Sunday, August 02, 2015

Take All Of The World That Is Waiting For You: The Cilla Black Obituary

2015 is rapidly turning out to be a year in which large chunks of this blogger's life detach themselves from him like crumbling icebergs during a warm spell. Yet another particular favourite of yer actual Keith Telly Topping, Cilla Black her very self, has died at the age of seventy two. Spanish police confirmed that the singer, TV presenter and entertainer's death to the Torygraph on Sunday. 'I can confirm the death of British national Priscilla White, aged seventy two,' said a police spokesperson. 'We are still awaiting autopsy results but everything at this stage is pointing towards her death being the result of natural causes.' Cilla, just in case you're under the age of forty, and think of her only as 'that screeching Scouse woman off Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise', belonged to a generation of British female singers - which also included her contemporaries Dusty Springfield, Helen Shapiro, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw and Lulu.
    These artists were, by and large, not singer-songwriters but rather classy interpreters of 1960s contemporary popular music written specifically for them, by songwriters and producers. Cilla recorded a huge volume of material - an impressive and vastly under-rated body of work - during the 1960s and early 1970s, including songs written by the likes of Phil Spector, Randy Newman (the haunting 'I've Been Wrong Before'), Tim Hardin and Burt Bacharach as well as her close friends John Lennon and Paul McCartney. All of them were produced, with considerable soul, feeling and elan, by her producer, George Martin, at EMI's Abbey Road studios in London. She made a career out of what one critic described as 'the phenomenon of ordinariness.' Indeed she would scarcely argue with another, less flattering, description of her as 'dead common.' 'Class, I haven't [got],' she once conceded. 'Style, I've got.'
Once memorably described as having 'a voice like the Mersey Ferry foghorn' (the quote has been variously attributed to many people including John Lennon, Jimmy Tarbuck and Gerry Marsden although no one seems entirely sure who first said it and when), she was born Priscilla Maria Veronica White on 27 May 1942 in Liverpool. Cilla's early life up to her intial burst of success was recently documented in the acclaimed ITV biopic Cilla, starring Sheridan Smith in the title role. The daughter of a docker, John Patrick White and Priscilla Blythen who worked on a market stall and from Irish and Welsh ancestry, Cilla grew up in the Roman Catholic Scotland Road area of the city. She began to perform as a child at family gatherings and was soon winning talent shows at school events and at the dockers' annual Christmas party. When rock'n'roll hit Britain in the mid-1950s, the thirteen-year-old Cilla modelled her voice on that of Frankie Lymon, the New York, boy-soprano and singer of 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love?' She also changed her hair colour from a natural brown to bright ginger, much to the disapproval of the nuns at St Anthony's Secondary Modern. Nevertheless, in 1958 she left school with a more-or-less favourable report which stated: 'Priscilla is suitable for office work.' She duly took a one-year secretarial and shorthand course at Anfield Commercial College, following which she landed a typing job at the offices of a construction company, BICC. However, at a time when the city's beat movement and vibrant night-life was quite literally exploding, she was determined to become a singer. Cilla got a part-time job as a lunchtime cloakroom attendant at the Cavern Club in Mathew Street, rapidly becoming known for its association with The Be-Atles (a popular beat combo of the 1960s, you might have heard of them). Her occasional impromptu stage performances at The Cavern, either with one of the groups who played the venue or simply singing along to records played by the DJ, Bob Wooler, impressed many and she was encouraged to start singing professionally by the Liverpool promoter, Sam Leach, who gave her her first gig at the rival Casanova Club, where she appeared billed as Swingin' Cilla. Thanks to a friendship with Ringo Starr - the pair, she always insisted, were never romantically linked, just 'really good mates, we used to go the pictures together quite a bit' - she became a guest singer with a number of Merseybeat bands including Rory Storm & The Hurricanes (in which Ringo, at that stage, was the drummer), Kingsize Taylor & The Dominoes and, later, with The Big Three. She almost joined The Dominos permanently but her parents would not let her go with them to Hamburg. She was also, for a time, a waitress at The Zodiac coffee lounge, where she first met her future husband, Bobby Willis. Cilla was featured in an article in the first edition of the local music newspaper Mersey Beat in which the paper's editor, Bill Harry, mistakenly referred to her as Cilla Black, rather than White. She decided that she preferred the darker colour and took it as a stage name.
