Jazz came to Europe from America during World War I, when the regimental band of the Fighting 369th, a black unit that was the first American force to reach France, played the music that was taking America by storm. When war again tore through Europe in the early 1940s, American GIs again brought their music along. By the end of World War II, the European jazz scene was thriving. In Denmark, a young fan named Bent Fabricius-Bjerre formed a jazz band after the war and made the first-ever Danish jazz records. They were successful enough for him to form his own record label, Metronome, in 1950. He later hosted a show on Danish TV, a variety series called Omkring et Flygel, translated to English as Around a Piano. (He had, by this time, shortened his name to Bent Fabric.) By 1961, the show was so popular that its theme song became a hit in Denmark, and it quickly spread to other countries in Europe.
The early 60s were an uncomfortable time for pop music. Elvis had gone Hollywood; the creativity and freshness of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll had waned; although Bob Dylan was in New York and the Beatles were in Liverpool, neither had broken through yet. Even R&B, which had provided such a deep well of material for record labels like Atlantic through the 50s, was going through a dry spell. On the lookout for the next big thing, Atlantic noticed Fabric’s popularity in Europe, and picked up some of his songs for release in the States. The label believed that “Omkring et Flygel” would be a hit here, too, but not with that title. And so, in true American zippy-marketeer fashion, the song was renamed “Alley Cat.” In the late summer and early fall of 1962, it rose to Number 7 on the Hot 100. An album of the same name became Atlantic’s best-selling title of the year.
The followup single, “Chicken Feed,” failed to match the Stateside success of “Alley Cat.” “Alley Cat” did, however, win the first Grammy given for Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Recording (in 1963), which would boggle the mind if the Grammys hadn’t been doing stuff like that for 50 years. A collaboration with British clarinetist Acker Bilk didn’t return Bent Fabric to the American charts, either. It’s doubtful, however, that he cared much. He remained a well-known figure in Danish musical circles (he still is, at age 84) and Around a Piano stayed on TV for years. In 2003, he scored an enormous Danish hit with “Jukebox.” Three years later, a remixed version of it became a hit in American clubs.
Like other hit records of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, “Alley Cat” spawned a dance of its own, a simple step that is still performed by elementary-school students today. I am told that I developed my own little dance to “Alley Cat,” which my parents had purchased on a 45. In the fall of 1962, I was two years old. So I guess it’s not true that “Candida” was the first record I ever loved. “Alley Cat” came first.