Cilla Black – Is It Love? (1965)

Although the cover to her first US release, “Is It Love?” called Cilla Black “England’s Most Popular Solo Singer,” Cilla never cracked the top ten Billboard charts in North America. But in the UK she would be one of the most popular women in music, and an entertainment icon.

When “Is It Love?,” Cilla Black’s first full length LP to be released in North America hit store shelves in 1965, the claim that she was “England’s Most Popular Solo Singer” was prominently printed on the front cover.  A big claim, especially for a singer who had barely made a blip in America.  But, while this claim might have been questioned by record buyers at the time, her chart success in her home country of England spoke for itself.  Releasing her first single in 1963, Cilla had two number one hits, and an additional three top ten hits by the time her first LP ever landed in the US.  But research in 2010 released by BBC Radio 2 would cite that Cilla’s 1964 recording of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” which was included on “Is It Love?” was the biggest chart hit released by a female singer within the UK during the 1960’s.  With the flurry of musical action happening within England during that unique era, this proves that while America might not have been paying much attention to Cilla Black, Britian was listening!

As “the Beatles’ little sister,” Cilla Black’s friendship with John Lennon and Paul McCartney went back as far as 1960. They would go on to be champions for her, with John introducing her to Brian Epstein, and writing two of her biggest hits, “Love of the Loved” and “It’s For You.”

To the modern music hipster, Cilla Black is often lumped in with the gaggle of British songstresses that came out of England during the 1960’s, defining the sound and the style of the British Invasion from the female perspective.  A unique sisterhood which included Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Sandi Shaw and Marianne Faithful, the girls in their Canterbury fashions, mod hair styles and big voices kept their own beat against the boys in the bands who were changing the face of rock n’ roll to a world that was hungry for anything coming out of Britian.  But, despite her massive chart success in the UK, Cilla never really gained the attention of the American ears like her contemporaries did.  But there was something that she had that the other girls did not have, which made Cilla and her rise to fame within the UK uniquely special.  Cilla Black was the girl that was championed by The Beatles and was the only woman to be represented by England’s most powerful music manager, Brian Epstein. 

Cilla Black (left) chats with a friend during a rehearsal at the legendary Cavern Club where Cilla worked as a coat check girl during the lunch time performances

A big part of Cilla Black’s success came from being in the right place at a very special time in music history.  Born Pricilla White and raised in a working class community in Liverpool, from an early age Cilla found herself drawn to the musical culture that was emerging out of the area.  A poor community that was still recovering from the devastating aftershocks of WWII, families in South Liverpool were turning to music as a way to entertain themselves and each other.  Cilla began singing at an early age, and by the time she was a teenager she became drawn to Liverpool’s emerging club scene where local boys were picking up guitars and emulating their rock n’ roll idols from America.  Little did anyone know at the time that this new kind of rock n’ roll being created by poor working class kids would transform into a genre of its own, lovingly referred to as Merseybeat, and take over the world.  Liverpool became a hot spot for musical talent, and a plethora of clubs opened up that gave the local boys a chance to take the stage and find an audience.  As the local youth flooded to these clubs, Cilla naturally joined them and worked her way into the scene.

It was on an evening in 1960 that a girlfriend of Cilla’s named Pauline Behan showed up at the White home and asked her to come to a popular night spot called The Iron Door to see her new boyfriend’s band play.  Her boyfriend was George Harrison, and he was the junior member of a band calling themselves The Beatles.  Of course the Beatles that Cilla saw that night at the Iron Door was a much different group than the one that would become legends a few years later.  Dressed in leather and with their short hair greased back, the band was fronted by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and featured George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best.  Soon after meeting this early version of The Beatles, the boys were off to Hamburg for a year, while Cilla continued to be a regular face on the Merseybeat scene.

Cilla Black serving coffee at The Zodiac Club, where she performed as “Swinging Priscilla” with The Big Three.

