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"Mister" Acker Bilk MBE

"Jazz Legend & Clarinet King"

biography | discography | gigs | gallery | links

Who Is Acker Bilk?

The chances are that if you were asked to name a clarinet player, the first name that would spring to mind is Acker Bilk. Somerset-born Acker became world famous in May 1962 when he became the first British artist to top the US pop music charts, paving the way for other acts from the UK.

Acker was born Bernard Stanley Bilk, on 28th January 1929 in Pensford, Somerset. "Acker" means "friend" in Somerset dialect, and he acquired that nickname from an early age. His father was a carpenter by trade, but also played the church organ; and Acker learnt piano and recorder as a child. He learnt to play clarinet in 1948 while on military service with the Royal Engineers in Egypt. The story goes that Acker was imprisoned for three months for falling asleep on guard duty and learnt clarinet while in jail; presumably having plenty of time to practice!

After being demobbed, Acker returned to Bristol working for the WD & HO Wills' tobacco factory during the day, and playing jazz with his own band - the earliest incarnation of the Paramount Jazz Band in the evenings. The jazz scene was blooming at this time, and in 1954 Acker relocated to London where he joined Ken Colyer's band for several months. However, the Big Smoke was not for him, and he returned to the West Country later that year. He reformed the Paramount Jazz Band playing locally, and touring nationally and internationally - records show a tour of Poland in the summer of 1956! John Chilton's 'Who's Who of British Jazz' book states that he also played with the Bristol Crescent City Stompers in 1957, between different incarnations of the Paramount Jazz Band. In the late 1950s, he married Jean "the best looking girl in the village", and fathered two children, Peter and Jenny.

Trad jazz had been popular in the UK throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, and Acker Bilk was one of the key figures in the trad boom, along with the likes of Kenny Ball and Chris Barber. The band became famous not only for their gigs and recordings but for their distinctive waistcoats and their leader "Mister" Acker Bilk's trademark bowler hat and beard. This was the braindchild of was Peter Leslie, Acker Bilk's publicist - who also wrote a number of thrillers in the 1960s. It was he who came up with the idea of the Paramount Jazz Band being smartly dressed in striped waistcoats and bowler hats, and, when Acker went from Pye to EMI, Peter Leslie turned in some fantastic sleeve notes, written in a literary style that was perfected in the late eighteenth century, with proper names capitalised, and ten words where one would do.

Although professional for a few years, it was not until the 1960 that Acker Bilk really hit the big time. Acker's first chart hit was in early 1960, when Summer Set (an instrumental tribute to his home county) reached the Top 5. The following year he released Stranger On The Shore. The song was originally written for daughter Jenny and named after her, but the title was changed when the BBC used it as the theme tune of the eponymous BBC children's TV series. Stranger On The Shore topped the British chart in 1961, and went on to top the Amercian chart some six months later; the first British artist to top the US pop music charts. The record, which would nowadays be described as easy listening, perhaps seems an unlikely double number one on both sides of the Atlantic, but in those pre-Beatles days the charts contained a fairly eclectic mixture of ballads, rock 'n' roll and Dixieland-style trad-jazz.

It was during this period that Acker employed a friend of his as the band's road manager - Adge Cutler. It was Acker who first gave Adge the chance to try out some of his Somerset songs (such as Drink Up Thy Zider, written in 1958) on a real audience. But that, as they say, is another story...

Over the next few years Acker had several more chart successes in the UK - although strangely, he was unable to follow up his US success. Acker's hits were a mixture of instrumental and vocal trad jazz numbers (including his song about Somerset That's My Home) and laid-back easy listening hits. His last hit in the 1960s was the theme of the film A Taste Of Honey in 1963. Both trad jazz and Acker's easy listening style were chart casualties when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones changed the face of popular music forever. But during the late 1950s and early 1960s Acker and his band were regularly to be heard on the BBC radio and Radio Luxembourg, as well as being frequent guests on British TV music and variety shows.