Cilla signed her first management contract with a neighbour, Terry McCann, but this was never honoured as it was illegally signed when she was under-age. Her father's signature was required when, at the age of nineteen, she subsequently signed with Brian Epstein. Epstein, of course, just in case you didn't know, was a local record shop owner-turned-manager who had a portfolio of local groups, most notably The Be-Atles, Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Big Three. Her father was favourably disposed towards Epstein, Cilla recalled, as he was a polite and well spoken man and the Whites had bought their piano from the Epstein family's music store, NEMS. At first, Brian apparently showed little interest in Cilla after she was introduced to him by alcoholic wife-beating Scouse junkie John Lennon, who persuaded Brian to audition her. That first audition - backed by The Be-Atles in an afternoon at an empty Cavern Club - was a failure in part because of Cilla's nerves and also because The Be-Atles played the chosen songs in their own vocal key rather than re-pitching them for Cilla's range. In her autobiography What's It All About? she wrote: 'I'd chosen to do 'Summertime', but at the very last moment I wished I hadn't. I adored this song, and had sung it when I came to Birkenhead with The Big Three, but I hadn't rehearsed it with The Beatles and it had just occurred to me that they would play it in the wrong key. It was too late for second thoughts, though. With one last wicked wink at me, John set the group off playing. I'd been right to worry. The music was not in my key and any adjustments that the boys were now trying to make were too late to save me. My voice sounded awful. Destroyed - and wanting to die - I struggled on to the end.' Nevertheless, after seeing her perform some time later, at The Blue Angel jazz club, Epstein contracted with Cilla as his only female client in August 1963. Thereafter, he worked as tirelessly on her behalf as he did for The Be-Atles, usually referring to her as 'my Cilla'. Epstein introduced Cilla to producer George Martin who signed her to Parlophone Records and recorded her début single, 'Love Of The Loved', a rather slight Paul McCartney song which The Be-Atles had played as part of their Decca audition a year earlier but then dumped in a bin of Lennon & McCartney originals which they didn't bother to record themselves. Despite an appearance on ABC's popular Thank Your Lucky Stars, the single peaked at a modest number thirty five in the UK charts.
Her second single, released at the beginning of 1964, was a cover of Burt Bacharach & Hal David's 'Anyone Who Had A Heart', which had been written for Dionne Warwick. Epstein had heard Warwick's version whilst he was in New York in late 1963, arranging The Be-Atles first appearacne on The Ed Sullivan Show and recommended it to George Martin, who later admitted: 'I wanted it for Shirley Bassey, but Brian insisted that Cilla could do it.' A powerhouse of a performance, and one of the great records of the 1960s - aided by Martin's warm and generous production - Cilla's cover beat Warwick's recording into the UK charts and rose to number one in Britain in February 1964, selling over eight hundred thousand copies in Britain alone. Warwick was reportedly bitter that what she considered to be a blatant 'copy' of her single had proved more successful than her own; Warwick once infamously, and rather churlishly, noted that Cilla's version replicated hers to the extent that had Warwick coughed while recording her vocal for the original or had one of the musicians hit a wrong note, those features would have been present on Cilla's cover as well. In actual fact – whether intentionally or otherwise - Cilla's recording features marginally different lyrics. The song became something of an anthem in the UK, particularly on Merseyside - there is, for instance, a famous bit of footage from a 1964 episode of the BBC's Panorama which featured Liverpool FC's fans on The Kop singing the song (and The Be-Atles 'She Loves You') in tribute to the musical stars of their city.
Cilla's second success was the gorgeous 'You're My World' (premiered publicly in a memorable performance on Ready, Steady Go!). It was, if anything, even better than 'Anyone Who Had A Heart' - it remains one of this blogger's favourite songs of all time. It was an English language rendition of the popular Italian song 'Il Mio Mondo' and, again, featured a stunning arrangement from George Martin whose work with Cilla is tragically under-rated in comparison with the groups that he worked with during this period. The sublime acoustic guitar solo was played by session man Judd Proctor. Cilla also enjoyed chart success with the song in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, South Africa and Canada and minor success in America (probably due to her association with The Be-Atles). Indeed, when The Fabs met Elvis Presley for the first time at his home in Bel Air in August 1965, Cilla noted that Lennon subsequently told her Elvis had 'You're My World' on his home jukebox, played it constantly whilst The Be-Atles were there and expressed his huge admiration for it. Cilla's two British number one successes were followed by the release of another twenty four carat masterpiece, the Lennon & McCartney composition 'It's For You', as her fourth UK single. Specifically written for her by Paul McCartney, Macca also played piano at the recording session and the song proved to be another major international success for Black, peaking at number seven on the UK charts.
Next came Cilla's cover of 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'' (1965) which reached number two on the UK charts in the same week that The Righteous Brothers' original went to number one, the first of only three occasions in the history of the British Top Forty where the same song, recorded by two different artists, held the top two positions in the chart in the same week. Being so closely associated with The Be-Atles, Cilla became one of a select handful of artists to record more than one Lennon & McCartney composition. She continued to record Lennon & McCartney songs throughout the 1960s, including versions of 'Yesterday', 'For No One' and 'Across the Universe'. McCartney once noted that Black's 1972 interpretation of 'The Long and Winding Road' represented for him how he always intended the song to be realised. A superb interprer of the emotion in a song - check out, for example, her breathtaking cover of Bacharach & David's 'Make It Easy On Yourself' on her second LP, Cilla Sings A Rainbow or 'Something's Gotten Hold On My Heart' on 1968's Sher-ooo - further hits followed in 1966; the under-rated 'Love's Just A Broken Heart' (co-written by Kenny Lynch, fact fans) and 'Don't Answer Me' both making the top ten in the UK. And, quite why her stunning version of 'Every Little Bit Hurts' was never realsed as a single is something only EMI can answer. There was even a brief - and surprisingly impressive - stumble towards psychedelic pop with 'Abyssinian Secret' from 1968's Time For Cilla EP. Cilla's career in the United States, although begun enthusiastically by Epstein, was limited to a few television appearances (a memorable one in 1965 on The Ed Sullivan Show alongside The Be-Atles chief among them), a 1965 cabaret season at the Plaza Hotel in New York and some success with 'You're My World', which made the US top thirty. Cilla herself recognised that to achieve any sort of foothold in the American market she would need to devote much time to touring there, and possibly record there - as her contemporary Dusty Springfield ended up doing. But she was plagued by homesickness and returned to the UK just as she was starting to achieve a level of popularity in the US.
During 1966, Cilla recorded the Bacharach & David song 'Alfie', written as the signature song to the feature film of the same name. While Cher sang 'Alfie' on the closing credits of the American release of the movie and Millicent Martin on the UK version, Cilla was the only artist to have a hit with the song in the UK (number nine). Cilla's - astonishing - version of 'Alfie' was arranged and conducted by Bacharach himself at Abbey Road. Bacharach insisted on numerous takes and Cilla cited the session as one of the most demanding of her recording career. For Bacharach's part, he said 'there weren't too many white singers around, who could convey the emotion that I felt in many of the songs I wrote but that changed with people like Cilla Black.' There is a wonderful - and, apparently, true - story about the recording of 'Alfie' which has become much told over the years. The first take was pretty good, as was the second but the third was as near as dammit perfect. However, Bacharach asked for one more go which was performed but wasn't as good. And so, recording continued. And continued. And continued. After something like thirty takes and with Cilla now a puddle on the floor of Studio One and most of the string players' fingers bleeding dear old George Martin who had sat quietly in the control room whilst all of this malarkey had been going on finally hit the talk-back button and asked Burt 'what, exactly, are you looking for?' 'I'm looking for a bit of magic, George' Burt said to which George laconically replied: 'I think you'll find we had that on Take Three, Burt!' And, indeed, that's version you'll hear on record. And it does contain - more than - a bit of magic.