In order to make ends meet, Cilla worked hard to help support her family which had her taking multiple jobs.  During the day she worked as a typist in an office, and at night she served coffee at another popular Liverpool hot spot called The Zodiac Club.  But during her lunch hour, Cilla got a gig as a coat check girl at one of rock n’ roll’s most holiest of shrines – the Cavern Club.  Making five shillings over her lunch hour, she became a part of one of the hottest rock n’ roll scenes.  With lines around the block full of working class women clamoring to get in and watch their favorite bands do lunch time shows, Cilla would hang the coats and hats while getting to know the bands on a personal level.  Cilla was hob knobbing with Cavern regulars like Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Dakotas, The Searchers, The Swinging Blue Jeans and, upon their triumph return from Germany, was reacquainted with The Beatles which now featured a boy from her own neighborhood, Ringo Starr.

Cilla Black and The Big Three at the Zodiac Club with childhood pal Ringo Starr.

Meanwhile, Cilla began to get noticed for her own talent.  Influenced by contemporaries like Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt and Shirley Bassey, Cilla could be heard singing along with the groups as well to herself during downtimes at the clubs.  Legend has it that one night a singer from an unnamed band saw her singing along from the stage and, as a lark, walked down and handed her the microphone (some retellings claim that it was John Lennon who had done this, but that seems to be unlikely).  Expecting her to shy away, he didn’t know the dynamo that was Cilla Black.   Ever fearless and always loving an audience, Cilla grabbed the mic and finished the song.  During rehearsals at the Cavern bands would invite Cilla up to do a number with them, and slowly she became a favorite in what was essentially a boy’s club.  Already attached as the steady girlfriend of aspiring song writer Bobby Willis, Cilla quickly established herself as something more than just part of the Cavern’s female fanbase.  She became one of the boys and had musical chops of her own.  Soon she was asked by a popular local group called The Big Three to become their girl vocalist and took the stage name “Swinging Pricilla.”

Cilla Black doing the twist with Gerry Marsden (of Gerry and the Pacemakers) at the Cavern Club.

It was an exciting musical scene to be a part of, and it would all explode in 1963 when The Beatles released their first album, “With the Beatles.”  A mammoth success, all eyes were suddenly on Liverpool and many of the local groups were getting signed by record companies and having national hits.  At the center of this flurry of success was local record store owner and talent manager Brian Epstein, who was representing The Beatles, The Pacemakers and The Dakotas, amongst a number of other Cavern Club groups looking for a spot on the charts.  A brilliant marketer with an ear for what was hip and an eye for aesthetics, Brian Epstein became one of the main architects of The British Invasion.

Despite a disappointing first meeting with Brian Epstein, he eventually signed her to his stable of talent in 1963 after seeing her at the Zodiac Club. Cilla Black would be the only solo performer, and the only woman, Epstein ever represented.

The story of how Cilla Black came to Brian Epstein’s attention has now become something of legend, but it wasn’t as easy as many retellings have made it sound.  Epstein exclusively worked with bands, and only represented male performers.  However, it has been suggested in an interview that Cilla gave on UK television in the 1990’s that Epstein had mentioned to John Lennon what he thought about adding a girl singer to his growing stable of acts and John suggested he listen to Cilla.  However, legend tells it that it was John’s beloved Aunt Mimi who had told him to introduce Cilla to Epstein.  There is room in the narrative for both of these versions to be true, but what is known is that Cilla found her way in front of Brian Epstein and, being accompanied by John Lennon on piano, performed “Summertime.”  Well, Epstein hated it.  According to Cilla, the arrangement she had sung was in The Beatles vocal range, and she was nervous and unprepared, and Epstein sent her on her way.

However, nine months later Epstein found his way to The Zodiac Club after hearing buzz about The Big Three with plans on signing them.  When the group called up the girl behind the counter pouring coffee to do “Bye Bye Blackbird,” Epstein recognized her from her failed audition with him and was surprised when she tore down the house.  He reached out and had another conversation with her, and signed her as a solo contract (incidentally, Epstein also signed The Big Three as a separate entity).  Cilla would be the only women and only solo performer he’d ever represent.

Brian Epstein’s biggest top acts of 1964 included Gerry and the Pacemakers (right), Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (left), The Beatles (top) and Cilla Black (center).

