The Genius of Cilla Black | As Told By Abbey Road's Cameron Colbeck

15th May 2021

Cilla Black is one of the most authentic pop-culture personalities in contemporary history.

That may seem oxymoronic; how honest can a person be during the hundredth mimed performance of a single, or the hundredth episode of a light entertainment or game show? The answer is pretty damned honest, if you’re Cilla Black. Despite the over-animation of '60’s mainstream—as pop stars winked and pulled little faces for the camera—I believe Cilla was that sort of person anyway. One of the few who pulled it off without too much lasting cringe. My impression is that behind the haze of stardom and the glitz of her beloved ‘show business’, lay a woman not so different from the one who was presented to the public. When I hear her sing or watch her speak, I sense an honesty which I don’t sense very often. It’s got something to do with that Liverpudlian humour and charm which so swept up the world in the mid-sixties. Add in her incredible vocal ability to cut between tender and soul-piercing in an instant, like on Alfie or Where is Tomorrow?. Complement that emotional control with some great clothes and a radiant personality, back it up with unflappable improvisation skills, and finish it off with an instinct to engage any audience on a personal level. Thus Cilla earned her applause and laughs so naturally, receiving a healthy balance of both throughout her fifty-plus year career. She was simultaneously a superstar and a relatable everyday person. Thanks to Cilla I have begun to discover the depth of talent from ‘60s Liverpool. How preoccupied I have been with the overwhelming force of The Beatles, at the expense of so many other great songs and witty characters.
Bursting onto the scene at the age of 19, by all accounts Cilla was somewhat naïve. Not only in music business terms but also in terms of the “facts of life”. Quite understandable if you consider her ‘50s Irish-Catholic upbringing. I would argue this worked overwhelmingly in her favour, aiding her authenticity on stage and on recordings. She maintained an innocence in her performance, though as time progressed she became much more switched on to the nature of the business and how to work it. In her own words, “I was a terrible flirt - ‘I luv you - take me, I’m yours,’ I used to say breathlessly to Cliff (Richard), but Bobby always knew I’d break the record for the four-minute mile if anyone took me seriously and came on to me.”[1] She would have been the first to admit her luck considering the faith she placed in those around her. As it happened, the majority of this trust fell into the hands of two people. One was her manager and friend, Brian Epstein, and the other was her road manager and long-time partner, Bobby Willis. Both presented her with sound support and direction, but inevitably as they had to look out for “Cilla” the business entity, she was responsible for making the right decisions for “Cilla” the actual entity, as well as for her family. I reckon that’s the harder and more important job, being the one to keep that balance while in the spotlight. Partly due to talent and partly because of an amazing work ethic and inner strength, the two “Cillas” never outwardly clashed. In her book she describes a remarkably swift return to work after losing a baby girl named Ellen shortly after her birth. The sort of thing so many women rarely receive any credit for. Not only that, but Bobby and Cilla were together without interruption for the best part of 40 years. At the end of what can be considered as two careers, one in music and one in TV, she left the business (and us) at the age of 72, having perfected her own unique genius.
Cilla Black, or Priscilla White as she was christened, grew up on “Scottie Road” in Liverpool, a notorious neighbourhood mainly attributed to Protestant-Catholic tensions. Despite that, Cilla maintains her upbringing was a very safe and happy one. Her “mam” worked in St. Martin’s Market selling second-hand clothes and her dad worked down at the docks. They were also very musical, and did not discourage Cilla from following her dream of living a life like Doris Day in the movies. As new country and R&B music bobbed into the port of Liverpool from the States, Cilla became hyper-aware of a new local scene materialising, one that included the likes of The Beatles, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, The Searchers, Billy J. Kramer and so many more. “Dinah Washington I loved, and singers like Bo Diddley and Little Richard - those were the people who influenced me, and they had the same effect on The Beatles. We all loved Elvis as well, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but it was the black groups like the Miracles who showed us the way.”[2] As a teenager Cilla not only managed a clerical job in an office, but during lunch breaks and evenings, took part-time jobs where the real action was—in clubs like the Cavern and The Zodiac, jumping at any opportunity to sing with various groups around town. Her first real paid gig was at The Zodiac with a band called The Big Three, who at the time were considered to be the best group in Liverpool. This also happens to be the moment when Cilla met her future husband Bobby Willis. They were 17 and 19 at the time. Soon “Swinging Priscilla” garnered enough attention, backed up by a personal endorsement from John Lennon (“That Cyril is one to watch”), to score an audition with a well-to-do local music shop manager named Brian Epstein.
Her first audition for Brian was a complete flop because her young backing band, The Beatles, didn’t adjust the key of Summertime to Cilla’s voice. But as fate would have it, Brian happened to be in the audience at The Blue Angel in Liverpool city centre when Cilla performed several months later. This time he was absolutely convinced. Cut to a delicate contract signing, due to Brian’s insistence on a name change from Cilla White to Cilla Black—much to her dad’s dismay. Mr. White had to cosign the contract because Cilla was still underage, and eventually he relented. This was a momentous day as Cilla became the first and only woman to sign with Epstein’s management company NEMS Enterprises. “Epstein was the first to organise a complete management package. He saw the investment possibilities, and the people who signed for him got a lot of extra services: press agent, travel agent, secretarial help with letters, and a general feeling that here was someone who would look after you.”[3] Yet another key to Brian’s management strategy was forging the relationship with EMI producer George Martin, gaining access to the facilities at Abbey Road in the process. By the time of Cilla’s signing, both Gerry and The Pacemakers and The Beatles had already had number one hits. Still, her huge success the following year may have been difficult to predict for two reasons: one being that “Beatlemania” was really just kicking off. The pop market in Britain was almost completely dominated by groups. Second is that 90 percent of those groups were all-male. I couldn’t say with any confidence that this was because there were fewer women in the Merseybeat scene, or any scene for that matter, only that their opportunities to hit the “big time” seem fewer and further between, demonstrated by Epstein’s extensive roster only including one woman. Almost immediately after breaking into the mainstream with Anyone Who Had a Heart, Cilla was already fielding questions from the press like, “Liverpool’s first girl soloist to make it - Cilla Black. Miss Black do you think you deserve the success that you’ve achieved? It’s come very quickly.”[4]
Cilla Black and George Martin in the Studio

