Cilla Black: Singer who was signed by Brian Epstein and went on to forge a successful career as a much-loved presenter

Black proved that however shallow a world show business is deemed to be, there is no substitute for being genuine, and for being yourself

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The Independent Online

The singer and television presenter Cilla Black embodied the Sixties spirit of working-class people with talent suddenly having the opportunity to prove it. In the words of Twiggy, it was “a time when ordinary people could do extraordinary things”. Ambitious and tough with it, the proudly Liverpudlian red-head began her career as a cloakroom attendant at The Cavern Club, and became the UK’s best-selling female recording artist of the Sixties.

She had 20 consecutive UK Top 40 hits, sang the biggest-selling single of the decade by a female recording artist (“Anyone Who Had a Heart”), was the youngest female entertainer to have her own television series, which ran on the BBC for eight years, had a 20-year success hosting the Saturday-night ITV hit Blind Date, and topped off 50 years in show business by being honoured with a Bafta Lifetime Achievement Award, an OBE and an excellent three-part drama starring Sheridan Smith which told the story of her rise to fame, a thank you note perhaps for winning the channel blockbuster ratings over the years.

The secret to her longevity was perhaps in part down to the fact that she eschewed sexiness in favour of respectability and reliability, traits that aren’t ephemeral. Despite huge and rarely disguised self-belief, she was extravagantly unpretentious and sincere, and until the public were reminded of the facts by her 2014 biopic, her long-reign as TV royalty had made them forget quite how impressive her achievements were as a part of Sixties Britain.

Priscilla Maria Veronica White (“my parents didn’t have money so they gave us names instead”) was born in 1943. She and her three brothers grew up in a flat above a barber’s shop in Scotland Road; her Irish father was a docker known as Shiner for his immaculate appearance. Her parents were frustrated performers: her mother was gifted with a powerful soprano voice, and would sing whenever friends came round, accompanied by her husband on the mouth organ. It was on one such occasion that their five-year-old daughter joined in and gave a rendition of Al Jolson’s “Mammy”.

 

At 15 she left St Anthony’s School with a prize for good attendance and studied Shipping Management at Anfield Commercial College. After lunchtime shifts in the Cavern Club cloakroom and spells as a waitress at the Zodiac coffee lounge, where she met her future husband, then a baker’s boy, Bobby Willis, she began work as a clerk at the British Insulated Callender’s Cables Ltd.

She was by now a regular at the Locarno, Liverpool’s biggest dance hall, where music entrepreneur Tony Cartwright, who would manage Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, noticed a girl with “a big heart and loads of personality”, always eager to jump on to the stage, and already sporting her trademark red hair, a seven-penny rinse from Woolworth’s applied with an old toothbrush.

Backed by a local band, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (whose drummer was Ringo Starr), she sang Peggy Lee’s “Fever”, which landed her a gig at the Casanova Club, where she was billed as “Swinging Cilla”. By the time the Beatles returned from Hamburg in 1961 as local heroes, she was becoming a local celebrity, having featured in the first issue of Mersey Beat and adopted the name they had mistakenly called her, Cilla Black.

In the audience for the Fab Four’s gig at the Iron Door, she led her friends in a chant of “give our Cilla a go”; John Lennon obliged, and she performed Gershwin’s “Summertime” well enough for him to suggest her to their manager, Brian Epstein, who was looking for a female star to add to his roster.

She auditioned for Epstein with the Beatles backing her, but it was a disaster which she later claimed was due to them playing in a key she wasn’t suited to. However, Epstein saw her on better form singing at the Blue Angel jazz club in 1963: she was swiftly signed up by George Martin, and within three weeks had her first single out, “Love of the Loved”, written by Paul McCartney, but it stalled at No 35.

Her second single however, a cover of Bacharach and David’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, sold over 1m copies and spent three weeks at No 1. She followed it up with a second No 1, an English-language version of the Italian song “Il Mio Mondo” entitled “You’re My World”.

Black was rarely out of the British charts for the next few years, singing both Lennon-McCartney songs such as “The Long and Winding Road” (McCartney credits her version as being definitive), and tracks by artists ranging from Phil Spector to Randy Newman. Her version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” reached No 2 in 1965, only held off the No 1 spot by The Righteous Brothers’ original recording.

Her success was international but not transatlantic; her rendition of the closing theme to Alfie (1966) was not used in the film and her attempts to forge a path in cinema proved to be a blind alley: a starring role alongside RSC stalwarts including David Warner and Elizabeth Spriggs in the daft-as-a-brush Work Is a Four Letter Word (1968), an hallucinogenic satire of aphrodisiac mushrooms, never came back to haunt her: she may well have fared better if she’d taken the role of Michael Caine’s girlfriend in The Italian Job the following year, but failed to reach an agreement on her fee.

Instead, TV proved to be her natural home. After a string of guest appearances including Not Only... But Also with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and The Eamonn Andrews Show, a colour special, Cilla at the Savoy, led to her BBC show Cilla, which began an eight-year run in 1968, boasting the disarming McCartney-penned theme song, “Step Inside Love”, which reached No 8.

By now she was engaged to Bobby, a gifted songwriter who, as well as penning numbers for her, assumed management duties after Epstein’s death in 1967. A few years earlier, Epstein had offered him a recording contract of his own, but Black confessed last year that she had insisted he turn it down, because “there was only room for one ego in our relationship, and this ego had landed. I knew it couldn’t work”. But Willis never wavered in his devotion and support, and their 30-year marriage ended only with his death in 1999. They had three sons, Robert, who took over managerial duties in the final years, Ben and Jack; a daughter, Ellen, born in 1975, lived only two hours.

She experimented with comedy in the 1970s, buoyed on by success alongside Frankie Howerd in the revue Way Out at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1966. She starred in the series Cilla’s Comedy Six (1975), which won her the Writer’s Guild Award as Britain’s Top Female Comedy Star, and Cilla’s World of Comedy (1976)

After a quiet spell, there were plans to resurrect her career after a memorable appearance on Wogan in 1983, but a suitable vehicle for her comeback proved elusive. Despite channel controller John Birt’s unease, LWT was planning a version of a dating show from Australian television, but the unbroadcast pilot, entitled It’s a Hoot, hosted by Duncan Norville, impressed no one.

With a slightly brash makeover, a title change and Black installed as host, Blind Date became a phenomenal success. At its peak, Germaine Greer claimed that rather than the works of Dennis Potter, it was shows like Blind Date which were actually likely to deprave and corrupt audiences.

In its later years Blind Date became a trendsetter in victim television: while never as cruel as the reality shows which followed, it noticeably encouraged contestants to bitch about each other rather than exit arm-in-arm. Hosting the equally successful Sunday-night show Surprise Surprise simultaneously, Black was the highest-paid woman on British TV, but announced her departure from Blind Date to a shocked producer and studio audience in 2003.

She had released a new album of cover version, Through the Years, in 1993, and after Blind Date continued to make guest appearances on TV, appeared in pantomime and starred in a special edition of Coronation Street in 2013 as part of her 50th anniversary celebrations.

What was striking about her career was the sheer consistency: her voice and persona remained unchanged, and she proved that however shallow a world show business is deemed to be, there is no substitute for being genuine, and for being yourself.   

Priscilla Maria Veronica White (Cilla Black), singer and  entertainer: born Vauxhall, Liverpool 27 May 1943; OBE 1997; married 1969 Bobby Willis (died 1999; three sons, and one daughter deceased); died Estepona, Costa del Sol, Spain 2 August 2015.

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