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Priscilla Maria Veronica White OBE (27 May 1943 – 1 August 2015), known by her stage name Cilla Black, was an English singer, actress and entertainer. Championed by the Beatles, she began her career as a singer in 1963, and her singles “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (1964) and “You’re My World” (1964) both reached number one. Black had eleven Top Ten hits on the British charts between 1964 and 1971. In May 2010 new research published by BBC Radio 2 showed that her version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was the UK’s biggest selling single by a female artist in the 1960s. “You’re My World” was also a modest hit in the US, peaking at No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Along with a successful recording career in the 1960s and early 1970s, Black hosted her own eponymous variety show, Cilla, for the BBC between 1968 and 1976. After a brief time as a comedy actress in the mid-1970s, she became a prominent television presenter in the 1980s and 1990s, hosting hit entertainment shows such as Blind Date (1985–2003) and Surprise Surprise (1984–2001).
In 2013 Black celebrated her 50 years in show business. British television network ITV honoured this milestone with a one-off entertainment special which aired on 16 October 2013. The show, called The One & Only Cilla Black, featured Black herself and was hosted by Paul O’Grady.
Black was born in Liverpool, England, on 27 May 1943 and grew up in the Scotland Road area of the city. Her parents were John Patrick White (1904-1971) and Priscilla Blythen (1911-1996). Black had a Welsh grandfather, Joseph Henry Blythen (1883-1966), who was born in Wrexham, and Irish great-grandparents on her father’s and mother’s side of the family. She was raised in a Roman Catholic household, and attended St. Anthony’s School. situated behind St. Anthony’s Church in Scotland Road, and Anfield Commercial College, where she learnt office skills.
Determined to become an entertainer, Black gained a part-time job as a cloakroom attendant at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, best known for its connection with the Beatles. Her impromptu performances impressed the Beatles and others. She was encouraged to begin singing by a Liverpool promoter, Sam Leach, who booked her first gig at the Casanova Club, on London Road, where she appeared as “Swinging Cilla“. Black became a guest singer with the Merseybeat bands Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes and, later, with the Big Three. Meanwhile, she worked as a waitress at the Zodiac coffee lounge, where she later met her future husband Bobby Willis. Black was featured in an article in the first edition of the local music newspaper Mersey Beat by the paper’s publisher, Bill Harry, who mistakenly referred to her as Cilla Black. She liked the name more, and took it as her stage name.
Black signed her first contract with long-time friend and neighbour, Terry McCann, but this contract was never honoured as it was signed when she was under age (the age of majority was then 21) and her father subsequently signed her with Brian Epstein.
She was introduced to Epstein by John Lennon, who persuaded him to audition her. Epstein had a portfolio of local artists but initially showed little interest in her. Her first audition was a failure, partly because of nerves, and partly because the Beatles (who supported her) played the songs in their usual vocal key rather than re-pitching them for Black’s voice. In her autobiography What’s It All About? she wrote:
I’d chosen to do “Summertime”, but at the very last moment I wished I hadn’t. I adored this song, and had sung it when I came to Birkenhead with the Big Three, but I hadn’t rehearsed it with the Beatles and it had just occurred to me that they would play it in the wrong key. It was too late for second thoughts, though. With one last wicked wink at me, John set the group off playing. I’d been right to worry. The music was not in my key and any adjustments that the boys were now trying to make were too late to save me. My voice sounded awful. Destroyed—and wanting to die—I struggled on to the end.
But after seeing her another day, at the Blue Angel jazz club, Epstein contracted with Black as his only female client on 6 September 1963. Epstein introduced Black to George Martin who signed her to Parlophone Records and produced her début single, “Love of the Loved” (written by Lennon and McCartney), which was released only three weeks after joining Epstein. Despite an appearance on ABC Television’s popular Thank Your Lucky Stars, the single peaked at a modest No. 35 in the UK, a relative failure compared to début releases of Epstein’s most successful artists (the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas).