Still known as Swinging Pricilla, Cilla began performing all the hot clubs throughout Liverpool and surrounding area under Epstein’s management.  However, fate would change her name when aspiring journalist Bill Harry was preparing what’d be the first issue of his influential music publication “Mersey Beat Magazine.”  A former classmate of John Lennon’s, Harry had caught Cilla’s act, but he couldn’t remember what her real name was.  He knew it was a colour, but he couldn’t remember if it was Cilla White, or Cilla Black.  He decided to go with Black and misnamed her in the issue.  Cilla was obviously upset, but Epstein felt it sounded better and encouraged her to keep it.  Always trusting Epstein’s judgement, Swinging Pricilla White became forever known as Cilla Black.

Paul McCartney suggested that Cilla Black record a yet to be recorded Beatles song from their live set, “Love of the Loved” as her first single. It would be the first time that a singer recorded a yet to be recorded Lennon and McCartney single before the Beatles.

For her first single Epstein was sending Cilla to London to work with George Martin.  It was while trying to decide on what the single would be, Paul McCartney made a suggestion.  In the Beatles onstage repertoire, they had a song that Paul had written called “Love of the Loved” which they had not yet recorded.  Paul had heard Cilla sing the song during those impromptu rehearsal sessions and he thought she did a bang up job of it and suggested she take it on as her first single.  Epstein agreed, and it now became Cilla’s song.  This would be the first time that a performer recorded a song written by Lennon and McCartney that they had not recorded first.  It was released in 1963 and became a modest hit, only climbing to #35 on the UK charts. 

A tense meeting between Cilla Black and Dionne Warwick at the London Palladium in 1964. Dionne Warwick would continuously call Cilla her “nemesis” over her success with “Anyone Who Had a Heart” in the UK and for Burt Bacharach bringing “Alfie” to Cilla over her.

But it’d be Cilla’s next hit which would take her to the top of the charts.  Epstein and Martin were still looking for that song that would make Cilla a star when one of Martin’s employees brought a copy of Dionne Warwick’s new single “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and suggested it as something maybe Shirley Bassey might want to record.  Martin saw something in it, but with his focus on Cilla Black, he gave it to her instead.  Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the song was rising in the charts in the US for Warwick but had yet to have its UK release when Cilla’s version hit the record shops on February 9, 1964, and immediately made its debut on the UK Billboard charts at #28.  A week later Dionne Warwick’s version landed on the UK charts, but only got to #42 while Cilla’s version went to #10.  Two weeks later Cilla’s version was the #1 song in the UK, and Warwick’s had dropped off the charts completely.  While Cilla’s version never charted on the US Billboard charts at all, as stated earlier, in the UK it broke records as the biggest UK charted single by a British female singer during the 1960’s.  Still today listeners seem to know “Anyone Who Had a Heart” by where they are from.  To American record buyers its Dionne Warwick’s song, but in Europe it’s forever Cilla Black’s. 

Cilla Black, Burt Bacharach and George Martin at Abbey Road Studios in 1965 during their legendary recording session for “Alfie.” A massive hit in the UK, but barely cracking the top 100 in the US, “Alfie.”

The success of Cilla’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” would be the subject of great contention for Dionne Warwick who has publicly stated on multiple occasions that Cilla “stole” it from her and continues to refer to Cilla as her “nemesis.”  The rivalry would grow even hotter a year later when Burt Bacharach completely bypassed Warwick and gave Cilla “Alfie.”  Some sources say “Alfie” was written by Bacharach and David for Warwick, but when they found out that the producers of the film in which it’d be the theme for wanted to go with a British singer, he immediately brought it to Cilla.  Ironically, Cilla originally hated the song, and in a power move said she’d only record it if Burt Bacharach came to London to personally lead the orchestra and play piano on it under the direction of George Martin.  To everyone’s surprise, Bacharach complied, which turned into a legendary recording session which was caught on film.  The song would hit the #9 spot in the UK, but barely crack the top 100 in the US where Warwick’s cover version would have far more success in 1967. 

Cilla Black’s first US release “Is it Love?” was a repackaging of her first British LP, “Cilla” but with some strange omissions including the songs written for her by Lennon and McCartney and hit “You’re In My World,” which was the only song ever to make any mark on the US Billboard charts.

