ALMA COGAN (By Steve Walker)
Born Alma Angela Cohen, 19 May 1932, Stepney, London, UK
Alma's career spanned an era of British popular music that saw the transfer of most record purchases go from adults to teenagers. She managed to embrace the musical tastes of both and survived the dramatic changes taking place in the music industry better than many of her contemporaries.
She started her singing career while still a teenager and began recording during 1952. After appearing in the stage revues of "Sauce Tartare" and "High Button Shoes", Alma was spotted by a&r representative Wally Ridley and signed to HMV records. Her first record was "To Be Worthy Of You"/"Would You?" (HMV 10280). Some of her early recordings were covers of US hits - Leroy Anderson's "Blue Tango", Hank's "Half As Much" (although Alma would have heard Rosemary Clooney's Pop number 1 version), Patti Page's "I Went To Your Wedding", Jo Stafford's "You Belong To Me" and "Make Love To Me", Les Paul & Mary Ford's "Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me", Teresa Brewer's "Till I Waltz Again With You" and "Ricochet (Rick-O-Shay)", Rosemary Clooney's "If I Had A Penny", "Mambo Italiano" and "This Ole House", Karen Chandler's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me", Joni James' "My Love, My Love", Ralph Marterie's "Skokiaan" and The Gaylords' "Little Shoemaker".
Although she began her career as a balladeer, her breakthrough came with the novelty "Bell Bottom Blues", which entered the UK charts on 19 March, 1954 and rose to number 4. A cover of Kitty Kallen's "Little Things Mean A Lot" followed during the summer of 1954 and reached number 11. Then, at Christmas, she took Patti Page's "I Can't Tell A Waltz From A Tango" to number 6. During this run of hits, she duetted with Frankie Vaughan on "Do, Do, Do, Do, Do, Do, Do It Again"/""Jilted".
Her lone UK number 1 occurred in the spring of 1955 with "Dreamboat" and the following Christmas she was back with the novelty double-sider "Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo"/"Twenty Tiny Fingers". "Willie Can" was another Top Twenty entry in the spring of 1956 and a duet with Ronnie Hilton ("It's All Been Done Before") appeared on the b-side of his chart-topper "No Other Love". Throughout the late 50's she continued to cover contemporary US hits including Jewel Akens' "The Birds And The Bees", Lavern Baker's "Tweedle Dee", Frank Sinatra's "Love And Marriage", Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love", Fats' "I'm In Love Again", Rusty Draper's "In The Middle Of The House", Charlie Gracie's "Fabulous", Sal Mineo's "Party Time", Marty Robbins' "The Story Of My Life" and "Stairway Of Love", The McGuire Sisters' "Sugartime", Dodie Stevens' "Pink Shoe Laces", Bobby Rydell's "We Got Love" and Annette's "Train Of Love" some of which made the lower regions of the charts. By the end of the 1950's she had notched up 18 UK chart entries, more than any female singer of her era.
Alma featured in many radio programmes during the fifties, featuring regularly with Jimmy Edwards and June Whitfield (the mother on "Absolutely Fabulous") on "Take It From Here". She guested with Benny Hill and Billy Cotton on television and starred at the London Palladium in her own right.
She liked to appear as a fun-loving "party girl" rather than the romantic type portrayed by most other female singers of the era. She frequently wore hooped skirts, often heavy with sequins, and figure hugging tops. Her gowns were indeed extravagant and her dress always caught the eye during her many TV appearances (see a couple of examples at: http://www.pettipond.com/cogan.htm). She exuded a vivacity which came across in her recordings, and was promoted as "The Girl With The Laugh In Her Voice".
By the middle of the 60's, Alma was no longer a chart regular. Always a candidate for the 'cover' game, she cut a bouncy version of "Tell Him" but lost out to Billie Davis. Paul McCartney made a surprise appearance playing tambourine on the b-side of one of her singles, and she repaid the compliment by cutting "Eight Days A Week". It is said that the Beatles were at the recording session. She was friendly with the boys and it is alleged that Paul McCartney wrote "Yesterday" on her piano after a party at her home in Kensington. The song was known as "scrambled eggs" as that was what was being served for breakfast and seemed to fit the melody. John Lennon nicknamed her "Sarah Sequin", saying that she reminded him of his mother. "Every time I'm with Alma, it feels right. Julia (Lennon's late mother) just couldn't cope with me, but Alma can read me like a book." One of the few videos available of Alma was her appearance on "Ready Steady Go" which was introduced by the Beatles.
In March 1966, doctors discovered that Alma had cancer. During a period of convalescence she wrote a number of songs under the pseudonym Al Western, including Ronnie Carroll's "Wait For Me" and Joe Dolan's "I Only Dream Of You". At the peak of the "Man From U.N.C.L.E." TV series, she cut a tribute disc to its star David McCullum. "Love Ya Illya" by the pseudonymous Angela And The Fans received extensive airplay and narrowly missed the charts in 1966.
She was still popular in other markets and had hits all around Europe. She was also successful in Japan reaching number 1 with "Just Couldn't Resist Her and Her Pocket Transistor". She recorded in a number of languages including German, Japanese and Swedish. That autumn, while working in Sweden, Alma collapsed and was sent home. On 26 October, 1966, she lost her fight against cancer and died at London's Middlesex Hospital, aged just 34.
In 1992, she was the subject of a BBC TV documentary as part of "The Lime Grove Story".
Further reading: "Alma Cogan: The Girl With The Laugh In Her Voice" by Sandra Caron (Alma's sister) ISBN 0-7475-0984-0
CD's: The EMI Years (EMI CDP 95594 2) The A-Z of Alma Cogan (EMI 7 243 8 31193 2 5) The Alma Cogan Collection (HMV 7243 5 22230 2 2) Alma (EMI 100 7243 8 56560 2 6)
Website: http://www.lostdivas.co.uk/alma.htm (includes a picture of Alma with the Fabs)
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