Cilla Black is one of Britain's best-loved entertainers, and an icon of the sixties. Known to one generation for a string of number-one hits like "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "You're My World," and loved by another for hosting the classic ITV show Blind Date, Cilla has come a long way from hanging coats in Liverpool's Cavern Club for five bob an hour. In Cilla: Queen of the Swinging Sixties, Douglas Thompson traces her rise to the top, her heart-warming marriage to Bobby Willis, and the profound effect his death had on her. This affectionate biography is a fitting tribute to 50 years in show business for "our Cilla."
|Publisher:||John Blake Publishing, Limited|
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Queen of the Swinging Sixties
By Douglas Thompson
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Douglas Thompson
All rights reserved.
THE SCOUSE THAT ROARED
'Fame is all I wanted since I was three years old.'
-Cilla Black, 1994
Cilla has always been businesslike. Her life roars along like a movie script, and the way she talks of her Liverpool childhood it sounds like an Ealing Studios comedy, and perhaps there's something to the spirit of that. The city was cruelly hammered by German air raids during World War Two but the blitz on Merseyside was over by the time Priscilla Maria Veronica White was born at the city's Stanley Hospital on 27 May 1943.
Scouse resilience and humour had kept the city and families like the Whites together. Depressed housing conditions had been aggravated by the bombs, with thousands of homes destroyed or damaged, utilities regularly ruptured. They say you have to be a comedian to live in Liverpool and it certainly helped then: it's the place Ken Dodd calls 'Mirthyside'. In the 1960s, the once world-renowned seaport was known for the Grand National, football, The Beatles and Cilla Black. Liverpool is a city remembered by those who have escaped it with a rosy glow. Like ex-pat Scotsmen who want to put a kilt on everything, those who have left Liverpool want to recall it as one party of laughs after another. Bleak memories of poverty in a city scarred by war, of long working hours in poor conditions, are lost in jokes and fondness for an exuberant place that has triumphed against the odds – like Cilla herself.
It was Liverpool Docks that gave birth to the blues – and lots of other music, but most importantly for Cilla Black, it was what gave the Merseybeat the edge, made it the 'happening' sound as the 1950s noisily began rocking into the 1960s.
She grew up with her older brothers George and John listening to 78s of Sinatra and Dean Martin on the ten-stack record player (younger brother Alan sang along with his brothers' musical choices) in the comparatively large front room of the family home at 380 Scotland Road. 'Scottie' Road was a colourful environment with a massive, outgoing Irish-Catholic population in a rough and tumble area of the city. It was 1954 before the Council put a bathroom in the family house, and until then, the Whites made do with an outside lavatory and a tin bath in front of the kitchen stoves – or the 'wash all over' at the nearby Council run Borough baths, with endless hot water available on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for men and Tuesdays and Thursdays for the ladies. The Council didn't work at weekends.
Cilla had been named after her mother, so she was 'Little Priscilla', a lively toddler bouncing around in rooms above a barber's shop and with a Chinese laundry next door. This precocious little girl still stood out in a neighbourhood which had a pub, and customers, on every corner shouting for attention.
Some with long memories recall she 'had more cheek than anyone' and 'could talk people into anything' and 'was a devil until she got her own way.' She admits, 'I was a horrible, horrible child.'
Her father John, a docker's docker and a man's man of few words, with his own chair in the front room and his own way of doing and dealing with things, adored her. His catch-all way of protecting his family from harm was, like so many of their friends and neighbours, an insistence that they all went to Mass every Sunday.
Cilla's father had worked in construction for eight years in London; he helped build the Dorchester Hotel, where his daughter would years later be fêted at tea and sumptuous dinners. John White, a strong, handsome man, was known as a character, a 'bit of a lad'. His wife would smile at their children and say, 'I don't know what your dad got up to in London.'
