Ever since our Sunday night song selections started a zillion years ago, I've had emails every few weeks from somewhat tetchy boomers to the effect that "Yeah yeah, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, orchestras, black-&-white... C'mon, Steyn, when are you going to do a Beatles song?"
So we did "Till There Was You". And immediately all the tetchy boomers wrote: "C'mon, Steyn, you know that's not what I meant. When are you going to pick a song the Beatles wrote?"
So we did "Something". And the boomers said: "Oh, c'mon, this is ridiculous. George Harrison? When are you going to pick a song by Lennon & McCartney? Everyone knows they're the greatest songwriting team of all time. Way better than Rodgers & Hammerstein..."
So last year we had Tal Bachman do his lovely version of "My Love": you can see him sing it on our Ottawa stage show, and hear him sing it on our live-music special. (Tal's performance means a lot to me: it was a bright spot at what was the beginning of a very dark year in my life, which I'm pleased to say comes to an end in a New York courthouse next month - scroll down here.)
And yes, before the rock'n'roll types write again, I know that's a Paul McCartney song, from his post-Beatles solo career. Which make this week's Song of the Week a landmark, a breakthrough, an historic premiere: After a decade of complaints, we're proud to present our first ever Lennon & McCartney song.
Of course, there aren't really any "Lennon & McCartney" songs: There are Lennon songs and McCartney songs and a small number of songs that are 90 per cent Lennon but McCartney chipped in with a suggestion for the tag, or vice-versa. But they took a decision at the dawn of the Beatles that all their songs would be credited to "Lennon & McCartney" and they'd split the proceeds fifty-fifty. And exactly half-a-century ago - March 1968 - my favorite Lennon & McCartney song entered the UK Top 40:
Step Inside, Love
Let me find you a place
Where the cares of the day
Will be carried away
By the smile on your face...
At which point the Yank boomers are going: "What the hell is that, Steyn?" And the Brit boomers are yelling: "That's Cilla, not the Beatles."
And that's true: Cilla Black, produced by the same producer as the Beatles and on the same record label, and written by Paul McCartney. But I don't want to be tricksy about this this for another decade, so I might as well 'fess up: the Beatles tracks I like are mostly the ones you'd expect, mostly by Paul ("Michelle") but not exclusively ("Girl"). But everyone and his walrus has said everything there is to be said about "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yellow Submarine" and "Paperback Writer" and I don't honestly feel I've got anything to add, not when every aspect of their creation and recording has been remorselessly minuted by guys who've devoted their lives to that project.
Yet I have always loved this McCartney song written for Cilla, and it touches me more as the years go by. If I recall correctly, Cilla's only US hit was "You're My World", an Italian tune that Carl Sigman (of "Marshmallow World" fame) anglicized very effectively and which you can hear on my Sigman centenary celebration. (Elvis liked it enough to keep a copy on his jukebox at Graceland.) But in Britain she fell into that potentially perilous territory of "national treasure" - see Rolf Harris - and, unlike Rolf, managed to hold that title until the very end. So, for American readers who don't know the song, here it is. And, if you're one of the 22 million UK viewers and millions more around the Commonwealth who watched this show at its peak, you'll know every word of this McCartney song (even if Cilla doesn't quite):
Like John, Paul, George and Ringo, she was a Liverpudlian, and, like the Beatles, she came out of the famous Cavern Club. They played there and she was the hatcheck girl. I don't think they say "hatcheck girl" in Britain; it's "cloakroom attendant" or some such. She wasn't planning on making a career in the cloakroom-attending business; she was doing it in hopes someone at the club might give her a chance to sing. For the same reason, she was also waitressing at the Zodiac coffee bar, where she met her future husband, Bobby Willis. She was a coltish, toothy redhead with terrific legs (I saw her in panto, and she was one of the all-time great principal boys) and a personality that was (to use a Cilla-ism) a lorra lorra laffs. The lads liked her, and John Lennon told their manager, Brian Epstein, he should give her a listen.
What followed was a legendarily disastrous audition. The Fab Four volunteered to be her backing group, and she picked a favorite song, "Summertime" by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward (for more on which, see my book A Song for the Season). It doesn't get much better than having the Beatles as your audition band, right? Wrong. As Cilla recalled:
I'd chosen to do 'Summertime', but at the very last moment I wished I hadn't. I adored this song, and had sung it when I came to Birkenhead with the Big Three, but I hadn't rehearsed it with the Beatles...
