Born Bernard Stanley Bilk on January 28, 1929, in Pensford, England; children: Jenny. Addresses: Management--53 Cambridge Mansions, Cambridge Rd., London SW11 4RX, England, phone: 44 (0) 20 7978 5885, fax: 44 (0) 20 7978 5882, e-mail: enquiry@ackermusicagency.co.uk.

Initially associated with the British traditional or "trad" jazz movement, Acker Bilk rose to prominence in Britain and the United States as the bandleader responsible for the hit instrumental "Stranger on the Shore," which became the theme song of a popular British television series. As a trad jazz musician, Bilk rejected the use of amplified instruments and was also against the use of saxophones--most commonly associated at the time with bop and hard bop jazz--preferring instead the instrumentation most commonly associated with jazz music prior to World War II. As a result, his early recordings featured Bilk on clarinet, with accompaniment on banjo, trumpet, trombone, drums, and piano. As the years progressed, Bilk alienated some of his trad audience by integrating saxophones, string orchestras, and synthesizers into his band lineup. He made up for the loss of his trad followers by recording widely and touring frequently, and by using a humorous form of stage patter between musical numbers.

Born Bernard Stanley Bilk in the Somerset village of Pensford in rural England, Bilk was given the name Acker, Somerset slang for "friend," at an early age. He received piano lessons as a young man, but did not take his musical education seriously. Employed for a period of time at the Willis Tobacco factory, Bilk also engaged in competitive boxing. He began playing the clarinet in 1948 while serving in the Royal Engineers. While stationed in Egypt where he was assigned to guard the Suez Canal, he fell asleep on guard duty. This infraction resulted in imprisonment while awaiting a court martial. He was able to while away his time by practicing on a military clarinet that he was loaned while incarcerated for three months. Due to an early sledding accident, Bilk lacked the finger normally used as a finder on the clarinet, and he developed a unique style as a result. His style was further altered by the lack of two teeth that had been knocked out in a fight. The signature sound he eventually perfected had ample vibrato, and developed a fullness of tone in the clarinet's lower registers.

After returning to England, Bilk moved to Bristol and began performing in various jazz groups. He relocated to London to join a band led by Ken Colyer, but disliked the urban environment and moved back to Bristol, where he formed the Bristol Paramount Jazz Band. He returned to London in 1951 with his band, staying with his wife in a factory attic in Plaistow. His distinctive playing and innate leadership abilities prompted him to drop "Bristol" from the band title and rename it Acker Bilk and the Paramount Jazz Band. The band received its first big break when it was hired to play a six-week gig in Dusseldorf, Germany. This booking gave the group ample time to perfect their timing, musicianship, and repertoire, which consisted of raw blues and ragtime vamps. Returning to England, Bilk outfitted the band in Edwardian England-era attire. Bilk sported a bowler hat and finely trimmed beard that became his signature style on album covers throughout the 1960s.

In 1960 the group enjoyed its first hits with "Creole Jazz" and "Summer Set," an instrumental named humorously after the region where Bilk grew up. The editors of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD described Bilk as "an impressive middle-register player who seldom uses the coloratura range for spurious effect, preferring to work melodic variations on a given theme. Though he repeats certain formulae, he tends to do so with variations that stop them going stale."

In 1961, Bilk wrote and recorded a song named for his daughter, Jenny. The song languished in obscurity until it was selected as the theme song for a BBC children's program, "Stranger on the Shore." Producer Dennis Preston convinced Bilk to include strings on the recording session, and the Leon Young String Chorale was enlisted to provide the orchestration. The song "Jenny" was re-titled "Stranger on the Shore," and brought Bilk great success on both sides of the Atlantic. He followed up on the success of "Stranger on the Shore" with the theme to the film A Taste of Honey, which also registered as a hit. He made numerous television appearances during this period, including a guest appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, where he was introduced by Sullivan as "the bearded clarinetist, Mr. Acker Bilk."

In an attempt to progress artistically and stave off creative stagnation, Bilk experimented with styles and instruments throughout the remainder of the 1960s. He hired Bruce Turner, a renowned hard bop saxophonist who had gained notoriety in the 1950s due to scathingly negative reviews by such trad-friendly critics as Philip Larkin. Turner predictably divided Bilk's audience, but his eventual departure prompted the editors of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD to write that "Turner's departure was welcomed like the passing of the plague by Bilk's occasionally too vociferous fans, but he added a certain mainstream punch to a band that was in some risk of dead-ending itself."

The Paramount Jazz Band underwent several personnel changes throughout the 1960s. Original trumpet player Colin Smith departed and was replaced by Rod Mason, who in turn was replaced by Mike Cotton. Trombonist John Mortimer was replaced by Campbell Burnap. With this lineup he recorded Blaze Away, which included "Aria," his first hit in more than ten years. Blaze Away also featured a new recording of "Stranger on the Shore," a composition that Bilk fondly referred to as his pension plan. While "Aria" and "Stranger on the Shore" safely appealed to Bilk's core audience, other compositions, such as "Black and Tan Fantasy," served to appease hardcore jazz aficionados.

In 2001 Bilk was honored by Queen Elizabeth II as a member of the Order of the British Empire, for his musical accomplishments. He continued to record and tour extensively throughout the 1990s and beyond, despite a six-month battle with throat cancer in 1999 and 2000. He has also dedicated much of his time to running a successful music booking and publishing company. He has been a frequent performer at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, and has performed in the Giants of Jazz Concerts with Humphrey Lyttelton and George Melly. In 2003 he performed with the reunited Paramount Jazz Band for concerts that also featured the Big Chris Barber Band and Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen. He also guested as a clarinetist on Van Morrison's 2002 Down the Road and in a 2003 Blue Note debut What's Wrong with This Picture?

by Bruce Walker

Acker Bilk's Career

Began playing the clarinet while stationed in Egypt during Suez Crisis, 1948; formed the Paramount Jazz Band, late 1950s; released hit single "Summer Set," 1960; wrote and recorded hit theme song for British television series Stranger on the Shore, 1961; recorded theme song for film A Taste of Honey, 1963; recorded hit single, "Aria," 1976; named member of the Order of the British Empire, 2001.

Acker Bilk's Awards

Order of the British Empire, member, 2001; Ivor Novello Award for "Most Performed Work."

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

BooksOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 8 years ago

WHEN GROWING UP AS A TEENAGER IN LIVERPOOL ENGLAND ACKER BILK WAS MY FAVORITE CLARINET PLAYER AND I SAW HIM PERFORM AT THE CAVEN IN LIVERPOOL, HE WAS ALWAYS A GENTLEMAN AND MANY TIME HE GAVE ME AND MY FRIENDS BUS FARE HOME HE CALLED US THE SMILING BUMS THIS WAS IN THE THE 50S AROUND 56 LOVED THAT MUSCIC THANK YOU ACKER ... LINDA

almost 9 years ago

When he blow the clarinet, you can hear the wood is made from...I love all the music playing by that men, dixy or with strings, fantastic

over 9 years ago

Mr Bilk Your music brings me back to when i was a boy,My dad would listen to it late into the night,I fell asleep to it many times, I still love it, Thanks so much for all the love. thanks charles

almost 10 years ago

Acker Bilk was an influence in the lives of several Clarinetists in our High School Band in Texas, (as I'm sure he was in many bands and orchestras across the U.S. Tody, in 2007/2008 he still has a special place in my heart. I listen to "Stranger On The Shore" often. This gentlemean's music will live on far into the future. Thanks, Acker. I hope to meet you in heaven one day.