Modern Style Singing (Crooning) – Chapter Four – Al Bowlly (1934)

Music Training Necessary .

It may come as a shock to some of my readers to learn that I consider careful and painstaking study and practice the only w ay ever to become a successful dance-style singer. Even if the beginner is gifted with a” natural” voice, and can speak clearly and distinctly, he is a very long way from being able to join a dance band as a singer.

Out of all the hundreds of aspirants I have seen or who have written to me, not one per cent knew the first thing about music. Even less had the ability to sing ,at sight, a number which they had never previously seen. Sight-reading is absolutely essential for the ambitious singer, as is an all-round knowledge of the elements of music.

Without it, no singer will ever get beyond the drawing-room stage. Certainly they will stand no chance amid the fierce competition of professionalism. This may be disquieting news to many who had hoped that this book would contain a few hints which, having been hastily read, would assure success as a singer.

But I’m afraid it has got to be faced that without a practical knowledge of music, and in particular the ability to sight-read, the would-be crooner is so heavily handicapped as to be a non-starter. But do not let this be too discouraging. All the musical knowledge you will need will be given to you within these pages and in a form, I hope, which will make it easy and pleasant to assimilate.

But there is no use skipping or skimping it. If your ambition goes no further than to sing at occasional concerts, or to amuse yourself and a small circle of friends, then perhaps you need not practice quite so hard. But even in these circumstances the knowledge will be an enormous help. I have no doubt that there are many instrumentalists who will read this book, both professional and semi-pro. These, no doubt, are congratulating themselves on already having a knowledge of the rudiments of music, which they may well do. But do not let them think, however, that there is no necessity for them to learn further. Many musicians can read at sight almost any instrumental music that is put before them, are quite at sea when it comes to vocal reading.

The first subject to be dealt with, then, is music. If I were teaching in person instead of through the medium of the printed word, I would regard voice culture as being the first consideration. But this latter calls for examples in written music, and without a knowledge of at least the rudiments of notation how is the student to be able to understand them ?

Modern Style Singing (Crooning) – Chapter Three – Al Bowlly (1934)

Why Sing At All ?

It is platitudinous to say that singing is the most common form of self-expression. Everyone, from a Cabinet Minister in his bath ,to the housewife in her kitchen, gives vent to pleasurable feeling in snatches of song. That the singing may be out of tune, harsh, raucous, tuneless, or even unrecognisable as such, does not matter a great deal. It is the desire to express happiness in song which is the point.

Of course, people want to sing for lots of other reasons. Eliminating the bathtub-and-kitchen vocalists, however, would-be singers are actuated usually by one of two motives.

The first is the desire to make money the second is vanity. Usually it is a combination of both. I do not include the man who is content to sing to an audience consisting only of himself only the man (or woman) who ” feels ” he (or she) can sing.

Every writer on popular music in the lay Press is deluged with letters from would-be crooners . “My friends tell me that I am much better than most singers one hears on the air” . ” Although I have had no experience I would like to become the singer of one of the big dance bands”. ” Please will you hear me sing, as I am convinced I can surprise you.” And so on and so on.

All these people fall into the money-or-vanity class. Mostly with the latter predominating to such an extent that they are convinced that the former will come easily. Never was there a graver error.

The way of the crooner is hard. Because of the very fact that every other person is convinced that he or she is a Heaven-sent singer, the market is more than overcrowded. Obviously, too, the vast majority are useless, and serve only to excite still further derision for the much derided art of microphone singing.

There is hardly a person, of either sex, or almost any age, who cannot “sing” in some sort of way. Fortunately, a lot of these people have neither the time nor the inclination to inflict their efforts on others. But the remainder have, apparently, both. And it is to these that this book is addressed. I hope it will save them a lot of trouble, and provide them with at least a few signposts in the wilderness of doubt and ignorance in which most of them wander.

Do not be offended if my attitude seems a little harsh, or my remarks over-cynical. But, really, out of every hundred who are convinced that they can sing, ninety are frankly dreadful, six passable, three good, and one likely to develop into anything worth while.

You, dear reader, may be just that -one. Indeed you will be lacking in self-confidence unless you think so.

But do, I beg you, temper your self-confidence with self-criticism. Take it from me that unless you have had some form of coaching or advice you cannot possibly avoid making dozens of mistakes. Even if you are gifted with a ” natural ” voice, it must be cultivated, you know.

It is the object of this book to draw attention to these possible faults ; not to ” teach you to sing.” The very fact that you are reading it suggests (unless mere idle curiosity is the reason) that you are interested in Modern Style Singing, and that you have got a secret idea tucked away somewhere, that, given the chance, you could outshine the most crooning crooner that ever irritated the irascible” ears of all the old gentlemen who write to the papers about ” emasculated moaning.”

I do not claim that the reading of this book’ will turn you into a first-class dance-style singer, but, with every modesty, I do suggest that if you follow carefully all that I have written you will at least be improved.

Modern Style Singing (Crooning) – Chapter Two – Al Bowlly (1934)

The Effect of the Microphone

It is perhaps unnecessary to explain that a microphone picks up and amplifies the slightest sound. It can make the footfall of a fly sound like a hundred-weight of coal being dropped. It can distort out of all recognition. Or it can merely reproduce at a distance .

Whether it was used first by the gramophone studios or by the broadcasters I do not know, nor does it matter much. To all intents and purposes both worlds of ” reproduced ” entertainment discovered its possibilities at once.

In the old days, gramophone recording was done by the horn method. That is, all the sound was directed into one or more large horns. A considerable amount of effort was necessary to cut the ” wax ” at all, and even then half the sound that went into the horn never went on to the wax, and even less came out of the finished record.

It was necessary, therefore, for singers to sing with considerable vigour if they were to record at all. Anything in the nature of a whisper wouldn’t have ” cut.”

Then came the microphone, and everything was changed.

Singers, instrumentalists, and recording artists of all kinds were urged to ” take it easy.” The danger became not under-recording but the reverse . The ” mike ”was ” throttled down ” and the artist asked to stand back a little, please.

The robust tenors, whose redness of face was in direct ratio to their height of note, became something of a problem.

The microphone has an unpleasant habit of ” blasting,” which is a jarring, shivering sound, when the volume forced into it is too much for the delicate amplifying apparatus.

Thus it was that, at first, until they grew to understand it better, the recorders found difficulty in coping with the vocalists who were ignorant of the requirements of King Mike.

And the singers, having been taught to sing in a certain way, found it very difficult to do otherwise. Their training had always been
based upon the requirements of filling large halls and theatres . Volume, especially on top notes, had too often been their fetish.

This does not mean to say, of course, that all ” legitimate ” singers are bellowers, or that none of them can control their voices to softness. But it was just that their style of singing was, in those early days, un-microphonic.

Then somebody discovered that even if one sang quite softly the ” mike ” picked it up with just as much strength as if one shouted at it. And with an infinitely more pleasant effect.

Vocalists explored this new idea of “‘ whispering-vocalism.” It intrigued some of them ; others were just contemptuous of ” this travesty of singing.”

But those who tried it found that they could put their mouths to within an inch or two of the microphone and sing so quietly as to be inaudible a yard away. Yet their voices reproduced as strongly as if they had sung at the top of their voices and used every effort.

And in this absence of effort they found several virtues. Firstly, that it suited the microphone so well ; secondly, that it gave a new timbre to their voices by making audible harmonics and upper partials which had never previously been heard ; thirdly, that it enabled them to enunciate with far greater clarity than before ; fourthly, that it gave to their voices, when reproduced, an almost stereoscopic effect ; fifthly, that it eliminated most of the danger of blasting ; and, sixthly, that it was far easier work and was something new, anyway.

All of which called into being a new kind of singer. Some of the more versatile of the ” straight ” singers studied this new method, mastered it, and adapted it to their own ends.

Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t were eventually catered for by the growing technique of the recording or broadcasting engineers, and continued to sneer at ” these whispering vocalists.”

Modern Style Singing (Crooning) – Chapter One – Al Bowlly (1934)

What is ” Crooning ” ?

MOST things that are new come in for a lot of abuse. Especially if they are new art forms. Even to call them ” art forms ” is enough to rouse the ire of the thoroughly hard-bitten diehards.

And of all the many innovations of the past few years ” crooning ” has had directed at it the most derision and contempt.

Before we go any further with this book I would like to deal with this attitude, because until the reader really understands the reasons for it, and the answer to it, he is likely to suffer from some kind of inferiority complex to feel that the ambition to become a singer in the modern microphone style is something shameful and unmanly.

The very word ‘ microphone ‘ supplies the whole answer. It is this simple electrical device which gave rise to the whole art of ” crooning,” brought into being hosts of new artists, and immeasurably widened the scope of the entertainment profession.

Let us pause for a moment to examine this word ” crooning.” It is a horrible expression, and I use it only because there seems to be nothing else . It is associated with all the unpleasant, smeary, wobbling vocalisms that one ever heard. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that modern microphone singing, even of popular dance tunes, need not be like that.

Different, dictionaries give varying definitions, although none of them is up-to-date enough to define it as “quiet singing into a microphone, in the modern dance-band style.” Their efforts vary between “a low moaning sound, as of animals in pain” to “the soft singing of a mother to her child.”

Neither of these is very complimentary;. but at least the former supplied a new joke for hard-up humourists ! It is generally accepted as being a sign of weakness, I am well aware, to offer a defence when no specific attack has been made, but nevertheless there have been so many general attacks on this type of singing, and so few defences of it, that I feel justified in entering the lists.

The microphone brought into being, and some-times into very prominent being, a whole host of singers who otherwise would never have been heard. There were many performers whose untrained voices, although naturally sweet and pleasing, were not strong enough for the public platform. To these the microphone was more than kind and gave them the power, with the turn of a switch, to drown the most brazen-lunged quasi-operatic singer who ever shook the rafters.

This angered the diehards. ” A poor kind of singer is this,” they said scornfully, ” who has to call in artificial aids before he can be heard ! ”

But that seems to me to be a poor argument. It is as logical to say ” A poor kind of a star is that which cannot be seen without a telescope ! ”

Confronted with that simile, the anti-crooner usually changes his point of attack. ” How can you call these people singers,” he insists, ” if they have never been taught to sing, know nothing about voice production, and less about diction ? “

To which the answer is that if a crooner produces a sound which is unpleasing, and distorts his words beyond recognition, he will not be a success, even as a crooner.

Most crooners are untrained in the first principles of singing and enunciation ; more’s the pity. But it must be admitted.

But whose is the fault ? Who is it who has the knowledge to teach these ” natural singers ” (for that is what they are) where and how to breathe, how to pronounce their consonants and vowels, how to phrase, how to sing in their best register, how to control their vibrato, reduce their portamento, and free them of all the annoying tricks which ignorance and inexperience bring ?

The legitimate singers and teachers, of course. But they will not. ” No,” they say, ” you learn to sing our way or not at all ! ”

And so the crooner continues in his errors, sneered at by just the very people who could help him most. There is no possible way for a singer to learn to sing in the modern microphone style. There is no school which caters for it, no recognised teachers, the musical colleges are just con-temptuous, and this, so far as I know, is the first book which has ever been written on the subject.

Is it any wonder, then, that most crooners are dreadful ? Yes, I readily admit it. But then, are not most ” straight ” singers, judged by the highest standards in their own sphere, also dreadful ? Is all music bad because a bad café band plays it badly ? Indeed no. There are crooners who produce beautiful sounds with their voices. Surely this is undeniable ? Their singing may not be academic, but it is often intensely pleasing, and unquestionably gives pleasure to millions.

What more can be asked of singing than that ?

