Cilla Black: Cilla/In My Life/Sher-oo!/Modern Priscilla (SFE)

Cilla Black was a teenager who was discovered in Liverpool in the early 1960s, a tiny young woman who could belt the blues and R&B with the best of them. She was offered a record deal thanks to the success of The Beatles and her manager Brian Epstein. A reissue series is returning her albums to print, and although the last series of reissues in Strike Force Entertainment’s reissue campaign may not have offered up her best material, the newest series most certainly does, with two new reissues offering up two fine collections from her Sixties era, as well as two albums from the Seventies that came at the end of her tenure at EMI.

Black’s debut album Cilla arrived in 1965, coming on the heels of a handful of well-performing and beloved singles that established her as a promising young talent with a hell of a powerful voice. Much like her friends The Beatles, this debut album features her take on a number of popular contemporary songs from the United States, with Motown and Burt Bacharach being a particular focus. With George Martin producing, it isn’t surprising that the Mersey R&B beat is in full force here; though her covers are relatively straightforward, she delivers a blistering take of “Dancing In The Streets,” a swingy reinterpretation of “Ol’ Man River” and “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,”  while gorgeously lush versions of “Baby It’s You,” “Goin’ Out Of My Head,” and “Love Letters” show off her range. The bonus tracks offer the mono edition of the album, non-album singles released around the album’s release, and a handful of outtakes, most notable of which is a killer version of “A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues,” which highlights just how fantastic a belter she was.

Cilla’s third album, Sher-oo!, appeared in 1968, and was recorded in the aftermath of the death of her manager and friend Brian Epstein. While the album doesn’t specifically address his passing, it’s not hard to feel a sense of loss in the more melancholic moments, and her recording of Tim Hardin’s “Misty Roses” was done in part as the song was a favorite of Brian’s.  For the most part, the album moves away from the R&B of its predecessors, finding Cilla indulging in a more jazzy style. Sher-oo! features one of her signature tunes, the Paul McCartney-penned “Step Inside Love,” a number that blends both a Bacharach-style ballad with a bossa nova melody, and one that served as the theme song to her variety show, Cilla. It’s a lovely track, and this deluxe edition includes the original demo she recorded with McCartney, an early take with her singing over McCartney’s backing track, an Italian version, a mono version, and a less essential 2009 remix. The rest of the album is just as lovely, with her takes on “What The World Needs Now,” “Something’s Got A Hold Of My Heart,” and Joe South’s “Yo-Yo” being superb highlights.

1974’s In My Life was Black’s first time working with a producer other than George Martin, and David Mackay wanted to contemporize her sound, citing a desire to explore the sounds heard on the breezy “Step Inside Love.” He certainly did a good job in terms of selecting her material, as In My Life is indeed an easy-on-the-ears album that certainly sounds like the early 1970s. That’s thanks in part to the choice of material; her versions of contemporary hits such as Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In a Song,” Bread’s “Everything I Own,” David Cassidy’s “Daydreamer” and The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” are all superior takes. “Baby We Can’t Go Wrong,” which was the updated theme song to her show Cilla, is also a lovely little treat. Black could never go wrong with a Lennon/McCartney song, and her take on “In My Life” feels like a love letter to her former producer. But the hidden gem of this reissue is an obscure, non-album single, 1974’s “He Was A Writer.” The A-side is a moving narrative of a meek woman working in a bookstore who falls in love with a young, hungry writer, while the flip-side, “Anything You Might Say,” is a country-rocker with a tropical vibe that recalls Jimmy Buffett.

1978’s Modern Priscilla was another stylistic makeover, this time with producer Mike Hurst, who added a distinctive disco flavor to her work, while actively selecting material that didn’t involve well-known covers. Thus, the resulting album is very much a low-key affair; his disco turn isn’t quite as dramatic as the genre might lead you to believe; think Hues Corporation with a little bit of the lighter moments of ABBA and Melissa Manchester and that’s what you’ve got. While the album is lovely, it works more as a mood piece, a record you put on in the background to make the room mellow, but ultimately doesn’t leave a great impression. Unfortunately, two songs stand out, for the wrong reason. “Me And The Elephant” is a heartbreaking song with some well-meaning but cringe-worthy lyrics. The cringe is nothing compared to “Sugar Daddy,” a song that is decidedly delights in the joys of having one. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then that the album marked the end of her professional relationship with EMI; it’s an okay record, and as a genre experiment it’s not bad, but it doesn’t necessarily serve her legacy very well.

The ending of her contract with EMI was virtually the end of her regular recording career, as she had transformed into a beloved television personality. She would make a few more records, but would pass away in 2015 after a sudden stroke in her Spanish villa. Cilla Black released some fantastic music in her fifty years of music making, and the material found here offers some of her finest. Even the lesser moments found on Modern Priscilla aren’t without their charm, and these records are certainly a nice reminder of just how versatile of a singer she was.

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