Cilla Black and George Martin in the Studio

EMI Staff Photographer - John Dove

Recently I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with another big name from the Merseybeat scene, Beryl Marsden. She is a long-time friend of my step-dad’s and has some incredible stories and insight about ‘60s Liverpool and Abbey Road Studios. Being a few years younger than Cilla, they were only acquaintances, but they certainly shared a lot of common ground in terms of friends and circumstances. Beryl’s first experiences in recording studios, similar to Cilla’s, were uneasy to say the least. A professional London studio was completely new ground for these young singers. That’s not to say that they were particularly intimidated, I’d say more like put off by the different vibe (or lack thereof). They came up in small clubs where your stage performance was just as integral as your vocal, feeding off the band and the crowd and therefore catering their approach to the live experience. Cilla recalls of her first session at Abbey Road, recording the Lennon/McCartney composition, Love of the Loved, “There seemed to be one thing after another to throw me. Recording a song wasn’t a bit like singing in a club…the atmosphere felt totally clinical.”[5] Beryl echoed a similar sentiment to me. Having said that, Beryl’s first solo singles sound fantastic and totally natural. Her two later singles, ‘Who You Gonna Hurt?’ and ‘Music Talk’, both recorded at Abbey Road, sound even better. Beryl ended up opening for The Beatles as a solo act on their last ever tour of the UK in ’65, though she asserts she has always been happiest performing as part of a band. One such (who also recorded at the studios) is a relatively unknown group with some extremely well-known members, called Shotgun Express. Featuring Rod Stewart, Mick Fleetwood and Peter Green with Beryl on lead vocals! Cilla, on the other hand, accepted the fate of a soloist and made Abbey Road Studios her home, going on to record nine albums there during her 15-year contract with EMI.
As I think of hypothetical materialisations of the seemingly close-knit and fluid group of musicians in ‘60s Britain, I wonder how Cilla’s career would have ended up if it were not for the certainty of her EMI contract. As it goes, she was presented as a solo performer and a star, which in my opinion was exactly right. She warmed to studio recording and was supported by her own professional backing band, another NEMS signing, Sounds Incorporated. Sounds Inc. had come up as session musicians, backing iconic visiting Americans such as Gene Vincent, Sam Cooke or Little Richard. Epstein recognised with the right musicians behind her, Cilla’s personality would shine and prove as much of an asset as her voice. What none of her management or supporting cast could have fully comprehended, however, was the expectation and objectification that she would have to put up with as a result. Cilla consistently dealt with unsavoury press from the time she recorded Love of the Loved, yet how playfully and resolutely she did so. For example the media loved to try and pit female artists against each other, hinting at some fictional personal feud. To this day it still seems to be a dominant narrative when I read about soloists of the mid sixties like Cilla, Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, etc. “The press were always making out that we were huge rivals who didn’t get along, because we were all so different. We (Springfield, Marianne Faithful, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw, Lulu) were actually all good mates.”[6] Not to mention the fact that similar sexist spins still haunt women in the industry today.
