Richard Paul Astley (born 6 February 1966) is an English singer, songwriter and radio personality. His 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up” was a number 1 hit single in 25 countries and won the 1988 Brit Award for Best British Single. By the time of his retirement in 1993, Astley had sold approximately 40 million records worldwide.
Astley made a comeback in 2007, becoming an Internet phenomenon when the music video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” became integral to the meme known as “rickrolling“. Astley was voted “Best Act Ever” by Internet users at the MTV Europe Music Awards 2008, and his 2016 album 50 debuted in the UK at No. 1.
Astley was born on 6 February 1966 in Newton-le-Willows in Lancashire, the fourth child of his family. His parents divorced when he was five and Astley was brought up by his father. Astley remained in very close contact with his mother, who lived a few blocks away from his father. After finding out that his father was the one who kicked his mother out of the house, Astley distanced himself from his father. His musical career started when he was 10, singing in the local church choir. During his schooldays, Astley formed and played the drums in a number of local bands, where he met guitarist David Morris. After leaving school at sixteen, Astley was employed during the day as a driver in his father’s market-gardening business and played drums on the Northern club circuit at night in bands such as Give Way – specialising in covering Beatles and Shadows songs – and FBI, which won several local talent competitions.
In 1985, Astley was performing as a drummer with a soul band named FBI, with Morris on guitar. They were a well-known local band writing and performing their own music, gigging in pubs and clubs. When FBI’s lead singer left the band, and Morris left to concentrate on his career in hairdressing, Astley offered to be the lead vocalist. This was when he was noticed by the record producer Pete Waterman, who persuaded him to come to London to work at the Pete Waterman Limited (PWL) recording studio, with RCA Records publishing his records. Under the tutelage of the production team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, known as Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW), Astley was taught about the recording process and groomed for his future career, supposedly starting off as the recording studio “tea boy“. The reason for Astley to be hired as a “tape op” was to overcome his shyness. SAW also hired most of FBI, including Morris as a guitarist/songwriter.
His first single was the little-known “When You Gonna”, released as a collaboration with Lisa Carter, with little promotion. It did not chart. His first solo offering was “Never Gonna Give You Up“, recorded on New Year’s Day 1987, and released eight months later, in August. Astley’s distinctive rich, deep voice combined with dance-pop, made the song an immediate success, spending five weeks at the top of the British charts and becoming the year’s highest-selling single. The song was also a worldwide number one hit, topping the charts in 24 other countries, including the US, Australia, and West Germany. It would become the first of 13 (worldwide) top 30 hit singles for him. “Never Gonna Give You Up” won Best British single at the 1988 BPI awards (now called the BRIT Awards), and he performed the hit in front of a global audience of 100 million.
His next single was “Whenever You Need Somebody“, which was released in October. The single was a recycled Stock, Aitken, Waterman song, originally recorded by O’Chi Brown in 1985. It became a successful European hit, reaching No 1 in seven countries, including West Germany and Sweden, following up the success of his debut single. It also reached No 3 in the UK. It was not released in North America.
In November 1987, the album Whenever You Need Somebody, containing four tracks written by Astley, also reached number one in the UK and Australia, and No 10 in the US It was certified 4x Platinum in the UK and Canada, and 2x Platinum in the US. Overall Whenever You Need Somebody sold 15.2 million copies worldwide, making him the top-selling British act of the year.
In December 1987, Astley released a cover version of the Nat King Cole classic “When I Fall in Love“. This single is mainly remembered for a closely fought contest for UK Christmas Number 1. Rivals EMI, hoping to see their act the Pet Shop Boys reach No 1, re-released the version by Nat King Cole. This led to a slowdown of purchases of Astley’s version, allowing the Pet Shop Boys to reach the coveted top spot with their cover version of Always On My Mind. Despite selling over 200,000 copies and gaining a Silver certification from the BPI, it peaked in the UK at No 2 for two weeks. The re-release of Nat King Cole’s version reached No 4. The B side was a dance number “My Arms Keep Missing You“, which was successful in mainland Europe.
Astley’s fourth single release would be “Together Forever” in 1988, reaching No 2 in the UK. It was denied the top spot by Neighbours sensation Kylie Minogue‘s debut “I Should Be So Lucky“. “Together Forever” was more successful in the US, topping the charts, making it his second US chart topper. In 1989 he was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Artist, but lost to Tracy Chapman.
His fifth and final release from his debut album was “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man“. It was a more soulful song, when compared to his other releases, and was mainly intended for the North American market. Thus, it was not released in Britain. It was another hit for Astley, reaching No 10 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and No 1 in Canada. During the period between his debut release and his fifth single, Astley outsold every other artist in the world. In the UK, he was in the Top 40 every week for the first 6 months of his career.
A fire in the PWL studios destroyed much of Astley’s new material, causing a delay in the release of his second album. Hold Me in Your Arms was released in January 1989, containing five singles, and reached No 8 in the UK and No 19 in the US, being certified platinum in the UK and gold in the US.
Astley’s relationship with British media deteriorated significantly after the release of Whenever You Need Somebody, with the media calling him a “puppet” of Stock Aitken Waterman, although Astley had written five of his new album’s tracks. The negative press inevitably affected the sales of his singles. The first single from the album to be released was “She Wants to Dance with Me“, a number written by Astley. It was another successful single, reaching No 6 on both the UK and US charts. “Take Me to Your Heart” was the next single to be released from the album. It reached No 8 in the UK and was not released in the US “Hold Me in Your Arms“, a ballad written by Astley, reached No 10 in the UK and was also not released in North America. The next two singles released from the album were intended for the North American market. “Giving Up on Love” and a cover of The Temptations song “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” charted at No 38 and No 89 in the US respectively.
In December 1989, Astley set off on his first world tour, touring 15 countries including the UK, US, Australia, and Japan. By the end of the tour, he was tiring of the negative press, and wanted to explore alternative paths as a musician. Thus, he left his producers Stock Aitken Waterman, and RCA records bought out his contract with PWL.
By 1990, Astley had parted company with Stock Aitken Waterman. He also decided to leave his dance-pop days behind him, moving towards his passion, soul. This shift in musical genre led him to change his image too, ditching the boy next door look, presenting himself as a mature and passionate musician. His third album, Free, was released in 1991 containing collaborations with Elton John. The album contained three singles, and reached No 9 in the UK and No 31 in the US.