Singer and presenter whose unaffected Liverpudlian charm inspired affection

Cilla Black: May 27th, 1943 - August 2nd, 2015

Cilla Black, who has died aged 72. In her long career she overtook Esther Rantzen to become the highest-paid female performer on British television. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The British pop revolution of the 1960s involved not only male guitar bands, but also a plethora of young female singing stars, including Cilla Black, who has died aged 72.

Of these, Dusty Springfield was the most technically proficient and the most temperamental; Lulu had the most powerful vocal cords but the weakest songs; Sandie Shaw had a trendy, kooky image and songs to match; and Black benefited hugely from her association with the Beatles – John Lennon and Paul McCartney composed several of her hits – and their manager Brian Epstein.

Additionally, Black was the most telegenic. What one critic called her "gauche, unsophisticated girl-next-door image" propelled her from pop-star beginnings to become in later years the most highly paid woman in British television, with her shows Surprise, Surprise and Blind Date.

She was born Priscilla White, the third child of Liverpool docker John White and his wife, Priscilla (née Blythen), who sold vintage clothes from a market stall.


It was an Irish Catholic family and Cilla grew up in Scotland (Scottie) Road, an area that was so thoroughly Irish it had been represented at Westminster by the nationalist MP TP O’Connor for 50 years until his death in 1929.

White began to perform as a small child at family gatherings, and was soon winning talent shows at school events and at the dockers’ annual Christmas party.

When rock'n'roll hit Britain in the mid-50s, the 13-year-old modelled her voice on that of Frankie Lymon, a black New York boy soprano whose hits included I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent. She also changed her hair colour from brown to orange, to the disapproval of the nuns at St Anthony's secondary modern. Good reference Nevertheless, in 1958 she left school with a favourable reference, of which her parents were very proud – "Priscilla is suitable for office work" – a cherished passport out of factory life. She duly took a one-year secretarial and shorthand course, following which she landed a typing job at the offices of a construction company.

This was the era of the boom in beat music on Merseyside, and White regularly attended clubs such as the Cavern and the Iron Door. For a while, she worked as a cloakroom attendant over the lunchtime sessions at the Cavern.

Encouraged by her friends, she occasionally sang with the groups. She was sometimes billed as "Swinging Cilla", though John Lennon found it amusing to announce her as Cyril when she joined the Beatles on stage to sing Summertime, or A Shot of Rhythm and Blues.

After Epstein took over the management of the Beatles, the group pressed him to sign their friend. An audition was arranged, but Epstein was unimpressed. It was not until a year later, when he heard her singing at the Iron Door with a jazz group, that he saw her potential.

Since she was still under 21, her father was required to sign the management contract. He was favourably disposed to Epstein, since the Whites had bought their piano from the Epstein family’s music store, but he baulked when he saw that his daughter’s stage name had been changed to Black.

She now moved to London, chaperoned by her boyfriend (and later husband), Bobby Willis. Always nervous about public knowledge of his charges' personal relationships, Epstein decreed that Willis should be known as Black's road manager. Following Epstein's death in 1967, Willis became her personal manager.

Her recording manager was to be George Martin, who had already produced hits by the Beatles and other Epstein clients. The first single was Lennon and McCartney's Love of the Loved, which was only a minor hit.

There followed a whirl of recording sessions, tours, Christmas shows and television appearances. In 1964 she had successive No 1 hits with Anyone Who Had a Heart and You're My World, followed by the top 10 singles It's for You and You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling. Epstein had heard Anyone Who Had a Heart (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) in New York and recommended it to Martin, who later admitted: "I wanted it for Shirley Bassey, but Brian insisted that Cilla could do it."

Black's singing sometimes caused controversy. Partisans of the original version of Anyone Who Had a Heart (by Dionne Warwick) proclaimed Black's rendition to be inferior, and Andrew Loog Oldham, then manager of the Rolling Stones, took out advertisements in the music press in favour of the Righteous Brothers' recording of You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling, which eventually outsold Black's version. Final tour In late 1965 Black made what was to be her final concert tour, but the hits kept coming. In 1966, Love's Just a Broken Heart, Alfie (composed by Bacharach for Black to promote the film of the same name, starring Michael Caine) and Don't Answer Me all reached the top 10.

In 1968, Black was given her own BBC television series, which ran for eight years. McCartney provided the signature tune, Step Inside Love. Black's frequent television appearances generated even more chart success. Step Inside Love reached No 8, and it was followed in 1969 by Surround Yourself With Sorrow (No 3) and Conversations (No 7), and two years later by her No 3 hit Something Tells Me, which was revived for a Ferrero Rocher chocolate commercial in 2006. The B-side of Conversations was Liverpool Lullaby, composed by the Merseyside folk singer Stan Kelly, which had become a mainstay of Black's live performances.

In 1977, she moved to London Weekend Television, where she made an ill-judged foray into comedy acting. It was several years before LWT found a regular vehicle for her that she and Willis found acceptable. This was Surprise, Surprise, a magazine format that combined aspects of That's Life! and Game for a Laugh. Surprise, Surprise ran from 1984 until 1997, and, after its first series, Black was offered another primetime show.

Blind Date had been piloted with a comedian, Duncan Norvelle, as the host, but the LWT hierarchy led by John Birt (with one eye on Mary Whitehouseand her National Viewers and Listeners Association) had vetoed it as too risque.

Now, Birt, a fellow Catholic Liverpudlian, was persuaded that Black would "keep it clean". His judgment was proved correct, as the show ran for 18 years, weathering occasional criticisms for alleged sexual innuendoes. Liverpool accent The remnants of Black's Liverpool accent, which George Martin had tried to eliminate from her singing, seemed to function as a guarantor to viewers of her down-to-earth decency and sincerity. Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian, observed: "In some cases, when a living figure is depicted as nice and wholesome, it is because they have good lawyers, but in ITV's Cilla the niceness dramatised was the truth."

Black was to overtake Esther Rantzen to become the highest paid female entertainer on British television. She was appointed OBE in 1997.

ITV celebrated her half-century in show business with The One and Only Cilla Black (2013), presented by her friend Paul O'Grady. In ITV's three-part TV mini-series Cilla (2014), she was memorably portrayed by Sheridan Smith.

Bobby Willis died in 1999. Black is survived by three sons, Robert, Ben, and Jack.