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Pop: The only bird in a beat boy's world: Cilla Black, once hailed by Brian Epstein as the 'Edith Piaf of the future', is back in the charts. Giles Smith considers a serious attempt at hip replacement

IT WAS Richard Blaskey's idea. Blaskey runs a company called the Music and Media Partnership which writes, produces and sells theme tunes to television companies. Kiri Te Kanawa singing 'World In Union' for ITV's Rugby World Cup coverage? That was one of theirs. And Blaskey has always had this idea that if you could find the right television personalities and furnish them with the right songs, you could have a lot of business on your hands. Two and a half years ago, his eye fell on Cilla.

Cilla Black hadn't made an album in 20 years, but you couldn't fault her pedigree - 11 Top 10 hits in the Sixties; a pal of the Beatles, born of Merseybeat at the grooviest time in the history of British pop; two consecutive No 1s; more than 10 million records sold. Her recording contract had lapsed ages ago, while she was busy building a television career in its place. For 36 weeks of the year, 12 million watch her hooking people together on Blind Date or orchestrating weepy family reunions on Surprise Surprise. These slots have guaranteed her continued status as a national item - everybody's carrot-haired aunty, with the big laugh and the regional accent. Blaskey invited Cilla to a Chinese restaurant with her husband and business affairs manager, Bobby Willis, and made his pitch.

'I pointed out,' Blaskey says, 'how she had a legacy of credibility from the Sixties. Their response was, 'What sort of record and how would we promote it and market it?' ' They talked some more, until Cilla said that at least the timing was about right. If the album came out in 1993, it would mark a double anniversary - her 50th year, her 30th in showbiz. Blaskey got busy. He fixed up duets with Cliff Richard, Barry Manilow and Dusty Springfield. He came up with a title song which he considered would hit the appropriate mood ('They said that all you need is love / Now we remember yesterday'). And then he plotted his campaign.

Through the Years the album came out last month, supported by Through the Years the book, Through the Years the television special, and Through the Years the video (released on 27 September, which was also 'Cilla Black Day' on Radio 2). Cilla got to go on Top of the Pops before her single was released, which is unheard of. On 15 November, she hosts and headlines the Royal Variety Performance. The duet with Barry Manilow on 'You'll Never Walk Alone' is timed to come out as a single and hit the Christmas rush and she's already slotted in to puff it on the Des O'Connor Show on 8 December. All in all, the promotion of Cilla's Through the Years album would make a space mission look casually conceived.

One slight problem, though: people aren't buying it. Cilla's album crept into the charts two weeks ago at No 61. It climbed to No 41. It is currently No 79. Which is hardly, as one might have said in the Sixties, 'toppermost of the poppermost'. Meanwhile, two old Beatles compilations hog spots in the Top 20. Apparently, for all the deft calculations of the market-men, people prefer their nostalgia neat.

JUST before her album came out, Cilla agreed to give some interviews. A lavish suite was rented in the Savoy. She appeared in cabaret at this hotel in 1966, when her singing career was entering orbit, but nowadays she appears here in state, surrounded by various nibbly things in silver salvers and a ready supply of her favourite tipple - champagne. She talks amiably and extremely loudly, but with some reserve and, perhaps, mild suspicion. And, yes, she says 'gorra' and 'lorra' a lot, and 'hur' and 'thur'. (George Martin, the Beatles' producer and hers back then, tried to get her to straighten her vowels: 'I just didn't know what he was on about when he told me I said 'there' funny. He said, 'It sounds like Ben Hur.' ')

If anything, she had a grander idea for her comeback album. 'I wanted dialogue in between the tracks and everything. I think the concept was a bit too much for them.' But she was glad to do the duets. 'Cliff I've known for a trillion years and I've sung with him on lots of the old Cilla shows. I had met Barry, too - I was cut to the quick when he told me he couldn't remember. In the 1970s, I was doing an album in LA and I went out for dinner one night with Barry. It was only a small table, not many people. Can you imagine someone not remembering meeting me? Even if it's just, 'Who's that loud cow that was there all night?' ' And as for Dusty Springfield - 'You've gorra remember, she was our icon. You ask any girl singer from the 1960s and they'll say Dusty was the guv'nor. I remember her parties off the Bayswater Road. They were great dos. Her mum and dad used to be there. I think I used to be invited because I get on with anybody - I was always stuck with her mum and dad all evening.'

Did she miss singing?