London then was like abroad, like the Moon, a long way away. But John White, nine years older than his wife, had the confidence of a man who had been places. He was a creature of habit: every Sunday morning the family went to Mass; every Sunday afternoon he and his wife locked their bedroom door. Later, when his daughter changed her surname from White to Black – the reason still a piece of Trivial pop Pursuit – he goodnaturedly accepted the teasing of his workmates, who taunted him with, 'He doesn't know whether he's coming or going, whether he's White or Black.' It was his mixture of warmth and stoicism which allowed Cilla and her brothers a good atmosphere to grow up in:
'I had a very happy childhood in Liverpool and never realised how poor we were until much later because everyone else was in the same boat. The barber's shop next door (via a connecting staircase) was really our front door. I remember my mother sitting on the stairs crying because the Council came round to the flat and said they could do the place up. That meant we weren't getting a council house and my mam always longed for her own front door.' Years later when Cilla bought her a house, her mother complained because there wasn't a bus stop outside!
'They talk about women's lib but my mother was a forerunner of that. She brought up four of us, ran a business and she always seemed to be there. At home I only ever remember laughter even on Monday mornings when Mam was doing the washing in the big sink. You couldn't call it a kitchen, it was more a passageway. She used to wash all the sheets by hand, put them through the mangle, and she'd be singing away in this incredible soprano.
'But I wanted to be a film star. Well, we didn't have any famous singers then, did we? And in our family we only saw television once in a blue moon, like the Coronation or something. I was always up for a star turn and singing provided the spotlight – I sang in the dockers' Christmas show until they banned me for winning three times in a row ...
'The Protestant school used to run a play centre after school. It was only attended by Catholics. Every day they had a talent competition with a real microphone and I'd get up and say: "My name is Priscilla Maria Veronica White and I'm going to sing When The Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie. (Dean Martin's That's Amore) I thought it was piece of pie, which made sense to me. I just wanted to sing – and I'd still do it today for nothing I got so much pleasure – and I could win prizes.'
Winning things was easier than buying them, 'I'm not used to money. And I can't bear to handle the stuff. If I push a credit card across a counter it makes it easier for me not to think about the amount I am spending. I was brought up with total thrift. Those are my roots, my standards. And no matter how rich I become, I will never get away from them. When I was a little girl I remember my mother scraping the butter off the paper until it was bone dry. Then she would fold up the paper and keep it for lining a baking tin. When I'm abroad I still haggle in the markets. I've got all my clothes, going back to the Biba days, in an extraordinarily big loft. I'm a hoarder. At school we were always taught about thrift.
'My first day at school was horrendous. I couldn't understand why my mother was dumping me off at this strange place. As the only girl at home, I was spoiled and kind of clingy, so it was all extra traumatic. One of my plaits came undone and it seemed like the end of the world. I was crying, "Please don't leave me, I don't want to go." Though I should have been used to it, because I'd gone to nursery school.
'Like my brothers, I went to St Anthony's, a Catholic school near Scottie Road. We had to give donations for the privilege of attending and buy all our own books, pencils, everything. I was there from the age of five till I left at fifteen. Sister Marie Julie, the headmistress, was a tiny old lady, like a penguin in glasses, the terror of the school. I was always fighting to be one of the boys, but they didn't want to know – I'm still more comfortable with men than women. But from the age of eleven we were taught separately and had different playgrounds. I was quite popular at school, very much a tomboy and always the practical joker.'
The nuns did not always appreciate the humour, especially Sister Marie Julie who was in charge of discipline. Cilla thought if you can't beat 'em ... 'I did think seriously at fourteen of becoming a nun. We'd been to a nuns' convention and I'd admired their serenity and calmness.
'I soon realised I was just attracted by the outfit – dressing up and having people being sort of reverent towards you. I was a natural show-off and must confess to experiencing six of the cane twice at school. It wasn't that I was a bad child, but I was always fooling around making the kids laugh when we should have been working. As Sister Marie Julie did say, "You're very foolish, Priscilla, because you know there's a gun out there, and you are the bullet!" – meaning that the others were egging me on.
