Hmm. Cilla Black. I try to come to all these reviews with an open mind, but I was never a fan. I think many people of my age feel the same, too. To us, she was that wailing banshee that ruled over weekend television in the 1980s, presenting Blind Date and Surprise Surprise, wailing the theme tune of the latter at a pitch that could shatter TV screens if you had the volume too high. To my mum, she was a national treasure, to my dad… well, lets just say we felt the same. When she died in 2015, the media mourned, but if you dug deep on the internet, there were countless stories of a puffed-up prima donna, hated by airplane staff primarily. It seems ‘our Cilla’ could be a nasty piece of work. Now obviously I don’t expect every artist out there to be a lovely person, but when that’s the image they make their money from, it can grate.
That’s my touching tribute aside, now on with the facts. Cilla was born Priscilla Maria Veronica White in Liverpool in 1943. She became determined to make it as a singer while in her teens, and tried to get her foot in the door with a part-time job as a cloakroom attendant at the Cavern Club. It was the perfect example of ‘right place, right time’, as the Beatles were residents there, and they were impressed by her impromptu performances. She appeared as a guest singer for local acts including Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, who featured Ringo Starr on drums. The local music publication, Mersey Beat (whose name soon coined a whole musical movement) featured her in its first edition, but accidentally referred to her as Cilla Black. She made it her stage name.
Black was introduced to Brian Epstein by John Lennon. Epstein’s roster was rapidly growing, but initially he showed little interest in her. She was never the most technically-gifted singer, but her initial audition with him was a disaster. The Beatles provided her backing on Summertime, but a lack of rehearsal meant that they played it in the wrong key. However, Epstein saw something in Black, a girl-next-door image that could go down well, and a passion to succeed, and in 1963 he took her under his wing.
As someone who’d always struggled to understand just why Cilla was so popular, I assumed the Beatles connection was the sole reason she became famous in the first place. This no doubt played its part, but her debut single, a Lennon-McCartney original called Love of the Loved, barely scraped the charts. Lennon and McCartney were only just learning the ropes of songwriting, what about a duo with previous number 1 success?
Anyone Who Had a Heart was written by one of the decade’s most famous songwriting partnerships, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, for Dionne Warwick. It had become her first top ten single in the US in January. A scout for George Martin suggested the track could make a strong single for Black. Shirley Bassey had also been mentioned as a possibility, but a canny Bacharach was keen on Black releasing it. He knew that Liverpool was fast becoming one of the most musically important cities in the world, and believed that could only help the song’s chances.
It seems Warwick has never forgiven Black for outperforming her version in the UK, and she has mentioned several times over the years that she considers Black’s version a complete copy. Having compared the two, I surprised myself by siding with Cilla. Not only that, I actually prefer her version. Now that really surprised me. Black’s voice has never done anything for me, unlike Warwick’s, but I find Cilla’s more soulful and passionate. As the song is about heartbreak, this is how it should be. Warwick’s may be classier, but it’s a bit tame by comparison. Yes, Johnny Pearson’s arrangement is very similar, but I’m not sure what Warwick expected could be done to make it so different. The whole thing smacks of sour grapes to me. So, yes, I found myself appreciating a Cilla Black song! It helps of course that it has the Bacharach and David magic touch. This is a great slice of 60s pop.
Due in part to the rise of beat music, primarily consisting of four or five men on guitars and drums, there hadn’t been a female artist at number 1 since Helen Shapiro’s Walkin’ Back to Happiness in November 1961. Cilla Black ended the drought, and helped give rise to a new type of female singer – a working class, distinctive, a girl-next-door type that may not be the most technically gifted singer, but could make their own mark and inspire others to have a go.
There you go, I’ve bigged up Cilla Black. I’ve surprised myself.
Written by: Burt Bacharach & Hal David
Producer: George Martin
Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 February-18 March)
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