If any one artist personified the 1950s in Britain, it was Alma Cogan. Nicknamed ‘the girl with the giggle in her voice’, her bright and breezy image seemed to fit perfectly with the decade. She continued to record in the 1960s, but despite some quality releases, she became better known as party host to the stars.
She was born Alma Cohen on 19 May 1932, in Golders Green, north London. She was pushed into a showbiz career by a star-struck mother and, aged 16, she became resident singer at the Cumberland Hotel. Whilst performing there, she was spotted by A&R man Wally Ridley, who ran EMI’s HMV label.
After recording Red silken stockings for him in 1950, it was decided to release labelmate Betty Driver’s version instead. Ridley told Alma she should train her voice. Two years later, after many lessons, Alma cut her first disc, To be worthy of you/Would you? on her 20th birthday.
Alma’s initial releases were mainly forgettable ballads, and even on the few uptempo numbers given to her, she had little to distinguish her from any other girl singer.
But slowly, Alma’s bright personality began to shine through on record, and in July 1953, her trademark was established. Whilst recording If I had a golden umbrella, she broke out into a giggle, and it was decided to keep this on the recording. But it wasn’t until Bell bottom blues, a number four hit in April 1954, that she became a hit maker.
And soon, with the launch of commercial television in 1954, Alma was also established as a television star. In her regular appearances she would wear expensive and elaborate ball gowns and frocks. These outfits, together with a run of cheerful and catchy hits, got her voted the top female singer in the UK in the NME reader polls, from 1956 to 1958.
She was the most successful British female singer on the hit parade during the 1950s, enjoying 18 hits. They included I can’t tell a waltz from a tango, Dreamboat (her only number one) and Never do a tango with an Eskimo.
Unfortunately for Alma, as for many of her contemporaries, the beginning of the new decade spelt trouble. Dream talk became Alma’s first new hit of 1960, but could only muster number 48 in the new top 50, whilst The train of love, a Paul Anka composition, made it to number 27 in August. Meanwhile, Just couldn’t resist her with her pocket transistor flopped in the UK, but topped Japanese charts for months on end.
Early in 1961, Alma moved to another EMI label, Columbia, where she went on to have her last UK hit when Cowboy Jimmy Joe made number 37 in April.
Her next single coupled the title track of her new LP, With you in mind – a lush, string-filled romantic affair written by her producer Norman Newell – with an updated version of the 1918 hit Ja da. These did nothing for her career at the time, but the latter track has been used to promote Mars Bars in recent years. Coincidentally, Alma herself promoted this snack in the 1950s.
On Alma’s first LP, I love to sing, issued in 1958, she had proven her ability as an interpreter of classic standards. She repeated the formula on With you in mind in 1961, and it appears that other older songs were being recorded for release on singles. However, whilst the LP renditions were recorded with more traditional arrangements, the singles were being squarely pitched at the ever-more-distant youth market. All alone, released in December, was a teen-friendly version of an Irving Berlin number first published in 1924, although someone with no knowledge of this fact would probably fail to spot that it wasn’t an original 1960s song.
In April 1962, Alma went back even further. In the shade of the old apple tree had first been heard in 1905. The A-side, however, was a cover of Patsy Cline’s contemporary hit She’s got you. The practice of artists covering current hits had been a staple of the 1950s, but it became rarer in the 1960s – most big stars were releasing songs tailored to suit them, even if they weren’t yet writing their own songs.
All this contributed to Alma being seen as an anachronism and somewhat old-fashioned.
That said, she was often quite ahead of her time. Goodbye Joe, issued in November 1962, had a ‘psychedelic’ sound that foreshadows the musical trend that would come five years later. I can’t give you anything but love, the B-side, was taken from her latest LP, How about love!, another collection of standards, this time all ‘love’ titles.
Alma had high hopes that her cover of the Exciters’ Tell him, issued in February 1963, would return her to the charts, but instead teenage singer Billie Davis made it a hit. However, it signalled a new direction for Alma’s career. She courted the international market by recording new versions of the song in Japanese and German, whilst the B-side, a bossa nova rendition of Fly me to the moon – which had been recorded in a somewhat slower tempo on her 1961 LP – topped the Israeli charts.
