Priscilla Maria Veronica White, to gain fame under her stage name Cilla Black, was born in Liverpool on 27th May 1943. She was the only daughter of John Patrick White [1904-1971], a dock worker, and his wife Priscilla, née Blythen [1911-1996], who ran a second hand clothes business in St Martin’s Market. The family lived in a flat over a barber’s shop at 380 Scotland Road L5. Her mother’s ambition was to own a home with its own front door, as they could only access their flat via the barber shop.
She attended St Anthonys RC primary school in Newsham Street off Scotland Road and then commercial college to learn secretarial skills. After college she got a job as a clerk with British Insulated Calendar Cables at their office in Stanley Street. One advantage was that she was close enough to the Cavern to spend her lunch-times as a general dogsbody cleaning, cloakroom attendant, etc. Determined from an early age to be a singer she got to know many of the groups in the city, singing with King Size Taylor and dating the 6 feet 5 inches 22 stone butcher’s boy. She did spots with The Big Three and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and eventually the Beatles. Her opportunity with them came when a rowdy audience of girls clamoured for them to let her sing resulting in a laconic John Lennon saying “all right then Cyril, just to shut your mates up”. Through her friendship with the Beatles she was introduced to Brian Epstein who signed her as his only female act.
Around this time she adopted the stage name Cilla Black and there are various accounts of how it came about. Perhaps the most plausible is that a local paper got her name wrong and it was transcribed into the contract Epstein was setting up.
Her first single, Love of the Loved, was written by Lennon & McCartney but despite a promotional appearance on top TV pop show Thank Your Lucky Stars it performed poorly, only reaching number 35. For her second disc Epstein chose Bacharach and David’s Anyone Who Had A Heart, which they had written for top American singer Dionne Warwick. Cilla outsold Warwick’s version and achieved her first number one hit. Her third release, You’re My World, also shot to number one and in a matter of months she had transformed from clerk and part-time cloakroom attendant to fame and fortune.
She released singles regularly throughout the sixties, enjoying another eight top ten hits and having her own shows on television. Inevitably, as the seventies and eighties went by tastes changed and she was largely away from the limelight. However, in a brilliantly engineered reinvention she achieved a remarkable comeback with the two shows Blind Date [1985-2003] and Surprise, Surprise [1984-2001]. These not only made her the highest earning performer on British TV but elevated her to ‘national treasure’ status.
Cilla met her husband, Bobby Willis, when they were both teenagers. He was a reasonable performer and songwriter himself and penned a number of her ‘B’ sides but after Brian Epstein’s death in 1967 he became her manager and thereafter was content to labour behind the scenes. They married in the presence of just a few people via a civil ceremony at Marylebone Town Hall on 25th January 1969 but under pressure from both sets of parents agreed to have a church ceremony which took place on 6th March at St Mary’s parish church in Woolton. They had three sons, Robert, ben and Jack and a daughter Ellen who sadly died a few days after birth in 1975. Their marriage lasted until Booby’s death in 1999. Cilla Black died on 1st August 2015 at her home in Estepona, Spain. Her funeral service was at St Mary’s, Woolton, where she had taken her wedding vows, and she was buried in Allerton Cemetery.
The White's flat above the barber shop and next door to the Chinese laundry (now demolished).
Cilla and Bobby's wedding blessing at St Mary's Woolton 1969
iThere is a veritable mountain of biographical detail, videos and music clips to be found on the internet. The entry on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a good all-round assessment of her life and career and the Wikipedia entry is quite detailed. She wrote an autobiography What's It All About [Ebury Press 2003] and I have consulted one biography Cilla 1943-2015 by Douglas Thompson [Metro 2003]. Obituaries appeared in The Guardian, the Liverpool Echo, The Scotsman and numerous others. She appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1988 and the epsiode can be played on BBC Sounds.
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