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Alma Cook: Writing for Shirley Bassey

Alma Cook

Published 4th November 2015

I was born in Hillingdon, Middlesex, in 1935. My brother was 13 years older than me and my sister 12 years. I think my dad said to my mum 'Would you like an Easter egg?' many years later and I was the egg!

Our house was full of music. On my mother's side, I have a cousin who played with Ted Heath's band. My aunt was a very good pianist and my dad had a good singing voice. So there was music on both sides of the family.

I started playing the piano aged seven. My dad would say "Don't touch the piano, it is not a toy!" but always said it was there for me when I was ready. I had to go to school and learn the value of things first. When I started playing the piano, I couldn't leave it alone. I never needed to be told to practice as I couldn't get on it fast enough.

I performed at school, playing pieces such as Rustle of Spring. My teacher had been to Trinity College of Music so she wrote and told them about me. I went along to an audition and played on a grand piano for the very first time. I was the first to audition, and my mother told me that the other children wanted to go home because they couldn't play like that! I was offered a full scholarship.

I spent five years at Trinity College and then they asked me to stay on as a full-time student. As a child, I had played classical music and particularly enjoyed Chopin. But I later learnt a modern style of playing from Dennis Wilson, who wrote music for popular television shows including Till Death Do Us Part.

I left school at 16 and started playing gigs with a band called The Hi-Lites. I met my husband, Jeff, at a dance at The Seagull in Southall. That was the time of the rock 'n' roll explosion. Jeff only asked for a dance and here we are, 60 years later. Often, if a girl lived in the same direction as a boy, they would walk home together, and Jeff only lived three roads from me.

Most weekends, I would perform with The Hi-Lites, and we did very well. Jeff and I had been going out for a while and one night we were playing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' when he started to sing along. I said to Jeff 'You can really sing' and he replied that I was blinded by love! We invited him to sing with us and when I told him he would be paid, he was suddenly interested!

I really enjoyed playing with The Hi-Lites as I could write my own arrangements. I played until I was six months pregnant. I wanted a family and that signalled the end of the band. At home, whilst raising my two children, I found that my brain would go into songwriting mode.

I wrote a song called 'How Can You Tell?' I played it to one of Jeff's business clients and he really liked it. He said 'My neighbour works at Chappells (famous music publishers.) I'll pass it to him and you never know, he might be able to get you an appointment." So I gave him the recording and much to my surprise I was invited to Chappell's. I played the song, and they asked me 'Who do you see singing this song?'

There was only one person I had in mind and that was Shirley Bassey.

Shirley liked the song, recorded it, and 'How Can You Tell?' is on the back of 'I Who Have Nothing,' which reached the top 10 in 1963 and was a hit in America too. My royalties from that song paid for our first mortgage. I have always said that I would rather have a B-side with a somebody than an A side with a nobody.

I had to go and buy the record in the shop just like everybody else. I didn't even have a gramophone so I went to my neighbour's house to hear it. Shirley had been pregnant, so the song had been 'in the can' for a year after it was recorded. I was wondering if it was actually going to come out at all so when I first heard it I sat down and had a cry!

When you hear a great singer perform your song for the first time, it is just unbelievable. When I heard Shirley's song, I felt like I had planted a seed and it was blooming into a flower.

Jimmy Henney (Music industry executive) heard my second song, 'Your Love', which he liked because the final word of one line was repeated as the first word of the next. He also took another song called 'How Can You Believe.' Both songs were recorded by Shirley Bassey and selected as B Sides. 'Your Love' was on the reverse of 'Gone', which was a top 40 hit, and 'How Can You Believe' was coupled with 'Now'.

I was close to being on the B side of Goldfinger. However, my song was instead used for Anthony Newley's
musical, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. I wish it had been on Goldfinger!

Most of my songs were inspired by my love for my husband. You also listen to people and observe situations and see what triggers off an idea. People ask me if the lyrics or the music come first. The music came first and I would hear the song in my head and play it on the piano. Once I had a title, the lyrics would come out so quickly sometimes that I couldn't write down the lyrics fast enough.

My mum once told me that there's nothing quite like the feeling to be loved by a man. That became one of my love songs for Shirley Bassey (B Side to Who Can I Turn To).

