Cilla Black OBE was one of Great Britain’s most successful and best-loved entertainers of all-time – she had 19 UK ‘Top 40’ singles (including two #1 hits), released 15 studio albums, sold out concert venues around the world and presented many iconic British TV shows whilst bringing up three sons with her husband, Bobby Willis.
Born Priscilla Maria Veronica White on the 27th May 1943, she grew up in a musically oriented household in one of the toughest parts of Liverpool. Living with her parents and three brothers, she was often encouraged to practice her innate singing talent by performing to her family.
“It’s no wonder that I knew I wanted to be a professional singer from a very early age, because I was surrounded by music in our house. My father played the mouth organ, my mother and aunts used to sing, and it wasn’t unusual for families to get together and make their own music in the fifties.”
During her late teens, the sheer drive Cilla had to become famous made her adamant that she would never be labelled as just another girl “suitable for office work” as an early school report had suggested. Understandably, she wanted more from life and could regularly be found escaping to the trendy clubs of the day like The Iron Door and The Cavern, the latter of which was where she worked as a coat-check girl. She also served coffee at The Zodiac, another clubbers’ haven, where, incidentally, she met her husband-to-be, Bobby Willis. Perfectly placed amongst the up-and-coming stars of the day, she wowed them with her singing and confidently convinced the powers that be to let her share the spotlight on stage.
Thanks to a lot of support from her friends, she quickly became a mini-celebrity in her neighbourhood, performing alongside so many legendary acts that were fundamental in establishing the “Mersey Sound”, such as The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Fourmost and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
Due to a twist of fate, Priscilla White (known around the Liverpool music scene as “Swinging Cilla”) almost overnight received a new stage name, when the music paper the ‘Mersey Beat’ misprinted her surname as Cilla Black, a name that she favoured and happily kept.
It wasn’t long before Cilla came to the attention of Brian Epstein, a local talent scout and manager of The Beatles. Epstein was introduced to her by none other than John Lennon, who persuaded him to arrange an audition at The Majestic Ballroom in Birkenhead. Unfortunately, the audition was unsuccessful due to a combination of nerves and singing to The Beatles’ accompaniment, who played in their own key. All was not lost as, to her surprise, she was later spotted by Epstein while singing “Bye, Bye Blackbird” in the jazzy surroundings of the Blue Angel club. This performance finally convinced him to sign her, so on the 6th September 1963, she became his only female vocalist!
There was an immediate bond between Cilla and Epstein. From the moment he met his starlet, he wanted to nurture the ‘Judy Garland’ qualities he believed she possessed, having high aspirations of creating a British icon who, in his prophetic words, would become “…one of the biggest stars in this country for thirty or forty years”. His faith, combined with Cilla’s talent, effortlessly convinced George Martin, the renowned producer of Matt Monro, Shirley Bassey and The Beatles, that she was worthy of signing to Parlophone Records (a subsidiary label of the EMI Group).
Shortly afterwards, Cilla Black made her debut on the British singles charts with one of the first of many songs given to her by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. “Love of the Loved”, a song Cilla had often heard The Beatles perform at The Cavern. The recording made a modest impression on the British charts when it was released on the 27th September 1963.
This was soon to be overshadowed by her next release, which Brian Epstein discovered on a trip to the USA. “Anyone Who Had A Heart”, a song by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, had already proved to be a massive hit for Dionne Warwick which Cilla, then a keen follower of the US Top 100, had already admired prior to it being suggested by Epstein. Her knockout rendition, recorded in January 1964, went on to become not only her first No. 1 but is still, to this day, the biggest selling single of all time by a British female recording artist.
George Martin acquired the perfect follow-up, an Italian ballad, “Il Mio Mondo”, with an English lyric, became “You’re My World”. This epic “torch” song went on to become Cilla’s second No. 1, paving the way for an influx of other Italian songs such as Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”. Furthermore, it broke Cilla into the tough US market as well as gaining her massive support across Europe and Australasia, culminating in hundreds of sell-out concert dates throughout her time at EMI (1963-1978).
“When I reached No. 1 in the charts with “You’re My World”, it made me the second British girl to ever have two successive No. 1 hits. I heard the good news just days before my 21st birthday. Two No. 1 hits in a row!”
