Back in the UK in the mid 1950’s, this writer had the pleasure of playing with clarinetist Bernard (Acker) Bilk for several months. Acker was some 10 years older than me and already an accomplished player of traditional New Orleans clarinet. Like the rest of us Brits he had been greatly influenced by the music of George Lewis and Bunk Johnson, whose revival in the late 1940’s had resulted in a few 78 records reaching Europe. Lewis, an uneducated but humble and gracious New Orleans veteran musician played clarinet with skill and great feeling. His popularity led to tours of the UK and Germany with other old New Orleans players.
Acker, who besides playing with our band also led a Bristol sextet, was what might best be described as a ‘rough diamond’ and a character. Like Lewis he played with skill and great feeling and although the New Orleans revival gradually gave way to children’s Rock and Pop and even worse fashions, Acker kept playing New Orleans with polish, energy and humor. Despite lacking part of a finger he was an able instrumentalist and a very melodic player.
Before the decline of New Orleans jazz in the UK, Acker was fortunate to achieve TV fame with his band dressed in what became trademark outfits. Somewhere around 1961 he recorded one of his own tunes with orchestral accompaniment and it became an international hit. ‘Stranger On the Shore’ is still well-known and played and Acker later referred to it as his pension. My own experience was that this good fortune could not have happened to a nicer guy who brought worthwhile musical pleasure to many. Sadly, Acker died last week at the age of 85. He had suffered from throat cancer, having been a heavy smoker, but I bet that he was cheerful to the end. He will be a welcome addition in Heaven with his clarinet, his whistling and his gruff singing. RIP Acker!