People fell in love at the very sound of his hit…and never knew who they were listening to. The story of anonymous clarinetist and the song that made the whole world listen.
It’s been fun – to hear from those who’ve taken the time to respond to our periodic posts on great musical tunes and the great musicians who performed them.
There have been enough…that we’re now talking in terms of requests, including this one from a reader last week who dug deeply into the bag of forgotten hit songs from his youth.
“There was a wonderful clarinet tune from the 60s that I loved, and I don’t know the title,” he said. “But I know it had the word “Stranger” in it. Can you tell me more about it, and who performed it?”
Without hesitation I can share that the tune he remembered was Stranger On The Shore, performed by Acker Bilk, an Englishman known for that lone solitary hit, along with his trademark goatee, bowler hat, and probably…for wearing a striped waistcoat. Bilk was a ‘dandy’, and a colloquial favorite in Europe during the 60s for that one song that found its way across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to the top of the American Billboard Hot 100 in 1962.
It’s ironic that he could play the clarinet at all. You see, Bilk (named Bernard Stanley Bilk) lost two front teeth in a school fight, and half of his index finger in a sledding accident as a child. He liked to talk about both, claiming later that each both affected, and signified, his playing style.
Like other reed instrumentalists, he had a style – a breathy, vibrato-rich, lower register clarinet sound that lent itself perfectly to the Stranger On The Shore tune, a piece he composed in 1961 and originally titled, ‘Jenny’, in honor of his daughter.
He didn’t write it as a hit, but the tune caught fire soon after being recorded and became the first English track to reach number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 when Atlantic Records released it in 1962.
Radio stations across the country literally played it to death. Record stores sold out of it. And all over the world there was an eager anticipation for more great tunes from the Englishman. Unfortunately, there were none to follow, making Bilk, who was doing just fine playing in his native pubs, just another one-hit wonder of popular music. Acker Bilk died in 2014 at the age of 85.
You’ll know it the moment you hear it if you’re at least 60 years of age. And now you know. Enjoy…Stranger On The Shore, the best clarinet ‘ballad’ ever!