Cilla Black’s TV career sometimes overshadows the fact she had more 60s hits than the Stones or the Kinks, and a consistent sound that few of her contemporaries could match
In 1969, the journalist Nik Cohn said of Cilla Black “she makes people glow. In her time, she will grow into a pop Gracie Fields, much-loved entertainer, and she’ll become institutionalised.” Given the reaction to her unexpected death yesterday, this all seems remarkably prescient.
When Cohn wrote those words, Cilla Black was still a pop star. She had her own TV show, true, but so did Dusty Springfield, Lulu and Sandie Shaw. In the decades since, the huge success of shows like Blind Date and Surprise Surprise has obscured and almost obliterated the scale of her pop career: it’s easily forgotten that, in the 60s, Cilla had more hits than the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield or the Kinks.
Her eight-year run of hits, from 1963 to 1971, had a unity of sound and vision that most of her female contemporaries and rivals couldn’t manage: Lulu, for instance, skipped from Mickie Most to Eurovision to Muscle Shoals. But Cilla always recorded at Abbey Road, was always produced by George Martin, and so she audibly grew up in the studio. By 1968, the raucous teenager of 1963’s Love of the Loved – her Lennon/McCartney-written debut single – was already the mother figure of the gently heartbreaking Liverpool Lullaby, a eulogy for the Merseybeat era.
When I was growing up, Cilla was not only the face of Saturday evening TV but a weekly accompaniment to Sunday lunch on Radio 2’s Two Way Family Favourites, with her brace of 1964 No 1s: Burt Bacharach’s Anyone Who Had a Heart and Gino Paoli’s You’re My World. Both were written by giants of world pop in an Anglo-dominated era, giving Priscilla White of Scotland Road more than a whiff of Dior. Bacharach famously recorded Alfie in London with her a couple of years later, a rainy but beautiful record that was possibly the first to bring out her I’ll-put-the-kettle-on philosophy. Paul McCartney worked this dichotomy of Cilla as internationalist and pinny-wearing presence on Step Inside Love in 1968: over a bossa nova beat, “You look tired, love” could be sung to a father, son, lover or neighbour. You can hear the cake mix on her fingers. It’s all about warmth, home and friendship, something even non-believers can believe in.
The strength of her personality has tended to overshadow Cilla’s vocal capabilities. Dionne Warwick recently reignited a half century-long complaint that Cilla “stole” Anyone Who Had a Heart from her, but their versions are actually very different. While Dionne’s (also very fine) performance remains hurt and confused throughout, the power of Cilla’s version comes in her sudden switch from an accusatory chorus to a broken whisper: “what am I to do?” In time, she shed the more abrasive side of her singing, allowing more room for instantly recognisable quirks (listen to the way she pronounces the word “suitcases” on the exquisite, plucked-string baroque of Trees and Loneliness). Randy Newman has said that Cilla’s 1965 single I’ve Been Wrong Before is his favourite recording of any of his songs, and she was far from disgraced duetting with Marc Bolan on Life’s a Gas.
There are other songs from the late 60s and early 70s which, were they on albums that had sold 15 copies, or released on a hipper label than Parlophone, would be on every collector’s wants list. Her semi-residence at Abbey Road meant she could call on the cream of arrangers – Mike Vickers, Mort Shuman, Johnny Harris, Johnny Hawkins – as well as session musicians. DJ History’s Bill Brewster has feted her 1971 album track Faded Images, while the net-curtained balladry of 1969 single If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind is maybe her saddest song. Then there are the deep colours of the early morning soundtrack Down in the City, a 1970 B-side with such gorgeous couplets as “the print’s hardly dry on the Morning Gazette, the smell of the bread that’s not ready yet.”
What these songs have in common is Cilla’s wholly relatable delivery. OnSomething Tells Me, the theme from her 1971 TV show, she embraced the age of Aquarius in a way that anyone from Greenwich to Greenock could understand: “I read in the papers that Gemini people will make it tonight.” Cilla’s passing reminds us that we are finally leaving the 20th century. Or, at least, losing the 20th century – losing the certainties of a particularly British kind of pop culture, a working-class culture, that have slowly been erased since the 1980s.[Via- The Guardian]