Rock 'n' Roles

By Hannah Wallace September 30, 2008

If you live in Sarasota and you don’t know who Cliff Roles is, perhaps you need to pay a little more attention. Roles, who works as a language translator and hosts his own radio show, moonlights as an actor and an emcee for some of the city’s swankiest events. Before he made Southwest Florida his home, he lived in Germany and worked as a record promoter for the likes of Celine Dion, Bon Jovi and Elton John.

“I was born in England and grew up with a love of languages—my dad used to hammer French vocabulary words into my head. So I studied French, German and Russian in school, then moved to Cologne, Germany, where I worked with building materials. and then for 3M.

“I was out at a bar one night when a friend’s girlfriend came up to me and told me she thought I’d be a good music promoter. I had no idea what that meant, but she helped me get an interview at a music publishing company. When the interviewer asked why I’d be a good fit, I replied, ‘Because I can sing every song you publish by heart.’ He must have been impressed by my cheekiness, because he gave me a six-month trial period, albeit at a horrendous salary. I had a big suitcase full of records and I would drive around Germany asking radio station planners if they’d play my [company’s] records. From radio promotion, I got into acquisitions—getting the rights to publish songs in Germany. I took regular tours around Europe to find and sell songs, which is how I met Celine Dion and her then-manager, now husband, Rene Angelil, in Paris. We got on so well that I ended up becoming her promoter in Germany, and she did some demos.

After getting fired for insubordination, I asked my boss if he minded if I took Celine with me to my next job, and he told me to go ahead. I got a job as head of promotions at Polygram Records and spent the next 16 years, from 1984-2000, promoting more than 130 of the world’s biggest pop stars: Metallica, Lionel Richie, Donna Summer, Oleta Adams, Bon Jovi, Elton John and, of course, Celine Dion. One of my favorite memories is standing on the Berlin Wall—on Hitler’s bunker—in 1990 during a massive rock concert among 450,000 people as the wall was being torn down.

“I left the industry in 2000 because I [felt I] was too old; I was in my mid-40s and felt that the music industry was changing, and I didn’t want to burn out. I wanted to travel more, so I began working as a translator and traveled all over the world. I came to Florida because I was looking for sunny weather, and it was in the right time zone for work. I discovered Sarasota by chance and, after meeting my wife here, everything fell into place. A year later, in 2002, I moved here. Thanks to an “I-can-do-it” attitude, I’m living my personal American dream and I’m lucky that what I do here is appreciated. I like to talk to people, and if the people that I’m dealing with feel like they’re being heard, then everyone benefits. I could do my radio show for years and never invite the same person back—everyone has a story.”

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