Cilla Black didn’t write her own music per se, but she did work closely with her husband-to-be and B-side extraordinaire, Bobby Willis. He wrote some great songs with her, including Is It Love and the flip sides for almost all of her top hits. When not collaborating with Bobby, Cilla seemed only to accept songs from the finest songwriters from both sides of the Atlantic. Not just Lennon/McCartney, but also George Harrison, Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Burt Bacharach/Hal David. The latter duo had written Cilla’s first number one, Anyone Who Had A Heart. This precedent set the scene for what would become one of the most iconic recording sessions in Abbey Road history, namely the title song for the 1966 film, Alfie. According to Cilla and George Martin, Bacharach wrote the song with her in mind and offered it to her first, though others have since contradicted that story saying it was first turned down by Dionne Warwick. Regardless, the fact is that everyone seemed hesitant to attach themselves to the song, including Cilla. Not least because at the time, the name “Alfie” was something you’d likely name your budgie. Uncertain of the song but very certain of Burt Bacharach, Cilla tested the waters by requesting that he not only arrange it, but fly to London to play the piano as well. When he agreed, she agreed. I guess if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Bacharach recounts, “Cilla just sang beautifully, and she could handle almost anything. It was a very special one because of how it was done. And how much I felt that she gave me.”[7] Most likely a George Martin brainwave, they recorded Alfie in Studio 1, completely live with a 48-piece orchestra, backing singers, Burt and Cilla all together in one room with very little separation. Brian Epstein also had the brilliant foresight to discreetly hire a camera crew, giving the world this amazing black and white document of such a legendary session. Bacharach starts the song by conducting, and from the moment he gracefully sits down to play that first flourish on the piano, continues to look around wildly and throw his head back in time, simultaneously conducting and playing. For me and many others I’ve spoken to, Cilla’s vocal on this song is one of the most strikingly brilliant performances she ever gave. How she got from her initial hesitation to the control and commitment she ended up with is beyond me. That same year, Cilla released another song by an American songwriter, this time the elusive Randy Newman. Somewhat less debatably, Newman wrote I’ve Been Wrong Before with Cilla in mind, and again this performance ranks at the very top of her output. In her autobiography she excitedly remembers, “After I’d recorded it, Randy told the press he was ‘knocked out’ by my performance, which he considered his all-time favourite cover of any of his compositions.”[8]
Cilla was not afraid to boast. But she did it consistently with humour, not with an ego. She makes no bones about that fact that money and fame came quickly, but also quite naturally considering how foreign that life was to her. Since the age of five, having been placed on the dining room table to perform at a party in her family home, she wanted to be a star. She craved the applause and the emotional control she found while performing. Epstein recruited her on the basis of that star quality and as a result was able to market her very honestly, allowing her to remain true to who she was: a singer, performer, and an effortless joker. Something tells me that Cilla would have remained true with or without Brian, but by setting her up in the spotlight not just as another character on the magic Beatles carousel, but as herself, they secured a long-lasting and durable public perception—as fans engaged with her not simply on the basis of her talent and looks, but also on the basis of her honesty. Yes there were white lies, like the denial of her and Bobby’s relationship for many years. There were also times when Cilla was attacked for being too posh, not posh enough, labelled a bad person, likely so that people didn’t feel too guilty about what they said her. Mainly though, because she was never afraid to be herself on camera, which is a very tough thing to pull off night after night. Part of her genius was not to deviate from the precedent set when she first started out, even when things didn’t go as planned, or as they edged her in an entirely different direction.

