Acker Bilk did not start the British Invasion, but he could have. He was the first Brit to hit number one in America, in the rock and roll era. If you include earlier music, Vera Lynn hit number one in 1952 with “Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart,” which would make Acker Bilk the second British artist to hit number one in America, ever. A couple years later, the Beatles would arrive and the invasion would begin in earnest.
Acker Bilk was born Bernard Stanley Bilk in 1929 in Pensford, Somerset, England. The name Acker means “friend” or “mate” and was English slang. His parents tried to get him to play the piano when he was young, but he had little interest. He would rather go out and play football. He lost two teeth and half a finger in fights in school and Acker says those things influenced how he would later play the clarinet.
A friend of his named John Britten bought a clarinet at a bazaar and since Britten says he had no use for a clarinet, he gave it to Acker. (I’m not sure why he bought the instrument in the first place if he didn’t want it.) At any rate, Acker taught himself how to play the clarinet. He said, the instrument had no reed when he got it and he fashioned one himself from a piece of wood.
Acker Bilk began to play the Bristol Jazz circuit in 1951 and moved in and out of London over the next few years. He was playing in the Bristol Paramount Jazz Band when their agent sent them to Düsseldorf, Germany for six months. They played in a beer bar seven hours a day, seven days a week and it was during this period that Acker developed his “look” of striped-waistcoats and bowler hat.
Acker Bilk and his band began their recording career in 1960 with a song called “Summer Set,” which reached number five in the U.K. This was the first of eleven hits which hit the charts in England. By 1962, he was well known there. He had written a song he called “Jenny” which was named after his daughter when a British television producer asked to use it as the theme song of a program called “Stranger on the Shore.” They changed the name of the song to match the name of the program and Acker had another hit on his hands.
“Stranger on the Shore” was a huge hit in England, staying on the charts for 55 weeks. It eventually became the fifty-eighth best selling song of all time in England in a list that was published in 2002.
Acker Bilk continued to play music and record albums throughout his entire life, but he was never to have another hit in America. In 2012, he made a public statement that he was “fed up” with playing “Strangers on the Shore.” Just two years later, on November 2, 2014, he died at the age of 85. He left behind a wife and two children.
“Stranger on the Shore” debuted on the pop chart in America on April 7, 1962 and spent one week at number one. Acker Bilk would never have another hit in America, making him a true “one-hit wonder.”