How Cilla Black got a Surprise Surprise from city-bound jazz star

CILLA Black famously topped the TV charts with her hit show Surprise Surprise, but the Scouse singer was left gobsmacked herself on one occasion by a musician who is returning to Liverpool for a special concert later this month.

Kenny Clayton, a pianist and composer who has worked with stars such as Shirley Bassey, Matt Monro, Charles Aznavor and Petula Clark, toured with Cilla in the early 1970s as her conductor and musical arranger.

But Kenny, who is playing with Liverpool’s Brazilian-jazz band Baiana at the Hope Street Hotel on May 29th, almost came to blows with Cilla’s husband with a joke that was cheeky to say the least.

“We’d been playing a six-week season in Scarborough and, as tradition dictates, on the last night the leader tries something different, a prank or something bit special to celebrate the end of the run,” Kenny recalls. “I was conducting the musicians down in the orchestra pit and because of the way it was built I realised the audience and Cilla could only see me above chest height so I dressed immaculately in my dinner jacket and shirt but not much else.

“The musicians were all men and long-standing friends and so appreciated the absurdity of me conducting them dressed in my undies like that, but at the end of the show – to my horror – Cilla decided to walk to the edge of the stage to talk to the audience.

“I’ll never forget her face. She said: ‘I’d like to thank my musical director Kenny Clayton who….. hey, he’s got no clothes on!”

Back in his dressing room, Kenny, 83, got an angry knock on his door from Cilla’s husband Bobby Willis.

“Bobby was one of the most delightful men I’ve ever met but, let’s put it like this, he was not in a very happy mood at that moment,” Kenny recalls. “But I explained what had happened and they both saw the funny side. I guess you could say it was an early Surprise Surprise!”

On Cilla, Kenny is full of praise.

“She was a great singer, one of the real greats,” he says. “What people don’t give her enough credit for was her charisma and her stage craft. When she walked onto the stage you could feel the audience’s grasp of breath. She would have an audience in the palm of her hand.”

Kenny met Liverpool-born Baiana singer Laura by chance in the L’Escargot club in London and after an impromptu performance was greeted with yells for an encore, both realised that there was a special chemistry between them.

Flame-haired Laura discovered her unique voice in while living in Rio and falling in love with the sophisticated sounds of the Brazilian city’s nightclubs and dancehalls. The band also features some well known Mersey-based musicians including Micky Dunne of the Manouchtones on guitar, ex Wave Machines drummer Vidar Norheim and in-demand bassist Jesse Eigan.

For their Hope Street Hotel show, Kenny and Baiana will be exploring what they call the “Scouse American songbook” which will see them celebrating the great standards of Brazilian jazz as well as breathing new life into some of Lennon and McCartney’s most melodic compositions.

The gig comes by public demand after a show there last year, which featured a new composition by Kenny – who worked for a time with George Martin at Abbey Road studios – about John Lennon. That  gig sold out and tickets for this one are going fast.

“I loved the Beatles and John especially and I’ve always loved playing in Liverpool,” Kenny added. “I can remember playing at the Empire many times and staying at the Adelphi. I have fond memories of a nightclub called the Wookie Hollow, which had a little bridge inside it over a pool. Happy times.”

It’s the Rio Thing takes place at The Hope Street Hotel on Wednesday May 29th at 8pm. Tickets £10.
To book call 0151 709 3000 or email

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