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Black, Cilla [real name Priscilla White]free

(1943–2015)
  • Johnny Rogan

Cilla Black (1943–2015), by Terry O'Neill, 1990s

© Iconic Images/Getty Images

Black, Cilla [real name Priscilla White] (1943–2015), singer and television presenter, was born on 27 May 1943 at 380 Scotland Road, Liverpool, the daughter of John Patrick White (1904–1971), dock labourer, and his wife, Priscilla, née Blythen (1911–1996). Priscilla, or Cilla as she was always known, was later given or adopted the middle names Maria Veronica.

Singer and chart success

Raised in a traditional working-class home above a barber’s shop in the Catholic-dominated Scotland Road, Cilla White was a confident, carefree child. Aged five, she began singing on the family’s kitchen table, impressing her parents with Al Jolson’s ‘Mammy’ during an after-hours party gathering. ‘I basked in the adulation and applause. From then on, I never looked back’ ( Black, What’s It All About?, 6). Entering a number of children’s talent competitions, she regularly won small cash prizes, prompting hopes of a show-business opportunity. In 1956 she defiantly dyed her hair orange after experimenting with a cheap rinse bought from Woolworths. The distinctive look was retained into adulthood, a key part of her image.

After leaving the local St Anthony’s Catholic school in July 1958, Cilla White attended secretarial college then secured employment as a shorthand typist, supplementing her income by working as a cloakroom attendant at the Cavern and the Iron Door, which hosted afternoon and evening shows by the new breed of beat groups. Encouraged by friends, she appeared on-stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (whose drummer was Ringo Starr), singing Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. Her forceful voice brought her attention as a ‘Cavern screamer’, leading to cameo appearances as ‘Swinging Cilla’ with Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes, the Big Three, and the Beatles. John Lennon mischievously nicknamed her ‘Cyril’ when introducing her to audiences.

Manager Brian Epstein attended an impromptu audition at the Majestic Ballroom, Maidenhead, where Cilla sang the standard ‘Summertime’ in a different key from the Beatles, leaving him unimpressed. A subsequent appearance at the Blue Angel club revealed her hidden talents as a jazz singer, complete with an ingratiating charm and lack of pretension. After the show Epstein expressed interest, prompting her priceless reply: ‘Who’d have me?’ ( Epstein, 74). In fact, she had already been pursued by several aspiring managers, none of whom was taken seriously. Epstein, by now famous with the Beatles, approached her father, who signed a contract on her behalf (dated 6 September 1963), albeit voicing dismay at the news that her stage name was henceforth to be Cilla Black rather than White. According to Epstein, he received an anonymous phone call one night threatening: ‘Keep off Cilla White … She doesn’t need your management’ (ibid., 75). Whether the phone call was a crank or a would-be rival manager was never ascertained.

In common with the Beatles, Black was signed by EMI’s Parlophone Records and placed in the hands of producer George Martin. Black benefited from the patronage of Lennon and his fellow Beatle Paul McCartney, who penned her début single, ‘Love of the Loved’, which had previously been part of the Beatles’ failed audition tape for Decca Records. With a strong brass accompaniment, the song provided her first British top forty hit in the autumn of 1963. Its B-side, ‘Shy of Love’, was written by her boyfriend, Robert William (Bobby) Willis (1942–1999), who became her road manager, protector, chaperone, and much else.

1964 was the year of the beat group and one of the most competitive times in pop history, with record sales threatening an all-time peak. It was also Cilla Black’s most accomplished period in terms of chart success. Epstein took a more active interest in her recording career and during a visit to the USA heard a recording of Dionne Warwick’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Convinced that the song was ideal for Black, Epstein pushed it forward as her next single. Martin was keener for Shirley Bassey to cover the song, but was overruled. Cilla’s impassioned and dramatic reading, with an orchestral score arranged by John Pearson, was perfectly executed and topped the British charts for three weeks, the first number one by a female singer since Helen Shapiro’s ‘Walkin’ Back to Happiness’ three years before. It went on to become the decade’s best-selling British single by any female artiste.

The follow-up, ‘You’re My World’, adapted from an Italian song, ‘Il mio mondo’, was another superb production, enhanced by one of Black’s best vocal performances. It dominated the number one chart position during June, repeating the achievement of ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’. Black had good reason to hope for a third consecutive chart-topper with ‘It’s for You’, a jazz waltz ballad provided by Lennon and McCartney which reached number eight.