Cilla Black’s success with “Anyone Who Had a Heart” would have been the natural track to have topped her first US full LP when it was released in 1965, but instead Capitol Records went with “Is It Love?” instead.  Written by Babby Willis, who Cilla was still involved with, the song was featured in the film “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” starring Gerry and the Pacemakers which was getting its US release around the time the album was issued. “Is it Love?” was a repackaging of Cilla’s first UK release “Cilla,” containing a number of the same tracks and swapping out a few for new ones. 

However, what was mysteriously missing from the release was her second number one hit, “You Are My World,” which topped the charts not long after “Anyone Who Had a Heart.”  Strange, because “Your My World” was the only one of Cilla’s tracks to have any success in Amerca, although it only went as high as #26 on the US Billboard Charts.  Also curiously missing were “Love of the Loved,” as well as “It’s for You” which was another song written by and given to her by Lennon and McCartney.  Perhaps if the inclusion of these three massive UK hits, especially those written by Lennon and McCartney, had been included on the album it might have gotten far more attention.  However, what the album did include was Cilla’s bold cover of the Phil Spector classic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” which rose to the #2 position on the UK charts but did nothing in America.  Although she was hot in Europe, “Is it Love?” flopped in America.

Cilla Black celebrates her 21st birthday with Patti Boyd, George Harrison and Brian Epstein. Within three months Brian Epstein would be dead.

By 1967 cracks began to show in the relationship with Brian Epstein and Cilla Black.  While she was still being managed by him, she felt that he was far more focused on his “boys” and misrepresenting her.  At this point the Beatles were about to release “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Band,” Brian was managing his first US based group, The Cyrkle, and he had just signed a new group to his ever growing stable of performers, The Moody Blues.  But despite the success of “Alfie” a year earlier, Cilla felt that Brian had lost interest in her.  Perhaps it was due to Cilla’s lack of success in North America, where Brian seemed to concentrate a lot of his focus, which made his mind wander from her.  Never one to hold back what was on her mind, Cilla apparently expressed to Epstein her dissatisfaction on how he had been promoting her after her next few hits had floundered, in response he began to lay down the ground works in a final deal that’d change the trajectory of Cilla’s career and establish her as a British entertainment icon.

On August 27 1967 Brian Epstein was found dead in his home from a drug overdose. The primary architect of the British Invasion, he was only 32. Amongst his papers Brian left one more deal for Cilla Black that would change the trajectory of her career forever.

On August 27, 1967, Brian Epstein was found dead in his home from an apparent drug overdose.  He was only 32 years old.  It was said that in a stack of papers found on a table nearby his bed where he had died was a deal that he had just arranged with the BBC to feature Cilla Black in her very own television series.  At 21 years old, Cilla would be the youngest person ever to be given their own television show in England.  With the death of Epstein, longtime boyfriend Bobby Willis stepped in as her new representative (the pair would get married in 1969 and stay together until Bobby’s death in 1999) and finished the deal.  The first episode of “Cilla” aired in January 1968, beginning a decades long career as a television presenter. 

In 2010 data collected by BBC 2 revealed that Cilla Black’s version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was the most successful charting pop song released by a female vocalist during the 1960’s in the UK, solidifying the claim that she was “England’s Most Popular Solo Singer.”

Although she’d continue to sing throughout her career, including those questionable Cillagrams from “Surprise Surprise” which have now become Tik Tok sensations for a modern audience who barely know who she is, eventually Cilla Black’s TV career would eclipse her music one.  However, it’s possible that by moving Cilla from the recording studio to the television one was the last gift that Epstein gave Cilla Black.  Understanding the rise and fall of women in the music industry, Brian Epstein moved Cilla from a medium that was only as steady as the musical trends of the moment, to a medium that she could dominate.  In the end, he set her on a path that would make her a British television legend.

Today Cilla Black has become a popular internet meme on Tik Tok for her daft videos from the 1980’s, and the Tik Tok generation seem to know her as a seemingly out of touch middle aged woman performing misfortunate covers of popular 80’s bits.  But the piece of the puzzle they are missing is that once upon a time Cilla Black was part of an exciting and historical era of rock n’ roll music, a cultural revolution which took over the world, the Beatles little sister and, just possibly, “England’s most popular solo singer.”

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