By now, she was touring extensively in these countries. This explains the seven-month gap between releases, as it wasn’t until September that her latest record hit the shops. Hold your hand out you naughty boy, a music hall number from 1913, was, like All alone, recorded with such a contemporary arrangement that today’s listeners would probably think it was a 1960s song. The beat boom was now at its height and, Alma co-wrote the B-side, Just once more, with her pianist Stan Foster. This was just as good as any other current beat song, so its failure remains a mystery.
New Alma Cogan 45s were becoming more and more infrequent. By March 1964, Kathy Kirby had become Britain’s biggest female singer, and had done very well by updating two 1950s hits – Secret love and Let me go lover – both arranged by Charles Blackwell. So Alma hit upon the idea of borrowing him to do the same for her version of Tennessee waltz. It proved a huge smash hit – in Sweden, where it topped the charts for five weeks. And after re-recording the song in German – the first of a string of German-language 45s – she enjoyed a top ten hit with the result in Germany too.
Back home, Alma had recently struck up a friendship with the Beatles, who became frequent visitors to her Kensington apartment, where she often threw parties attended by a host of showbiz names.
In October 1964, Alma took a punt with two of her latest compositions, It’s you and I knew right away (both co-written with her musical director, Stan Foster). Both Alma and the songs sound very contemporary, and her friend Paul McCartney even played tambourine on the B-side, while George Martin handled the production. Quite simply, the main hindrance to Alma’s lack of hits with such strong material can only have been her name being on the records.
Alma’s next single was issued in the summer of 1965 – and hurriedly withdrawn by EMI. The Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, had produced both the poignant Now that I’ve found you and his own composition Love is a word.
Chris Curtis of the Searchers penned Alma’s next single for her. Snakes and snails, which hit the shops in August, supposedly features Dusty Springfield – who was now Britain’s top female singer – on backing vocals, with a heavy rock backing. The B-side was a cover of a flop Phil Spector production from 1962, How many nights, how many days. It’s debatable whether the A-side suited Alma entirely, but the B-side was another example of how easily she could have had fitted in with an authentic 1960s beat sound. (Check it out in our Phil Spector tribute special.)
In November, Alma’s new producer, David Gooch, had scheduled a cover of Peggy March’s Let her go backed with Yesterday, which Paul McCartney had first played to Alma in her flat. Both were excellent performances, but Alma had the single withdrawn. Instead, two Beatles covers, Eight days a week (edited for the single) and Help! were issued. The A-side was given many plugs by disc jockeys, but it didn’t find its way into the charts.
To top it all, EMI had now decided that she was to be dropped from the label.
By early 1966, Alma’s health was worsening, and she collapsed with stomach pains after starting a tour of England. After receiving treatment for stomach cancer, she decided to carry on working, and April saw the release of the last UK single issued in Alma’s lifetime. Possibly working on the theory that her name was preventing any success, she labelled herself Angela and the Fans (Angela was her middle name) on a tribute to David McCallum’s character in TV’s The man from U.N.C.L.E., entitled Love ya Illya. It was backed with I know you, and both songs had been written by Alma and Stan Foster. But again, despite much radio support, the disc did not make the UK top 50.
Following three weeks in hospital, Alma died of ovarian cancer on 26 October 1966 at London’s Middlesex Hospital. David Gooch selected the two sides that were to be issued as a posthumous single – Alma’s poignant composition Now that I’ve found you (a re-issue of the earlier single) backed with More, composed and produced by Norman Newell, who produced most of Alma’s 1960s recordings.
Even in the immediate aftermath of her death, Alma’s popularity failed to be reignited. But thankfully, over the last 40-odd years since her passing, nostalgia for the Alma of the 1950s has led to numerous re-issues – and a new appreciation of her neglected but brilliant work from the 1960s.
With thanks to Theo Morgan for contributing this profile.