Black’s second single, released at the beginning of 1964, was a cover of the Burt Bacharach–Hal David composition “Anyone Who Had a Heart“, which had been written for Dionne Warwick. The single beat Warwick’s recording into the UK charts and rose to No. 1 in Britain in February 1964 (spending three weeks there), selling 800,000 UK copies in the process. Her second UK No. 1 success, “You’re My World“, was an English-language rendition of the Italian popular song “Il Mio Mondo” by composer Umberto Bindi. She also enjoyed chart success with the song in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, South Africa and Canada. Both songs sold over one million copies worldwide, and were awarded gold discs.
Black’s two No. 1 successes were followed by the release of another Lennon–McCartney composition, “It’s for You“, as her fourth UK single. Paul McCartney played piano at the recording session and the song proved to be another major success for Black, peaking at No. 7 on the UK charts.
Black belonged to a generation of British female singers which included Dusty Springfield, Helen Shapiro, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw and Lulu. These artists (other than Petula Clark) were not singer-songwriters but interpreters of 1960s contemporary popular music by song writers and producers. Black recorded much material during this time, including songs written by Phil Spector, Randy Newman, Tim Hardin and Burt Bacharach. All were produced by George Martin at Abbey Road Studios.
Black’s version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” (1965) reached No. 2 on the UK charts in the same week that the Righteous Brothers’s original version of the same song went to No. 1 there (week of 4 February 1965). This was the first of only three occasions in the history of the British Top 40 where the same song, recorded by two different artists, held the top two positions in the chart in the same week. The single wasn’t critically well received, however; The Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham took out an advert in the Melody Maker to deride Cilla’s efforts compared with the original.
Being so closely associated with the Beatles, Black became one of a select group of artists in the 1964-65 period (the others in the same position being Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas and Peter and Gordon) to record more than one Lennon–McCartney composition. Black continued to record Lennon-McCartney compositions throughout her time with EMI’s Parlophone (1963–1973); Black’s recordings of “Yesterday“, “For No One” and “Across the Universe” became radio favourites. McCartney said Black’s 1972 interpretation of “The Long and Winding Road” was the definitive version of the song.
[…] Epstein died of an accidental drug overdose in August 1967, not long after negotiating a contract with the BBC for Black to appear in a television series of her own. Relations between Epstein and Black had somewhat soured during the year prior to his death, due largely to the fact that Epstein was not paying her career enough attention and the fact that Black’s singles “A Fool Am I” (UK No. 13, 1966) and “What Good Am I?” (UK No. 24, 1967) were not big successes. Apparently Black was also unhappy with Epstein’s public admission that he had taken LSD. In her autobiography, Black claimed that Epstein had tried to pacify her by negotiating a deal that would see her representing the UK in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. However, Black refused on the basis that Sandie Shaw had won the previous year’s contest, and that the chances of another British female artist winning were improbable.Black’s boyfriend and songwriter Bobby Willis assumed management responsibilities after Epstein died. After the relatively disappointing performance of “I Only Live to Love You” (UK No. 26, 1967), Black hit a new purple patch in her recording career, starting with “Step Inside Love” in 1968 (UK No. 8), which McCartney wrote especially for her as the theme for her new weekly BBC television variety series. Other successes followed in 1969: “Conversations” (UK No. 7), “Surround Yourself With Sorrow” (UK No. 3), “If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind” (No. 20). Black had a further big hit with “Something Tells Me (Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight)” (UK No. 3) in 1971.
Black’s association with the Beatles continued. At the 1971 Cannes Film Festival she joined George Harrison, Ringo Starr and singer Marc Bolan to attend a screening of the John Lennon-Yoko Ono experimental film Erection. She also holidayed with Harrison and Starr on a trip aboard a yacht chartered by Starr. “Photograph” was written on this trip—originally intended for Black to record—but Starr decided to record it himself. George Harrison also wrote two songs for Black: “The Light that has Lighted the World” and “I’ll Still Love You (When Every Song is Sung)“. The latter she recorded during 1974 with her then producer David Mackay, but it was not heard publicly until 2003 when it was included on a retrospective collection entitled Cilla: The Best of 1963–78. […]
Paul on Cilla Black pic.twitter.com/XP1dyAPmWn
— Paul McCartney (@PaulMcCartney) August 2, 2015
Last updated on August 9, 2015