I have two older sisters and a regular discussion between the three of us, when I was very young, was who was the best – Cilla, Dusty or Sandie? We had a clutch of singles by each of them that we would stack on the “automatic” record player, waiting for them to clatter down onto the turntable. Singles by each of these Original Britpop girls are still amongst my favourite tracks but only two of these artists make the cut on my Essential Albums list. And here is the first……………..
I think it is easy to forget, considering Cilla, the light entertainment queen, (once said to be the highest paid woman on British television with her 1980/90s mega-popular series “Blind Date” and “Surprise Surprise”) how good a singer she was. By this time her career was well over twenty years old and she was making jokes about her singing, turning up out of the blue to perform “Cillagrams” to an unexpecting public and ending countless “Surprise Surprise” shows by walking away from a family she’d just reunited for the first time in decades to sing a few bars of the closing theme tune. It gave a cheesiness to Cilla the singer. I think many people’s eyes were opened by the 2014 television three-parter starring Sheridan Smith as the young Cilla and her early work is being rediscovered by a new generation. Downloads and streams of her first number 1 single took it back to number 47 in the UK Charts in October- her highest chart placing in forty years and some fifty years since it reached the summit. Those of us in the know have always considered Cilla to be, in her prime, one of the finest singers Britain has produced.
I’m sure that even Cilla herself would be the first to admit that the rise to fame was very much being in the right place at the right time. With a part time job in the cloakroom of the Cavern Club and a pal of four lads whose performances at that venue were becoming the stuff of legend. These lads, the Beatles, urged their manager Brian Epstein, on the lookout for a female singer, to listen out for this vivacious redhead. For her debut single, two of them, a certain Lennon and McCartney had a song for her. The brassy, bubbly “Love Of The Loved” became Cilla’s first appearance on the pop charts but when it stalled at number 35 in late 1963 there was the feeling it should have done better. With a couple of number one singles under their belt and the hugely successful “Meet The Beatles” selling by the bucketload, perhaps there was not enough room for another Epstein managed superstar. Not so, as within a few months Cilla was joining them at the top of the charts and this had nothing to do with Lennon & McCartney. Cilla’s career was established with a string of cover versions of tracks which were not often readily available in the UK, stealing the thunder before the UK release. This was certainly the case with Bacharach and David’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart”. Beatles producer George Martin put his magic into his arrangement of the song that was becoming a big hit stateside for Dionne Warwick. It introduced the two voices of Cilla Black, the soft Dionne-ish purr in the verse to the transition to the sharper, harder edge of the chorus. The British public were instantly spellbound and Cilla got her first number 1. Warwick got to number 42 but her career establishing “Walk On By” was only a few months away. For me, Cilla is responsible for three of the best singles of the 1960’s and two of them were her next single releases. Her best, the second British number 1 and her only American Top 30 hit (number 26) was up next. “You’re My World” is Cilla’s version of an Italian hit song with English lyrics, a tactic which also paid off for Dusty with “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” and was often employed by the managements of British girl singers to get them a big ballad hit and there’s few ballads bigger than “You’re My World”. Cilla sings the socks of this song and it is one that hasn’t been covered that often as this is the definitive version. It even survives being my sister’s Karaoke song when she’s been out having one too many! It was back to the Beatles songbook for “It’s For You”, a softer jazzier song, superbly handled vocally and with another superb transition between subtle, swinging verse and with its urgent, defiant chorus. Written once again for Cilla by Lennon & McCartney this gave her a third top 10 hit. Cilla’s third classic is a battle between singer and production with George Martin throwing everything into the arrangement and Cilla not allowing herself to be swamped by a sheer cascade of strings. “Love’s Just A Broken Heart” was co-written by a man also with a Beatles connection. Kenny Lynch was, in those far off days of the early 1960’s one of the few black men appearing regularly on British television and the first artist to cover a Lennon & McCartney song, “Misery”, intended for Helen Shapiro but a hit for neither of them. There was still a connection over ten years later when Lynch was one of those featured on the famous cover of Paul McCartney and Wings “Band On The Run” album. Whilst we are on the Beatles connection Cilla’s version of the much-recorded “Yesterday” is the definitive version (this was a fact the Beatles were said to have agreed with) and the especially –written- for- her “Step Inside Love” used as a theme song for her BBC TV series got her back into the Top 10 in 1968.
The Bacharach/David connection is just as strong. On this CD there are three more examples “Make It Easy On Yourself” and “What The World Needs Now Is Love” are acceptable covers but more interesting is the song Black states that Bacharach told her at the time had been written especially for her. It hadn’t as Bacharach originally favoured Dionne Warwick and Sandie Shaw had reputedly previously turned it down. This was a promotional track for a seminal 60’s film starring Michael Caine. The Britishness of the film demanded a British singer and Bacharach himself oversaw the arrangements, working Cilla through umpteen takes and has said that it was his favourite song. The song is not actually featured in the film but the international release had a version by Cher drafted on, giving her a number 32 single in 1966. “Alfie” became the Warwicks’ revenge with both Dionne and her sister Dee Dee recording versions. Dee Dee’s was recorded first in London with first-class British producer Johnny Franz (of Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell fame) but was not released until after big sister had stolen her thunder and took it to number 15 in the USA the following year. My brother-in-law, with the same name as this song, wishes all versions had vanished without trace as for almost fifty years he has had people regularly asking him “What’s it all about, Alfie?”
Also included on this CD are a couple of other forays into the European song catalogue which paid dividends for Cilla (“Don’t Answer Me” and “A Fool Am I” were both Top 20 singles), some cover versions of standards “When I Fall In Love”, “Goin’ Out Of My Head” and her version of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” which came close to depriving the Righteous Brothers of a number 1 as both versions raced up the British charts – final result Righteous Bros – 1, Cilla -2. Even the greatest Cilla fan would have had to admit that her version outdoing the sublime original would have been a travesty! There’s a couple of Cook/Greenaway compositions which carried her hit-making career into the 70’s. (“Conversations” and Something Tells Me (Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight)) her last top 3 hit. The most recent track on display here is 1974’s “Baby We Can’t Go Wrong” which was a small hit and probably anything after this date would not be “essential Cilla” (even an attempt to score a double in 1993 by pairing Cilla with Dusty for “Heart And Soul” was disappointingly lacklustre). There’s also the track which clearly demonstrates both Cilla’s roots and the softer side of her voice. “Liverpool Lullaby” seemed to be a staple on her 60’s television shows and was selected by Cilla to be her one performance on the television celebration of her fifty years in showbusiness. This choice was deemed strange by many who, probably unfairly said that the reason she chose this simple song was because it was one of the few she could still sing. Well, there is no doubt that Cilla’s voice would not be what it was fifty years ago but this CD enables the listener to turn back the clock and rediscover a British National Treasure.
At time of writing this CD can be purchased used from Amazon.co.uk from £2.44 and as a download for £7.99. American listeners can buy used from $14.28. This CD, together with slightly less essential Cilla compilations can be streamed from Spotify.