At the very moment she walked to the microphone, it occurred to her that there are a lot of keys out there and maybe John, Paul, George and Ringo had a different one from the one she sang it in:
With one last wicked wink at me, John set the group off playing. I'd been right to worry. The music was not in my key and any adjustments that the boys were trying to make were now too late to save me. My voice sounded awful. Destroyed â€“ and wanting to die â€“ I struggled on to the end.
Hold that thought about keys, because it's relevant to this song, too.
Epstein felt bad about what had happened. So he went to see her at a local jazz club. She had been born Priscilla White, but everyone abbreviated it, and on stage they called her Swinging Cilla. The new music paper Mersey Beat gave her a favorable mention, but the editor Bill Harry, as is often the way with journalists, was unreliable of memory. So he credited Cilla White as "Cilla Black". Close enough for media work. Miss White liked the way that sounded, and ever after she was Cilla Black. Epstein moved her to London, negotiated a deal with Parlophone Records and George Martin, and John and Paul rattled off a couple of songs for her. Over the years all four Beatles wrote for her, including Ringo Starr with "Photograph", which he decided on reflection to keep for himself.
But the Lennon & McCartney stuff didn't do much for Cilla, and it took Bacharach & David's "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and the above-mentioned "You're My World" to give her a pair of back-to-back Number Ones in 1964. The former is what the rock generation call a "cover" - the Brit hit of Dionne Warwick's Billboard smash - but Cilla could cover better than most: Her "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" gave the Righteous Brothers a run for their money, and got to Number Two in Britain.
Cilla missed Liverpool and was lonely in London. So the Beatles took her to parties of showbiz pals, like Alma Cogan, "the Girl with the Giggle in Her Voice". Her sister Sandra told me years back that Alma and John Lennon had been having an affair round about that period, which I wasn't sure I believed then, but which has come to sound more plausible with the passage of time. After one party, Ringo dropped Cilla back at her flat at four in the morning, and a couple of hours later, with a stinker of a hangover, she went off to do some BBC variety show with a phalanx of chorus boys and a complex dance routine to "Forty Cups of Coffee", a minor novelty hit for Ella Mae Morse and then Bill Haley. And, through the haze of Alma Cogan's hospitality, Cilla realized, "I can do this!"
What the Beeb liked about her wasn't the singing and dancing but her ability to connect with people. Bill Cotton, son of the bandleader Billy ("Wakey-wakey!") Cotton and Head of Light Entertainment in the BBC's golden age, had no use for her musical talents, but understood she had something rarer:
I had spent a long time telling other performers that it was never about singing a song, it was about talking to your audience, For example, Cilla Black. She cannot sing. However, she could talk to the audience and in that type of show that is the most important thing.
Er, thanks. So in 1967 Cotton offered her a show. And her pals were thrilled for her. And then Paul asked the question every songwriter asks when a chum gets offered her own variety show: "What are you going to use for a theme song?" "I dunno," said Cilla. So Paul offered to write her one. Somewhere along the way Miss Black or her producer Michael Hurll had indicated to Macca that there would be a door on the stage and it would open and there'd be Cilla. As is the way of these high-concept things, the door never happened. Maybe Bill Cotton nixed it for budgetary reasons. But by then Paul McCartney had run with the idea, and written what he called "a welcoming song" to usher you through the portal:
Step Inside, Love
Let me find you a place
Where the cares of the day
Will be carried away
By the smile on your face
We are together now and forever, come my way
Step Inside, Love and stay..
Step Inside, Love!
Step Inside, Love!
Step Inside, Love!
I want you to stay...
To be honest that comma - "inside, love" - is mine. On the sheet music it's "Step Inside Love", as if one is being invited to step inside a world of love, a cosmos of romance, a black hole of amour. But one of the things I like about the song is that the comma makes it so English: "Step inside, love." An American song would say "Step inside, baby" or "Step inside, darling" or "Step inside, honey" ("Hi, honey, I'm home!"). But "love" - "loov" - is a very English greeting, and not even particularly of a romantic nature. It's redolent of gnarled old Cockney matriarchs at Tube newsstands with fingerless gloves handing you thruppence-ha'penny in change for your Evening Standard and pack of Player's Navy Cut: "'Ere yuh go, luv."