Unexpectedly, one of my songs was a big hit in Australia for Little Pattie. You can see a clip of her singing 'Gravitation' on Top of the Pops in Germany. We went on a bowling holiday to Australia about 10 years ago and when I started playing the piano, people enjoyed it. I told them that I had actually had a hit Down Under and they couldn't believe it was Gravitation. It was amazing, going to the other side of the planet and meeting people who know one of your songs.

Primarily, I was writing the style of song that I knew would suit Shirley Bassey. I wrote a couple that would have been perfect for her, maybe even A side songs. but Shirley signed with a new record label whilst I was committed to Chappell's.

As a member of the Performing Rights Society, I still receive a trickle of royalties. Obviously, it's not as much as it once was, as Shirley was an international star and royalties were paid not just for radio airplay, but also by shops, hotels and all manner of businesses that need to play music. I did hear one of my tracks on Sounds of the 60s on BBC Radio 2 recently.

Whilst I wrote for Shirley Bassey, I didn't actually meet her for a long time. She was singing live at The Talk of the Town in Piccadilly and Jimmy Henney arranged tickets for me and my family, as she was going to sing one of my songs. We had a wonderful evening and met her afterwards. She was just an ordinary, everyday person. She had sung my song right near the end and said 'You didn't think I was going to sing it, did you?'

Shirley doesn't just sing a song; she uses her eyes, hands and emotions to give passion to every word. You can't
underestimate the difference a great singer makes to a song. There are so many elements needed for a hit record. It needs to be the right song for the right singer with the right arrangement, and even then it needs airplay, good timing and a bit of luck.

I was known as the 'Biggest B in the business' because I was renowned for successful B-sides. I might have had more chart success but my family was the top priority. Friends would help look after the children when I needed them, but you can't keep asking people to step in whilst you go off all the time.

Someone', was the B-side to 'The Tips of My Fingers' by Des O' Connor in 1970. I didn't meet him until he wrote a book some years later, and my daughter and I happened to be shopping whilst he was at a book signing. I said 'Hello Des, I wrote 'Someone'. He said, "So you're Alma Cook!"

One of my best songs is unknown really. It was called 'In One Hour' recorded by a singer called Nina Shaw. It was voted the best record of the week on the radio and was set to be a hit, but Nina couldn't promote it as she fell pregnant.

I was never actually really in the music business. I was known as a 'housewife songwriter' after our local newspaper picked up the story of me writing around my normal family life. They took a picture of me stood by my oven. The story was then picked up by Woman's Weekly and they did a big three-page spread on me.

Some magazines thought that 'Gravitation' should have been recorded for Eurovision. One of my songs was also very close to being sung by Lulu at Eurovision. Mickie Most and his brother, Dave, disagreed over whether it should be my song or one other that should be entered. Mine lost out to 'Boom Bang A Bang'. Often what happened to a song was in the hands of the publishers and the record company.

With the song writing success coming to an end, we bought a hotel in Sutton. It was very successful and we were there for 11 years, but it felt like 18. It was a 16 bedroom hotel called Eaton Court. I played piano at the hotel as well as everything else. I could write a book based on my experiences there – from dishwasher to cabaret artist! It was very tough so we sold the hotel and moved to Southwater in 1988 to be near our daughter. This bungalow was being built, and as soon as I could see where the piano could go, we bought it!

I started writing and performing with the Southwater Horticultural Society's pantomime. One year, I wrote nine new songs for the play. People really enjoyed the shows as we also served a fish and chip supper too. Matt Charman (writer of the upcoming Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies) was one of our young members.

I played at South Lodge Hotel last month during a ladies lunch. Doug Eaton, who was in a band playing at The Cavern Club at the same time as The Beatles, was talking about his memories so I played about ten Beatles songs. I still try and play the piano most days. I have a few aches and pains like everybody at the age of 80 but my fingers work just fine.

I like some contemporary music but they don't sing like they used to.  When 'Happy' by Pharrell Williams was released, I could tell immediately that it was great as it has lovely rhythm and he performs it with a nice mellow voice. But I find a lot of music today quite generic and too few singers have their own distinctive sound.

After retiring from song writing, I played golf for 15 years and then played bowls. I started suffering with spinal trouble so gave up bowls and started painting with Southwater Art Club. My own paintings decorate the house, although I've not been to the Monday sessions recently as I've needed to be at home to help my beloved husband. But we're both still standing!

Jeff and I recently celebrated our Diamond Wedding anniversary. He is my best friend as well as being my husband. We celebrated with our two children, and five grandchildren.