A Tribute to the Late Acker Bilk


Sad news for those of us who enjoyed the Music of Mr Acker Bilk with hits like Stranger on the Shore He passed away on Saturday in Bath in the UK

Bernard Stanley “Acker” Bilk MBE (28 January 1929 – 2 November 2014) was an English clarinettist and vocalist, billed as Mr. Acker Bilk on many of his recordings. He was known for his trademark goatee, bowler hat, striped waistcoat and breathy, vibrato-rich, lower-register clarinet style.

Bilk’s 1962 instrumental tune “Stranger on the Shore” became the UK’s biggest selling single of 1962 where it remained in the UK charts for more than 50 weeks, peaking at number two, and was the first No. 1 single in the United States by a British artist in the era of the modern Billboard Hot 100 pop chart.[1]

Bilk was born in Pensford, Somerset, in 1929.[2] He earned the nickname Acker from the Somerset slang for “friend” or “mate”. His parents tried to teach him the piano, but as a boy, Bilk found it restricted his love of outdoor activities, including football. He lost two front teeth in a school fight and half a finger in a sledging accident, both of which Bilk claimed to have affected his eventual clarinet style.[3]

On leaving school he joined the workforce of W.D. & H.O. Wills’s cigarette factory in Bristol, staying there for three years putting tobacco in the cooling room, and then pushing tobacco through a blower.[4]

He then undertook his three years national service with the Royal Engineers in the Suez Canal Zone. Bilk learnt the clarinet there after his sapper friend John A. Britten gave him one that he had bought at a bazaar and for which he had no use. The clarinet had no reed and Britten fashioned a makeshift reed for the instrument out of some scrap wood.[5] He then borrowed a better instrument from the Army, which he kept with him on demobilisation.[3]

On return home, he joined his uncle’s blacksmith business, and qualified in the trade.[4]

During the evenings he played with friends on the Bristol jazz circuit. In 1951 he moved to London to play with Ken Colyer’s band.[3] But disliking London, he returned west and formed his own band in Pensford called the Chew Valley Jazzmen, which was renamed the Bristol Paramount Jazz Band when they moved to London in 1951. Their agent then got them a six-month gig in Düsseldorf, Germany, playing in a beer bar seven hours a night, seven nights a week where Bilk and the band developed their distinctive style and appearance, complete with striped-waistcoats and bowler hats.[4]

On return and now based in Plaistow, London, the band played the London jazz club scene.[3] It was from here that Bilk became part of the boom in traditional jazz that swept the United Kingdom in the late 1950s. In 1960, their single “Summer Set” (a pun on their home county), co-written by Bilk and pianist Dave Collett, reached number five in the UK Singles Chart,[6] and began a run of eleven chart hit singles. In 1961 “Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band” appeared at the Royal Variety Performance.[7]

Bilk was not internationally known musician until an experiment with a string ensemble and a composition of his own as its keynote piece made him one in 1962. Upon the birth of his daughter, he composed and dedicated a melody entitled “Jenny” (her name). He was approached by a British television series for permission to use that melody, but to change the title to “Stranger on the Shore”. He went on to record it as the title track of a new album in which his signature deep, quivering clarinet was backed by the Leon Young String Chorale. The single was not only a big hit in the United Kingdom, where it stayed on the charts for 55 weeks, gaining a second wind after Bilk was the subject of the TV show This Is Your Life, but also shot to the top of the American charts at a time when the American pop charts and radio playlists were open to almost anything in just about any style.[2] As a result, Bilk was the second British artist to have a single in the number-one position on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.[8] (Vera Lynn was the first, with “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart” in 1952.) “Stranger on the Shore” sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.[9] The album was also highlighted by a striking interpretation of Bunny Berigan’s legendary hit “I Can’t Get Started.” At the height of his career, Bilk’s public relations workers were known as the “Bilk Marketing Board”, a pun/play on the then Milk Marketing Board.

In January 1963, the British music magazine, NME reported that the biggest trad jazz event to be staged in Britain had taken place at Alexandra Palace. The event included George Melly, Diz Disley, Alex Welsh, Chris Barber, Kenny Ball, Ken Colyer, Monty Sunshine, Bob Wallis, Bruce Turner, Mick Mulligan and Bilk.[10] Bilk recorded a series of albums in Britain that were also released successfully in the United States (on the Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco), including a memorable collaboration (Together) with Danish jazz pianist-composer Bent Fabric (“The Alley Cat”). His success tapered off when British rock and roll made its big international explosion beginning in 1964, and Bilk shifted direction to the cabaret circuit. He finally had another chart success in 1976, with “Aria,” which went to number five in the United Kingdom. In May 1977, Bilk & His Paramount Jazz Band provided the interval act for the Eurovision Song Contest.[11] His last chart appearance was in 1978 when the TV promoted album released on Pye/Warwick “Evergreen” reached 17 in a 14-week album chart run. In the early 1980s, Bilk and his signature hit were newly familiar, thanks to “Stranger on the Shore” being used in the soundtrack to Sweet Dreams, the film biography of country music legend Patsy Cline. The tune “Aria” featured as a central musical motif in the 2012 Polish film, Mój rower. Most of his classic albums with the Paramount Jazz Band have been reissued and are available on the UK-based Lake Records label.

Bilk has been described as “Great Master of the Clarinet”.[12] His clarinet sound and style was at least as singular as had been those of American jazzmen such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Russell Procope, and “Stranger on the Shore” — which he was once quoted as calling “my old-age pension” — remains a standard of jazz and popular music alike.

Acker Bilk continued to tour with his Paramount Jazz Band, as well as performing concerts with his two contemporaries, Chris Barber and Kenny Ball (deceased) (both of whom were born in 1930) as the 3Bs. Bilk also provided distinctive vocals on many of this tracks, including on “I’m an Old Cowhand”, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “White Cliffs of Dover”, “Travellin On”, and “That’s My Home”.

One of his recordings is with the Chris Barber band, sharing the clarinet spot with the band’s regular reedsmen, John Crocker and Ian Wheeler. He made a CD with Wally Fawkes for the Lake label in 2002. He has appeared on three recent albums by Van Morrison, Down the Road, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, and Born to Sing: No Plan B.

In 2012 he admitted that, after 50 years, he was “fed up” with playing his most famous tune “Stranger on the Shore”.[13]
Personal life

Bilk married his childhood sweetheart Jean, whom he met in the same class. The couple had two children, one a daughter, Jenny, after whom a composition was named. After living near London in Potters Bar for many years, the couple retired to Pensford.[4]

In 2000, Bilk was diagnosed with throat cancer, which was treated through surgery, then followed by daily radiation therapy at Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre. Subsequently he had had eight keyhole operations for bladder cancer, and suffered a minor stroke.[4]

He died on 2 November 2014 at the age of 85. He was survived by his wife Jean, daughter Jenny and son


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