I couldn't claim to have known Cilla, but I ran into her on a few occasions over the years, the first time with Christopher Biggins, her close friend and sometime co-host on telly. I'd been gleefully mocking in the Standard about some less boffo venture of Biggins, and for a while thereafter he greeted me with extravagant chumminess in restaurants and at first nights and in BBC green rooms: "Mark, dahling! Mahv'lous to see you!" Etc. He'll be pleased to hear that on one such encounter I was on a date with a very high-class bird who was horrified to find herself out with a chap who gets hailed across the room by lowbrow game-show personalities: the night went south in nothing flat, and that was that. Anyway, one time he was dining in Soho with Cilla, who had no reason to know me from Adam (Faith) but was charming and delightful. And so the next time I bumped into her she greeted me with: "Mark! How are you, loov?"
So I always liked the unmistakeable Englishness of that title, which became in Cilla's voice an unmistakeable Liverpudlianness. If you'll forgive a little more name-dropping (I'm in a nostalgic mood after surviving this grisly year), I once had the pleasure of telling Sir Paul how much I liked "Step Inside, Love". It was at the Ivor Novello Awards at the Grosvenor House in Park Lane a zillion years ago: Paul and Linda were there, and Vivian Ellis and his sister Hermione (scroll down), and Sting and George Michael and Simon Climie, and Leslie Bricusse, who was getting the Jimmy Kennedy Award from Liza Minnelli, and Cliff Richard with Lionel Bart of Oliver! and four other generations of songwriters who'd written hits for Cliff over the decades. By comparison with the Grammys, everyone was very lightly entouraged, or indeed entirely un-entouraged like Sir Paul and Lady McCartney. But Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who were at the height of their Rick Astley-Kylie Minogue-Bananarama chartbusting Eighties eminence, had passed around a bunch of tickets to the girls in the office for the outer tables, and, when Leslie Bricusse's great hit for Matt Monro, "My Kind of Girl", was played in the intro montage, all the synthpop dollies finger-snapped along. And, as I think back on it, the event had the relaxed coziness of the British music biz, at least in those days. So, when I found myself face-to-face with Mac the Nice (as my old colleague Giles Smith called him), having nothing to say about "I am the Walrus", I was glad when someone brought up Cilla, and I could observe that "Step Inside Love" gets better and better over the years.
"Yeah," said Paul. "It's a nice little cabaret song, that one." And he added that Cilla's "Long and Winding Road" was better than the Beatles' version.
"A cabaret song" is not exactly how I thought of "Step Inside", but I was to discover that Sir Paul has (or had) a habit of referring to almost any number written in a non-rock'n'roll vernacular as "cabaret songs". His other "cabaret songs" include a saloon ballad he wrote as a teenager for Sinatra. He called it "Suicide", and forgot all about it until years later when Frank called him up and asked if he had any songs for him. So Paul sent him "Suicide", which isn't actually about killing yourself, but, if memory serves, just uses suicide for a play on words - "by your side", "put me aside", "suicide". But evidently Sinatra looked at the first page and didn't fancy "Suicide" as a hit title. Frank aside, McCartney writes very effectively with particular singers in mind, and, whatever he may understand by "cabaret song", I think he was trying to compose Cilla a telly theme in the style of her biggest hits - "Anyone Who Had a Heart", "You're My World" and "Alfie". Two-thirds of those songs are by Bacharach & David, and Paul had attended the "Anyone" session at Abbey Road and told Cilla he liked the number and was going to write her something similar. Easy for him to say. But three years later "Step Inside Love" was almost like Paul's version of a Burt & Hal number. Like, say, Bacharach's "I Say a Little Prayer", it's rhythmically bossa-tinged. It alternates between quiet intimate image-filled verses and loud emphatic hooks, coming down to a soft landing. On the one hand:
Step Inside, Love! (I want you to)
Step Inside, Love! (I know I do)
Step Inside, Love!
I want you to stay...
On the other:
Forever and ever, you'll stay in my heart
And I will love you!
Forever and ever, we never will part
Oh, how I love you!
Etc. McCartney's lyric even shares the same dodgy rhyme as Hal David's:
We are together now and forever...
Together! Forever! That's how it must be...
I don't even know whether McCartney had heard "I Say a Little Prayer" at the time he wrote "Step Inside, Love": it came out more or less exactly the same time in late 1967 that he offered to write Cilla a theme song. But I do think, consciously or otherwise, he was trying to play to her Bacharach side. There's a chromatic slide on the second line - "Let me find you a place" - that's utterly natural but, when I think about it, always feels a bit Burt-esque. Cilla loved the song, and it was introduced to the world when the very first of her eponymous TV shows aired on the Beeb onTuesday January 30th 1968. She had Tom Jones and Harry H Corbett (the son in "Steptoe & Son", the British original of the US sitcom "Sanford & Son"), and the handlebar-moustached comic Jimmy Edwards, and the Irving Davies Dancers and the all-time great backing vocalists the Ladybirds (a mainstay of "The Benny Hill Show"), and Harry Rabinowitz conducting (as he would later do on Chariots of Fire and The English Patient). The second show featured Ringo Starr as a ventriloquist with Cilla as his dummy, sitting on his lap and singing "Nellie Dean" while Ringo drank a pint (or a gottle of geer, in the parlance of the vent acts).
