With the backing of the top songwriters and producers of the day, Cilla Black became one of Britain’s top stars of the 1960s. Excelling at dramatic ballads in particular, she scored a “lorra, lorra” hits, before later becoming Britain’s highest-paid female television presenter.
She was born Priscilla White on 27 May 1943 in Liverpool, in the north west of England. By 1963 she was working as an office typist and spending her lunch breaks as a coat check girl in the city’s famous Cavern Club. She made a name for herself locally by singing both with a group called the Big Three and solo, billed as Swinging Cilla.
She was signed by Beatles manager Brian Epstein and offered a recording contract by Parlophone. Bosses figured her distinctive vocals would divide opinion but would delight enough record buyers to justify the signing.
The storming Love of the loved was issued as her first single, in September 1963. Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the song had been included in The Beatles’ live shows in Hamburg. Yet, despite its impeccable pedigree, Cilla’s single made only number 35 in the UK charts.
Cilla had favoured releasing Shy of love, penned by her boyfriend, Bobby Willis, as her debut single, but the record company declined. Instead, his composition became the B-side. This proved a sharp business move and one that was repeated for many of her subsequent singles, as it meant that 50% of any royalties were paid to Willis.
Her follow up was to make Cilla a household name. Released in January 1964, Anyone who had a heart was a cover of an America hit by Dionne Warwick, which had been written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. (Warwick has still to forgive Cilla for what she considers a note-for-note copy, though many would argue that Cilla gives an infinitely more impassioned performance.)
Within three weeks, Cilla’s version hit the number one spot in the UK charts, and it would go on to sell over a million copies.
Her next single marked the beginning of what Cilla refers to as her “Italian period”.
Her You’re my world, a version of Umberto Bindi’s Il mio mondo, topped the charts for four weeks in the spring of 1964. These big Italian ballads proved her forte, showcasing her vocals to best effect.
Her girl-next-door appeal saw her become a frequent guest on television, and she finished the year by appearing in the Royal variety performance. On it, she performed her fourth hit, the exquisite waltz-styled Lennon and McCartney composition It’s for you, which had just given her another top ten chart hit.
1965 kicked off with the release of Cilla’s first LP, imaginatively entitled Cilla. Highlights included takes on Brenda Holloway’s Every little bit hurts, Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the street and Italian star Gigliola Cinquetti’s Uno di voi, retitled One little voice. As was common at the time – but almost unimaginable today – the album contained none of the singer’s hit singles. Nevertheless, it sold handsomely, reaching number five in the charts.
That spring, she watched as her latest 45, the Phil Spector-penned You’ve lost that loving feeling, stalled at number two in the charts while The Righteous Brothers’ original leapfogged to the top spot. She also faced humiliation when Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham took out an ad in Britain’s Melody maker magazine extolling the virtue of the original version over hers.
Surprisingly, her follow up, I’ve been wrong before, on which she gave one of her best vocal performances, stalled at number 17 in the charts. Its writer, Randy Newman, has gone on record saying that it was his favourite version of one of his songs, however.
She began 1966 with another top five hit, the superb Love’s just a broken heart, a song originally written for Edith Piaf as L’amour est ce qu’il est.
Cilla took Alfie, the Bacharach and David-penned title track of the Michael Caine film, into the UK top ten that spring. For many, the song is considered Cilla’s theme tune. (It has been claimed that the song had been intended for Sandie Shaw and that her manager had turned it down for the Dagenham star.)
That year she also starred in a revue in London’s West End alongside Frankie Howerd, and issued a second LP, Cilla sings a rainbow. Made up exclusively of cover versions – highlights of which include takes on Van McCoy’s Baby I’m yours and The Walker Brothers’ Make it easy on yourself – the album proved her most successful, reaching number four in the charts.
Two further Italian ballads – Don’t answer me (Donatella Moretti’s Ti vedo uscire) and A fool am I (Fabrizio Ferretti’s Dimmelo parlami) – kept her in the charts over the remainder of the year.
When 1967’s dramatic ballad What good am I? and the gentle I only live to love you (another Italian cover, this time of Tony Dallava’s Cosa si fa stasera), only made the top 30, it looked as though Cilla’s pop career might be going off the boil. The death of her manager, Brian Epstein, cast a further shadow over the year. However, it did enable Bobby Willis to take over managing Cilla’s career, a move the couple had been contemplating for a while.
A return to glory came after the BBC gave Cilla her own television series. The show first aired in January 1968, and its theme tune, Step inside love, written for her by Paul McCartney, sent her back into the top ten. She also released an Italian version of the song, M’innamoro, in Italy, though without success.
The BBC offered her the chance to represent the UK at that year’s Eurovision song contest, but the singer turned it down, arguing that as Sandie Shaw had won the year before, a second win by a British female was unlikely. (Cilla’s instincts proved correct – Spain’s Massiel went on to win the contest.)
A third album, Sher-oo!, proved a mixed bag, though it sailed into the top ten.
She returned to Umberto Bindi’s catalogue for Where is tomorrow (originally Non c’è domani), though the single just scraped into the top 40 in the summer of 1968. However, Cilla was too busy promoting her first film, Peter Hall’s decidedly second-rate Work is a four letter word, to worry much.
She rounded off the decade with a marriage to Bobby Willis and a return to chart form. The excellent Surround yourself with sorrow made number three in the UK charts, though her new album, Surround yourself with Cilla, sold less well than its predecessors.
No matter. Conversations – an unusual song, with terrific lyrics – made number seven in the charts that summer and the gentle If I thought you’d ever change your mind made number 20.
When 1970’s Child of mine failed to chart, it seemed that the public had consigned Swinging Cilla to the swinging 60s. However, a new TV series in 1971 helped its theme tune, Something tells me (something’s gonna happen tonight), into the top three. It proved her last top ten hit.
With Cilla’s on-screen warmth and character, it was no, erm, surprise, surprise when she went on to host further TV series that decade. She went on to become Britain’s most popular female television light entertainment presenter in the 1980s and 1990s.
She diied on 1 August 2015 after suffering a stroke following a fall at her home in Spain.