|Alma Cogan and the Beatles|
Her father's family, the Kogins, arrived in Britain from Russia, while her mother’s family were refugees from Romania
When, on October 26, 1966, giant headlines across the front of newspapers informed a shocked public that Alma Cogan, Britain's greatest female recording star of the Fifties and early Sixties, had died from cancer at the tragically young age of 34, there was universal grief and incredulity.
It just didn't seem possible that the bouncy, bright and bubbling Alma, with her sequinned, voluminous dresses, brunette beehive, sparkling eyes and wide, dynamic smile, could be snuffed out of existence with such shocking suddenness at so early an age.
In a brief but meteoric career, Alma packed theatres all over the country, dazzled millions of TV viewers with her exuberant Jewish chutzpah, and clocked up 20 hit records, more than any other British female singer, spending an astonishing total of 109 weeks in the charts.
As she belted out one novelty hit after another - Bell Bottom Blues, Dreamboat, I Can't Tell A Waltz From A Tango, Twenty Tiny Fingers, Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo, Cowboy Jimmy Joe, and Just Couldn't Resist her with her Pocket Transistor - her style was the very quintessence of kitsch and the height of high camp.
But as she remained unmarried into her 30s, rumours swirled around her. It was whispered that she was a lesbian.
Two of the men who regularly escorted her, composer Lionel Bart and Beatles manager Brian Epstein, were both gay. And one of Cogan's closest friends, the late broadcaster David Jacobs, said: "I always thought of her as a virgin."
One story, allegedly told by the young Dusty Springfield, an admitted lesbian herself, with whom Cogan was said to be closely involved, was that Alma was not really gay, but had been raped as a young teenager and had developed a mental block about sex with men as a consequence.
One more dramatic twist in the mystery of Cogan and sex is the clandestine love affair between Alma and John Lennon.
Alma's sister Sandra Caron, who knew the Beatles even earlier than Alma and became very close to Paul McCartney, broke her silence on this story for the first time in 2006.
She told the Daily Mail: "I knew about Alma and John, of course, but it was something no one admitted because John was married. We had a very strict Jewish upbringing and my mother would never have approved of a relationship between Alma and a married man."
Ironically, before The Beatles rose to fame, Cogan represented everything Lennon most disliked. As a student at the Liverpool College of Art, Lennon "used to make horrible jokes against the singer Alma Cogan, impersonating her singing: 'Sugar In The Morning, Sugar In The Evening, Sugar At Suppertime.' He'd pull crazy expressions on his face to try to imitate her." This according to Helen Anderson, John's friend.
But in 1962, when The Beatles appeared with Cogan in Sunday Night At The London Palladium, it was obvious that Lennon rapidly revised his view. "John was potty about her," George Harrison revealed later. "He thought her really sexy and was gutted when she died."
After the Fab Four's first visit to Alma's home in Stafford Court, Kensington High Street, where she lived with her widowed mother, Fay, and her younger sister, Sandra, Lennon gave Cogan the name 'Sara Sequin', while Fay became 'Ma McCogie'.
The Cogan flat was probably the most celebrated showbusiness salon in London history. Princess Margaret, Roger Moore, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Sir Noel Coward, Ethel Merman, Danny Kaye and Sammy Davis Jr were all regular visitors. Of her first visit to Stafford Court,
Alma had the closest friendship at this time with The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein who was also from a Jewish family, only two years younger than her in contrast to the eight year gap with The Beatles, and both were deeply into the glitzy world of good old-fashioned show business.
Brian brought her presents back from all his trips abroad and took her to Liverpool to meet his parents. The two seemed so attached that many people thought that despite Brian's homosexuality, they were destined to marry.
In 1964 when Alma was preparing the single she had penned herself - I Knew Right Away/It's You, Brian published it under his company JAEP Publishing which had originally been set up to take care of all George Harrison's compositions after Don't Bother Me was issued. Paul McCartney reportedly played tambourine on both tracks of the single.
Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, records: "John and I had thought of her as out-of-date and unhip. We remembered her in the oldfashioned cinched-in waists and wide skirts of the Fifties."
"But in the flesh she was beautiful, intelligent and funny, oozing sex appeal and charm. Walking into her home for the first time was like walking into another world."
"It was decorated like a swish nightclub with dark, richly coloured silken fabrics and brocades everywhere. Every surface was covered with ethnic sculptures, ornaments and dozens of photographs in elaborate silver, gold and jewelled frames."
Cynthia became convinced that Alma and John were lovers. "I could see the sexual tension between them," she recalled, "and how outrageously she flirted with him. But I had no real grounds for suspicion...just a strong gut feeling."
Her suspicions were correct. Alma and Lennon, both heavily disguised, took to meeting for passionate interludes in anonymous West End hotel suites, where they sometimes registered as 'Mr and Mrs Winston'.
The Beatles became regular visitors to the Cogan residence. It was on Alma's piano, with Sandra at his side, that Paul McCartney composed Yesterday. It was 3 am and McCartney first called the tune Scrambled Eggs because that's what 'Ma McCogie' had just cooked them.
Here's a BBC documentary from 1991 about Alma Cogan.
When EMI released a double album of her music called Celebration , Paul McCartney penned a brief sleeve note for it and the gatefold sleeve featured a picture of her with The Beatles.
Paul remembers the visits to the family flat as a learning curve for The Beatles about a new way of life. "They were very nice, Alma and her sister Sandra... I saw a documentary about John Betjeman, who said that when he got out of college there was a country house to which he was invited. And he said, 'There I learned to be a guest,' and that's what was happening to us at Alma's flat. There we learned to play charades, and we started to do it at our own parties. It was just a little learning curve. We'd never seen anything like this but we liked a laugh so we played charades with Stanley Baker and with bruce Forsyth; he was always at those things, Bruce was absolutely great... They were all a little older than us, probably ten, twelve years older than us, but they were great fun, very confident showbiz people who welcomed us into their circle. It was exciting for us, we would hear all the showbizzy gossip and meet people there that we hadn't met before; Lionel Bart would sometimes be there, Tommy Steele, Lionel Blair would nearly always be there."
Paul McCartney played tambourine on Alma Cogan's single "I Knew Right Away" in 1964.
As the emergence of The Beatles and of younger female singers - such as Lulu, Sandie Shaw and Dusty Springfield - revolutionised the pop music scene, Cogan's records ceased to become hits and her star dimmed in Britain, though not internationally, she still scored hits in Sweden and Japan.
Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager of the Rolling Stones, also thought Alma 'very sexy...we all fancied her'. He considered her later recordings 'naff', but noted Lennon's anxiety to help Cogan recover a foothold in the charts.
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. Here she is, singing "A Hard Day's Night", recorded live at The Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden, 1964.
Two weeks after Cogan's death, Lennon met Yoko Ono for the first time.
The Daily Mail