And it all went well, except that on that first show, in her nervousness, Cilla forgot a bit of Paul's lyric and improvised rather carelessly. The Beatle had tuned in especially, and was a bit miffed, assuming that some twerp at the Beeb had taken it upon himself to rewrite the song.
Au contraire, the Beeb twerp in question - Michael Hurll - liked the song so much that after a couple of tapings he decided they needed more of it and asked McCartney to write some additional verses. So he popped over to the BBC Telly Theatre on Shepherd's Bush Green, where Cilla was rehearsing, and Paul wrote the rest of the song in the breaks. As Hurll liked to tell it, Miss Black was wiped out by the grueling production schedule. She looked tired. So Paul wrote:
You look tired, love
Let me turn down the light
Come in out of the cold
Rest your head on my should-
-er and love me tonight...
"Cold"/"Shoulder" is what they call a trailing rhyme. Lorenz Hart's lyric to "Mountain Greenery" is full of them - "cook"/"looking", "sting"/"finger". If it had been the other way around - "shoulder"/"cold" - that would have been what Ira Gershwin called apocopated rhyme. Paul McCartney, of course, belongs to the generation of songwriters that doesn't care about that sort of thing, but "Step Inside, Love" benefits from being tightly rhymed - I like the economical precision of the imagery, the way it keeps things moving: tired face, lights dimmed, out of the cold, head on shoulder, all-night lovemaking, all in a few bars. As to the one breach of pure rhyme...
We are together now and forever
...well, long-time readers know I don't really dig that jive. Then again, Hal David was doing it contemporaneously, and neither Paul nor Hal is as bad as Stephen Sondheim in Gypsy, and in the very title of the song:
Together, Wherever We Go
Of that trio, I'd rate McCartney the least worst offender, if only because the bum rhyme is musically the least emphatic of the three:
We are together now and forever, come my way...
You don't really need a rhyme there, do you? And indeed in the equivalent passage in the second verse he dispenses with it entirely:
I'll always be here if you should need me, night and day
Step Inside, Love and stay...
If "together/forever" is problematic for me, others around the world had different issues. According to Cilla, a South African radio station banned the song because it was about someone with venereal disease going to see a prostitute.
Hang on, where'd that come from? Well, the pox-ridden guy shows up at the brothel door, and she says:
Step Inside, Love
Let me find you a place
Where the curse of the day
Will be carried away
By the smile on your face...
The "curse of the day" is, as those South Africans heard it, the clap. In reality, of course, the "curse" is the "cares of the day" - which, rendered in Cilla's Scouse vowels, does come out somewhat curs-like. I loved her accent: as she liked to say, "Urdu" meant a shampoo and set. (Urdu-wise, she had an endless assortment of groovy coiffures through the Sixties and early Seventies.)
George Martin and the record company seem to have been wrongfooted by Cilla's telly success. When the theme song caught on, and viewers began calling the Beeb switchboard demanding to know where they could buy it, Parlophone scrambled to get together a single and released it on March 8th 1968, three days after Cilla premiered the record arrangement on TV and a mere two weeks before the first season of shows came to an end. In April, it climbed to Number Eight. "Cilla" pulled audiences of 14 million on Tuesday nights, and then, after a couple of years, Bill Cotton moved her to Saturday, where she drew over 20 million viewers - in a nation of 50 million. Nobody has that kind of market share these days. And those 20 million enjoyed some memorable moments: one week they flew Cilla, Ringo and the all-time great BBC glove puppet Basil Brush ("Boom-boom!") to Norway to sing a trio in the snow.