In 1968, Acker, with his brother Dave Bilk (who had been Acker's road manager before Adge Cutler), opened a jazz club at The Granary - a famous and sadly-missed music venue in Bristol. under Acker's guidance, it opened as a seven days a week jazz club on Tuesday 8th October 1968 with music supplied by the Avon Cities Jazz Band who regularly played there for the next 10 years (they also provided the music for the last night of jazz in 1978 as well). Acker Bilk appeared on Thursday 10th October 1968.

Although no longer a familiar face in the charts, Acker continued to play and record the music for which he is famous, and still performs regularly in many countries around the world to this day. His easy listening albums have remained popular and he returned to the UK top 5 with Aria in 1976. Illness meant that he 'retired' from touring in 1999; the first real break in his recording and touring regime since the 1950s. but you can't keep a good man down, and late in 2000 he was back on the road again. In 2001, he was awarded an MBE for services to music. 2009 saw him celebrate his 80th birthday and Acker divides his time between his birthplace Pensford in Somerset, where he still has a house, and Potter's Bar in Hertfordshire, which is closer to the jazz clubs of London where he is still a regular attraction.

With his band's current line-up, Acker Bilk has successfully integrated the top 'younger' jazz talent in the UK into the band with the introduction of Enrico Tomasso (Trumpet), Ian Bateman (Trombone) and John Day (Bass) to the line-up, which includes the ever-present Ritchie Bryant (Drums) and Colin Wood (Piano). The band has a new vitality which is guaranteed to make their shows go with a swing.

Apart from giving Adge Cutler his first break as a performer, and his Somerset roots, Acker qualifies for inclusion in the Scrumpy & Western genre for his Somerset humour which he uses to great effect on stage, as anyone who has seen him will know. Long may he continue to delight the fans with it and his clarinet playing.

Acker Bilk Selected Discography

Acker Bilk must be one of the most prolific recording artists of all time, having made literally hundreds of records since the 1950s, in both the jazz field and his famous easy listening clarinet style. To add to the confusion, many of Acker's records have been repackaged several times. So this initial list is intentionally incomplete to start with - I hope to add to it as time goes on. Meanwhile, if you spot any errors or know any records I've missed, please let us know.

Catalogue no. Title/Tracks Date
Pye Jazz 7NJ 2029 Marching Through Georgia / Delia Gone 1959
Pye Jazz 7NJ 2033 CRE March / Willie The Weeper 1960
Pye Jazz 7NJ 2034 Blaze Away / Higher Ground 1960
Pye Jazz 7NJ 2035 Under The Double Eagle / Easter Parade 1960
Pye Jazz 7NJ 2036 El Abanico / Carry Me Back 1960
Pye Jazz 7NJ 2037 Dardanella / Jump In The Line 1960
Pye Jazz 7NJ 2038 Gladiolus Rag / Louisian-I-Ay 1960
Columbia DB4382 Summer Set / Acker's Away 1959
Columbia DB4492 White Cliffs Of Dover / Fancy Pants 1960
Columbia DB4544 Buona Sera / Corrine Corrina 1960
Columbia DB4620 Sweet Elizabeth / Pretty Boy 1961
Columbia DB4673 That's My Home / My Bucket's Got A Hole In It 1961
Columbia SCD2155 Stars & Stripes Forever / Creole Jazz 1961
Columbia DB4750 Stranger On The Shore / Take My Lips 1961
Columbia SCD2176 Gotta See Baby Tonight / If You Were The Only Girl In The World 1962
Columbia DB4795 Frankie & Johnny / In A Persian Market 1962
Columbia DB4897 Lonely / Acker's Lacquer 1962
Columbia DB4949 A Taste Of Honey / Evening Shadows 1962
Columbia DB7058 Bitter Harvest / Moonlight Tango 1963
Columbia DB7129 The Harem / Train Song 1963
  Mr Acker Bilk Marches On EP
Side 1 - Blaze Away, Under the Double Eagle
Side 2 - CRE March, El Abinico

  Mr Acker Bilk Sings EP
Side 1 - Jump in the Line, Higher Ground
Side 2 - Cary me back to old Virginny, Louisian-I-A

