Beatles-beating jazz clarinetist Acker Bilk passes away at 85

By Jill Lawless , AP

LONDON–English clarinet player Acker Bilk, who beat the Beatles and other British rockers to the top of the U.S. music charts with the instrumental ��Stranger on the Shore,�� has died at the age of 85.

Manager Pamela Sutton said Bilk died Sunday at a hospital in Bath, southwestern England. The cause of death was not announced.

Born Bernard Stanley Bilk in 1929 in the southwestern English county of Somerset, Bilk 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 was 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 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.