So. Cilla Black. Queen of Saturday night eezee-view chav-tv. Chirpy front woman of seemingly endless sugary feel-good sofa Prozac television shows. Flag waving icon of Thatcherites, and professional Scouser.
It’s probable that Cilla was advised to head for the verdant fields of light entertainment because, in the 60s, girl singers tended not to be taken seriously, and came with an expectation that the hits would only last as long as their novelty value could be stretched out.
Cilla though, had her own, weekly, Saturday teatime television show at the age of twenty-four. To put that in a contemporary perspective, Lily Allen (her tv show had a 2% share of the total, potential audience) is also twenty-four.
The theme song for Cilla’s show was not some throwaway tune knocked out by the BBC Variety Orchestra. It was written for Cilla by Paul McCartney; here’s a seldom heard demo version.
“Northern white soul, and soft, girl next door, ballads.”
Cilla was never an innovator, nor was she (it would seem) interested in song writing. Cilla was, in the 1960s, an artist from the school of interpretation.
Her first success was under the management of Brian Epstein, and her truly golden years, with some remarkable performances, were formed at Abbey Road, where she was produced by George Martin. Let’s be clear, this was not the ‘Surprise, Surprise’ era Cilla. This was an artist in her early twenties, at the pinnacle of her career, both belting out northern white soul, and soft, girl next door, ballads.
Cilla Black has a wonderful vocal range, with her two distinctive styles often showcased in the one song. The lilting, come hither, of the verse, often augmented with the rock-out, throaty shout, of the chorus.
Cilla had released seven hit singles, including two that topped the charts in the UK (Anyone Who Had A Heart, & You’re My World), but it was in 1965, that she hit her peak artistically, and it was this year in which a performance of extraordinary clarity and emotion was teased from her, by one of the world’s greatest songwriters, and producers.
Cilla had been used to George Martin’s production style which, though thorough and professional, often concentrated on orchestration, and left the singer to bring their own characteristics to the vocal, which, it may be argued, sometimes led to a ‘comfortable’ outcome.
“Bacharach taught Cilla to believe in the song.”
Nothing had prepared her for the events of the day Burt Bacharach came to Abbey Road to produce Cilla’s version of his, and Hal David’s, mesmeric and majestic ‘Alfie’.
In this tingling film footage we can see Cilla living out the song, as Bacharach coaxed the achievement of a lifetime from her. He urged and cajoled a total of (unheard of in the 60s, especially with a full orchestra in attendance) nineteen takes before he was satisfied that he had got the very best vocal performance possible.
In this breathtaking two minutes and forty seconds, Bacharach taught Cilla to believe in the song, to inhabit it as if she were aching with love. The result was one of the greatest records of a generation, a seismic mix of Cilla Black’s raw, yet beatific and joyful voice, with Bacharach’s passion for perfection, born from a genius of musical knowledge and talent.
We can only speculate on the outcome for Cilla Black if the association with Burt Bacharach had continued, and although there were still some great performances to come (Surround Yourself With Sorrow, If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind, Something Tells Me Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight), Cilla’s career began its change in direction towards light entertainment, and ultimately to dating shows, and appearances with Spit The Dog.
If you need any final evidence of her overwhelming coolness, take a look at this gorgeous moment from Cilla’s 1973 TV show.
Singing a duet, with Marc Bolan on Life’s A Gas, Cilla is set free, momentarily, from the chains of fluffy, weightless teatime telly; she overcomes the sequined top and flared slacks, and revels in delight at joining a (then) teen icon, in a laidback, passing insight into what might have been.
“And I hope it’s gonna last…” It didn’t, but nobody can ever take anything away from that run of hit singles, and that charged up, confident, wonderful voice.
In partnership with Spotify – Ten Cilla Killa Cuts (including a special message from Cilla!)