Nixa Jazz Today NJT 513 "Mr. Acker Bilk Requests..."*
Side 1: Travelling Blues / Delia Gone / Gladiola Rag / Willy The Weeper
Side 2: Dardanella / Franklin Street Blues / Easter Parade / Marching Through Georgia
* originally issued in 10-inch LP format
Columbia 33 S 1141 "The Noble Art of Mr Acker Bilk"*
Side 1: Down By the Old Millstream / Marie Elena / Jelly Bean Blues / My Ragtime Baby
Side 2: Tailgate Ramble / Dixie / Liza / Missouri Waltz

* originally issued in 10-inch LP format
Society SOC 908 "Acker's Early Days"
Side 1: Travelling Blues / Ad Lib Blues / Don't Go Way Nobody / Dippermouth Blues / Storyville Blues / Come On And Stomp, Stomp, Stomp
Side 2: Louisian-I-Ay / High Society / Snag It / Sing On / Tartan Socks / Red Wing
Columbia 33S(C)X 1205 "The Seven Ages Of Acker"
Side 1: In A Persian Market / I'm Going Home / Ory's Creole Trombone / Summer Set / Let The Light from The Lighthouse Shine / Berliner Luft March
Side 2: Tiger Rag / Lucky Rock / Cushion Foot Stomp / Run Come See Jerusalem / Old Comrades March
[recorded in 1959, released in 1960]
Columbia S(C)X 3321 "Acker"
Side 1: White Cliffs Of Dover / Snake Rag / 2.19 Blues / Fancy Pants / Lazy River / There's A Rainbow Round My Shoulder
Side 2: Original Dixieland Onestep / Good Night Sweet Prince / Good Woman Blues / Bottom Of The Bottle / Milenberg Joys
Columbia 33S(C)X 1348 "Mr. Acker Bilk's Lansdowne Folio"
Side 1: Starts & Stripes / Perdido Street Blues / Papa Dip / My Heart Belongs To Daddy / Gospel Train / Maryland March
Side 2: That's My Home / Go, Tell It On A Mountain / Creole Jazz / House Rent Stomp / My Bucket's Got A Hole In It / Stomp Off, Let's Go!
Columbia 33S(C)X 1407 "Stranger On The Shore"*
Side 1: Stranger On The Shore / Lullaby / Mean To Me / Greensleeves / Take My Lips / Sentimental Journey
Side 2: Nobody Knows / Is This The Blues? / Cielito Lindo / Deep Purple / I Can't Get Started / Carolina Moon
* 1. Also issued on Metronome SMLP 027 (same title and track sequence)
   2. US version issued on Atco SD 33-129 has same title but tracks in different sequence
Columbia S(C)X 3366 "A Golden Treasury Of Bilk"
Side 1: Should I? / Snag It / Pretty Boy / New Orleans Stomp / Corrine, Corrina / Coming For To Carry Me Home
Side 2: Buona Sera / Gatemouth Blues / Club Foot / Lord, Let Me In The Lifeboat / Who Rolled That Stone Away? / Imperial Echoes
Golden Guinea GGL 0266 "Mr Acker Bilk And His Paramount Jazz Band"
Side 1: CRE March / Carry Me Back / Travelling Blues / Gladiolus Rag / Jump In The Line / Blaze Away
Side 2: El Abanico / Franklin Street Blues / Louisian-i-ay / Dardanella / Higher Ground / Under The Double Eagle
World Record Club T828 "From Acker With Love..."*
Side 1: Moonlight Tango / In The Old French Quarter Of New Orleans / I'll Be Around / Diamantina / The Lady Sings The Blues / The Missouri Waltz
Side 2: Bitter Harvest / I'll Be Seeing You / Shenandoah / Tangerine / The Midnight Sun Will Never Set / Never Love A Stranger
* issued in the USA as Call Me Mister (Atco 33-158)
Columbia 33S(C)X 1493 "A Taste Of Honey"*
Side 1: A Taste Of Honey / Fancy Pants / Only You / Blue Derby / Underneath The Arches / Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair
Side 2: Evening Shadows / Nature Boy / Lady Of The Lake / Stella By Starlight / La Vie En Rose / Always
* Also issued on World Record Club ST 1028
EMI Encore ENC 2009 "Romance À La Bilk"
