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Obituaries: Acker Bilk


Acker Bilk in 1962

Acker Bilk in 1962

Acker Bilk in 1962

ACKER BILK, who died last Sunday aged 85, was a jazz clarinettist and bandleader who became a hugely popular figure in the wider world of entertainment; his recordings, in particular Stranger on the Shore, figured among the bestselling records of the 20th Century. He loved coming to Ireland and at the height of the recession three years ago when told the country was suffering remarked to Sunday Independent editor, the late Aengus Fanning, "we'll soon sort that out when we get there." And he added: "Sod it, I'm 82, and I can't do anything about it. But we'll enjoy ourselves, and so will the audience."

Bilk's popular appeal owed almost as much to his unaffected and avuncular manner as to the warm, sentimental sound of his clarinet. Similarly, his bowler-hatted figure was as instantly recognisable as his tone and style.

Despite his great popularity, Bilk retained his commitment to jazz and led a series of excellent bands throughout his career.

Bernard Stanley Bilk was born on January 28, 1929, in Pensford, Somerset, the son of a cabinet maker. His mother played the organ in the chapel where his father acted as a lay preacher. Bilk acquired the nickname "Acker", a local word meaning "pal" or "mate", as a boy.

His mother insisted on his taking formal piano lessons which, he claimed, almost killed his interest in music. His boyhood exploits around the village resulted in several injuries, including the loss of two front teeth and the top joint of a finger.

He later claimed that these disabilities contributed to his individual style of playing.

Leaving school at 14, Bilk worked first at the Wills tobacco factory in Bristol, at a wage of £1.4s a week, and later as a builder's labourer and blacksmith's apprentice. He took up the clarinet in 1948, while on National Service in Egypt, and formed a semi-professional band in Bristol shortly after demobilisation.

Early in 1954 Bilk was invited to join the band of Ken Colyer, Britain's leading New Orleans-style musician. He found life in London so disagreeable that he left after only a few months, returned home and took a variety of manual jobs. In 1956 he formed his Paramount Jazz Band.

Realising that the band's only chance of establishing itself lay in having a London base, in 1957 Bilk braved the capital once more. Traditional, or "Trad", jazz was now growing in popularity throughout Europe, and he secured a six-week engagement in Dusseldorf.

The long nightly sessions imparted a professional polish to the band and they returned home in perfect form to take advantage of the burgeoning Trad craze.

It was Bilk's good fortune to have his advertising handled by the publicist Peter Leslie, who was later to play a role in promoting the Beatles' early career. Leslie hit upon the idea of presenting Bilk and the band in the guise of Edwardian showmen or prizefighters.

They appeared dressed in waistcoats, shirtsleeves and bowler hats. Bilk himself was always billed as "Mr Acker Bilk", while the band's record albums, press advertisements and handbills came complete with yards of Leslie's orotund, mock-Edwardian prose: "The notes flew out in that Style much favoured in the American City of New Orleans: so Spirited in its Execution, so Subtle and Melodious in Conception."

Leslie's strategy for creating a distinctive image worked well. Young Trad fans adopted the bowler hat as their identifying symbol and, somewhat to his alarm, Acker Bilk found himself a leader of pop fashion at the beginning of the Sixties. He played a prominent role in Dick Lester's It's Trad, Dad!, the archetypal youth film of the time.

In 1960 he recorded his composition Stranger on the Shore with a string orchestra, as the theme music to a BBC television play for children. The tune caught on and became the first-ever simultaneous hit in Britain and America, remaining in the Top 30 singles chart for 53 weeks, gaining an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

The tune which he habitually referred to as "my old-age pension", was subsequently recorded by dozens of other artists, including Duke Ellington, and continues to sell in prodigious quantities.

Although the boom in Trad jazz came to an abrupt end in 1963, with the rise of the Beatles, Bilk continued to pursue his double-sided career with great success. The band, freed from the need to conform to the strict Trad format, blossomed into a fine, open-textured mainstream jazz sextet.

Meanwhile, a long series of easy-listening albums emerged to supply an apparently insatiable market. The ubiquitous sound of Acker with strings, still to be heard in shops, bars, hotel lobbies, lifts and planes around the world, brought him numerous awards. Particularly successful were the albums Sheer Magic and Evergreen, both of which gained gold discs.

Although he did not have to, Bilk continued to tour the world with his Paramount Jazz Band. The generation which had taken to him as teenagers continued to flock to his performances as adults, often bringing their children and grandchildren with them in later years. In the early 2000s he became a regular at the Birr Music Festival.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, he took care not to allow his show to harden into an ossified routine, but it would always end in the same way.

He would don the bowler hat, which had been lying prominently placed on the piano throughout. This simple action invariably brought storms of applause which died away to silence as he played the first notes of Stranger on the Shore.

In recent years, Bilk began to limit the number of his appearances, however Ireland was one of the places he kept returning to; telling Aengus Fanning when he was 81: "Retirement? I don't know what it means. My belief is keep blowing, keep playing, keep touring and keep meeting people. It keeps you young."

A keen amateur painter, he spent more time painting - often with his friend, piano player Dave Collier - and relaxing at his home in Pensford than in his big house at Potters Bar, north of London. In 2000 he was treated for throat cancer.

He was appointed MBE in 2001.

Acker Bilk is survived by his wife, Jean (nee Hawkins), whom he first met when they were schoolchildren, a daughter, Jenny, and a son, Peter.

Sunday Independent