Obituary: Acker Bilk MBE, jazz clarinettist

BORN: 28 January, 1929, in Pensford, Somerset. Died: 2 November, 2014, in Bath, aged 85.
Jazz musician who wrote best-selling instrumental Stranger on the Shore. Picture: PAJazz musician who wrote best-selling instrumental Stranger on the Shore. Picture: PA
Jazz musician who wrote best-selling instrumental Stranger on the Shore. Picture: PA

With his goatee beard, bowler hat and colourful waistcoats, Acker Bilk symbolised traditional jazz for a post-war generation in Britain. A blacksmith by trade, Bilk took up the clarinet while doing national service in Egypt and attributed his distinctive, vibrato style to the loss of his two front teeth in a school fight and part of a finger in a sledging accident.

The losses proved no handicap when it came to popularity, and his slow, wistful, haunting instrumental Stranger on the Shore stayed in the UK charts for a year, was the best-selling single of 1962 and a rare British number one in the United States.

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The melody was originally entitled Jenny and was written by Bilk after the birth of his daughter. It took off after it was used as the theme for a long-forgotten BBC drama series called Stranger on the Shore, about a French au-pair coming to work in Brighton.

Along with Kenny Ball, who died last year, Acker Bilk was at the forefront of a post-war revival in traditional jazz and its crossover to a mainstream audience.

He had a dozen hits from the beginning of the 1960s through to the mid-1970s, and he and his band were a popular live act, bringing a distinctly West Country ambience to an American genre, passing scrumpy round during the set.

But Stranger on the Shore remains his biggest success. It even went to the Moon with the astronauts on the Apollo 10 mission. “It’s all right but you do get fed up with it after 50 years,” Bilk said in an interview with the BBC two years ago.

He was born Bernard Stanley Bilk in the village of Pensford in Somerset in 1929. The term Acker is a local colloquialism for “mate” and Bilk seemingly acquired it as a boy. After leaving school, he worked in a cigarette factory in Bristol for a few years and he married Jean, whom he had known since childhood. They remained married until his death.

Although he had played the recorder as a boy, his main hobby at this time was boxing.

During national service in the Royal Engineers in the Suez Canal Zone, he taught himself clarinet using an army instrument and learned to copy the music on records of the time. “Before long we got a little band going – the Original Egyptian Stompers,” he later told one interviewer.

After leaving the army, he trained as a blacksmith, in his uncle’s business, and played part-time in several jazz bands. He eventually formed the Bristol Paramount Jazz Band, who, like the Beatles a few years later, honed their sound with a demanding residency in Germany.

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They played seven hours a night, seven nights a week, at a bar in Düsseldorf. They also hit upon their distinctive look during this period.

Back in England once again, they became part of the London jazz scene and their original composition Summer Set (a pun on the name of their home county) reached No 5 in 1960. It was the first of several hits in quick succession and the group, now styled Mr Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band, appeared on the Royal Variety Performance in 1961.

Stranger on the Shore came out towards the end of 1961, recorded not with his usual band, but with the Leon Young String Chorale.

Bilk did not think it was anything special at the time. “I didn’t think it was much different from any of the rest of it,” he said later. “It was just a thing that came out of my head, that’s all.”

It topped the New Musical Express and Record Mirror charts at the beginning of January 1962 (though not the Record Retailer chart, the one that was subsequently and controversially incorporated into “official” chart history).

Stranger on the Shore sold more than a million copies to become the best-selling instrumental single of all time. Its lengthy stay in the charts was obviously helped by its use on a TV series and also by Bilk’s appearance as a subject on the popular television programme This Is Your Life.

In May 1962 Stranger on the Shore became the first British record to top the US Billboard Hot 100. Although Bilk claimed that he eventually got fed up with the tune, he also admitted that it served as his “old age pension”.

Bilk and his band appeared as themselves in Richard Lester’s 1962 teen movie It’s Trad, Dad!, along with the likes of Kenny Ball, Chubby Checker and Gene Vincent. And The Best of Ball, Barber and Bilk, a compilation album which also featured Kenny Ball and trombonist Chris Barber, reached No 1 in the album charts in 1962.

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As well as playing with his own band, he played with orchestras on occasion and as a guest clarinettist with other bands. He also sang.

But the hit singles dried up just about as suddenly as they had begun, as popular tastes changed with arrival of the Beatles, Stones, Kinks and other such groups.

A Taste of Honey was a Top 20 hit in early 1963, but it was Bilk’s last hit single until Aria made the Top Ten in 1976, though Bilk and his band remained popular as a live act.

He also toured with Ball and Barber as The Three Bs.

Bilk reached a new audience in the mid-1980s when Stranger on the Shore appeared on the soundtrack of the Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams, one of several Hollywood films to use it, and again in the early 2000s when he played on a couple of Van Morrison albums.

In recent times Bilk had been plagued by ill health, first throat cancer and then bladder cancer and a stroke, though he played at the Brecon Jazz Festival in Wales last year.

In 2001 he became an MBE. He is survived by his wife Jean, daughter Jenny, and his son Pete.