Although she would never attain such consistent heights again as a hit singer, Cilla Black’s achievements in 1964 were a testimony to all that could be achieved. Epstein proclaimed her the next Judy Garland while his father, Harry, said she would rival Gracie Fields as a family favourite. Critics considered Cilla to be Epstein’s great creation, but he felt his influence on her image was overstated:

She is what she is—an untutored girl from a large, happy, working-class family … She may not curtsy by instinct, but she is warm and natural and frank and this may be far more important than protocol … I shall never attempt to dragoon my artistes into unnatural postures, for the very reason I engage performers is that I see in them a quality of stardom which, if warped or altered, would be lost … I have never actually made a star.

( Epstein, 123–4)

What Epstein quickly realized was that despite her stylish looks and love of miniskirts, Black’s lasting charm lay less in ‘dolly bird’ sexuality than in the girl-next-door image that appealed to a family audience. Her broad Scouse accent and unpretentious manner would endear her to the British public long after her pop career went into decline.

In January 1965 Black’s courageous cover of the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ seemed odds-on to secure another number one hit, but was soon eclipsed by the original and peaked at number two. An impressive run of singles concluded with a thrilling cover of Randy Newman’s ‘I’ve Been Wrong Before’, which the composer considered among the finest readings of any of his songs. Extensive touring followed, including a seventeen-day Australian tour and a prestigious visit to the USA during which she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and secured a residency at New York’s Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel. The latter booking was considered premature by American critics and she never established comparative success in USA. She ended 1965 appearing in Christmas pantomime, an early indication of her likely future as an all-round entertainer. Nevertheless, she re-established her chart standing in 1966 with a series of strong ballads. ‘Love’s Just a Broken Heart’ was a top five hit, followed by ‘Alfie’, written by Bacharach and David for the film of the same name in which it was sung by Cher. Bacharach petitioned Black to record the song and even agreed to conduct and arrange her cover at London’s Abbey Road studio. It became one of her most requested tunes.

Entertainer and family favourite

Black’s run of pop hits declined in 1967. That same year, her long-term mentor, Epstein, died suddenly, and her boyfriend, Bobby Willis, took on managerial duties. Any hopes of transforming her into a film star were scuppered by the kitsch Work Is a Four-Letter Word (1968), directed by Peter Hall, which failed at the box office. It was to be her sole movie role.

Just before his death Epstein had negotiated a television series for the singer. Cilla, first screened on BBC1 in January 1968, achieved impressive viewing figures, prompting a second series later that year. McCartney provided its memorable theme song, ‘Step Inside Love’, which returned Black to the top ten for the first time in two years. The show revitalized her career and transformed her into a television personality whose life was now more likely to be reported in the tabloids than the music press. On her twenty-fourth birthday the daily press excitedly documented her ‘nose job’, an operation that reputedly cost £210. A far bigger story was her marriage to Bobby Willis at Marylebone register office on 25 January 1969. Her Catholic parents declined to attend. Plans for a subsequent cathedral ceremony met with ecclesiastical objections, although a blessing was provided on 6 March at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Woolton. That same month she enjoyed further chart success with the bouncy ‘Surround Yourself with Sorrow’, followed months later by the contrastingly pensive ‘Conversations’.

Black’s musical career was moribund during the 1970s as family life became a priority. In 1970 she gave birth to her first son, Robert. A second son, Ben, followed in 1974, then Ellen (who died days after birth in 1975), and finally another son, Jack, in 1980. Television work continued with a surprise move into situation comedy on the shows Cilla’s Comedy Six (1975) and Cilla’s World of Comedy (1976). These led to the ratings war-winning Surprise! Surprise!, in which the now matronly Black played the chatty host, reuniting friends and families and even undertaking daredevil stunts such as jumping from planes and attempting to brush an alligator’s teeth. The show ran for fourteen series, from 1984 to 1997.

Even Surprise! Surprise! was eclipsed in the ratings by Black’s next venture, Blind Date, which ran for eighteen series between 1985 and 2003. While on holiday in Australia, she had watched the dating programme Perfect Match and suggested adapting the idea for British television. It became her signature programme, characterized by a down-to-earth presentation, cheeky humour, and popular catchphrases (such as Cilla promising ‘a lorra, lorra laughs’). At its peak the show attracted an audience estimated at more than 18 million viewers. Its success also inspired a slew of reality television programmes which proliferated over the next two decades.

