During the American rock and roll era (1955-present), several hundred British singles have topped the American charts but the very first was by a former traditional jazz artist who never had another top 40 hit in the U.S.
Bernard Stanley Bilk was born January 28, 1929. Acker is rural slang for “mate.” The story goes that while serving in the British military during 1947 in Egypt, he fell asleep while on guard duty and was confined to the base for three months. It was during this confinement that he learned to play the clarinet. He emerged in the 1950s as a part of the traditional jazz movement that was becoming popular in his home country at the time.
Bilk stepped out of obscurity during the early 1960s when he wrote a gentle song called “Jenny” for his daughter Jennifer. A television show approached him concerning using the song for their new series, Stranger on the Shore. The song’s name was changed to match the series and it would go on to make music history. He released the song as a single in the U.K., where it reached number two on the Record Retailer chart, but the best was yet to come.
The song has a smooth flowing spirit to it and Bilk’s clarinet sound was a cross between light jazz and easy listening. It was not even close to the rock and roll sound of the day but was rather adult contemporary. As noted in Joel Whitburn’s book Top Pop Singles: 1955-1997, “Stranger on the Shore” spent 21 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Fifty years ago this week it reached number one, where it stayed for a single week. It also topped the Easy Listening chart (the fulture Adult Contemporary chart) for seven weeks. It remains one of the signature instrumentals of the pre-Beatles era.
While he would gradually disappear from the American music scene, he would remain popular in England. He continues to perform and at the age of 83 can look back on his crowning achievement of a half-century ago, when his “Stranger on the Shore” ruled the American music world.