In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
These days, Kenny G’s whole public existence seems to be limited to TV commercials where he makes fun of himself. But those of us who are old enough remember when Kenny G was running shit. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the smooth-jazz sax tootler was selling millions upon millions of albums, soundtracking way too many school-commute carpools, and generally imposing his will upon the world. Bill Clinton loved him. It didn’t make much sense then, and it makes even less sense now. But in trying to figure out why so many inoffensively sleepy jazz instrumentals topped the charts in the early ’60s, the Kenny G explanation is the best I can come up with. Plenty of people, after all, crave no excitement whatsoever in their music.
Mr. Acker Bilk, the British clarinetist behind “Stranger On The Shore,” was a pretty colorful character. He’d learned to play his instrument while he was in the British Army, stationed in the Suez Canal. He’d lost both his front teeth and half a finger in various childhood misadventures, and those injuries apparently informed his playing style. He fashioned a visual trademark for himself, wearing a bowler hat and a goatee. And “Acker” wasn’t his name; that’s apparently slang for “friend” in Somerset, where he was from. (He was also the first UK artist to top the Billboard charts in the Hot 100 era. So maybe the British Invasion starts here.)
But there’s not a lot of color in “Stranger On The Shore.” Bilk originally named the song “Jenny,” after his infant daughter, only changing the title when the British TV show of the same name wanted to use it for a theme song. “Stranger On The Shore” sounds like something you might play for an infant, possibly to induce sleep. It’s pretty and gentle, Bilk’s plummy clarinet floating above some slow-cresting strings. There’s no sense of immediacy or fire to it, but there’s a deep, warm comfort in the way Bilk plays. As far as jazz goes, it’s so fluffy and inoffensive that it really only barely qualifies. But it’s a whole lot better than Kenny G, anyway.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the KLF’s miasmic 1990 ambient interlude “A Melody From A Past Life Keeps Pulling Me Back,” which samples “Stranger On The Shore”: