William Ruhlmann of AllMusic described Vearncombe as a "smoky-voiced singer/songwriter, whose sophisticated jazz-pop songs and dramatic vocal delivery place him somewhere between Bryan Ferry and Morrissey". Michael Hann of The Guardian described his voice as a "slightly frayed baritone".
Vearncombe was born in Liverpool and attended Prescot Grammar School. He then enrolled on an art foundation course at Liverpool Polytechnic. He first aspired to become a musician after seeing Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock.
Black's first release was the single "Human Features" on Rox Records in 1981. At this time, Black consisted of Vearncombe, Dane Goulding (formerly of Blazetroopers) on bass and Greg Leyland another school friend on drums. The single was followed by another independent release in 1982, "More than the Sun". It was then that Vearncombe formed a friendship with Dave "Dix" Dickie of the Last Chant and the two became musical collaborators and signed for WEA Records.
In 1982, Black played with the Thompson Twins on their 'Quick Step and Side Kick' tour and also supported Wah! on a UK tour. The live sound of synth/percussion/guitar and the use of reel-to-reel tapes got them noticed.
Black signed with WEA in 1984 and the next single was "Hey Presto" (1984), which got Vearncombe noticed outside the UK: the video for the song featured on the satellite music channel Music Box, and the single was also released in Australia. The second WEA single was a re-recording of "More than the Sun". After this, Black was dropped from the record label and Vearncombe and Dix went their separate ways.
In 1985 Vearncombe wrote the ironically entitled minor key song "Wonderful Life". It was released independently through Ugly Man Records, and got Black noticed by A&M Records who signed Vearncombe and launched his international career. Vearncombe said:
By the end of 1985 I had been in a couple of car crashes, my mother had a serious illness, I had been dropped by a record company, my first marriage went belly-up and I was homeless. Then I sat down and wrote this song called 'Wonderful Life'. I was being sarcastic.
The song reached number eight in the British charts. "Wonderful Life" was later covered by singers including Kim Wilde and Tony Hadley. A version by Katie Melua was included on the BBC Radio 2's Sounds of the 80s compilation album, and was released as a single in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Children's Hospital Charity. But its widespread popularity came from its use on several advertising commercials for brands that included Standard Life and Cadbury's chocolate. In 2015 Melua sang a version in a Premier Inn advertisement. Vearncombe suffered from the feeling of being a one-hit wonder:
Once you have had a hit, it's hard to write another song without having that in the back of your mind. For a long time, I would find myself hearing, 'I like it but it's not Wonderful Life'.
At first, the single "Everything's Coming Up Roses" flopped, but the follow-up, "Sweetest Smile" became a UK top-10 hit. The third single, a re-release of "Wonderful Life", was a massive hit worldwide. The album of the same name, released in 1987, had similar success, reaping commercial and critical acclaim.
Black sold over two million records worldwide with Comedy (1988) and Black (1991). Disillusioned with having to deal with a big record company, Vearncombe founded the independent label Nero Schwarz (which is the word "black" in Italian and in German, respectively), and released one album Are We Having Fun Yet? (1993).
After a prolonged hiatus, Vearncombe returned in 1999 to release a string of recordings under his own name. Vearncombe returned to the name 'Black' to release a new recording entitled Between Two Churches in November 2005. On this album, he included a song mocking the success of his hit "Wonderful Life", where he poignantly re-asked the question, "Are you having a wonderful life?".
In 2009 he released two albums. The Given was issued on 4 July as a free download under Vearncombe's name. Water on Stone was released on 17 November as the first Black studio album in four years. In September 2011, the album Any Colour You Like was released through Black's website.
In April 2014, he started a pledge fund (via the dedicated music crowd-funding site PledgeMusic) for a new album, co-written with long-time friend and musical collaborator Calum MacColl. This was the first time Vearncombe participated in a crowd-funded project. The project significantly exceeded its funding goals and he regularly expressed his surprise and gratefulness through video updates on the PledgeMusic site. His experience with the process also contributed to the name of the album, Blind Faith. The album was released on 13 April 2015. In November 2015, he recorded a Catalan version of "Wonderful Life" as a fundraiser for the Catalan telethon La Marató de TV3. Vearncombe sang a Catalan translation of the original lyrics.
On 10 January 2016, Vearncombe was involved in a road traffic accident, near Cork Airport in Ireland, and placed in a medically-induced coma after sustaining serious head injuries. He died from his injuries at the intensive care unit of Cork University Hospital on 26 January 2016, at the age of 53. Vearncombe left a widow, Swedish opera singer Camilla Griehsel, and three children. His remains were cremated on 4 February 2016.