Side 1: Lonely / Above The Stars / When You Smile / Moonlight Becomes You / Skye Boat Song / And The Angels Sing
Side 2: Limelight / Acker's Lacquer / Soft Sands / Babette / Irish Melody / Della
Columbia S(C)X 3576 "Great Themes From Great European Movies"
Side 1: From Russia With Love / Non Dimenticar / La Ronde / Firestar / Autumn In Rome / Never On Sunday
Side 2: Warsaw Concerto / La Strada / The Good Life / Canto D'Amore / More / Billy Liar
Marble Arch MAL 599 "Mr. Acker Bilk & His Paramount Jazz Band"*
Side 1: CRE March / Carry Me Back / Travelling Blues / Gladiolus Rag / Blaze Away
Side 2: El Abanico / Franklin Street Blues / Louisian-I-Ay / Dardanella / Under The Double Eagle
* originally issued in 1959
Columbia Studio Two TWO 164 "London Is My Cup Of Tea"
Side 1: A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square / Lambeth Walk / The Bells Of St. Mary's / Soho Blues / Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner / Let's All Go Down The Strand
Side 2: London Pride / A Foggy Day In London Town / Limehouse Blues / Chelsea At Midnight / Wot Cher (Knocked 'Em In The Old Kent Road) / London Is My Cup Of Tea
Columbia Studio Two TWO 335 "Horn Of Plenty"
Side 1: You'll Never Know / Embraceable You / Bagatelle / Skylark / It's Only A Paper Moon / Summer Set
Side 2: Out Of Nowhere / Where Or When / Jacqueline / Irish Lullaby / Bird In The Park / Horn Of Plenty
EMI EMC 3125 "The Very Best Of Acker Bilk"
Side 1: Stranger On The Shore / Autumn Leaves / It's Only A Paper Moon / Cuban Love Song / I Gave My Love A Cherry / Jacqueline / Paradise / Never On Sunday / Irish Lullaby / Soho Blues
Side 2: Somewhere My Love / Dinah / Confessin' (That I Love You) / Limehouse Blues / The Bells Of St. Mary's / Sonia / Bagatelle / Petite Fleur / La Ronde / Creole Love Call
Boulevard 4080 "Mr Acker Bilk with his Paramount Jazz Band"
Side 1: East Coast Trot / Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen / Bye And Bye / St. Philip Street / Breakdown
Side 2: All The Girls / St. Louis Blues / Gladiolus Rag / Breeze / The Old Rugged Cross
Note: all tracks on this album recorded in 1957
Harlequin HQ 3004 "Unissued Acker"
Side 1: Dauphine Street Blues / Corinne Corinna / Gloryland / Trouble In Mind / Travelling Blues / Salutation March
Side 2: Monday Date / King Joe / Lou-Easy-An-I-A / Darkness On The Delta / Careless Love / Deep Bayou Blues
Note: all tracks on this album recorded in 1957 but not issued until 1985

Recordings with other artists

Acker has also made several records with other artists and has appeared on compilations with others, notably fellow trad jazz musicians Kenny Ball and Chris Barber. Details of more of these will be added in due course. Yur's one for starters:

Pye Golden Guinea GGL 0131 "The Best Of Ball, Barber & Bilk"
Side 1: Jump In The Line / Higher Ground / Willie The Weeper / Gladiolus Rag / Teddy Bear's Picnic / Hawaiian War Chant
Side 2: I Love You, Samantha / Chimes Blues / Majorca / High Society / Tuxedo Rag / When The Saints Go Marching In
- Acker Bilk & his Paramount Jazz Band - first four tracks, side 1
- Chris Barber & his Jazz Band - last four tracks, side 2
- Kenny Ball & his Jazzmen - remaining four tracks

Acker Bilk

Mister Acker Bilk

Acker Bilk
Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band in 2006

Acker Bilk Links


  • Ian Hadley - for helping with the discography
  • Paul Edmund Norman for his info about Peter Leslie

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