EMI Staff Photographer - John Dove

To his entire organisation, the shock of Brian Epstein’s premature death in 1967 was profound. The Beatles had never needed to look at the organisational and financial sides of their business, and the sudden need to do so contributed to the slow unravelling of the band. Devastated though she was, for Cilla it was not a sign of the end, but simply a new beginning. She also had Bobby to lean on, who had been there listening and learning every step of the way. He stepped in to the managerial role at that time with not only a good understanding of the business, but a real vested interest in Cilla’s well-being. Brian had laid foundations with the BBC for a new TV programme, the aptly named Cilla, just before his passing. Now without his guidance during the transition, Cilla and Bobby had to negotiate this new territory alone. I think it goes without saying that they made a good decision by going ahead. Premiering in 1968, Cilla turned out to be a huge hit, running for eight seasons and sustaining her through most of the ‘70s, whilst blazing a new path for TV of the future. Cilla sang her own songs each week and also hosted varied musical guests including Tom Jones, The Supremes, Françoise Hardy and Henry Mancini. The most forward-thinking part of Cilla’s format, however, was one that she herself facilitated. The roving reporter bits where she went out with a camera and a microphone to interview unsuspecting members of the public, provided some hilarious “real” moments and offered an even more authentic glimpse of Cilla. Like it or not, in many ways this set a precedent for TV formats to come, of which she would continue to play a leading role. After the Cilla show wrapped she and Bobby took some time away to raise their three young sons, Robert, Ben and Jack. Then in 1984, she returned to the small screen having traded the BBC for ITV, and arriving with further developments in the direct engagement of her audience. She leaned even more on her ad-libbing skills on Surprise Surprise, a new Sunday light entertainment programme. It contained more live interaction, more roving reports, and more Cilla. The next year, she became the first woman to host a game show in the U.K. with ITV’s Blind Date. Blind Date became ridiculously successful, as you may have heard, partly thanks to Cilla’s relatability and that British cheek and charm that I so love. She’d say “ta-ra” to the audience each week with a “lorra lorra luv”, and I believe she really meant it.
Black’s career as a recording artist, TV presenter, stage performer and all-round entertainer has delivered countless memorable moments. Honourable mention goes to performing Life’s a Gas with Marc Bolan and And I Love Her with Dudley Moore. At 19 she found herself in the fortunate, yet extremely high-pressure position of being a female soloist on the world stage. All credit to Cilla for taking the bull by the horns, not being overcome by the moment and making it her own. Female Merseybeat singers like Cilla and Beryl Marsden endured less physical harassment from fans compared to their male counterparts, but I postulate that they endured much more emotional harassment, predominately from the press, the handling of which should not be underestimated. Besides the natural power of her voice, I credit Cilla’s own genius to her unshakable strength in regards to a life in the public eye. How she handled it with humour and fun, resisting temptation and sustaining a lifelong relationship with her husband Bobby. So many entertainers have crumbled against similar pressures, especially when entering the business naively or at a young age. Her honest nature on camera was amazing, undoubtedly supported and rooted by her personal life, specifically her upbringing and her family. After Bobby’s passing in 1999 she was right back in the studio, continuing to dedicate herself to making millions of people laugh and cry each week. She really was “Our Cilla”, that’s to say, everyone’s Cilla.
[1] What’s It All About? by Cilla Black, 2003, p.161
[2] Step Inside by Cilla Black, 1985, p.18
[3] Ibid, p.16
[4] The One and Only Cilla Black, ITV 2013
[5] What’s It All About? by Cilla Black, 2003, p.78
[6] Ibid, p.165
[7] The One and Only Cilla Black, ITV 2013
[8] What’s It All About? by Cilla Black, 2003, p.124

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