Jazz singer and clarinettist Acker Bilk has died at the age of 85, his manager said today.

The performer, who lived in Pensford, Somerset, died this afternoon at Bath's Royal United Hospital, Pamela Sutton said.

The musician, known for performing in a garish waistcoat and bowler hat, was the first UK act to top the US charts in the 1960s.

He rose to fame on a wave of enthusiasm for trad jazz but with his distinctive look and a batch of instantly recognisable tunes he carved out a career continuing years beyond his chart tenure.

But it is his signature tune 'Stranger On The Shore' for which the his four decades in the spotlight will be best remembered.

Curiously, his most enduring hit was a lilting, gentle departure from the Dixieland-style jazz that was his stock in trade.

Born Bernard Stanley Bilk and raised in Somerset, he took the name Acker - a local expression meaning "friend" or "mate".

He lost three teeth in a school punch-up and half a finger in a sledging accident, which he always maintained were the reasons for his distinctive style.

Ms Sutton paid tribute to a man she had known for 45 years, saying: "He was a brilliant musician.

"He had a great sense of humour in every way. He just loved life."

She said that he died around 2pm with his wife Jean by his side, saying that "age caught up with him".

Prior to his music career with his long-time group the Paramount Jazz Band, he worked in the Wills Tobacco factory in Bristol and dabbled with boxing.

He was 18 when he took up the clarinet while in the Royal Engineers during his National Service. Posted to Egypt, he found himself with plenty of spare time in the desert and borrowed a marching clarinet, copying records.

Hooked, he smuggled the clarinet back to his home village of Pensford after his army stint and formed a band, playing dances.

But he and wife Jean - who he had known since the age of five - decided to head to London where he became clarinettist with the Ken Colyer Band.

Unhappy he headed back to the south west, eventually forming another act and starting a club in Bristol. That venue, the Paramount Club, gave its name to the outfit with which he found fame.

Again heading back to London Bilk and his wife lived in a factory attic with the band picking up the odd regional TV date but the big break came with a six-week stint in a Dusseldorf beer bar.

They tightened up but to set the seal on their act, the hat and waistcoat were adopted to mark them out from the other bands of the day.

He made his first LP in 1957 selling out the small run of 500 within days, with more being pressed to meet demand.

It was only when another LP was couple of tunes short that he began to write his own music, the first being called Jenny - the name of his daughter - but he largely forgot about it.

After being asked to write the theme to a children's TV serial Jenny was revived and became ‘Stranger On The Shore’.

He became a chart regular during 1960 with tunes like 'Summer Set' and 'Buona Sera', but when 'Stranger' was released in 1961 he soared to new heights.

It was on the chart for more than a year, peaking at number two, and he became the first UK act to top the US charts in the 1960s with the haunting instrumental.

Bilk became a superstar of his day, but while his chart days were relatively short-lived, they were enough to cement his reputation.

The rise of rhythm and blues-based guitar acts like The Beatles captured the imagination of record buyers, but fans still flocked to his shows ever since.

A heart attack at the age of 47 made him modify his lifestyle, persuading him to give up smoking, but he fought back and continued to perform.

A keen painter of oils and watercolours, he was often asked to exhibit his work but would cry off, professing that he was not good enough.

He had wound down the frequency of his concerts as he reached his late 60s, but he remained in demand and still toured.

He and Jean, who had two children Jenny and Peter, moved back to the village of Pensford after years of living in Hertfordshire.

In October 1999 he noticed his voice had become hoarse and he suspected growths in the throat - a problem common to many singers.

But after seeking medical advice he was told it was throat cancer and he underwent six weeks of radiotherapy treatment which resulted in a number of shows being played by the band without him.

Against all the odds he returned to playing his clarinet on stage.