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Acker Bilk Dead: Iconic 'Stranger On The Shore' Jazz Singer And Clarinet Player Dies At 85

02/11/2014 20:27 GMT | Updated 03/11/2014 07:59 GMT

Jazz singer and clarinettist Acker Bilk has died at the age of 85, his manager said today.

The performer was best known for writing and performing the clarinet piece 'Stranger On The Shore' which was released in 1961 and made him the first UK artist to top the US music charts in the 1960s.

Stranger On The Shore was used as the theme tune of a BBC TV drama series with the same name and was taken to the Moon on a cassette by the crew of the Apollo 10 space mission in 1969.

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Acker Bilk was still performing in 2009

Bilk, who lived in Pensford, Somerset, died this afternoon at Bath's Royal United Hospital, manager Pamela Sutton said.

The musician, known for performing in a garish waistcoat and bowler hat, rose to fame on a wave of enthusiasm for trad jazz.

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But with his distinctive look and a batch of instantly recognisable tunes he carved out a career continuing years beyond his chart tenure.

It is his signature tune Stranger On The Shore for which the goateed musician's four decades in the spotlight will be best remembered.

Curiously, his most enduring hit was a lilting, gentle departure from the Dixieland-style jazz that was his stock in trade.

Bilk's uniform of garish waistcoat and bowler hat set the tone for onstage outfits for anyone performing in that genre.

Born Bernard Stanley Bilk and raised in Somerset, he soon took the name Acker - a local expression meaning "friend" or "mate".

While his parents tried to encourage him musically, pushing him to learn the piano, he preferred to be outside playing football or even indulging in a little poaching than practising scales.

He lost three teeth in a school punch-up and half a finger in a sledging accident, which he always maintained were the reasons for his distinctive style.

Prior to his music career with his long-time group the Paramount Jazz Band, he worked in the Wills Tobacco factory in Bristol, earning £1 4s each week and dabbled with boxing.

He was 18 when he took up the clarinet while in the Royal Engineers during his National Service. Posted to Egypt, he found himself with plenty of spare time in the desert and borrowed a marching clarinet, copying records.

Hooked, he smuggled the clarinet back to his home village of Pensford after his army stint and formed a band, playing dances.

But he and wife Jean - who he had known since the age of five - decided to head to London where he became clarinettist with the Ken Colyer Band.

Unhappy he headed back to the south west, eventually forming another act and starting a club in Bristol. That venue, the Paramount Club, gave its name to the outfit with which he found fame.

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Acker Bilk

Again heading back to London Bilk and his wife lived in a factory attic with the band picking up the odd regional TV date but the big break came with a six-week stint in a Dusseldorf beer bar.

They tightened up but to set the seal on their act, the hat and waistcoat were adopted to mark them out from the other bands of the day.

He made his first LP in 1957 selling out the small run of 500 within days, with more being pressed to meet demand.

It was only when another LP was couple of tunes short that he began to write his own music, the first being called Jenny - the name of his daughter - but he largely forgot about it.

After being asked to write the theme to a children's TV serial Jenny was revived and became Stranger On The Shore.

He became a chart regular during 1960 with tunes like Summer Set and Buona Sera, but when Stranger was released in 1961 he soared to new heights.

It was on the chart for more than a year, peaking at number two, and he became the first UK act to top the US charts in the Sixties with the haunting instrumental.

Bilk became a superstar of his day, but while his chart days were relatively short-lived, they were enough to cement his reputation.

The rise of rhythm and blues-based guitar acts like The Beatles captured the imagination of record buyers, but fans still flocked to his shows ever since.

He became a staple of the TV variety circuit along with contemporaries Kenny Ball and Chris Barber, whose many TV appearances made them familiar to subsequent generations.

A heart attack at the age of 47 made him modify his lifestyle, persuading him to give up smoking, but he fought back and continued to perform.

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Bilk was considered an icon though his chart success was short-lived

Interviews during his 60s heyday, would often mention how he spoke with a bourbon in his hand. Even in later years he loved a tipple, saying he loved a "dry sherry", his term for anything from champagne to Somerset scrumpy.

He had wound down the frequency of his concerts as he reached his late 60s, but he remained in demand and still toured.

He and Jean, who had two children, Jenny and Peter, moved back to the village of Pensford after years of living in Hertfordshire.

In October 1999 he noticed his voice had become hoarse and he suspected growths in the throat - a problem common to many singers.

But after seeking medical advice he was told it was throat cancer and he underwent six weeks of radiotherapy treatment which resulted in a number of shows being played by the band without him.

However, he survived and, against all the odds, returned to playing his clarinet on stage. Bilk was awarded the MBE in the New Year Honours List of 2001.

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