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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones