Having stuttered for a while, the late Cilla Black’s career as a pop star finally fizzled out in 1974 when her single Baby We Can’t Go Wrong made a brief journey into the lower end of the Top 40. She would continue to release singles throughout the rest of the 1970s (even appearing on Top Of The Pops in May 1978 to perform the song Silly Boy) but as far as the mainstream was concerned her musical career was all but dead in the water.
It meant that her past as a singer was little more than a faded memory by the time she emerged as the pre-eminent TV light entertainment star of her era in the mid-1980s. Her only public performances were the weekly singing of the “Surprise Surprise” theme (itself released unsuccessfully as a single in 1985) and the occasional musical interlude during the show. It wasn’t, so the narrative goes, until the screening of the ITV biopic “Cilla” in 2014 that the public was reminded of her roots as a pop star and contemporary of the Merseybeat groups.
Except that this almost wasn’t the case at all, for just over 20 years earlier a big budget and an intensely promoted campaign had attempted to resurrect Cilla Black’s musical career, only to end in what in all fairness has to be viewed as an utter abject failure.
The project was the brainchild of Rick Blaskey who along with producer Charlie Skarbeck ran (and indeed still does) a company called Music and Media. A genuine pioneer and believer in the synergy between the music business and other areas of entertainment, he had already landed a huge success with the World In Union project in 1991, an album of recorded music associated with the Rugby World Cup of that year, its lasting legacy is as the title song which has remained the anthem of the IRB competition ever since. Blaskey believed he was the one to restore Cilla Black to the pop charts after a break of nearly two decades.
Reaching out to her agent, a meeting was brokered in the summer of 1992 between Cilla and Bobby Willis, the pair arriving with no preconceptions and waiting to be convinced that there was indeed a market for music performed by the top-rated TV star. The pitch, however, was compelling. The producers argued that properly crafted and carefully selected songs could help the sixties star reach the same audience as the likes of Barry Manilow or Cliff Richard. They were going unashamedly for the mature, middle of the road audience, a path down which guaranteed success surely lay.
It was Cilla Black herself who noted that 1993 would mark the thirtieth anniversary of her career in show business and the release of her first ever single Love Of The Loved. The timing seemed perfect, for here was now a hook on which to hang the whole project. With the deal signed, the multi-platform nature of the project suddenly began to come together. Her employers LWT expressed an interest in staging a celebratory TV special and a book deal for “Cilla Black – My Life In Pictures” was swiftly signed as well. September 1993 was going to be Cilla Black month across the board.
The resultant collection of songs Cilla Black – Through The Years was hailed in the press as “the album of her life”. An array of stars were lined up to participate on many of the tracks. A cover of Streets Of London was graced with the presence of original composer Ralph McTell on guitar; a new song Heart And Soul was recorded with Dusty Springfield; Cliff Richard duetted on a cover of That’s What Friends Are For and after debuting the song in a surprise appearance at a concert of his at the Royal Albert Hall in March 1993, Barry Manilow himself participated on a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. This was big budget, major star power stuff. Rounding off the running order of the album were new versions of old favourites, with Cilla re-recording Anyone Who Had A Heart and You’re My World after a nearly 30-year break.
It was hoped that the star could be returned to the singles chart as well, giving the album an exposure and a radio presence right the way through until Christmas. Leading the way would be the title track in September ahead of its release, followed by the Dusty duet in October and the Barry Manilow performance slated for a possible pre-Christmas single.
Cilla Black – Through The Years was also to be the ‘album of the week’ on BBC Radio Two in the week of its release, and the network had even planned a Cilla Black day for September 27th. The campaign had been planned in precise detail it seemed. Surely this couldn’t fail.
Yet bizarrely it did. The first mistake was perhaps taking the singer out of her comfort zone and putting her in a position to have her performing frailties exposed to a large audience. Whilst it may have seemed an inspired move to book her for a Top Of The Pops appearance to promote the album’s first single, the show was still at that stage in its “everyone must perform live” period. The resulting performance on September 2nd 1993 was nothing less than a car crash.
It surely did not help that Through The Years, far from the sensational pop comeback it was planned to be was instead a turgid, under-melodied affair. Lacking anything approaching soul or emotion, Cilla Black’s live performance descended to atrocious cabaret level. Often off-key, she crooned the disaster of a song to a badly disinterested audience in a manner that was more Hilda Ogden than forgotten diva. There's a reliable urban legend that this was a result of her (in keeping with her oft-reported private demeanour) being so rude to the backstage crew on the night that they conspired to sabotage the sound mix of her live performance to deliberately humiliate her.
It hardly seems necessary to note that the single bombed, creeping into the charts at Number 54 and vanishing as swiftly as it came.
If better things were hoped for the album then these were too to be dashed. Cilla Black’s carefully crafted, lovingly compiled and intensely promoted comeback album was released on Monday, September 20th 1993 and landed on the album chart at a mere Number 62. The 90-minute LWT special screened that weekend helped a little, lifting it to Number 41 the following week but the collection never charted again. The presumption that there was a huge audience desperate to take Cilla Black to their hearts once again as a singing sensation had proved to be hopelessly wide of the mark. The promised second single with Dusty Springfield did indeed materialise the following month but Heart And Soul only limped to Number 75 and although you could have easily forgiven the label for throwing in the towel at that point, the third single was indeed released in December but failed to chart at all.
Sometimes sneered at as the cloakroom girl got lucky, Cilla Black suffers slightly in that her most famous recordings, the brace of big ballad Number One hits from 1964, were both unrepresentative of much of her later work and indeed not the most ideal showcase for her voice. She was more at home with swinging upbeat numbers such as Surround Yourself With Sorrow or my personal favourite Something Tells Me (Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight). There she could sparkle with the kind of charm and personality that would sustain her celebrity almost until her death. Nonetheless, it was clear that as a singer she had a limited shelf life, something first flagged up by her original manager Brian Epstein who was already pushing her towards a television career just before he died.
As a presenter and entertainer, she was in her element on the screen, both in her musical spectaculars of the 60s and 70s and as the mumsy and affectionate host of long-running smashes such as “Blind Date”. Her previous musical career was merely the starting point of her fame and a long-forgotten irrelevance to the vast majority of her fans.
This is arguably why Through The Years was destined to fail. In a fit of misguided nostalgia, she was persuaded to revisit the part of her past which had served her well at the time but which was no longer the core part of her personal brand. People might have bought into her as a middle-of-the-road star like Cliff or Manilow had she been emerging from obscurity. But she wasn’t. Cilla the TV star was the person they all loved. Cilla the singer people could take or leave. And when she warbled off key on Top Of The Pops – they left.