'Every time I've gone on the stage in the meantime, I've thought, 'I want this back again.' The best buzz I've ever had - it takes me right back to the kitchen table in Liverpool, where there used to be jars out when the pubs ended and my dad would bring a few mates back. I would be stood on that kitchen table looking down on them and doing a turn. I want a bit of that - I want more than a bit.'

HER father was a docker, but he gave his daughter a posh name - Priscilla Maria Veronica White. She was a typist at a company that made insulated cable, but she never doubted that she would be famous. 'It was what we all worked for. We wanted fame. I was not in the least surprised that I became a star. We were very hungry, very big-headed and we thought we were better than any of what we called the southern rubbish. Cos we thought it was all rubbish. Apart from Cliff - I was totally in love with him.'

Brian Epstein owned the record store from which Cilla was regularly ejected for spending hours in the listening booth and never buying anything. And the Beatles played in the Cavern, where she was occasionally a cloakroom attendant. After she had started singing - revealing a giant voice, a genuine glass-shatterer - a listing in Mersey Beat printed her surname as Black. Epstein, who had started managing her, told her to stick with it.

Early publicity referred to her as, 'The Only Bird In A Beat Boys' World'. Her 'newcomer' profile in the NME in 1963 said, 'She's an attractive 5ft 5in tall, with dark blue eyes that she says 'go black at night]'.' Her first single, 'Love of the Loved', was a Lennon and McCartney song. 'Paul used to sing it with the Beatles at the Cavern, and the kids used to love it, so I knew it was a good song. But I have to say, I didn't like the arrangement. I didn't like being with proper musicians who could read music. I didn't want trumpets on it. I just wanted that raw Liverpool sound. I preferred the B-side, which Bobby wrote.'

In 1964, she released a cover of 'Anyone Who Had A Heart', which George Martin wanted to place with Shirley Bassey until Epstein put his foot down. That went to No 1. And then came the ballad 'You're My World', which suggested other capacities in her voice. Martin told Ray Coleman, Epstein's biographer, 'Brian had this sense to see in Cilla something I originally hadn't seen. I thought she was this dolly rocker from Liverpool, good and different but not in any way a ballad singer. She was a mini- skirted little girl with a brassy voice. He opened my eyes to Cilla's dramatic potential.' In 1966, she had a hit with Burt Bacharach's 'Alfie' and, in 1968, with 'Step Inside Love', another Lennon and McCartney song.

Epstein referred to her at all times as 'my lovely Cilla'. He bought her perfume and made bold predictions about her future, one of which decorates the back of the Through the Years book. 'She is going to be one of the biggest stars in this country for 30 or 40 years.' Correct, though perhaps not in the way he envisaged. Less prescient is a comment Epstein made in the same year and which you won't find on the book jacket: 'She is the Edith Piaf of the future.' In many ways, it was actually Epstein who ensured that she would not be. Just before he died in 1967, he secured Cilla her first BBC television series.

At the head of each chapter of Through the Years the book, boxes marked 'Highlights' list the crucial events. Entries for 1972 run as follows: 'Voted Britain's Favourite Girl Singer of the Year by NME readers. Voted Personality Mother of the Year by Confectionery News.' As you pass on, the music awards and the hit singles tail off, replaced by a string of awards for TV Personality of the Year. By 1979, it's looking a little bare: 'TV Shows, Madrid. Cabaret Tour of Australia. Summer Season, Bournemouth. Aladdin, Wimbledon Theatre.' Then in 1983, she lands a Typhoo Tea commercial. In 1984, Surprise Surprise begins; in 1985, Blind Date. A Heinz Baked Beans commercial follows in 1988.

Cilla was a millionaire at 25. Her present salary from LWT is estimated at pounds 500,000. In April 1992, she got up on behalf of the Conservatives during their election rally. 'I'm voting for John Major,' she informed the audience, 'because he is a great Prime Minister. Because he doesn't punish success, he promotes it.' For her 50th birthday last May, Bobby bought her a Lowry.

YOU CAN'T buy cred like Cilla's - but she can't buy it back. Swinging Cilla, the future Piaf, opted to become Aunty Saturday Night, and along the way her fabness got consumed by television. As she admits, laughing, 'the kids who are on Blind Date only know I was a singer through their parents and they send me up rotten at times'.

Yet she's serious when she says, 'On my epitaph when I finally kick the bucket, I don't want to be 'Here Lies Cilla, TV Presenter' - I'm insisting on 'Here Lies Cilla the Singer'.'

(Photograph omitted)