'Once I played Julius Caesar and wore a dress which buttoned all down the front. As I reposed in my toga, the whole class burst out laughing, because the buttons had come undone, and there was I showing off "next week's washing". I loved that – I was always glad of any reaction.
'At thirteen I dyed my hair with a Camilla-tone sevenpenny rinse from Woolworths. My Aunt Vera had auburn hair and I wanted to look like her. You were supposed to mix it with a couple of pints of water and then rinse continually over a bowl, but though I hadn't done chemistry it didn't take me long to realise that if I mixed it to a paste and painted it on with a toothbrush I'd get a much stronger colour – I left it on for hours and hours. At school next day word went round that Priscilla Maria Veronica White had gone all of a sudden from pale-blondish-mousy hair to bright red – bright orange, really. It caused an uproar in the class.
'The teacher, Sister Marie Julie, sat me underneath the window where the sun shone in, which was the best thing she could have done to me. I was in the spotlight, you see, and thought it was terrific. Looking back, I must have been a dreadful child. My mother never made a fuss. I was always spoiled and I guess she thought, "Red hair, what the hell?" It had been fair before, a really boring old colour.'
Her take-a-chance mentality – her Gemini instincts, jumping from one pursuit to another, the edge which she has always pulled or been pulled back from – found an outlet on the playing fields,
'I loved all sports. After swimming lessons, they'd herd us out of the pool bashing a long bamboo pole and I'd take my life into my own hands – always the last one out.'
Her swimming skills made her a lifesaver. Her schoolfriend Mrs Colette McLean recalls, 'We all used to go to the swimming baths and once I had my kid sister, Jackie, with me. She was learning to swim and the pool was very crowded. She got out of her depth and Cilla heard her screaming. She jumped in and held up her head. Jackie was very frightened and Cilla was the first to react.'
Her Blind Date audience may not conjure her up as a sporting heroine but Cilla insists she was, 'I was assistant shooter in netball and we always beat the opposition and got quite big-headed, until one day we walked into another school and it was awesome. The girls there were like the Harlem Globetrotters – we never got a look-in.
'Right until the age of fifteen our class teacher taught us everything apart from music. We didn't study things like chemistry and we never had any homework. English was my best subject. My compositions were incredible because I had such a vivid imagination, but I always lost marks for grammar because I wrote how I spoke, which was totally wrong. I loved all the Enid Blyton books and I read Alice in Wonderland over and over again. The local library was a godsend. At one point I tried to teach myself Spanish but the only thing I remember is el burro for donkey.
'We had books at home but they were all propping up the chimneybreast and my dad papered over them. In a way I feel very robbed of education as a child because there were forty-eight in my class, and I know if we'd had smaller classes I'd have been up there with the best – I'd have definitely stood a chance, anyway. I was terribly happy at school, but when I went into the big world I realised how much education I'd missed.'
Her parents had raised her to believe in the Church's protection and charity; they applied its teachings to day-to-day life. For a young Cilla the Church had a more secular effect, especially on her diet, 'Religion was always a big thing. My mother would go to Mass at 7 a.m., then my father and the lads at noon. You weren't allowed to eat before Communion. The smell of eggs and bacon and finnan haddock was so tempting I'd go at 9 a.m. – then I could have breakfast.
'We were forever going to church and I still love all the hymns. But Confession was a frightening thing. When I was eleven I ate a crumbled Oxo cube on half an orange. I know it sounds weird but it was delicious. It was forbidden then to eat any meat on a Friday, and when I confessed to the priest that I'd partaken of this Oxo cube, I lied and said I'd thrown most of it away because I was terrified of what he'd do. Afterwards, I asked a friend's mother what she thought, and she said it was the worst sin I'd ever committed in my life, lying to the priest under Confession. I thought I'd be excommunicated. So I went back that same night in tears, told him the truth, and had to say the whole rosary as penance. It was very traumatic.'
