Spotlight on ....

Alma Cogan

In the austere and monochrome world of the 1950’s, Alma Cogan was guaranteed to light up the screen with her colourful personality and over-the-top glamour.  She had 20 hit singles in her heyday – more than any other British, female artist of the period.

Alma Cogan was born of Jewish parentage in London on 19th May 1932.  Her father Mark was in the clothing trade and the family moved from town to town as her opened new shops.  Her mother Fay was a typical stage mother who wanted to see her two daughters Alma and Sandra make it big in show-business.

As a teenager, Alma got her first taste of singing success when she won the Sussex Queen of Song contest, receiving £5 in prize money.  After that, Fay took the 14-year old to audition for bandleader Ted Heath. “You’ve got a good voice,” he told her. “But you’re too young for this business. Come back in five or six years.”  Heath later said that letting her go was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

Cabaret work at Selby’s Restaurant and the Café Anglais soon followed.  Her most important engagement was a six-week booking at the Cumberland Hotel at marble Arch, which was extended to 18 months.  Here she was spotted by Walter J. Ridley, A&R man at EMI, who was looking for a female vocalist to join his growing directory of male singers.  Ridley gave her a contract with the company’s His Masters Voice label and, on her 20th birthday, she entered the famous Abbey Road studios and recorded her first commercial disc, To Be Worthy of You (after her debut recording, Red Silken Stockings, had been shelved in favour of a version by Betty Driver).

More records followed, including duets with Larry Day and Les Howard, but none were hits.  The BBC noticed Cogan’s many talents (in particular her gift for dialect), however, when she sent them a privately made demonstration disc, She joined the cast of the Dick Bentley radio show Gently Bentley and then the long-running radio comedy classic series Take It From Here, with Jimmy Edwards and June Whitfield (another rising star).  Cogan was jut one of 400 hopefuls up for the part, after the BBC announced that it was looking for a singer to replace Joy Nichols, who was to leave the series.

In April 1954, Cogan had here first Top 10 hit, with Bell Bottom Tango, featured the Cogan giggle even more distinctly and she became known as ‘the girl with the laugh in her voice.’ In July 1955, Cogan claimed the top spot with her only British No 1, the bouncy, Dreamboat which became the shortest Number 1 ever at one minute, forty nine seconds.  Her singing style suited novelty numbers, and records such as Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo, Twenty Tiny Fingers, Willie Can and Sugartime kept her in the charts throughout the rest of the 50’s.   She topped the polls in the New Musical Express Best Female Singer category three years running (1956-1958) and had the prestigious honour of appearing in three Royal Variety Shows (1955, 1957 and 1960).

Alongside her distinctive singing style, Cogan also became known for her extravagant stage wear.  Her trademark gowns with layers of tulle and sprinklings of feathers captivated a nation that only had black and white television and for a long period only one channel to watch.

Cogan had become great pals with the Beatles after she met them in January 1964 during rehearsals for Sunday Night at the London Palladium.  They attended her spectacular show business parties at home in Stafford Court on Kensington High Street, alongside Noel Coward, Stanley Baker, Lionel Bart, Cary Grant, Sammy Davis Jnr and many others.  She was especially close to John Lennon, who fondly called her Sarah Sequin, and shared his offbeat sense of humour.  Alma and her pianist Stan Foster were the first people to son to hear an early version of Yesterday, when Paul McCartney dropped by her flat to play the tune he had provisionally entitled ‘Scrambled Eggs.’ The inclusion of her cover versions of Beatles songs showed Alma in a different light and has since become one of the best sellers in EMI’s nostalgia catalogue.

Her last chart entry came with Cowboy Jimmy Joe in April 1961.  Peaking at number 37, the record marked a switch to HMV’s sister label Columbia.  Further Columbia singles included With You In Mind, backed with Ja-Da (the latter revived for a 2005 Mars TV ad).  Original songs proved hard to come by, so Cogan went on recording covers of American hits, including excellent adaptations of Patsy Cline’s She’s Got You and the Exciters’ Tell Him.

But, by now, Cogan’s powder puff image was looking dated.  She addressed the issued by moving away from big gowns, dropping a dress size and revealing a slinky look in keeping with the new decade.

As her star diminished in her home country, she became popular in Australia, Sweden and Germany.  She was one of the first British stars to appear in Japan, where the public adored her. The Japanese version of ‘Just Couldn’t Resist Her With her Pocket Transistor’ was a number1 hit in Japan for over months.

 In her later years Alma worked with Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ producer in her search for a new sound. Although it showed Alma in a completely different light, the style was too much of a departure for EMI and they failed to release the album. The final track for Alma’s last album was recorded in July 1966, but by that time, Cogan had been hospitalised several times with abdominal pain.  The first sign had been in March 1965 when she was taken ill minutes before a performance in Stratford.  In February 1966, she was rushed into Harley Street Nursing home for an abdominal operation.

The serious nature of the illness caught up with her on tour in Sweden.  She was flown back and admitted to hospital in London, where on 26 October 1966, she died.  Little was reported about the nature of her illness at the time, but it was later confirmed that she died of ovarian cancer. The album was finished posthumously at Abbey Road by Stan Foster, her pianist and music arranger.

Her death, aged only 34, shocked the nation in October 1966.  For years after her death she remained largely overlooked, remembered only as a singer of silly novelty songs.  A long overdue profile of this glamorous and talented singer has been released on DVD by Odeon Entertainment and a biography on BBC4 to be screened in November and around the Christmas period confirms her status as the most successful and best loved female singer of the 1950’s Britain.  Today, exactly 40 years after her death, her reputation is higher than ever and her star continues to sparkle.

By kind permission of
Record Collector

 

For more information about Alma Cogan visit
www.almacogan.com

 

 

 


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