During the sixties, Cilla sustained her place at the forefront of the Brit-Pop music scene, with one of the most impressive starts for a British female recording artist, including 17 consecutive Top 40 triumphs on the singles charts. To put this unprecedented success into perspective, it happened during a decade when achieving a Top 20 single meant that you had to sell in excess of 100,000 copies a day in the UK alone!
In August 1967, only days before his premature death, Brian Epstein had engineered Cilla’s switch to television with her own eponymous variety show for BBC TV. The immediate success of the ‘Cilla’ series marked the beginning of a new phase of Cilla’s professional life as she was now one of Britain’s top rated television entertainers. Her show regularly commanded staggering audience figures of between 18 and 22 million until it ended in 1976. Apart from providing Cilla with the opportunity to perform her music, it also showcased her infectious personality, her ability to host a live show, the ease with which she performed with guest stars, acted in comedy sketches and her forte – her interaction with the general public.
Cilla’s immense popularity continued throughout the seventies into the nineties through an array of successful concert tours, situation comedy series, pantomime performances, summer season shows, West End productions and her prime-time entertainment shows – ‘Surprise!, Surprise!’ (1983-1997), ‘Blind Date’ (1985-2003) and ‘Cilla’s Moment Of Truth’ (1998-2001) for British broadcaster ITV.
In 1997, Cilla was honoured with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for her achievements in the entertainment industry.
In 1999, after 30 years of marriage, Cilla’s beloved husband and manager Bobby Willis sadly passed away at the age of 57. Bobby was not only acknowledged and respected for his skilful management of Cilla’s career, he was a songwriter, executive TV producer and executive producer of many stage productions. Following Bobby’s death Cilla’s eldest son Robert took over as her manager.
In January 2003, Cilla announced during a special live edition of her dating show ‘Blind Date’ that she was to quit as the host.
After Cilla’s surprise resignation she continued to host one-off television shows such as ‘Cilla Live!’ for Living TV (2004), ’50 Greatest TV Endings’ for Sky 1 (2008) and ‘Cilla’s Unswung Sixties’ for Yesterday (2012). She was also a judge on the first series of the reality TV series ‘Soapstar Superstar’ for ITV (2006) and guest presented editions of popular TV series ‘The Paul O’Grady Show’, ‘The Friday Night Project’, ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’ and ITV’s panel show ‘Loose Women’.
For Christmas 2008, Cilla took to the stage at the Liverpool Empire as the Fairy Godmother, in a big-budget revamp of the pantomime ‘Cinderella’ – this was Cilla’s first pantomime for 17 years and was also the finale to Liverpool’s year as “European Capital of Culture 2008”.
In 2011, Cilla appeared, as herself, in the Series 4 opener of Derren Litten’s hilariously funny hit situation comedy ‘Benidorm’.
In September 2013, Cilla celebrated 50 glittering years in show business. This magnificent milestone was marked by a TV special ‘The One and Only Cilla Black‘ for ITV as well as the release of a photo memoir and a greatest hits compilation ‘The Very Best Of Cilla Black’ (this became a No. 1 selling album for Cilla in the UK & NZ after her passing in August 2015).
In spring 2014, ITV filmed ‘Cilla’ – a new television series by award-winning screenwriter Jeff Pope with British actress Sheridan Smith in the starring role. The three part docudrama chronicling Cilla’s early career was filmed on location in Liverpool. Each episode of ‘Cilla’ received critical acclaim and impressive UK viewing figures of over 8 million.
“I was very much involved before the scripts were written, Jeff interviewed me several times. After the near final drafts were done Jeff and Robert came over to my house in Denham and we went through them, making any factual changes and tweaks. They wanted me to be happy and I was…”
Later in 2014, Cilla received a special BAFTA award for her outstanding contribution to entertainment and also the first ever Royal Television Society ‘Legends’ Award recognising her 50 years in the television business.
On 1 August 2015, to the shock of the Nation it was announced that Cilla had died at her holiday home in Spain aged just 72. Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Paul O’Grady, Bruce Forsyth and Prime Minister David Cameron were among friends, colleagues in the entertainment industry and politicians who expressed their sorrow at Cilla’s untimely death.
Cilla Black OBE was undoubtedly one of Great Britain’s most successful and best-loved entertainers of all time. She enriched British popular culture for decades through music, television and comedy and this extraordinary legacy ensures she will live on in the hearts of millions!
For more information on Cilla Black’s life and career refer to her Top 5 best-selling autobiography ‘What’s It All About?‘.