By the end of 1966, Cilla had been a guest on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Not Only ... But Also, appeared in a Ray Galton and Alan Simpson revue in London's West End - Way Out In Piccadilly opposite Frankie Howerd (who became a lifelong friend), made notable appearances on The Eamonn Andrews Show and starred in her own television special Cilla At The Savoy (the first of its kind to be filmed in colour for the international market, albeit still only broadcast in monochrome in Britain). She was also virtually omnipresent on every pop-orientated programme of the era, from Top Of The Pops to Blackpool Night Out and Discs-A-Go-Go to Shindig! and A Whole Scene Going. Not to mention a headline slot on the 1964 Royal Variety Performance. Brian Epstein's attempts to make Cilla a film actress were less successful. A brief appearance in the beat movie Ferry 'Cross Tthe Mersey and a leading role alongside David Warner in the 1968 psychedelic comedy Work Is A Four-Letter Word were largely ignored by critics. In a 1997 interview with Record Collector magazine, Cilla revealed that she was asked to appear in the cult 1969 heist-movie The Italian Job, playing the part of Michael Caine's girlfriend, but negotiations fell through between producers and her agent over her fee and the American actress Maggie Blye got the part instead. 'An iconic movie. I'd have done it for nothing,' Cilla told Radio Times last year when asked about her biggest regret. Epstein, of course, had died - from a probably accidental drug overdose - in August 1967, not long after negotiating a contract with Bill Cotton at the BBC for Cilla to appear in a television series of her own. Relations between Brian and Cilla had somewhat soured during the year prior to his untimely death at the age of just thirty three, due largely to Cilla feeling that Epstein was not paying her career enough attention. In her autobiography, Cilla claimed that Epstein had tried to pacify her by negotiating a deal which would have seen her representing the UK in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. However, she refused on the basis that Sandie Shaw had won the competition the previous year and that the chances of another British artist winning were, therefore, improbable. As, indeed, proved to be the case when Cliff Richard, narrowly - and controversially - lost to some Spaniard or other, allegedly because of political manoeuvring and vote rigging involving General Franco. Cilla was allegedly asked to do Eurovision again for the 1970 contest, but declined because she was pregnant with her first son, Robert, at the time. So, Lulu got the gig instead. Boom, and indeed, bang-a-bang. After the death of Brian Epstein, Cilla's boyfriend and occasional songwriter, Bobby Willis, assumed management duties for her. Following the relatively disappointing performance of 'I Only Live To Love You', Black hit a second purple patch in her recording career, starting with the bossa-nova flavoured classic 'Step Inside Love' in 1968, one of Paul McCartney's most beautiful and urbane melodies which he wrote especially for her as the theme for her new BBC variety series. And, if you've never heard the demo version with just Macca accompanying Cilla on acoustic guitar, trust this blogger, it's a thing of beauty. Other successes followed in 1969: 'Conversations', 'Surround Yourself With Sorrow' and 'If I Thought You'd Ever Change Your Mind'. She had one further big hit two years later with 'Something Tells Me (Something's Gonna Happen Tonight)', another memorable TV theme tune.
There is a tiny - and rather amusing - footnote concerning Work Is A Four Letter Word that deserves mentioning at this point. The title song of the movie was recorded by Cilla although it only appeared as a b-side (as, indeed, did one of her other most famous recordings 'Liverpool Lullaby'). It had a big fan, however, in the singer Morrissey who, many years later, expressed his wish to record a cover version of the song with The Smiths. They did (it's on the b-side of 'Girlfriend In A Coma' and, it's actually pretty good), but the tension created during the sessions eventually caused Mozza's songwriting partner Johnny Marr to walk out declaring 'I didn't join a band to record Cilla Black covers!' The Smiths broke up soon afterwards and the legend has been created that Cilla Black was responsible for their break-up! In the 1990s when a documentary about The Smiths was being made by Channel Four the producers are alleged to have tracked Cilla down and told her the story. 'Oh, that's a shame,' she is reported as saying. 'I really liked them!'