Her reaction came from her strict, loving and often typical working-class background; you either went off the rails in a major way or stuck straight to them. The backbone of her beliefs – certainly her work ethic – remains from her upbringing. She was comfortable in a male-dominated family, three brothers and a father who took that role seriously. He was the law. Everyone knew it.
So was the Church. Father Tom Williams, the parish priest of St Anthony's Church said, 'The White family were just one of us. Cilla's mother came to us until she wasn't well enough to.'
The Church and family life were the foundations of Cilla's childhood, and had a great influence on her adult life. Her later charity work and fund-raising for hospitals and medical foundations were in-built. The community she grew up in worked on a value system, which began with helping the folk next door and keeping the family as close as possible, 'Every Sunday when I was a kid I used to go round to my nanny and grandad's house. He'd be sitting by the black-leaded fireplace with his pipe. My mother – had six sisters and one brother, and there were millions of us grandchildren. I'd come bounding in and he'd say, "Which one are you?" I'd say, "I'm Little Cilla, Big Cilla's girl." There was always a stockpot on the fire and home-made bread. My nanny was a saint, so placid, she was incredible. I was mad about doing people's hair and she'd always let me do hers.
'When I was growing up it was a totally different era. We really had respect for the older generation. When my brother was in the Army, if he went in the pub and saw my dad he'd walk straight out. I once went to the pictures with my mam, and her mam and dad were there. She was smoking and she said, "Oh, there's Dad," and put her cigarette out. My father was a very quiet man but I knew when he was upset. We used to say, "Dad's got a cob on." But he rarely raised his voice and I was never, ever smacked. In the middle of the week we'd always have scouse, which is basically Irish stew. When I was about fourteen I got a bit above myself. I said, "I'm not eating scouse." For the first time in my life – I was the apple of his eye – my father was annoyed with me. He told my mother, "If she doesn't eat it don't give her anything else." His word was law and that was that. It was his way of slapping me back but it was rare.
'He'd work nights at the docks, sleep during the day and get up in the evening. I got home from school about 4.40 p.m. and, as usual, I'd be singing. He'd ask my mother to get me to pipe down but he never shouted.'
Young Cilla learned a calmness from her father; she observed that you could maintain control by imposing your wishes rather than shouting and screaming. A quiet determination is always more effective than tantrums.
In those early days, Cilla was a showbusiness fanatic. She was and is the fan's fan. She thinks there is nothing greater than a star, 'I was always into music and bought my first record at thirteen – I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. I was also mad on collecting autographs. Liverpool was a very big theatre city and we'd go from one theatre to thc next and hang around the stage-door waiting for the stars. Often I'd send my book in to be signed, but I met people like Dickie Valentine and was thrilled out of my mind to meet Frankie Vaughan.
'I just wanted fame like that. That's all I wanted since I was three years old. One night my mam and dad stood me on the kitchen table and I sang The Good Ship Lollipop. For the first time in my life I got applause and I was hooked. I wanted the applause. I have done ever since.'
Excerpted from Cilla by Douglas Thompson. Copyright © 2014 Douglas Thompson. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue Bobby's Girl 1
Chapter 1 The Scouse That Roared 19
Chapter 2 Love Me Do 33
Chapter 3 Brian's Girl 53
Chapter 4 Happy Days 65
Chapter 5 Sad Times 85
Chapter 6 On The Couch 97
Chapter 7 Heartache 113
Chapter 8 Bubbly Times 127
Chapter 9 Big Bucks 145
Chapter 10 Bobby's Mother 159
Chapter 11 Blind Lucky 171
Chapter 12 Sex Games 181
Chapter 13 Multiple Ecstasies? 209
Chapter 14 Champagne and Teaks 225
Chapter 15 Sex Sells 241
Chapter 16 Women Rule Ok? 263
Postscript: Walk On 271
Selected Bibliography 290