Memory Lane No. 71 – Summer 1986


The act which came to be known as the Five Herons began as a trio of sisters who abandoned their typewriters for close harmony. They were working for Bram Martin when their younger brother, Peter Heron, came up from the country still dressed in britches. Charles Tucker who was producer at the Trocadero and Holborn Empire auditioned the group and assumed the act was a five piece (three sisters and a brother, who acted as their manager, and Peter). He booked the act immediately, which was not surprising since the whole family were natural harmonists and always sang together. This was in 1935 and the act lasted until 1940 when war service took the boys overseas. After the war the act never re-formed, but in those five years the Herons had topped the bill in Variety and made over two hundred broadcasts with the BBC and Radios Normandy and Luxembourg.

The Herons were frequently booked by band leaders like Carroll Gibbons to record shows. At the end everyone was paid in white five pound notes, with considerable generosity. In the theatre the Herons performed on the same bill as Tommy Handley and Arthur Askey, long before ITMA and Garrison Theatre and with Charlie Chester and The Crazy Gang. In fact Charlie Chester did his first job as compere at The Palace of Varieties opposite the BBC with the Herons. The show was to be broadcast to Britain and the Empire and included Tommy Handley and George Robey on the bill. Charlie was so nervous that he needed constant encouragement from the Herons to get through the ordeal.
The recording career of the group was in addition to their stage and broadcast work. It was a relatively straightforward process: once arrangements to make a record had been made with a company a rehearsal date was fixed. Titles were sometimes not decided until the actual rehearsal. Once the producer agreed on titles a recording could be completed in a few hours. The whole group used just one box microphone and worked out their own balance. Making the master recording was a solemn business as any mistakes meant a further recording, and each one cost £50. The master recording could only be played back once to check for mistakes.

When the Herons came to record with Al Bowlly, it was particularly dramatic as they had been rehearsing for a very long time and Al kept changing his mind about titles. When the master record had been made they all sat round to hear the play-back. Al Bowlly sat with his head on his knees and they all feared that another take would be necessary, but finally he slapped his leg and said ‘Okay, boys and girls’, to their great relief. The recording was all done in one day. The Herons arrived at 11.00 at the HMV studios and met the engineer and producer. They were all to be on the same microphone with Al. Balancing the group took only a few minutes. Violet Carson, who was to accompany the recordings, arrived at 11.30 and rehearsed the numbers once with the Herons. At noon Al arrived and they all rehearsed again, making some slight alterations. Around 12.30 everyone went to lunch, returning about 2.30 for a final run-through and then the master takes. When the Herons heard the play-back they all realised that the final chord of “Sweet As A Song” was out of tune, but Al Bowlly let it pass. The reason was that at rehearsal the Herons finished the number but on the master take Al came in humming – offkey ! Similarly on the other title recorded “Sweet Someone” Al fluffed his lines and sang “for be” instead of “to be” .

The Herons were not credited on the record as issued, simply referred to as the “Crooner’s Choir”. Peter explained the reason was their own ‘musical snobbery”. The Herons simply had no idea of Al Bowlly’s extensive career. They were at school when he was at the height of his popularity and they did not listen to the wireless. With Al’s years in America, he was completely unknown to them. As an established close harmony group they didn’t wish to be associated by name with (for them) an elderly crooner !

The contact with Al Bowlly came about through his agent who had been instructed to find the best close harmony group to back Al in his efforts to re-establish his recording career in Britain. The Herons agreed to meet Al, but made the stipulation that they would not be credited on any records issued, nor would they receive any royalties. However, immediately the Herons met Al they were staggered by the amount he was prepared to offer them, including rehearsals, and by his professionalism and dynamism. To illustrate a point he would leap on a chair or even on to a grand piano one handed, ‘Boys and girls, what I want you to do is to bring out that big sound there, just get the choir effect! The Herons loved him for his warmth and enthusiasm. To them Al was a much older man and there was controversy about his age. One morning Al arrived at a rented studio and announced that they were all to have champagne to celebrate his fortieth birthday. This was in 1938. Peter remembers him as anything but elderly, although he was twice their age. A very short, dark, powerfully-built man, Al had the shoulders and build of a Welsh miner. After shaking hands with Al fingers had to be prised apart, so powerful was his grip.