Cilla's association with The Be-Atles continued into the 1970s. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, she joined George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Marc Bolan in attending a screening of the John Lennon and Yoko Bloody Ono experimental film Erection. One imagines that was a barrel of laughs. Bolan would soon afterwards, famously, be a guest on Cilla's TV show, the pair singing a gorgeous duet of his song 'Life's A Gas'. During this period Cilla and her family also holidayed with the Harrisons and Starrs on a trip aboard a yacht around the Caribbean chartered by Ringo his very self. Harrison's song 'Photograph' was written on this trip - reportedly intended for Cilla to record until Ringo decided that he fancied it for himself. And, to be fair, he did a pretty good job of it. George did write two songs for Cilla: 'The Light That Has Lighted The World' and 'I'll Still Love You (When Every Song Is Sung)'. The latter she recorded during 1974 with her then producer David Mackay, but it was not heard publicly until 2003 when it was included on a retrospective collection entitled Cilla: The Best Of 1963–78.
Having been offered her own show on the BBC by Bill Cotton, the first episode of Cilla - with 'Step Inside Love' as its theme - was broadcast on Tuesday 30 January 1968. On the first show, her guest was Tom Jones and the two sang a duet together, something which was to become a regular feature on a series in which you could watch Cilla, weekly, singing the likes of 'Both Sides Now' or 'Aquarius'. The series was very popular and ran - off and on - for almost a decade, racking up eight seasons (sixty six episodes) between January 1968 and April 1976 and becoming something of a Saturday night staple during the early 1970s. Although it featured guest appearances by many famous entertainers and musicians of the era including Cliff Richard, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Charles Aznavour, Ringo, Lulu, Matt Monro, Sacha Distel, Donovan, Georgie Fame, Dusty Springfield, Ethel Merman, The Shadows (dueting with Cilla on 'Norwegian Wood'), Phil Everly, T-Rex, Jimmy Tarbuck and Ronnie Corbett, most of the episodes (recorded on videotape) were subsequently wiped during the regrettable video purges of the BBC archives during the 1970s. The success of Cilla paved the way for a lengthy television career which continued intermittently until 2014. Cilla began the 1970s by appearing on the BBC's highly-rated review of the sixties music scene Pop Go The Sixties, performing 'Anyone Who Had A Heart'.
Like many of her contemporaries, during the 1970s, Cilla's musical career declined, although she continued to record and tour. Increasingly thought of as a television personality rather than a singer, she found herself experimenting with situation comedy for ITV. In January 1975, she performed as the main entertainer of the first of six half-hour situation comedy plays. The series entitled Cilla's Comedy Six and written by Ronnie Taylor. During May 1975, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain named Black as Britain's Top Female Comedy Star. The following year, ATV was commissioned six more comedies as the initial series had accrued healthy viewing figures and remained constantly among the best scoring shows of the week. In August 1976, Black reprised her role as a comedy-actress in Cilla's World Of Comedy. By the beginning of the 1980s, Cilla was performing mainly in cabaret and concert and absent from television since a 1978 Thames Television special. In 1983, she appeared on the BBC's Wogan programme, in theory to promote a recently-released Best Of collection of her Sixties hits. Her charmingly witty and gregarious appearance on this peak-time talk-show was a major success and a reminder to many people in the industry of what a star this lady was and her career in television was, in the blink of an eye, resurrected. She signed on with John Birt at London Weekend Television, becoming the host of two of the most popular and long-running evening entertainment shows of the 1980s and 1990s - Blind Date (1985 to 2003) and Surprise Surprise (1984 to 2001). This blogger couldn't stand either of them if I'm being completely honest, but I seemed to be in a minority of one there. She also presented a less successful game-show The Moment Of Truth (1998 to 2001).
