either academically or experientially) musicians.
His career progression from there was difficult, to say the least; he soon realised that he preferred performing solo, predominantly his own songs, and this allowed him the creative freedom he craved. Unfortunately, he was such a perfectionist, but with a capricious streak that caused him to change his mind just when he had thought that a project was finished to an acceptable standard, that he ended up trying the patience of both musicians who worked with him, and management, of whom there were many! Through all this, his rock and possibly only faithful support was his wife, Pat, whom he married at a relatively young age; unfortunately, he chose not to always acknowledge that, but Pat seems to have accepted his philandering (which was almost entirely temperamental, rather than simply opportunist as a concomitant of his musician’s lifestyle) with a high degree of equanimity. His relationship with his four children was also sometimes difficult, and it is somewhat sad, although also indicative, that his response to his later medical condition wasn’t mitigated by his commendably considerate attitude towards his first daughter, Debbie, who was physically disabled at a young age.
Although, it has to be said, his lack of conventional success was due to a significant extent to his contrary nature, leading to all sorts of complications with writing & performing credits and consequent payments under a succession of different management, the direction of his career was inexorably downwards after his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at the age of 40, in 1984. For as long as he could, he refused to accept submission to an illness that would physically (and, to some extent, indirectly, psychologically) disable him, and kill him at the tragically young age of 57. At first, he steadfastly ignored it (while it was actually possible), dismissing it as an ear infection that was affecting his balance & coordination, but before very long, it was impossible to conceal it, notwithstanding the scarcity of his live performances, even quite early in his career; from then on, the progression was irreversible, causing him to become a recluse, despite the efforts of many of his friends & supporters to convince him that acknowledging his condition would be widely accepted, but one (of many) thing he didn’t want was sympathy, because he would have seen that as a sign of weakness on his part.
Although this book is by no means ‘mainstream’, it does seem to be still available, published by Cherry Red Books, and this company has also reissued at least 4 compilations of CTW’s songs, some of which are re-worked demo tracks, but all of which are free of the “constraints … [of the] sheer bloody-mindedness of record companies”. As an independent publisher myself, I would encourage you to support this author, if you have any interest in the life, career and, most importantly, the music of this under-appreciated artiste. There is a biographical monograph in existence, by Mick Armitage; it is a web page on the Sheffield University site: http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/cliffordt/biogrphy.html, and there is also a Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifford_T._Ward.