Jazzman Acker Bilk (real name Bernard Stanley Bilk ) came to fame during the trad jazz boom of the early 60’s.
The clarinettist scored a run of ten top 40 hits, including Stranger On The Shore, which became an enduring classic over 40 years ago.
Bilk was on National Service in Egypt as an 18-year-old when he learned to play a borrowed clarinet. He copied jazz records to while away the time.
Returning home, he formed a band, playing dances and setting up the Paramount Club in Bristol.
He and his wife Jean moved to London, playing occasional gigs with his band but they honed their act with a six-week stint in a Düsseldorf beer bar.
They also adopted their trademark hats and waistcoat and Bilk began to write his own music. He became a chart regular in 1960 with tunes like Summer Set and Buena Sera, but when Stranger On The Shore was released in 1961 he soared to new heights.
It was in the charts for more than a year, peaking at #2. Interestingly, when Bilk first wrote the tune he called it Jenny after one of his children. In stepped BBC TV who wanted him to write the theme for a new series titled Stranger On The Shore. And voila . . .
Bilk also became the first UK act to top the US charts in the 60s with the haunting instrumental. He became a staple of the TV variety circuit along with contemporaries Kenny Ball and Chris Barber.
During 1962 Bilk enjoyed three British hits with Frankie and Johnny, Gotta See My Baby Tonight and Lonely. But the run was coming to an end due to the increasing popularity of pop music; the beat boom was tightening its stranglehold on the charts, freezing out jazz artists along the way.
A Taste Of Honey was Acker Bilk’s last hit, in January 1963. It peaked at #16.
Hits or not, the demand for Acker Bilk’s live performances remained constant. He even returned to the British charts in 1976 with Aria which soared into the Top 5. This unexpected success was capitalised upon with the release of The Very Best of Acker Bilk. Other albums followed: Sheer Magic and The Best of Acker Bilk – Volume Two, both in 1979, and Mellow Music a year later.
Acker Bilk was diagnosed with throat cancer but was soon back on stage performing with his Paramount Jazz Band, and was honoured with an MBE in 2001 for services to music.
Bilk passed away on 2 November 2014 at Bath Royal United Hospital. His funeral was held at All Saints Church, Publow, near Pensford – the village where he came from and lived. Stranger on the Shore was played at the funeral, and his clarinet and famous bowler hat were carried into the church on his coffin.