    Blind Date and Surprise Surprise were both massive mainstream ratings winners and consolidated Cilla's position as the highest-paid female performer on British television. Her TV appearances made her spoken mannerisms ('Lorra lorra laughs' or 'tarra, chuck' for example) and her habit of referring familiarly to her fellow presenters ('Here's Our Graham') well-known and much parodied. Cilla's most notable television performances after leaving LWT in 2003 included appearances on Parkinson, So, Graham Norton, Friday Night With Jonathan Ross, Room 101, Coronation Street (playing herself in the fortieth anniversary episode) and a one-off show titled Cilla Live! for Living TV. She was a judge on the first series of the reality TV series Soapstar Superstar, featured in an episode of the series Eating With ... and guest presented editions of The Paul O'Grady Show and The Friday Night Project for Channel Four in 2006 and 2007 respectively. In 2008, Cilla filmed a pilot for a dating show for Sky One. Loveland was to be a ten-part 'Twenty First Century' dating programme for the channel for the next year. Unlike Blind Date, contestants would not sit in front of a studio audience, but be 'hidden' behind real-time animations as they dated each other. Each episode concludes with the contestant picking their preferred animated character before meeting that person in real life. Production costs, however, were too high and the project was - thankfully - abandoned. In October 2009, she guest anchored Loose Women and between September 2010 and June 2011, she made several further guest appearances. A month later, Cilla appeared on Sky1 to present TV's Greatest Endings. She also appeared as herself in the first episode of series four of ITV's Benidorm in 2011. She also, memorably, appeared as the guest host of Never Mind The Buzzcocks in December 2011. When quizzed by Phill Jupitas about her relationship with The Be-Atles she cheekily replied 'I went through the whole Beatles! I started fancying John Lennon and then he wasn't interested, obviously. And then I went on to Paul and he wasn't interested. And I got on to George and he wasn't interested. Who'd've thought that Ringo today would be The Cute One? He used to look like Yasser Arafat!' From 2013 to 2014, Cilla was reportedly to co-starring in a new BBC sitcom Led Astray, alongside Paul O'Grady. The pilot episode was recorded on 31 October 2013. However the show was shelved due to the pair being unable to cope with the long hours of filming. BAFTA honoured Cilla with a special award last year, celebrating her long-standing contribution to the entertainment industry.
Cilla was married to her manager, Bobby Willis, for more than thirty years until his death from lung cancer in October 1999. The pair were practically inseparable, having reportedly spent just three nights apart during the marriage. They had three sons: Robert (who became her manager after his father's death), Ben and Jack. The couple's daughter, Ellen, was born prematurely in 1975 and suffered lung complications, living for only two hours. Cilla was - in common with a lot of people in showbusiness - a staunch and very public supporter of the Conservative Party during the 1980s and publicly voiced her admiration for Margaret Thatcher, stating in 1993 that Thatcher 'put the "Great" into Great Britain,' something which went down spectacularly badly in her home town where Thatcher and her cronies were about as popular as The Black Death. She was made an OBE in 1997. However, in an interview in 2004 with the Gruniad Morning Star, Cilla claimed that she was and had always been 'apolitical.' The Liverpool Echo also quoted her as saying: 'As for the politics thing, I'm not a Conservative.' In 1994 she turned down an honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University when some of the students whinged that it would 'devalue' their degrees. In recent years she spoke about how she 'didn't want to see a seventy-year-old on television' and would rather 'die at seventy five' than suffer from ill-health into old age. She remained close friends with fellow celebrities such as Sir Cliff Richard and Sir Bruce Forsyth, while her friendships with the likes of Sir Elton John, Dale Winton and Paul O'Grady led to her often being described as a gay icon. 'I didn't want to be Doris Day,' Cilla once reflected. 'But I wanted what went with it. She'd talk about her backyard and it was three acres of lawn; our backyard was where we kept the coal. I wanted her backyard, the fame and fortune. If there had been Blind Date then, I would have been first in the queue.' Cilla Black, dear blog reader. Popular entertainer, actress, comedienne, presenter and the voice on about half-a-dozen of the best hundred records or so ever made. She is survived by her three sons.
For Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day, dear blog reader, here's the song that broke The Smiths up. Allegedly!

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