LeonYoung20039In our last post we heard that clarinetist Acker Bilk was on the trad-jazz side of the “jazz wars”, pitched against the “modernist” Johnny Dankworth and the bebop set of Charlie Parker enthusiasts. But Bilk’s finest moment, Stranger on the Shore, which hit the top of the charts in the UK and the US in 1961, has little to do with trad jazz. Stranger, which was used as a BBC television theme tune and became the best-selling instrumental in chart history, is in fact a classic example of light music. The man who shaped it that way is now mostly forgotten. He was Leon Young (1916-91).

Young had a Salvation Army background and later trained as a military bandsman during the second world war, coming out of the war as an all-round musician and arranger. He found a job as a staff arranger at the London publisher’s Francis Day & Hunter, working above their large music shop on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Denmark Street. Young was the arranger behind the Frank Chacksfield Orchestra (though Chacksfield took most of the credit), most famously the theme used for Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight for which Young composed the counter-melody. He also wrote arrangements for Petula Clark, Max Bygraves, and later for Roger Whittaker’s 1969 hit Durham Town.

Persuaded to form an orchestra purely for session work, Young put together the Leon Young String Chorale, and through this was contracted to provide string accompaniments for Acker Bilk. Stranger on the Shore, originally titled Jenny after Bilk’s daughter, was, according to Young’s son, handed to him by Acker as “a single line on a scrap of paper”. From this he crafted the arrangement, including the characteristic harmonic shifts at the very end.

Although credited on the record, Young felt his contribution had not been fully acknowledged, and litigation followed, eventually settled out of court. Young continued to arrange for BBC orchestras into the 1970s, and also worked with Sidney Thompson’s dance orchestra. But he became disillusioned with the pop world and the quality of material he was required to work on – one of his later projects was the orchestration of the sickly children’s choir novelty song Grandma, We Love You. After retirement in 1981 he returned to his early enthusiasm with band music. He died on a cold winter’s night, on his way home after hearing a Salvation Army concert at the Royal Festival Hall, on platform C of Waterloo East Station in January 1991.

Update 1 Those who admire Bilk’s playing but not the light music treatment should turn to the astonishing arrangements (including Stranger on the Shore) made by Stan Tracey for the Blue Acker album of 1968. They are a reminder that, beyond the light entertainment activities that brought him his fame, Bilk has real jazz credentials.

Update 2 Duncan Heining, in the excellent Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975, argues that the issues behind the “jazz war” riots were more to do with class issues than musical differences.

Update 3 Acker Bilk sadly died, aged 85, on November 2nd 2014. His last concert was in August 2013.