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Priscilla Maria Veronica White OBE (27 May 1943 – 1 August 2015), better known as Cilla Black, was an English singer, television presenter, actress, and author.
Championed by her friends, the Beatles, Black began her career as a singer in 1963. Her singles “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “You’re My World” both reached number one in the UK in 1964. She had 11 top 10 hits on the UK Singles Chart between then and 1971, and an additional eight hits that made the top 40. 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 U.S., 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 BBC variety show, Cilla (1968–1976). After a brief time as a comedy actress, she became a prominent television presenter in the 1980s and 1990s, hosting hit entertainment shows such as Blind Date (1985–2003), Surprise Surprise (1984–2001) and The Moment of Truth (1998–2001). In 2013, Black celebrated 50 years in show business. ITV honoured this milestone with a one-off entertainment special which aired on 16 October 2013, The One & Only Cilla Black, featuring Black herself and hosted by Paul O’Grady.
Black died on 1 August 2015 at the age of 72, after a fall in her villa in Estepona. The day after her funeral, the compilation album The Very Best of Cilla Black went to number one on the UK Albums Chart and the New Zealand Albums Chart; it was her first number one album. In 2017, a statue of Black commissioned by her sons was unveiled outside the Cavern Club’s original entrance.
Black was born Priscilla Maria Veronica White in the Vauxhall district of Liverpool on 27 May 1943, the daughter of Priscilla Blythen (1911–1996) and John Patrick White (1904–1971). She grew up in the Scotland Road area of Vauxhall. Her maternal grandfather, Joseph Henry Blythen (1883–1966), was born to Irish parents in the Welsh town of Wrexham; all of Black’s other great-grandparents were also Irish. She was raised in a Roman Catholic household, and attended St Anthony’s School in Scotland Road. She later attended Anfield Commercial College, where she learned 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 Zodiac Club on Duke Street, where she appeared as “Swinging Cilla”, backed by the Big Three. She later also became a guest singer with the Merseybeat bands Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes. Meanwhile, she worked as a waitress at the Zodiac coffee lounge, where she met her future husband Bobby Willis. She 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” rather than her real name. She subsequently decided to keep the name.
Before August 1967
Black signed her first contract with longtime friend and neighbour Terry McCann, but this contract was never honoured as it was made when she was underage (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. Lennon was encouraged by his Aunt Mimi to introduce Black to Epstein. 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 she joined 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 the débuts of Epstein’s most successful artists (the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer with 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 America, 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 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, Marianne Faithfull, and Lulu. Other than Clark, these artists were not singer-songwriters but interpreters of 1960s contemporary popular music by songwriters and producers. Black recorded much material during this time, including songs written by Phil Spector, Tim Hardin and Burt Bacharach. All were produced by George Martin at Abbey Road Studios. Randy Newman, writer and composer of “I’ve Been Wrong Before” which Cilla Black recorded in 1965, was quoted as saying: “Cilla Black’s “I’ve Been Wrong Before” is about the best cover record anyone has ever done of my songs.”
Black’s version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” (1965) reached No. 2 on the UK charts. A week later the Righteous Brothers’ original version of the same song went to No. 1 while Black’s version dropped to No. 5. 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 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 Parlophone (1963–1973) and her 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.
Black’s career in the United States, although enthusiastically supported by Epstein and his PR team, was limited to a few television appearances (The Ed Sullivan Show among them), a 1965 cabaret season at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and success with “You’re My World”, which made it to No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was to be her only American Top 30 chart success, and Elvis Presley had a copy on his personal jukebox at his Graceland home. Black recognised that to achieve popular status in the USA she would need to devote much time to touring there. But she was plagued by homesickness and a sense of loneliness and returned to the UK.
During 1966 Black recorded the Bacharach-David song “Alfie”, written as the signature song to the 1966 feature film of the same name. While Cher sang “Alfie” on the closing credits of the American release of the film and Black on the UK version, Black was the first and only artist to have a hit with the song in the UK (No. 9). The next year, “Alfie” would become a success for Dionne Warwick in the US. Black’s version of “Alfie” was arranged and conducted by Bacharach himself at the recording session at Abbey Road. Bacharach insisted on 31 separate takes, and Black cited the session as one of the most demanding of her recording career. For Bacharach’s part, he said “… there weren’t too many white singers around, who could convey the emotion that I felt in many of the songs I wrote but that changed with people like Cilla Black”.
By the end of 1966, Black had been a guest on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s show Not Only… But Also, had appeared on The Eamonn Andrews Show, and in a Ray Galton–Alan Simpson revue in London’s West End—Way Out in Piccadilly—alongside Frankie Howerd, and had starred in the television special Cilla at the Savoy, which was one of the most watched music specials of the 1960s.
Epstein’s attempts to make Black a film actress were less successful. A brief appearance in the “beat” film Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey (1965) and a leading role alongside David Warner in the psychedelic comedy Work Is a Four-Letter Word (1968) were largely ignored by film critics. In a 1997 interview with Record Collector magazine, Black revealed she was asked to appear in the film The Italian Job (1969), playing the part of Michael Caine’s girlfriend, but negotiations fell through between producers and her management over her fee.
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, largely because she felt he was not paying her career enough attention and the fact that her singles “A Fool Am I” (UK No. 13, 1966) and “What Good Am I?” (UK No. 24, 1967) were not big successes.
In her autobiography, Black said 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 few.[self-published source?]
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” (written by Bill Martin, Phil Coulter, 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—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.
Writing in 1969, the rock music journalist Nik Cohn wrote:
…she makes people glow. In her time, she will grow into a pop Gracie Fields, much loved entertainer, and she’ll become institutionalised.
Later music career
In 1993 she released Through the Years, an album of new material featuring duets with Dusty Springfield, Cliff Richard and Barry Manilow. Ten years later, in 2003, she released the album Beginnings … Greatest Hits and New Songs.
During 2006–07, Black’s 1971 single “Something Tells Me (Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight)” was used as the soundtrack to a new British advertising campaign for Ferrero Rocher chocolates. During the 2008–09 pantomime season, Black returned to live musical performance in the pantomime Cinderella, appearing as the Fairy Godmother. Black was part of an all-Scouse cast assembled in this three-hour stage spectacular to mark the end of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture. The show incorporated a number of Black’s successes, which she performed live, including “You’re My World”, “Something Tells Me”, “Step Inside Love” and “I Can Sing a Rainbow”. Black received rave reviews for her singing and overall performance.
On 7 September 2009, a total of 13 original studio albums (the first seven produced by George Martin) recorded by Black between 1963 and 2003 were released for digital download. These albums featured an array of musical genres. Also released by EMI at the same time was a double album and DVD set, The Definitive Collection (A Life in Music), featuring rare BBC video footage; a digital download album of specially commissioned re-mixes Cilla All Mixed Up; a remixed single on digital download of “Something Tells Me”.
For the 2010 winter pantomime season, Black appeared in Cinderella at the Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
In October 2013, Parlophone (the record label which launched her career in 1963) released the career-spanning CD The Very Best of Cilla Black—containing all 19 of her UK Top 40 singles, new club remixes plus a bonus DVD of her 1966 TV music special Cilla at the Savoy.
Black was the best-selling British female recording artist in the UK during the 1960s, releasing a total of 15 studio albums and 37 singles.
On 14 February 2020, a previously unreleased Black track titled “You’re Sensational” was released via Warner Music.
Cilla (BBC TV series)
Black was offered her own show on the BBC by Bill Cotton, then Assistant Head of Light Entertainment. The show would simply be titled Cilla and aired from January 1968 to April 1976. Cotton considered Black to take over from Bruce Forsyth as host of The Generation Game in 1978, but after a brief conversation, Cotton learned that Black wanted to maintain her singing career and was not ready to change course so drastically to light entertainment hostess. Cotton believed she would have been “perfect” for the show. […]
Like many of the guys from the Liverpool scene, I remember Cilla from clubs like The Cavern and the Iron Door. It was a special moment when the so-called ‘cloakroom girl’ got up and sang and wowed us with her great performance.
Since then, I’ve known and loved her over the years and besides admiring classic recordings like You’re My World’ I have had the pleasure to write a couple of songs for her. ‘It’s For You’ was one of her first recordings but my personal favourite was ‘Step Inside Love’ which was written specially for what I believe was Cilla’s first television special.
Since then, she has gone from strength to strength and nowadays is a true British legend.
Not bad for a scruff from the Scottie Road!!
PaulPaul McCartney – From the liner notes of Cilla Black – Cilla The Best Of 1963-78 (2003, CD) – Discogs
Such a shock to hear about Cilla’s passing. She was a lovely girl who infected everyone with her great spirit. From first meeting her as a cloakroom girl at The Cavern in Liverpool, to seeing her many times since, she always had a fun loving dignity that made her a great pleasure to be around. She had a fine distinctive voice and was always a bit of a laugh. It was a privilege to know and love her.Paul McCartney – from Twitter, August 2, 2015
Last updated on September 30, 2021
Feb 28, 1968 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Step Inside Love / I Couldn't Take My Eyes Off You
Albums, EPs & singles by Cilla Black
Albums, EPs & singles which Cilla Black contributed to
By Cilla Black • 7" Single
Contribution: Vocals • 1 songs