Alma Cogan was the most successful British female singer of the 1950s. In the 1960s, despite some great, contemporary releases, she struggled to shake off the public view that she was outdated. Germany offered her a market with fewer preconceptions, though, ironically, her biggest hit came with a 1950s cover version, Tennessee Waltz.
She was born Alma Cohen on 19 May 1932, in Golders Green, north London.
From a young age, her mother was the driving force behind her move into show business. Having been the resident singer at a London hotel from the age of 16, she signed with the HMV label and cut her first record, To be worthy of you, on her 20th birthday.
In Britain she became known as ‘the girl with the giggle in her voice’ after breaking into a giggle while recording If I had a golden umbrella in 1953. Her first big hit came a year later, when Bell bottom blues reached number four in the UK charts.
She went on to become the most successful British female singer of the 1950s, enjoying 18 hits, including I can’t tell a waltz from a tango and Dreamboat (her only number one).
Unfortunately for Alma, as for many of her contemporaries, the new decade spelt trouble, and she enjoyed her last UK hit in 1961 with Cowboy Jimmy Joe. Interestingly, the song had been penned by German writers Werner Scharfenberger and Fini Busch and had been a hit for Austrian singer Lolita as Die Sterne der Prärie a year earlier.
Having international stars re-record their material for the lucrative German market was common at that time, and Alma’s record label suggested that she begin performing in German. So her 1955 top ten UK hit Never do a tango with an Eskimo, for instance, became Tanze niemals einen Tango mit ‘nem Eskimo.
The arrival of the Beatles and the beat boom saw Alma make a move away from the novelty records that had been her trademark in the 1950s.
Moving with the times, she recorded Tell him – a version of the Exciters’ US hit – in 1963, but it lost out in a sales war to a rival version by Billie Davis. She also cut a German version of the track, Schneller.
In the UK, she was teamed with producer Charles Blackwell – the man behind many a great song by the likes of Françoise Hardy, Kathy Kirby and Samantha Jones, amongst others – for Tennessee waltz in 1964. Her take on the old Patti Page hit missed the British charts, but again she was asked to record a German version. Her accented delivery charmed German record buyers, and the disc, issued in November 1964, reached number ten in Germany and spent 17 weeks in the charts.
The traditional Home on the range became Hill-Billy-Boy for her German follow up. The song, which bore a similarity to its predecessor, was also cut with Charles Blackwell. However, it reached only a disappointing number 39 in May 1965.
After Ba-Ba-Song stalled, Alma’s German label, Columbia, had her issue the cooler So fängt es immer an, a version of US girl group The Toys’ A lover’s concerto in 1965.
The release is doubly interesting for its B-side, Nun bist du mein Mann, a slower re-recording of Now that I’ve found you. She had co-written the original with her musical director, Stan Foster, and recorded it in London with Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. However, it had been deemed too different to her usual style to be suitable for release.
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 carried on working.
The German original Lass nicht soviel Zeit vergehn was issued as a 45 that year. It had been penned by songwriters Michael Holm and Joachim Relin, the men behind songs for Françoise Hardy, Cliff Richard and Mary Roos. Again, the flip is just as noteworthy – An jedem Tag ist Zeit was a
re-recording of her There is a time and place, another of her compositions.
Sadly, the 45 became her final German release before her death from ovarian cancer in October that year.
Tennessee Waltz was reissued in the early 1970s. (It was also cut in the mid-1960s in East Germany by Bärbel Wachholz, and was covered in the late 1990s by German-based British singer Ireen Sheer.)
With thanks to Theo Morgan for additional research.