Alma Cogan

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This article is about the singer named Alma Cogan. For the Gordon Burn novel, see Alma Cogan (novel).
Alma Cogan
Birth name Alma Angela Cohen
Born (1932-05-19)19 May 1932
Whitechapel, East London, England, UK
Died 26 October 1966(1966-10-26) (aged 34)
London, England
Genres Traditional pop
Years active 1952–1966
Labels HMV, EMI Columbia
Website Alma Cogan International Fan Club

Alma Cogan (19 May 1932 – 26 October 1966)[1] was an English singer of traditional pop music in the 1950s and early 1960s. Dubbed "The Girl With the Laugh/Giggle/Chuckle in Her Voice",[2] she was the highest paid British female entertainer of her era. Throughout the mid-1950s, she was the most consistently successful female singer in the UK.[3]

Childhood and early musical career[edit]

She was born Alma Angela Cohen in Whitechapel, London, of Russian-Romanian Jewish descent.[4] Her father's family, the Kogins, arrived in Britain from Russia, while her mother's family were refugees from Romania.[5] Cogan's parents, Mark and Fay Cohen, had another daughter, the actress Sandra Caron[6] and one son. Mark's work as a haberdasher entailed frequent moves. One of Cogan's early homes was over his shop in Worthing, Sussex.

Although Jewish, she attended St Joseph's Convent School in Reading.[7] Her father was a singer, but it was Cogan's mother who had show business aspirations for both her daughters (she had named Cogan after silent screen star Alma Taylor). Cogan first performed in public at a charity show at the Palace Theatre in Reading, and at eleven, competed in the "Sussex Queen of Song" contest held at a Brighton hotel, winning a prize of £5.

At fourteen, she was recommended by Vera Lynn for a variety show at the Grand Theatre in Brighton. At sixteen, she was told by bandleader Ted Heath "You've got a good voice, but you're far too young for this business. Come back in five years time"; Heath would later say: "'Letting her go was one of the biggest mistakes of my life."[8] But Cogan found work singing at tea dances, while also studying dress design at Worthing Art College, and was soon appearing in the musical High Button Shoes and a revue Sauce Tartare.[9] In 1949, she became resident singer at the Cumberland Hotel, where she was spotted by Walter Ridley of HMV, who became her coach.

'Girl with the giggle'[edit]

Cogan's first release was "To Be Worthy of You"/"Would You" recorded on her twentieth birthday.[citation needed] This led to her appearing regularly on the BBC's radio show Gently Bentley, and then becoming the vocalist for Take It From Here.

In 1953, while recording "If I Had A Golden Umbrella", she broke into a giggle, and then played up the effect on later recordings. Soon she was dubbed "The girl with the giggle in her voice".

Many of Cogan's recordings would be covers of US hits, notably by Rosemary Clooney, Teresa Brewer, Georgia Gibbs, Joni James and Dinah Shore. One of these covers, Bell Bottom Blues became her first hit, reaching No. 4 on 3 April 1954.[10] Cogan would appear in the UK Singles Chart eighteen times in the 1950s, with "Dreamboat" reaching No. 1. Other hits from this period include I Can't Tell a Waltz from a Tango, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Sugartime and The Story of My Life. Cogan's first album I Love to Sing was released in 1958.

Cogan was one of the first UK record artists to appear frequently on television, where her powerful voice could be showcased along with her bubbly personality and dramatic costumes. These hooped skirts with sequins and figure-hugging tops were reputedly designed by herself and never worn twice. Cliff Richard recalls: "My first impression of her was definitely frocks – I kept thinking, how many can this woman have? Almost every song had a different costume. The skirts seemed to be so wide – I don't know where they hung them up!"[11][12] Cogan topped the annual NME reader's poll as "Outstanding British Female Singer" four times between 1956 and 1960.

Too square for the '60s[edit]

The UK musical revolution of the 1960s, symbolised by the rise of the Beatles, suddenly made Cogan unfashionable. John Lennon's wife Cynthia recalled "John and I had thought of Alma [as] out of date and unhip." This view was confirmed by Lionel Blair in the 1991 BBC documentary Alma Cogan: The Girl with the Giggle in Her Voice, when he said she was perceived as 'square'. Her highest '60s chart ranking in UK would be No. 26 with We Got Love, and most of her successes at this time were abroad, notably in Sweden and Japan, as she was good at singing in foreign languages. She was especially disappointed that her 1963 cover of the Exciters' US hit "Tell Him" did not return her to the UK charts, according to singer Eddie Grassham. In 1964 Tennessee Waltz was recorded in a rock and roll ballad style by Cogan; this version was No. 1 in Sweden for five weeks and also reached the Top 20 in Denmark while a German language rendering reached No. 10 in Germany.

Still she remained a popular figure on the UK show-business scene, being offered the part of Nancy in Oliver!, appearing on the teenage hit-show Ready Steady Go!, and headlining at the Talk of the Town.

Illness and early death[edit]

Cogan tried to update her image by recording some Beatles numbers and a spin-off from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ("Love Ya Illya"). But by 1965, record producers were becoming dissatisfied with Cogan's work, and it was clear that her health was failing. Her friend and colleague Anne Shelton attributed this decline to some 'highly experimental' injections she took to lose weight, claiming that Cogan was never well again after that.[13]

In early 1966, Cogan embarked on a series of club dates in the north of England, but collapsed after two performances and had to be treated for stomach cancer.[12] In August, she made her final TV appearance on the guest-spot of International Cabaret. The next month, she collapsed while touring Sweden to promote Hello Baby, recorded exclusively for the Swedish market. At London's Middlesex Hospital, she succumbed to ovarian cancer on 26 October at the age of 34.

