Stranger from the British Isles by
(25 Stories)

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I first came upon this tune watching the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” It tells the story of a band director (played by Richard Dreyfuss) laboring at a Middle School in Oregon where music instruction is on the chopping block. One of the students, a clarinetist, struggles to play a sad and beguiling tune. Years later, she is governor of the state, and becomes a champion for music in the schools.

When I first heard her play, I thought it was a terrific song, but I did not like her tone. I wondered, how does a musician deliberately play poorly while making a movie? But as I listened to it, it became clear to me that it was played well — that is, rhythmically correct, with no wrong notes, and in tune. I just didn’t like the sound coming from the clarinet.

What was the first British song to be number one on the American charts? Hint: It predates the Beatles by two years.

I was captured by its aching emotional content and wanted to hear more. A little research revealed the song was “Stranger on the Shore” and the lyrics and music appeared in a volume of “One Hit Wonders of the ’50s & ’60s”. The lyrics begin as follows:

Here I stand, watching the tide go out
So all alone and blue
Just dreaming dreams of you.
I watched your ship as it sailed out to sea
Taking all my dreams
And taking all of me.

You can read the rest of the lyrics by googling it. They reinforce for me the emotions generated by the melody, although to me it’s the notes, not the lyrics, which keep the song close to my heart.

It turns out that this song is the answer to the trivia question that asks what British song was the first to top the US pop charts. This occurred in May 1962, two years before the so-called British Invasion led by the Beatles. The clarinetist is named Acker Bilk, described in as “known for his trademark goatee, bowler hat, striped waistcoat and his breathy, vibrato-rich, lower register clarinet style.” I suppose the breathy style reminded me too much of a saxophone, an instrument for which I have no particular fondness.  Acker (a slang term for buddy) called the song his old age pension. He ascribed his unique tone as the result of being hit in the mouth in a childhood scrape in the rough and tumble neighborhood where he grew up.

Here’s a YouTube link to Acker playing it:

Here’s my take, without the lush backup that Acker has: You may want to turn the volume down a bit.  Fortunately, I don’t rely on it to fund my retirement.

Profile photo of Mister Ed Mister Ed

Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    One hit wonders are a fun category, Mr. Ed. I keep meaning to watch Mr. Holland’s Opus, but haven’t gotten to it (missed it the first time around, but know I would enjoy it). I hear the breathiness you mention, but it seems to be a style choice. The music itself has a certain yearning quality that is appealing. I can understand why it has stayed with you all this time.

    • Mister Ed says:

      My one hit wonder book has some “wonder”ful pieces. Some are really nice. My favorites from the book include Angel of the Morning, which brings back some memories, as well as Bobby’s Girl, Chantilly Lace, and Eve of Destruction. Others in this volume are “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose, and the always popular “Tie Me Kangroo Down, Sport.”

  2. Suzy says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this wonderful song and the movie that brought it back to public attention (I actually don’t remember the song from 1962, I only remember it from the movie). I like your clarinet playing better than Acker Bilk’s, even though he has the benefit of an orchestra behind him, so thanks for that too.

  3. Marian says:

    Thanks for the introduction to this song, Mr. Ed. I likely would not have stumbled upon it otherwise, and really appreciate learning about other people’s favorites.

  4. Wonderful and thoughtful story Ed, and the intro to a song hadn’t heard before.

    And BTW you play the clarinet marvelously – especially for a horse.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for both those sweet tunes, courtesy of Acker and Mr Ed! I like the clarinet sound—both versions—and wish they were more part of today’s music. My dad had a Benny Goodman record I loved. The clips bring back a distant memory of the music—but who knew that was the one hit wonder from Britain that preceded the Beatles??

  6. I didn’t recognize the title but I definitely remember that haunting tune. I have to admit I do like Acker’s version, undoubtedly because it’s so familiar. But I love your version, too, Mister Ed. I’m always fascinated by how phrasing plays such a huge role in music in expressing the artist’s feelings. It reminds me of how in photography, just the angle of the shot has a similar effect, and why any number of people can shoot the same scene and each version will have its own stamp of individuality. Thanks so much for including your take!

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I remember that song well. I am fascinated by one hit wonders. There is a room dedicated to them at the Rock and Roll museum in Cleveland. I must confess my husband and I fell down a rabbit hole there. “I remember that song, ” followed by wondering why the artist could never replicate that success.

  8. Thank you SO MUCH for giving me back a part of my own family legacy. My dad played both sax and clarinet, and I recognized this tune as soon as I clicked on it! It was definitely one that he played. I am thinking he played it on both instruments, but perhaps only on the clarinet.
    You compressed a lot into this concise and well crafted narrative. I may need to watch that R. Dreyfuss film now. I remember hearing of it but never saw it. Thanks for that too.

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    A haunting melody and a childhood memory. Thanks!

  10. Susan Bennet says:

    Mr. Ed, I remember this well, the sweetest clarinet ever. It defined a time musically in a way I can’t explain. Lovely to hear it again. I didn’t know Mr. Bilk’s name, nor did I know that he was British; interesting to learn. That was the era of the great instrumentals, and this ranks among the finest.

    I am aching to find an opportunity to write, A horse is a horse, of course, of course, but haven’t figured out a way yet. It’s coming, though. Thanks.

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