Acker Bilk dies at 85; clarinetist known for ‘Stranger on the Shore’

Clarinetist Acker Bilk, one of the stars of Britain's 1950s "trad jazz" scene, was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2001 for services to music. Bilk died Sunday at the age of 85.
(John Stillwell / Associated Press)

English clarinet player Acker Bilk, who reached the top of the U.S. music charts with the instrumental “Stranger on the Shore,” has died. He was 85.

Bilk died Sunday at a hospital in Bath, southwestern England, according to his manager, Pamela Sutton. The cause was not announced.

Born Bernard Stanley Bilk on Jan. 29, 1929, in the southwestern English county of Somerset, he adopted the name Acker from a local slang term for friend.

He learned the clarinet as a bored army conscript, stationed in Egypt after World War II, and became one of the stars of Britain’s 1950s “trad jazz” scene.


Before the British rock invasion, he was the first U.K. act to top the Billboard music chart in the 1960s, with “Stranger on the Shore.” The wistful 1961 instrumental also spent more than a year in the British charts and became his signature tune.

He is on the select list of artists who have been played in space. Along with tracks by Frank Sinatra, the Kingston Trio and others, three of Bilk’s tunes were included on a cassette that accompanied the Apollo 10 astronauts on their mission around the moon in 1969.

Bilk attributed his distinctive vibrato sound to a pair of childhood accidents. He lost part of a finger in a sledding accident, and two teeth in a fight at school.

His smooth signature style became an instantly recognizable sound for millions of listeners, and his goatee, garish waistcoat and bowler hat helped cement his image. He remained a television regular with a large and loyal following long after jazz was displaced from the charts by rock ‘n’ roll.


Bilk, who was treated for throat cancer around the turn of the millennium, was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001 for services to music.

He is survived by his wife, Jean, and their son and daughter.