Alma Cogan & Me
I fell in love with the singer Alma Cogan in 1954, aged seven, when I first heard her version of the Leon Carr and Hal David song ‘Bell Bottom Blues’. It was a true love that has never left me.
When I first heard that song one summer morning on the BBC’s Light Programme (Housewives Choice I think) I knew I had to get a copy of the recording: have Alma just a little bit closer.
Back then I worked for my father in his bakery on a Saturday morning cleaning tins and sweeping out the flour loft and bashing the fleeing cockroaches to death.
The old man paid me four shillings for a morning’s work, which was more than enough to buy a recording of Alma’s ‘Bell Bottom Blues’.
On Saturday afternoons I’d often go out delivering a few extra bread orders with Gordon the local butcher who, after closing his shop across the road at lunchtime, did an extra hour or two for my dad.
With four bob in my jean’s pocket I convinced Gordon to make a detour to Stratford so I could buy my Alma Cogan record; which I did at an electrical goods store on Wood Street which had recently opened a record department.
The rather prim young man behind the counter told me that ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ was number four in the Hit Parade and would cost me two shillings and sixpence, which I gladly paid, although the young man seemed rather reluctant to take my floury coins out of my grubby hand until an older man did it for him with a grumble, quickly shoving the coins in the till and putting my precious 78 rpm into a bag.
That was my first lesson about the cost of love.
When I got home no one questioned my treasured purchase. My thirteen year old sister simply reminded me that we didn’t have a gramophone.
I started to cry.
My sister tried to comfort me, which made me raise my head quickly, breaking one of her front teeth. By this time we were both crying until my mother gave me a slap and told me to shut me up, then comforted my sister who went on about who was going to look at her now, to which I made some inappropriate remark which earned me another slap.
That was my second lesson about love: it can be disruptive and painful.
Later my sister, through broken, gritted teeth, told me her friend had a wind-up gramophone.
My sister’s friend was a nice fourteen year old, whose mum was my mum’s best friend, and agreed I could play my Alma Cogan record, which I did several times until I could feel my sister’s friend’s niceness was wearing a bit thin. He then suggested we play an old Bing Crosby record. I didn’t take the hint and was about to play Alma again when he grabbed my record off the faded green baize covered turntable which made go to grab the record out of his hand which sent the fragile shellac disc skimming over the hedge to break in half on the flagstone path the other side.
That was third lesson about love: it’s fragile.
I never replaced Alma’s ‘Bell Bottom Blues’, but I did hang onto the broken record like an old love letter.
Then three years ago I needed something to fill in and lighten a small part of a play we were doing for the Worshipful Company of Bakers in London. Then, as I was thinking, Alma’s ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ came on the radio.
That was it. Why didn’t I have the actor who was playing ‘Mrs Pepys’, mime, in the manner of Denis Potter, to a recording in an attempt to encourage Samuel Pepys to pop the question.
Of course ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ wouldn’t do for that, although I did use it behind a brief exchange between Pepys (who ran the Royal Navy), and Charles II.
I then found the ideal song, ‘Little Things Mean A Lot’, which the actor, who was a dead-ringer for Alma, mimed to Alma’s recording of the song, which stopped the show in its tracks with a standing ovation every night.
That was my fourth lesson in love: it can be strong and everlasting.