On this day in history : 2nd November 2014 – The death of English clarinetist and vocalist Acker Bilk – who has in the past been described as ‘the Great Master of the Clarinet’….
Bilk’s most famous track, instrumental Stranger on the Shore, reached No.2 and stayed 55 weeks in the charts…. It was kept off the No.1 position by Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones but was to become the biggest selling single of 1962…. However, it did reach No.1 in the USA; Bilk always claimed that it would be his pension fund….
Born Bernard Stanley Bilk in Pensford, Somerset on the 28th of January 1929, he acquired the nickname ‘Acker’ as it is Somerset slang for ‘mate’ or ‘friend’….
He learned to play the clarinet whilst doing his National Service with the Royal Engineers in the Suez Canal…. His first clarinet was one a friend had bought on a bazaar – it had no reed so they made one from a piece of wood…. He later ‘borrowed’ a clarinet from the army’s orchestra – and managed to keep hold of it after being demobbed…. After completing his National Service Bilk joined his uncle’s blacksmith business and became qualified in the trade himself…. He married his childhood sweetheart, Jean Hawkins, whom he had been at school with – and they went on to have two children, a boy and a girl….
Bilk began to play on the Bristol jazz circuit with a group of friends…. He then moved to London and joined the band of trumpet and cornet player Ken Colyer…. However, he didn’t care much for London and so returned to Pensford and formed his own band The Chew Valley Jazzmen…
But to achieve success meant having to return to London….which the band did in 1951, renaming themselves The Bristol Paramount Jazz Band…. They landed themselves a six week job in a Düsseldorf beer keller – and it was during this time that the band developed their own unique style and image, complete with bowler hats and striped waistcoats…. Along with his goaty beard this look stayed with Bilk throughout his career…. The band returned to the UK and the London jazz circuit and became part of the traditional jazz scene that was so popular in the late 1950s…. In 1960 their first hit single Summer Set was released and reached No.5; a string of hit singles were to follow….
In 1962 Bilk composed Jenny; a melody he named for his daughter – he reputedly thought it up whilst travelling in the back of a taxi…. He was then asked to change the title so it could be used for a BBC children’s television series about a French au pair living in Brighton – the series was entitled Stranger on the Shore…. He then recorded it as the title track for his new album – it made him an international star, selling over a million copies and earning a gold disc…. The track was so successful that it had no need for lyrics…. Soon he had become such a big star that his PR operation became known as the Bilk Marketing Board – a humorous play on the work ‘Milk’….
Bilk’s last chart appearance was in 1978 with the album Evergreen…. He continued to tour with his band and was awarded an MBE in 2001…. He said, in 2012, that after 50 years he was fed up with playing Stranger on the Shore…. However, I don’t think we, the public, will ever tire of hearing it….
Bilk died in Bath in 2014 at the age of 85… He had been treated for throat cancer in 1997 but had then developed bladder cancer and suffered a minor stroke….