Alma Cogan

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Alma Cogan Pencil Portrait
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It was John Lennon who once said, “Show business is an extension of the Jewish religion,” yet it would be Paul McCartney — one of the few English rock stars to defy an unofficial boycott by performing in Israel — who would actually live it. Two jewish wives and business managers, his immersion into London’s showbusiness fraternity was conducted at the home of the singer Alma Cogan, whose knightsbridge parties would become the social epicentre for stars in the 50’s and 60’s.

Cogan – herself of jewish descent – was an English singer of traditional popular music in the 1950s and early 1960s. Dubbed “The Girl With the Giggle In Her Voice,” 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, and would go on to develop a large international following. Whist much of her recorded ouput appears dated and lightweight, she brought glamour and a joie de vivre into the homes of millions still heavily weighed down by post-war austerity. An astute businesswoman with an intutive fashion sense – she would individually design her many stage outfits – her chart career in Britain would be derailed by the ‘pop explosion’ of the early 60’s, yet there were many alternative territories still clamouring for new recordings and personal appearances. A future career in the West End, combined with work on the cabaret circuit, would have sustained her until the inevitable change in fortunes.

Tragically, it was not to be. The background to the ovarian cancer that would claim her in the fall of ’66 at the age of only thirty four, has remained shrouded in mystery. At the time, singer Anne Shelton attributed her friend’s health decline to “highly experimental” injections she took to lose weight saying “after those injections, she was never well again.”

She would die in a private room at London’s Middlesex Hospital. Her face, once so alive and radiant with health and vitality, had been instantly recognisable for 12 years to millions of television viewers and record fans. But as the cancer had spread inexorably through her body, she had lost so much weight that she now appeared almost skeletal. One of her closest friends – the dancer Lionel Blair – visiting with her just a week before her passing, was so devastated by her appearance that he rushed weeping from the room into the street. Holding her hand, and despite her comatose state, Blair would remain eternally convinced that Cogan was aware of his presence. When, on October 26, 1966, giant headlines across the front of newspapers informed a shocked public that Alma Cogan, Britain’s greatest female recording star of the Fifties and early Sixties, had died from cancer at the tragically young age of 34, there was universal grief and incredulity. It just didn’t seem possible that the bouncy, bright and bubbling Alma, with her sequinned, voluminous dresses, brunette beehive, sparkling eyes and wide, dynamic smile, could be snuffed out of existence with such shocking suddenness at so early an age.

Television invariably adds ten pounds in weight to any performer’s appearance, and Cogan may well have suffered long term from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). When this type of condition surfaces, a woman’s levels of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone become out of balance. This leads to the growth of ovarian cysts, in effect benign masses on the ovaries. PCOS can cause problems with a women’s menstrual cycle, fertility, cardiac function, and appearance. Pure conjecture on my part, but the singer’s hormonal injections may well have caused her ovaries to become cancerous. She was otherwise fit and healthy, a non-smoker and moderate drinker with no history of narcotic abuse. She shouldn’t have died at that point in her life, yet the cancerous spread was rapid. In tune with the times, she was never told her prognosis was terminal, yet she must have had her own suspicions. A tragic end to the life of an essentially decent and bubbly personality.

Rumours have been rife about her private life for years – that she was a lesbian, the victim of a teenage rape attack – both plausible reasons to explain her continuing spinsterhood, yet in all probability, she was singularly focused on her career and its punishing workload. Sandra Caron remains convinced her sister would have eventually married; indeed throughout the last year of her life, she was romantically involved with Brian Morris, a jewish entrpreneur who managed the Ad Lib, one of London’s trendiest nightclubs.

Under construction

Cogan’s rise to prominence coincided with a significant period of territorial expansion in the history of E.M.I. Having lost its licensing agreement with RCA Victor and Columbia, the company went looking for American artists of its own. In 1955 it bought one of the largest US record companies, Capitol Records. Capitol, based on the West Coast of America, had an impressive roster of artists including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Les Paul and Gene Vincent. As well as developing its roster of American artists, EMI increased its investment in UK talent such that within a decade EMI releases accounted for about 40 per cent of the UK pop music chart. Artists signed to EMI in the 1950s included Adam Faith Shirley Bassey, Frankie Vaughan, Max Bygraves, Cliff Richard and Alma Cogan, all of whom enjoyed considerable success and were leaders of a British pop explosion.

