Alma Cogan, Tel Aviv, 1963
|Birth name||Alma Angela Cohen|
19 May 1932|
Whitechapel, East London, England
|Died||26 October 1966
|Labels||HMV, EMI Columbia|
|Website||Alma Cogan International Fan Club|
Alma Angela Cohen (19 May 1932 – 26 October 1966), known professionally as Alma Cogan, was an English singer of traditional pop 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.
She was born on 19 May 1932 in Whitechapel, London, of Russian-Romanian Jewish descent. Her father's family, the Kogins, arrived in Britain from Russia, while her mother's family were refugees from Romania. Cogan's parents, Mark and Fay Cohen, had another daughter, the actress Sandra Caron, who went on to play "Mumsey" in The Crystal Maze, and one son, Ivor Cogan. 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. Her father was a singer, but it was Cogan's mother who had showbusiness 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 the age of eleven, competed in the "Sussex Queen of Song" contest held at a Brighton hotel, winning a prize of £5.
Aged 14, she was recommended by Vera Lynn for a variety show at the Grand Theatre in Brighton. At 16 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." 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. She became resident singer at the Cumberland Hotel in 1949, where she was spotted by Walter Ridley of HMV, who became her coach.
Cogan's first release was "To Be Worthy of You" / "Would You", recorded on her 20th birthday. This led to her appearing regularly on the BBC's radio show Gently Bentley, and then becoming the vocalist for Take It From Here, a British radio comedy programme broadcast by the BBC between 1948 and 1960.
In 1953, while recording "If I Had a Golden Umbrella", she broke into a giggle; she then played up the effect on later recordings. Soon she was dubbed the "Girl with the giggle in her voice" ("Giggle" has sometimes been quoted as "chuckle".)
Many of her recordings were covers of U.S. hits, especially those recorded by Rosemary Clooney, Teresa Brewer, Georgia Gibbs, Joni James and Dinah Shore. Her voice was often compared with Doris Day's. One of these covers, "Bell Bottom Blues", became her first hit, reaching no. 4 on 3 April 1954. 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. Her 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!" Cogan topped the annual NME reader's poll as "Outstanding British Female Singer" four times between 1956 and 1960.
The UK musical revolution of the 1960s, symbolised by the rise of the Beatles, suddenly made Cogan unfashionable; in the 1991 BBC documentary Alma Cogan: The Girl with the Giggle in Her Voice, Lionel Blair said she was perceived as "square". Her highest 1960s chart ranking in UK was no. 26 with "We Got Love", and most of her successes at this time were abroad, notably in Sweden and Japan. 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, Cogan recorded "Tennessee Waltz" in a rock-and-roll ballad style; 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. She had another number one hit in Sweden in 1965, "The birds and the bees".
Cogan also wrote some of her own songs. She co-wrote her 1963 record "Just Once More" (under the pseudonym of "Al Western") with her long-time pianist Stan Foster; her 1964 record "It's You" was also a Cogan-Foster collaboration, although this time she was credited under her own name. "Just Once More" peaked at no. 10 in the Swedish Voting Chart "Tio i Topp" in October 1963.
She continued to be a popular figure on the UK showbusiness 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.
Cogan lived with her widowed mother in Kensington High Street (at 44 Stafford Court) in a lavishly decorated ground-floor flat where she frequently entertained other celebrities. Regular visitors included Princess Margaret, Noël Coward, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Michael Caine, Frankie Vaughan, Bruce Forsyth and Roger Moore.
The teenaged John Lennon used to mimic her savagely during his time at the Liverpool College of Art; Lennon's wife Cynthia recalled, "John and I had thought of Alma [as] out of date and unhip." But after Lennon actually met Cogan on the TV pop show Ready Steady Go! in 1964, they became close friends, so much so that Cogan's sister Sandra later said that the pair had a serious romance that had to be kept secret because of Alma's family's strict Jewish faith. After Cynthia Lennon died (in 2015), John Lennon's biographer published her previously unreleased quotes regarding Cogan:
John thought I didn’t know anything about him and Alma, and I never let on. Now that I think about it, with all the emotion gone out of it, I can see the attraction. Alma was about eight years older than John and very much the Auntie figure. Don’t forget that Yoko was also older than John by about seven years. Like Yoko in so many ways, Alma was a very compelling woman. You couldn’t really say that either of them was beautiful, could you, not in the conventional sense. When Alma died from ovarian cancer, aged only 34, John was inconsolable.
Cogan was close to the other Beatles as well, especially Paul McCartney, who first played the melody of "Yesterday" on her piano; he also played tambourine on her recording of "I Knew Right Away".
Her last romance was with Brian Morris, who shared her faith. They were engaged to be married.
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.
Cogan embarked on a series of club dates in the North of England in early 1966, but collapsed after two performances and had to be treated for stomach cancer. She made her final TV appearance in August, on the guest-spot of International Cabaret. The following month she collapsed while touring Sweden to promote Hello Baby, recorded exclusively for the Swedish market. She died of ovarian cancer at London's Middlesex Hospital on 26 October, at the age of 34.
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.
A blue plaque commemorating Cogan was installed by the entrance of her longtime residence, 44 Stafford Court, on 4 November 2001.
|1958||I Love to Sing|
|1961||With You in Mind|
|1962||How About Love?|
|1965||Oliver!||with Stanley Holloway and Violet Carson|
|2010||Alma Cogan in 'Julie'||recordings from 1965 with Stan Foster|
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