Along the way, Roger Cook & Roger Greenaway ("I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing") wrote her a new theme - "Something Tells Me (Something's Gonna Happen Tonight)" - which is very pleasant, although to my ears not quite as musically interesting as "Step Inside". A couple of seasons later came "Baby, We Can't Go Wrong", which is by far the weakest of the three and was her last Top 40 hit. Cilla took a few years off to focus on family, and when she came back in the early Eighties it was with two telly shows - "Surprise Surprise" and "Blind Date" - that were both smash longrunners and kept her a major TV star until her retirement in 2003. Paul Simon, before his own success with Garfunkel, spent some time tootling around the folk clubs of northern England in the Sixties, and at some point ran across Cilla. Many years later, we were out in the garden at his pad in Montauk on the far end of Long Island, trying to avoid catching Lyme disease while he pointed out celebrity neighbors like Dick Cavett. And out of the blue he said to me, "What's Cilla Black doing these days?" And I explained that she was a bigger star than she'd ever been and was now hosting a kind of British version of "The Dating Game". "That's what I love about England," he said glumly. "In America, no one would ever ask me to host 'The Dating Game'."
Um, well, yeah, that brings us back to Bill Cotton's assessment of Cilla as being good at "talking to people". Most pop stars (Engelbert, Tom Jones) say yes to telly shows, because why not? It's like being asked to do a celebrity cookbook or kids' story: a standard arrow in a star's quiver, and, if you don't draw yours first, they'll give it to Lulu or Cliff or Dusty. But Cilla knew what she was good at, and Brian Epstein's successor as manager, her husband Bobby Willis, exploited it brilliantly.
I find Paul Simon's wistful envy more appealing than the attitude of Elvis Costello, who, as I think about it, is the only guy I've ever met with a seriously bad word to say about Cilla. He reiterated it, very forcefully, in his memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, dismissing her as "a woman with a voice that could have warned ships away from a sandbank in the Mersey" and bemoaning her "cloying, light entertainment persona and dubious political affiliations". By "dubious" he means she was, broadly, a pro-Maggie Tory. But she wore her politics more lightly than, say, he does.
As to the "light entertainment persona", "Surprise Surprise" and "Blind Date" were such phenomenal hits that the music, alas, fell by the wayside. Somewhere or other in those years, I heard the following: It's the original demo of "Step Inside Love" she and McCartney worked up on November 21st 1967 at Chappell Studios in Maddox Street, where the Beatles recorded "Your Mother Should Know" and Paul joined Chris Barber's jazz band for "Cat Call" (which might make the cut on Feline Groovy Volume Two). It's just Cilla, with Paul on guitar and some sparing backing vocals. I like all the Liverpudlian chit-chat as she's learning the number:
And right at the end the Voice of God comes over the talkback from the control room - George Martin's patrician vowels drawling his definitive pronouncement:
It's far too low for you. Won't do as a track. It will do as a demo.
Really? It's a fifth lower than the TV/chart version - key of D rather than G. Sir George certainly knew more about the hit parade than I ever will, and maybe he thought the higher key sounded brighter and poppier and more radio-friendly. But I liked Cilla's voice at the lower end of her register, and for me, ever since hearing this, the known version of the song sounds a bit shrill on the hook - "Step Inside, Love! Step Inside, Love!" She wasn't a belter, although on that BBC show she was once called upon to duet with Ethel Merman. ("I held my own," she told me.) Anyway, I love this version. Here it is, sans starts and stops:
I like that side of Cilla. Very real - like her version of Stan Kelly's "Liverpool Lullaby" ("Oh, you are a mucky kid"). In the wake of Cilla and the Fab Four came more professional Scousers than British show business perhaps had need for. But on that "lullaby" she connects with the material, and gives you a glimpse of where she came from, and (from today's world) of a lost England. She died of a stroke a long way from Liverpool, at her home in Spain, on August 1st 2015, and both surviving Beatles and her other old pals from Cavern Club days paid heartfelt tribute.
To this day Paul McCartney regards "Step Inside" as his favorite of all his "non-Beatle" songs. He thought enough of it to take an impromptu crack at it during the White Album sessions, six months after Cilla hit the charts, with John on bongos and Ringo on claves. It's a bit over-bossa-ed for the weight of the song, which may be why it sat in the vaults unreleased for three decades - or maybe Paul just knew that it was his gift to an old friend, and would always be hers. Cilla Black's body was flown home from Marbella to rest in Allerton Cemetery in Liverpool, a few yards from John Lennon's mum's, and on her headstone you'll find inscribed the last verse of "Step Inside Love":
When you leave me
Say you'll see me again
For I know in my heart
We will not be apart
And I'll miss you till then...
The papers preferred her own cheery telly sign-off - "Ta-ra!" As I said up top, she gave us "a lorra lorra laffs". But she was also a sensitive interpreter of tender material, and those words of Paul McCartney's are true and touching.
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