Alma Cogan was born of Jewish parentage in London on 19th May 1932. Her father Mark was in the clothing trade, and the family moved from town to town as he opened new shops. Her mother Fay was a typical stage mother who wanted to see her two daughters Alma and Sandra make it big in show-business.

As a teenager, Alma got her first taste of singing success when she won the Sussex Queen of Song contest, receiving £5 in prize money. After that, Fay took the 14-year old to audition for bandleader Ted Heath. “You’ve got a good voice,” he told her. “But you’re too young for this business. Come back in five or six years.” Heath later said that letting her go was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

Cabaret work at Selby’s Restaurant and the Café Anglais soon followed. Her most important engagement was a six-week booking at the Cumberland Hotel at marble Arch, which was extended to 18 months. Here she was spotted by Walter J. Ridley, A&R man at EMI, who was looking for a female vocalist to join his growing directory of male singers.

Ridley gave her a contract with the company’s His Masters Voice label and, on her 20th birthday, she entered the famous Abbey Road studios and recorded her first commercial disc, ‘To Be Worthy of You.’

Ridley had perennially mixed feelings about the novelty aspect to many of Cogan’s recordings, but his production work on hits like ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ and ‘Dreamboat’ would turn the young Alma into a recording and early television star. Always blessed with a keen ear for hit material, one of his earliest job roles included selecting American RCA Victor output for British release. In May 1956, one of the discs he chose was Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ It received, Ridley recalled, “the worst reviews we ever had for a record. The powers-that-be at [HMV’s parent company] EMI wanted to sack me for releasing it.” Needless to say, his P45 never arrived!

Recommended listening

With you in mind (1961)

Her UK commercial prospects now in nosedive, Cogan would seek to arrest her commercial decline by looking away from the light-hearted frivolity that had fired her past records, seeking instead, more serious material that would allow her to consolidate a lasting musical career.

Working with producer Norman Newell, and a string section that positively yearned (whereas once it would have giggled and frolicked), Cogan opens with an almost heartbreaking “With You in Mind,” follows through with a brooding “I Dream of You More Than You Dream I Do,” a stirring “Let’s Fall in Love,” and a smoky “All I Do Is Dream of You.” The overblown production on “Fly Me to the Moon,” cannot derail the project’s loftier ambitions and within months, Cogan and Newell wouod be back in the studio recording a follow up.

A 2012 bonus track edition offers value for money, but rather undermines Cogan’s original intention to branch into more adult contemporary material by mixing the original track selection with some of her novelty hits.

Oliver! (Stereo) 1961 Stanley Holloway, Alma Cogan, Dennis Waterman & Rita Williams

Lionel Bart wwnted Cogan for the role of Nancy in ‘Oliver!,’ but the singer was unable to commit to a long West End run owing to other professional engagements. Nevertheless, she would contribute several titles to the 1961 17 track original cast recording long player featuring Stanley Holloway, a very young Dennis Wwaterman (‘Sweeney,’ ‘Minder,’ and ‘New Tricks,’ )in the title role, & a pre Coronation Street Violet Carson.

Recommended viewing

Alma Cogan - Fabulous (BBC 4 Documentary) 2007

Profile of Alma Cogan, the tailor’s daughter who was a bestselling 1950s star and TV light entertainment pioneer. With Bruce Forsyth, Maureen Lipman and Andrew Loog Oldham.

A well paced programme combining archive clips – some of them unfortunately not of broadcastable quality – with colour home movies.


Alma Cogan - International fan Club

Recording legacy news updates, galleries, a blog, personal reminiscenses from colleagues and friends, a singles discography, jukebox and video links.

Shame the 70 page scrapbook link isn’t working.