Born 1943, Priscilla Maria Veronica White grew up in one of the toughest parts of Liverpool. Priscilla was encouraged to sing by her family and as a young teenager was determined to break into show business. She worked as a cloakroom attendant at the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool as well as waitress at the Zodiac coffee (Duke Street). A personable girl she was popular in the clubs and when Rory Storm asked her to join him on the stage to sing there was no stopping her. She became the female vocalist for the Dominoes (which featured Richard Starky on drums) and would also freelance as there were no other girl singers in Liverpool at the time and Cilla’s appearance on stage was much appreciated. When she sang with The Big Three she was referred to as "Swinging Cilla." When the music paper, the Mersey Beat misprinted and called her Cilla Black, the singer liked the sound of it and decided to use the name professionally. Lennon persuaded Brian Epstein to audition Cilla and when he saw her singing, Bye Bye Blackbird at the Blue Angel jazz club, Epstein signed her and matched her with George Marin, Cilla recorded “Love of the loved” (written by Lennon and McCartney).
The song did well for a debut but was not a top twenty hit. George Martin had expressed some doubt about her singing ability as the scrawny girl was raw but eager. He recognised something in her voice which gave Cilla distinction over her close UK rivals of Lulu, Marianne Faithful, Sandie Shaw and Dusty Springfield. George and Brian thought it was just a question of matching her with the right song. Her second single was a cover version of a Dionne Warwick hit, written by Burt Bacharach-Hal David, the song was "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and gave her first #1 in the UK.
George Martin became Cilla's producer for the next 11 years and she was among the few EMI acts that he continued to produce after he left the company in 1966 to set up AIR Studios. For the next single they took an Italian song “Il Mio Mondo” translated into English, this rich treasure trove of ballads was to set a trend for other divas, including Dusty. The world sat up when Cilla released “You’re my world.“
Cilla Black was never going to be a serious rival to Dusty Springfield, lacking her depth or subtlety, but she had a distinctive and identifiable voice despite the uncertain range and instincts. Her vocals were attractive in their delivery and seemed to get better as she gained experience. Cilla made her acting debut in 1964 in Ferry Cross the Mersey, with Gerry & The Pacemakers. The film enjoyed some critical success, remembered now mainly because of the title track, but it was back to the recording studio for Cilla.
Cilla’s voice had an intense soulful quality, similar to Tom Jones. Her next single was to show this off to very good effect. Another cover version, this time the Righteous Bros, "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." 1966 was a watershed year for Cilla and her previous recordings had interested song writer, Burt Bacharach.
When Cilla was chosen to sing the theme tune to a new Michael Caine that was almost the equivalent to singing the next Bond theme the song was a Bacharach- David composition and the theme and film shared the same title, “Alfie“. Burt came to London to produce at Abbey Road Studios and the well know perfectionist must have tried the singer’s patience because she cites this has the most harrowing experience in her recording career. However it was all worthwhile and the song paid justice to their hard work.
Cilla was beginning to have doubts about her management by the end of 1966 and was poised to leave the Epstein stable the following year and join Robert Stigwood. They met when Robert worked in the NEMS organisation, but when Brian died the plans fell through and Cilla’s management was taken over by her husband Bobby Willis. Cilla meantime was rather unique and being close friends with Sir Paul McCartney had the advantage to select the best Beatle compositions for herself. In the waltz like "It's For You," the singer displays a surprisingly adventurous jazz arrangement and the single reached No. 7 in England.
A year later she recorded the ever popular, McCartney’s, "Step Inside Love."
Only days before Brian’s premature death, Epstein had engineered Cilla's switch to television and it proved to be a shrewd move. The Cilla Black Show regularly commanded a staggering audience of 22 million in the UK. A disastrous appearance in the flop film Work Is a Four-Letter Word, (1968) coincided with her decline as a pop diva. Her TV work began to eclipse her musical fame and she went on to host several popular television programmes including Blind Date, and Surprise, Surprise. One enduring feature of Cilla was her marriage to Bobby for over 30 years until his premature death in 1999. The couple had three sons and Robert Jnr, now manages his successful mother. Sadly Cilla Black passed away quietly at her Spanish home in Estepona on the Costa del Sol in 2015. This is perhaps my favourite Cilla song and her last hit released in 1971, “Something tells me.”
Worth a listen:
Liverpool Lullaby (1969)
Love of the loved (1963)
Anyone Who Had a Heart (1964)
You’re my world (1964)
You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'(1965)
Alfie Cilla Black (1966)
Its for You
Step Inside Love (1968)
Something Tells Me (1971)
You’ve lost that loving feeling