From the tough part of Liverpool, she shouldn’t have had recording success at the age of 20, top-billing in the West End, and TV dominance. In 1964 ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, went straight to number one, selling 100,000 copies a day and making her the biggest-selling female singer of the 1960s. Fifty years on from being signed by Brian Epstein, the entrepreneurial genius who sold The Beatles and the Mersey sound to the world, shouldn’t Cilla be putting her feet up? She laughs. “I’ve been working on a sitcom pilot with Paul O’Grady. I want to retire, but nobody will let me.”
Cilla was not the most beautiful, nor the most talented, of the working-class stars who shaped the 1960s, yet she’s one of the most loved. Even her name, Black, is actually White.
How does she explain her success? “I’m aware I’ve had a charmed life. I’ve had a great guardian angel looking after me all my life,” she says.
Epstein said of Cilla, when she was the only female in his stable of talented Scousers: “She is what she is — an untutored girl from a happy, working-class family in a lowly part of Liverpool. She’s not easily intimidated by anyone or anything.” As a teenager, Cilla worked lunchtimes — away from her clerk-typist office job — as a coat check-in girl at the popular Cavern club, in Liverpool. There, she watched her friends, The Beatles, perform, and hung out with other bands, including The Big Three and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Occasionally, she would sing: “I had a one-track mind. All I wanted to do was sing and be famous. I used to love working at the Cavern, they even gave me soup and a roll for lunch and, as I remember, it all tasted of disinfectant.” John Lennon told Epstein to audition Cilla. She sang off-key, but, later, Epstein watched her singing when she wasn’t aware he was there. He was so impressed he signed her up.
When ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ hit number one, Cilla heard the news from her manager via a public telephone box: no one in her family had a phone.
“I was in demand everywhere: all the new programmes, like Juke Box Jury and Ready Steady Go, presented by Cathy McGowan. We became great friends: she was down-to-earth and Catholic, like me.” Within eight months, Cilla had done 400 live performances. Within two years, she had eight singles in the top ten.
We are sitting in her comfortable London flat, with views over Westminster.
Priscilla White grew up above a barber’s shop, on Scotland Road, with her two brothers, Welsh mother and Irish father. “After a few jars on a Saturday night, people would come back to our flat to do a turn. We all loved music. My brother, George, loved Frank Sinatra and Jim Reeves, and John loved jazz — he played the clarinet and saxophone. Even when I was very small, someone would spot me and put me on the kitchen table and I invariably got a round of applause for singing.”
Cilla married Bobby Willis, whom she met when they were 17. They were devoted to each other, until his death from lung cancer 40 years later. Though she was managed briefly by Brian Epstein, it was Bobby who shaped her career.
Cilla’s direct about the relationship with Bobby: “Romance did take a backseat to working. Bobby and I were always splitting up and getting back together again, before we got married. Once we were married, everything changed. It was commitment time. I didn’t meet anyone I wanted to be with more than Bobby, and when I married him I realised I could have it all.
“Showbusiness is the only business where a woman can. I was topping the bill, with men beneath me and they were all great: they never made me feel I wasn’t worthy of it.”
In 1970 her son, Robert, was born a year after her marriage. Robert has taken over from his father as Cilla’s manager. Ben and Jack completed the family.
Cilla’s daughter, Ellen, was born prematurely and only lived for a few hours: “The grief was dreadful, I couldn’t talk to anyone, at the time. I locked myself away, then went back to work just two weeks later. In the weeks and months that followed, things were incredibly dark.”
By the age of 40, Cilla had been on a merry-go-round of constant TV shows, specials, sitcoms and concert tours, but wasn’t sure where she was going.
Then, the television phenomenon, Surprise Surprise, landed in her lap. She hosted it for 14 series. By 1985, she was also hosting Blind Date, which continued for 18 years. No other woman has achieved such longevity in light entertainment and, in 1997, she accepted her “gong”, an OBE.
When Bobby died, aged just 57, it was another three years before Cilla decided that after years of continual working, the show no longer had to go on. She resigned, spectacularly, from Blind Date. on her show. Approaching 60, she thought: “I want to stop this. It’s my time now.”
“I love going to the theatre, meeting friends and, after a lifetime of having everything arranged for me and having Bobby at my side, I now love travelling by myself.”
And what a life they had together. Back to Black, Cilla’s photographic memoir, is a who’s who of her showbusiness friends, from the 1960s to today: from the Rolling Stones to Lily Savage.
“Yes, it’s a wonderful life,” she says, topping up our glasses. “The only problem I have is turning 70. There’s no escaping the fact I’m on the home straight now.”
And romance, since Bobby died? “I’ve had a few admirers since Bobby has gone, but nothing serious. The businessman, John Madejski, is a true friend and helped me through a lot in the early stages, because I was still grieving and very needy.”
“I didn’t even think about my 50th year in showbusiness until somebody told me it was five decades since I’d been signed by Brian Epstein,” she says. “At least, I can go to my grave being proud of what I’ve done.’’
* Back to Black: Cilla The Authorised Photographic Memoir, is published by Evans Mitchell Books
* ’The One and Only Cilla Black’ is on ITV at 9pm on Wednesday