The Cat Who Came First

I don’t write about every musician who dies, because most of the time, other people will do a better job than I. In this case, however, I can do OK. 

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 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 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 the Omkring et flygel theme 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.” (Atlantic’s marketing department concocted a story that Fabric had been inspired to write the song by his two cats. Fabric did not own a cat.) In the late summer and early fall of 1962, it rose to #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 didn’t do stuff like that all the time. 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, and Around a Piano stayed on TV for years. Metronome eventually moved into television production and, after becoming part of a larger media group, produced (if Google Translate is helping me understand the Danish obituaries properly) Scandinavian versions of shows including Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In 2003, Fabric scored an enormous Danish hit with “Jukebox.” Three years later, a remixed version of it became a hit in American clubs. In 2010, at age 85, he appeared in a movie as a brothel owner. He played his final concert in 2019.

Bent Fabric died yesterday at age 95.  One obituary says of him, “old age never came. He made sure to keep it at a distance.”

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.

This post is rebooted from one originally appearing in 2009.

5 thoughts on “The Cat Who Came First

  1. Scott Paton

    (Aarghh! Must proofread, must proofread…)

    Nice, JB! That is now the most I’ve ever known about Bent Fabric. I may print and slip a copy of this piece inside my original LP.

  2. Tim Morrissey

    My piano teacher taught me a simplified version of Alley Cat when it was getting a lot of radio play. My relatives were duly impressed that little Timmy could play the piano “just like a song on the radio.”

  3. John Gallagher

    If you truly love the hit version of this song, make sure and get a MONO copy. The stereo is the LP version and I believe a different recording.

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