Graham Reid | | 2 min read
Then again, when I saw Georgie Best he was too so . . .
The difference being that Best was in a bar and Bilk was on a stage playing to the paying public who had every right to expect something better than his shambling show.
I can't remember who else was on the double bill, but I suspect it was Kenny Ball who was also a jazz populist in the late Fifties and through the Sixties.
Bilk had enjoyed a massive hit with Stranger on the Shore in '62 which rocketed up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and went top 10 in New Zealand.
But in terms of hits, that was the last gasp for Bilk and his bowler-hatted bands.
Later that year an unknown band from Liverpool released its first single and by early 1963 the charts and then the world belonged to them.
Elsewhere wrote about that last year before the Beatles when Britain was yawning its way into the new decade.
Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band were always in demand however because there was – and even still is – an audience (predominately British) for men in waistcoats and bowlers playing trad jazz and standards like White Cliffs of Dover, Just a Closer Walk With Thee and Ain't Misbehavin'.
Which make up this double album pulled from the shelf at random for consideration.
What you can't take away from Bilk, even if you don't warm to his repertoire, is that he was a lovely stylist on clarinet who had – especially on the slower numbers like Stranger on the Shore – a distinctive tone.
Later in life he would cover pieces like The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face to equally great effect.
He also sang (“like Louis Armstrong, without the gravel” as one commentator had it) but it was his tone which drew fellow musicians – like altoist Earl Warren of the Count Basie Band – to him. He had a sound which was utterly distinctive on the ballads, and when the tempo picked up he could weave in and out of the arrangements with ease and accomplishment.
He tried to move with the times by covering Beatles and other pop songs, sometimes with synth drums and orchestration. Presumably to save the expense of the real thing.
But there was no doubt that when it came to a love of Dixieland jazz, Bilk – who was born in Somerset, was the real thing.
It is shallow and easy to dismiss his music as safe, perhaps politically insensitive when he plays those classic Southern jazz tunes, and unadventurous.
It can certainly be all those things to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the tune. But there's no denying Acker Bilk – who died in 2014 aged 85 – understood this music and played it with deep love.
The ballads on this 20 track collection -- 1989 live recordings of signature material -- are the best of the selection but you'd certainly liked to have seen him swinging through Lousian-I-A, Basin Street Blues and Savoy Blues.
If he was sober, of course.
This particular album isn't available on Spotify but there are scores of his tracks starting here.
Elsewhere occasionally revisits albums -- classics sometimes, but more often oddities or overlooked albums by major or obscure artists -- and you can find a number of them starting here