In deference to family custom, her death was observed with traditional Hebraic rites, with burial at Bushey Jewish Cemetery in Hertfordshire.

Personal life[edit]

Cogan lived with her widowed mother in Kensington High Street (44 Stafford Court), a lavishly decorated ground-floor flat, which became a legendary party-venue. Regular visitors included Princess Margaret, Noël Coward, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Michael Caine, Frankie Vaughan, Bruce Forsyth, Roger Moore and a host of other celebrities.[12]

Cogan never married. Her sexual orientation is unknown and has been the subject of conflicting rumours. These include lesbianism, sex-phobia and a long romance with John Lennon. She enjoyed the company of gay men, and was once believed to be engaged to Lionel Bart. At her death she was supposedly engaged to nightclub-owner Brian Morris, yet no announcement was ever made.

She was close friends with the Beatles, even though they had largely eclipsed her fame, and the teenage Lennon used to mimic her savagely in Sugartime. Paul McCartney first played the melody of Yesterday on Cogan's piano, and also played tambourine on her recording of "I Knew Right Away".

In a Daily Mail interview, Cogan's sister Sandra, who was briefly linked to McCartney,[14] claimed that Cogan had a serious romance with Lennon that had to be kept secret because of her family's strict Jewish faith.[15]

Legacy[edit]

The novel Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn presents an imaginary middle-aged Cogan looking back on life and fame in the 1980s. It claimed to be based on true events and real people, except for her early death, and won the Whitbread Book Award in 1991. Partly adapted from this novel was the BBC Radio 4 series Stage Mother, Sequinned Daughter (2002) by Annie Caulfield. Cogan's sister Sandra felt that it misrepresented both Cogan and her mother, and tried unsuccessfully to get it banned. Eventually the Broadcasting Standards Commission ruled that the BBC apologise to Sandra for failing to respect the feelings of the surviving family members.[16]

The Monty Python "Logician's Sketch" states that "All of Alma Cogan is dead, but only some of the class of dead people are Alma Cogan" as an example of a syllogism.[17]

The 1996 hit Alma Matters by Morrissey – who is known for his appreciation for cultural icons – has been interpreted as being about Cogan.[18]

A blue plaque commemorating Cogan was installed by the entrance of her longtime residence, 44 Stafford Court, on 4 November 2001.[19]

The 2011 British film In Love with Alma Cogan features a struggling seaside theatre manager trying to shake-off the ghost of Cogan, who had performed there in his youth.

Recordings[edit]

Singles (UK releases)[edit]

Albums[edit]

Year Title Notes
1958 I Love to Sing
1961 With You in Mind
1962 How About Love?
1965 Oliver! with Stanley Holloway and Violet Carson
1967 Alma

Biography[edit]

  • Alma Cogan: The Girl With The Laugh In Her Voice by Sandra Caron (Alma's sister) – ISBN 0-7475-0984-0

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Dead Rock Stars Club @ efortress.com". Users.efortress.com. Retrieved 30 December 2011. 
  2. ^ "Alma Cogan – Biography". Archived from the original on 28 February 2008. Retrieved 12 February 2008. 
  3. ^ Rice, Jo (1982). The Guinness Book of 500 Number One Hits (1st ed.). Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness Superlatives Ltd. p. 20. ISBN 0-85112-250-7. 
  4. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Subscription based
  5. ^ Mantel, Hilary (24 September 1992). "On the Edge". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 14 March 2011. 
  6. ^ The "Tail Pieces by the Alley Cat" column in NME dated 14 September 1956 cites Sandra Caron's age as 19.
  7. ^ "Alma Cogan". mp3.com. Retrieved 26 November 2007. 
  8. ^ "Jukebox Jumpers". Jukeboxjumpers.multiply.com. Retrieved 15 December 2012. 
  9. ^ "Audrey.hepburn.free.fr". Audrey.hepburn.free.fr. Retrieved 30 December 2011. 
  10. ^ "Chartstats.com". Chartstats.com. 27 March 1954. Retrieved 30 December 2011. 
  11. ^ Vandyke, Alan. "Lastingtribute.co.uk". Lastingtribute.co.uk. Retrieved 30 December 2011. [dead link]
  12. ^ a b c "AMG". Retrieved 23 May 2009. 
  13. ^ "Dailymail.co.uk". London: Dailymail.co.uk. 7 November 2006. Retrieved 30 December 2011. 
  14. ^ "Sentstarr.tripod.com". Sentstarr.tripod.com. Retrieved 30 December 2011. 
  15. ^ Daily Mail, 7 November 2006. John Lennon's secret lover by Michael Thornton.
  16. ^ Telegraph.co.uk
  17. ^ Monty Python and the Holy Grail Soundtrack 3/7: Logician 'via' YouTube
  18. ^ "Motorcycleaupairboy.com". Motorcycleaupairboy.com. Retrieved 30 December 2011. 
  19. ^ Photo of plaque Retrieved 29 April 2013
  20. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 113. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.