Black was by now the best-paid entertainer on television, and her role as a ‘national treasure’ was confirmed when she was appointed OBE in 1997. Her stable family life was rocked by the sudden death of her husband and manager Bobby in 1999. Family friend and fellow presenter Gloria Hunniford noted: ‘She was a one-boy girl and I don’t think she ever got over the vacuum of the loneliness that Bobby left’ ( Daily Telegraph, 4 Aug 2015). She briefly considered retiring but found therapy in work and continued with more television work in the game show Moment of Truth from 1998 to 2001 and a surprise guest appearance in The Play What I Wrote at London’s Wyndham Theatre in 2001. After eighteen years she elected to leave Blind Date in 2003. She had already objected to changes in the programme’s formatting and felt the show had become stale, a view reinforced by plunging viewing figures. In a grandiose gesture she announced her departure in front of the studio audience, pointing out that they deserved to hear the news first rather than reading about it in the press. She later reflected:

I didn’t choose television. Television chose me. I was a bit of fun and a bit of Scouse rough and everybody liked me. I was normal. I could have been the kid next door. Then I turned into the auntie next door. And now I’m the granny next door.

( Daily Telegraph, 3 Aug 2015)

Although her singing career was effectively over, in 2014 a new generation of listeners learned of Cilla Black’s importance in the 1960s when ITV dramatized her early life for an acclaimed three-part dramatization, Cilla, starring Sheridan Smith. One year later there was the shock news that Black had died at Estepona on the Costa del Sol, Spain, on 1 August 2015. The coroner, André Rebello, concluded that the cause of death was a traumatic head injury resulting from a fall at her holiday home. Addressing her sons at the inquest, he said: ‘She was a daughter of Liverpool, a celebrity and loved by all in Liverpool and that was part of her abiding memory and memorial’ ( Daily Telegraph, 17 Aug 2015). The funeral took place on 20 August at St Mary’s Church, Woolton, where she had received her wedding blessing back in 1969. She was laid to rest alongside her parents at Allerton cemetery. Long before her death she had provided her own epitaph: ‘Here lies Cilla Black, singer, not TV presenter’.

Sources

  • B. Epstein, A cellarful of noise (1964)
  • C. Black, Step inside (1985)
  • J. Rogan, Starmakers & Svengalis: the history of British pop management (1988)
  • R. Coleman, Brian Epstein: the man who made the Beatles (1989)
  • C. Black, What’s it all about? (2003)
  • The Times (3 Aug 2015); (12 Aug 2015); (6 June 2016)
  • Daily Telegraph (3 Aug 2015); (4 Aug 2015); (17 Aug 2015)
  • The Guardian (3 Aug 2015); (21 Aug 2015)
  • The Independent (3 Aug 2015); (21 Aug 2015)
  • The Stage (3 Aug 2015)
  • Echo [Liverpool] (3 Aug 2015)
  • Sunday Times (9 Aug 2015)
  • The Observer (9 Aug 2015)
  • WW (2015)

Archives

Film

  • Cilla, Channel 4, 1997
  • performance, light entertainment, documentary, and interview footage, BFI NFTVA

Sound

Likenesses

  • T. O’Neill, photograph, 1990s, Getty Images [see illus.]
  • bromide print, with Brian Epstein, 1960s, NPG
  • R. Falloon, print, 1964, NPG
  • S. Lousada, archival pigment print, with Bobby Willis, 1964, NPG
  • S. Lousada, modern enlarged contact sheet, 1964, NPG
  • L. Morley, two resin prints, 1964, NPG
  • R. Whitaker, C-type colour print, 1965, NPG
  • Baron Studios, two half-plate film negatives, 1965, NPG
  • J. Brown, gelatin silver print, 1967, NPG
  • photograph, group portrait, 1963, Bridgeman Images
  • photograph, 1964, Mary Evans Picture Library
  • photograph, group portrait, 1964, Bridgeman Images
  • two photographs, 1966, Bridgeman Images
  • photograph, with Cathy McGowan, 1966, Mary Evans Picture Library
  • photograph, with Bobby Willis, 1966, Mary Evans Picture Library
  • photograph, 1967, Bridgeman Images
  • photograph, group portrait, 1968, Bridgeman Images
  • photograph, c.1970, Bridgeman Images
  • photograph, 1970, Mary Evans Picture Library
  • photograph, 1988, Bridgeman Images
  • photographs, repro. in C. Black, Step inside (1985)
  • photographs, repro. in C. Black, What’s it all about? (2003)
  • photographs, Getty Images
  • photographs, Alamy
  • photographs, Rex Features
  • photographs, Camera Press
  • photographs, PA Images
  • photographs, AP Images
  • obituary photographs
British Film Institute, London
(1849–)
British Library, National Sound Archive
birth certificate
marriage certificate