Cilla Black holds a unique position in the history of pop music, and the British Invasion. As Brian Epstein's discovery and protégée, she was the first and only important female performer to emerge from Liverpool in the heyday of the British beat boom. In conjunction with Epstein's management and George Martin's production skills, she became a formidable ballad singer, her hits lasting longer than any Epstein clients other than the Beatles. And she became one of the most beloved pop/rock performers in England during the late '60s and '70s, and one of the country's most popular television stars.
She was the third Brian Epstein-managed performer to emerge from Liverpool in the wake of the Beatles' success. Her name was Priscilla White when she worked at the Cavern Club on lunch breaks from her job as a typist. She began singing as a nervous amateur on a Liverpool underground scene in which the Beatles, with Pete Best still on drums (and Brian Epstein a long way removed from knowing them), were considered one of the more promising bands. By the summer of 1961, she had gotten good enough to appear as a guest singer with such established local talent as the Big Three Trio and Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, and was a favorite of Bill Harry, the publisher of the music paper Mersey Beat.
Brian Epstein's discovery of the Beatles and the Cavern Club opened him up to a whole world of new music and performers. On Priscilla White, still a very gawky semi-professional, he lavished almost as much attention as he did on the Beatles, but for different reasons.
The Beatles were a revelation to Epstein, with their youthful exuberance and uninhibited fun. Gerry & the Pacemakers were a talented band that helped prove his golden touch extended beyond Lennon, McCartney, et al.
Cilla Black, as Epstein rechristened her, was none of these things. Rather, she was a non-distinct female persona -- virtually a tabula rasa, with a girl-next-door look -- onto whom the sexually ambiguous Epstein could project his ideas of style and beauty. Neither was she a natural singer, or performer. She did try hard, however, and, with the right look and presentation, and the right song and producer, had a chance for success. All of those things Epstein secured for her, either directly or in the guise of George Martin at Parlophone Records.
Martin initially had his doubts about Cilla Black, but he did his best and, with Epstein's help and some carefully orchestrated press that broke just at the point when any five milkmen from Liverpool could get a hearing, her career was launched successfully. Ironically, given his initial doubts, Martin became Black's producer for the next 11 years, and along with the Beatles, she was among the few EMI acts that he continued to produce after he left the company in 1966 to set up AIR Studios.
Black was never going to be a rival to Dusty Springfield, lacking the latter's power or subtlety. On the other hand, she did have a fairly distinctive and identifiable -- and attractive -- delivery, and she got better as she gained experience. Her debut single, a Lennon-McCartney leftover called "Love of the Loved," was not one of the prime examples of even the second-rate Lennon-McCartney that ended up in the hands of Kramer, Peter & Gordon, et al. It peaked at number 35, the most disappointing debut of any post-Beatles Epstein act in 1963.
Black had much greater success with her next song, a ballad that showed her real strengths and potential as a singer, called "Anyone Who Had a Heart"-- the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song had previously been cut by Dionne Warwick, but Black quickly eclipsed Warwick's version. Issued on the final day of January 1964, it became the biggest-selling single by a female artist in the history of popular music in England, bringing her to number one on the British charts three weeks later. It sold over 800,000 copies in England, and another million internationally. Even greater success was in store for Black three months later with the release of "You're My World," an English version of a song originally written in Italian. What "I Only Want to Be with You" is to Dusty Springfield, "Shout" is to Lulu, and "Always Something There to Remind Me" is to Sandy Shaw, "You're My World" is to Cilla Black -- a signature song that stands astride her whole career.
After "You're My World," Black's career was made. At her worst, as a pop singer of uncertain range and instincts, she was almost a throwback to Helen Shapiro, a major female pop star of the pre-Beatles era. At her best, as on "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," she had an intense soulful quality, akin to Tom Jones as a ballad singer -- indeed, she might've been Britain's answer to Dionne Warwick. She displayed a surprisingly adventurous nature, as with "It's for You," a waltz-like number that Paul McCartney personally selected for her from among his best non-Beatles-destined originals. She covered it in a jazz arrangement and the resulting single reached number seven in England. McCartney remained close to her for years, although Black's closest musical confidant was songwriter Bobby Willis, whom she later married. She also made her film debut in late 1964 with the release of Ferry Cross the Mersey, starring Gerry & the Pacemakers, in which Black sang "Is It Love."
Black maintained a full schedule of concert, radio, and television appearances in 1964-1965. Like every other Epstein client, she was also busy in America as well, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and such non-rock & roll venues as The Tonight Show. She was also a featured performer on a late-1965 British television special, The Beatles: The Music of Lennon and McCartney. By that time, she was, along with the Beatles, one of only two acts still personally managed by Brian Epstein, who regarded her as one of his two most precious musical discoveries -- and, indeed, after the Beatles she was the most successful artist to come out of Liverpool.
Black had two additional major hits in 1966, "Alfie" and "Don't Answer Me," both of which made the British Top Ten. Up to that point, her career had been handled by Brian Epstein, in whose hands she'd become a star. She began having doubts about his management in 1966, however, and considered -- but initially abandoned -- plans to leave him in favor of Robert Stigwood. At the time of Epstein's death in the summer of 1967, she was one of his two remaining clients.
Her hits subsided in 1967, partly because of Epstein's death and her involvement in a feature film, Work Is a Four-Letter Word, in which she starred with David Warner. A science-fiction tale set in the future, and involving the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms (all based on a play by Henry Livings), the movie proved a misstep when it finally came out.
In 1968 she was back on form, reaching the Top Ten twice, with "Step Inside Love," a Lennon-McCartney song, and "I Couldn't Take My Eyes Off You," and the following year was back up there again with "Surround Yourself with Sorrow" and "Conversations." These successes were assisted by Black's British television variety series, Cilla, which featured some of the top pop/rock musical talent of the period. After 1969, Black's days of charting singles were over. That same year, she married songwriter Bobby Willis.
Black's recording career with EMI continued into the mid-'70s, but much of her career activity by that time was centered on television rather than the recording studio. She still released singles and albums, including a notable collection of songs from her past entitled In My Life. She subsequently worked in two popular and critically successful series, Blind Date and Surprise Surprise -- the former also earned her an award from BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts). In 1993, to commemorate her 30 years as a show-business professional, she cut an album, released a retrospective video, published a book, and presented an anniversary special, each of which was entitled Through the Years. She remained one of the most popular entertainers in England into the 21st century, with ITV honoring her 50 years in show business with a TV special titled The One & Only Cilla Black in October 2013. That same month, Parlophone Records released The Very Best of Cilla Black, a 26-track collection that included all 19 of her U.K. Top 40 singles. Cilla Black died on August 1, 2015 at her home in Estepona, Spain. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi