Abbey Road 90: The Story of Cilla Black Recording Alfie in Studio One

21st October 2021

On 22 February 1966 a nervous Cilla Black was back in Studio One at Abbey Road, standing in a vocal booth facing composer Burt Bacharach on the piano and surrounded by a 24-piece orchestra.

Cilla Black was only 22 and had been signed to EMI’s Parlophone when she was still a teenager. She’d been picked up by Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager behind the rise of Merseybeat and was the only woman on his roster.

Cilla had already made a number of records in Abbey Road Studios and had even covered a Burt Bacharach tune before – her hit Anyone Who Had a Heart. But this session was different, and she was feeling the pressure. Cilla had been approached by Bacharach to sing his new song Alfie, a song inspired by the film of the same name and co-written with Hal David.

The songwriting duo initially wanted their usual collaborator Dionne Warwick to record the track, but because the film was set in London the film company Paramount requested a British singer. Sandy Shaw allegedly turned it down, so Bacharach approached Cilla Black.

“I got a demo from Brian Epstein, with some fella singing Alfie. I said to Brian, I can’t do this. For a start, ‘Alfie’, I mean, you call your dog Alfie,” Cilla Black later recalled.
Cilla turned up for the evening session in February with her producer George Martin. She sang into a Neumann U67 and engineers Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald used a Fairchild compressor on her voice.

Burt made her record a number of versions, and they ended up with about 29 takes as Burt was always seeking perfection. “It was ever so difficult, the range in it was unbelievably hard. It was hurting me,” Cilla has said.

Cilla was supported by a choir of three singers, a British vocal trio called The Breakaways who formed in 1962 and became the main session vocalists throughout the ‘60s. The Breakaways stood in a vocal booth beside Cilla, who could see Burt on the piano to her right, ahead of them were the 12 violins and the group of horns and strings. Martin, who would have been watching from Studio One’s control room, is said to have become frustrated by Bacharach’s repeated requests to make multiple takes, saying Cilla had got it right on the fourth take. Burt was paid $250 for the arranging and conducting fee.

The session is listed as lasting from 7.30-10.30pm, during a time when most artists kept to Abbey Road’s strict three-hour blocks. That same evening Black recorded a song for her 1966 album Cilla Sings a Rainbow. The recording sheets show the track listed as You Can Sing a Rainbow, but it was later titled Sing a Rainbow.

Alfie was released on 25 March 1966 and became her sixth top ten single. It was a major hit for Cilla, one of many recorded at Abbey Road. Just two years later she would go on start her first TV series propelling her career in a whole new direction.

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