If you’d told a randomly selected group of American music fans in the spring of 1962 that a British act would soon achieve total dominance of the American pop scene, change the face of music and fashion and inspire a generation of future pop stars to take up an instrument and join a band, they would probably have scratched their heads and struggled to imagine such a thing. And if any image popped into their heads, it wouldn’t have been of young lads playing guitars in mop tops and Nehru jackets. The Beatles, after all, were complete unknowns at this point. No, if there was any image that would have come to mind, it would have been of middle-aged men playing the clarinet in bowler hats and stripey waistcoats. Up to that point, after all, the single, solitary Briton ever to have reached the top of the American charts in the rock and roll era was a man by the name of Mr. Acker Bilk. His instrumental single, “Stranger On the Shore” provided the first, false hint of the British Invasion to come when it went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on May 26, 1962.
Mr. Acker Bilk was a jazz clarinetist dressed in the throwback garb of an Edwardian dance hall player—hardly the stuff that trends are made of, but the pleasing sound of his Stranger On The Shore fit very neatly within the spectrum of non-threatening pop that dominated in America prior to the arrival of the Beatles. In fact, while harder-edged American R&B artists of the time enjoyed far greater popularity in the UK than they did in the United States, easy-listening instrumentalists like Mr. Acker Bilk and orchestra leaders like Bert Kaempfert, Percy Faith and Henry Mancini thrived on the U.S. side of the Atlantic.
As popular as it was however, the song that went to #1 on this day in 1962 did not set off a prolonged period of "Acker Bilk-mania.” “Stranger On The Shore” proved to be the only significant hit for Mr. Acker Bilk, whose greatest legacy is possessing the honor of being the very first British artist to top the American pop charts—something that would happen 173 more times over the course of the next 35 years.