The background to the recording of Sweet As A Song” and “Sweet Someone” is interesting. Al had returned from America determined to be the first crooner to make a record with only a backing group, no orchestra. Apparently no-one else had done this, although Bing Crosby had used backing groups with orchestras. Al was prepared to make the recording at his own expense. The resulting record was extremely popular and proved that Al still had a tremendous following. For the period of the ‘phoney war’ the Herons worked at the Opera House, Blackpool, with George Formby, for whom they had great affection. His simplicity and humour off-stage matched his stage personality. From there the Herons went on to the Victoria Palace, then to the Adelphi in ‘Fig Leaves’ and then to the Garrick in ‘Eve on Parade’. This was a huge production starring Maurice Chevalier but, after weeks of rehearsal, Chevalier broke his contract because of the situation in France and the show closed after a short run.

And so the Herons too closed their act, initially for the duration only. They had never even purchased a copy of their recording with Al. Memories of Al remain clear to Peter despite the half century which has all but elapsed. He remembers him as a good looking man with crinkly hair, always very smartly dressed as if for a cocktail party and with a penchant for American ties. Although a chain smoker of Capstan Full Strength (which none of the Herons could smoke, they were so strong) his hands were always beautifully clean, with manicured nails. He spoke at about a pitch higher than he sang. His manner was always charming and he had a great sense of humour although he did not tell jokes. He was invariably polite, never rude or vulgar. Despite his obvious charm he was in no sense a ‘womaniser’, in fact the Heron sisters found him quite shy, and no-one ever saw him with a woman. On his return to Britain, Al was very reluctant to speak of his American experience. Possibly he had found himself pushed out by the big boys, the Crosbys and so on, or there may have been trouble over a woman – he would never say. Joan Heron, one of the Five Herons, recalled that Al obviously thought the throat condition he suffered the previous year was more serious , a cancer – than it turned out to be. He also said that on his return to Britain he felt free for the first time in years, but he had doubts whether he would ever be successful again. However, the Herons formed the impression that he had made a lot of money in America and that although he was a generous man he was very careful not to waste his earnings.

The contact with the Herons began in September 1937 but it was not until April 1st, 1938 that the recording was made. Much of the delay was due to Al trying out different songs – ‘The Girl In The Alice Blue Gown’ and ‘Ferryboat Serenade’ were among those considered. The Herons did not usually rehearse with Al but with his arranger who they only knew as Margaret. As a professional, Al knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, but there was some evidence to suggest that he did not read music as he never looked directly at the arrangement when making alterations . Although he had no regular band work, Al always gave the impression of being tremendously busy, arriving late for rehearsals, but no-one knew how else he spent his time. However, he was well in with HMV and had plenty of capital to live off while negotiating contracts. Whether he was still recovering from his throat operation is a possibility, although Peter thought that his voice would not have lasted for many more years. The image remains of a man who was generous, likeable, meticulous in planning and a perfectionist in execution, and totally relaxed in front of the microphone – a true professional.

Al Bowlly and Ray Noble (OEX 9710 – 1972 )

OEX 9710 Front
RAY NOBLE and AL BOWLLY, two men whose careers span one of the greatest eras of change the world has ever known, are heard again in this nostalgic, unashamedly romantic album of the music of their time.

To people accustomed to accepting discordancy as the norm and cacophonous screeching as good music, this album may come as something of a shock: but it will provide many happy hours for lovers of soft, sweet music, whose ear-drums crave for a revival of the clean, rich sound of a good band and the vocalising of a honey-tongued singer with a leaning towards a love-torn lyric.

Such a singer was Al Bowlly who , a generation ago in a world of jazzy parties, cats whiskers, crystal sets and flickering early movies was rivalling  that old maestro Bing Crosby in popularity .