MANY people have hobbies, but for some the interest becomes more than that, taking up most of their spare time and a considerable amount of energy. In some cases it very nearly amounts to an obsession. Over the next weeks DICK GODFREY will be telling the stories behind some of these passions. Today he explains how popular local radio broadcaster and preacher Frank Wappat become a leading light in the revival ofinterest in the popular music of the 1930’s
FRANK Wappat reckons to have invented the first method of adding artificial echo to records. That is debatable. He also claims to have “re-dis-covered” Britain’s first pop star. That isn’t. Both achievements. and the enthusiasm that dominates much of his life. were the result of a meeting at Jarrow Grammar School where the young Frank was a pupil in the late 1940’s. A dislike of physical activity, and a forged letter from his mother meant that he was excused games and spent those periods in the school hall when he met another 11-year-old who had fascinating hobby. He collected gramophone records. Each month. the lad compiled a list of his latest acquisitions and Frank decided to do the same. But after a couple of months or so he had just four discs while his friend had dozens.
“One day I was passing a junk shop in Jarrow and saw a pile of records in the window at 6d (2 1/2p) each. I had five bob (25p) in my pocket and so I bought the ten cleanest records I could sort out.”
These were the days before such things as LPs and 45 rpm singles so Frank’s bargains were brittle and breakable 78s. He duly added them to his list. The record of part of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony he recognised, but who on earth were Roy Fox, Ray Noble and Lew Stone .Wary of revealing his own ignorance, he assumed that everybody knew who these men and their bands were and didn’t think much more about it. But he did think quite a bit about The Voice. It cropped up several times on the Roy Fox and Ray Noble records. The labels, though, didn’t say who The Voice belonged to, simply identifying it as a “vocal refrain”.
It was unlike anything else he had heard. “It could sing jazz and sweet and low stuff,” he explains. “There was something haunting and plaintive about it. but it could also be swinging and effervescent. “The more I listened, the more I grew to like it. I’d never heard a singer who had all those attributes. even though the recordings were diabolical.” The collection grew and soon it became more than simply a matter of adding numbers to his monthly lists .
He began to concentrate on Roy Fox and Ray Noble because they had The Voice. He also began to take notice of the serial numbers on the records and was soon able to know which numbers to look out for because it would appear, if only briefly. But the more he listened, the more dissatisfied the became with the quality of the records. They somehow lacked the texture of the live music he heard in the dance halls he visited. And so the Wappat echo technique was born. At the time when these records were made, echo was considered an evil.” he explains. “The record companies did everything they could to remove it. I wanted to add it on.” His solution was both ingenious and successful .By coupling two needles together one behind the other and wiring them both to his speaker he could get what sound engineers call delay echo .The idea was never patented .By the time Frank had perfected the technique. recording tape was being used in studios and echo , now no longer outlawed , could be added very easily. But that juvenile exploration developed into a life-long fascination with the technical side of recording that runs parallel to his enthusiasm for the contents .
There was still. though. the matter of The Voice . Nobody he spoke to could tell him who it was . At the age of 16. Frank took a holiday job in a record shop and took the chance of asking a local musician if he’d ever heard of the singer who appeared with Roy Fox and Ray Noble. “Oh, that was Al Bowlly.” said the drummer instantly . At last The Voice had a name .Frank learned that Bowlly was a South African who had performed and recorded in Britain in the 1930s and had been killed when a bomb struck his London flat during the Blitz of 1941 .
Now that he had a name. young Frank could apply himself to finding out more about the singer and to track down yet more records .”They were pretty hard to find, but at least I knew who it was ” In the early 1950s, Frank wrote to the record companies asking them if they could re-issue old Bowlly and other Thirties material. But this was the height of the “Beat Boom” and the company bosses said that nobody would be interested in pre-war pop . Wappat thought otherwise . He wrote a letter to the Evening Chronicle asking if anyone had any old Al Bowlly records. He got 20 replies .Three said that they did have records and the others were just interested. All 20 turned up for a get together and the Al Bowlly and Lew Stone Society was formed. A year later, 21 years ago this month in fact. the Al BowIly Circle started as a separate identity. That letter sparked off a revived interest in the music of the 1930s that was eventually to cover the globe. Not long after it appeared Frank Wappat was approached by a radio producer at the BBC in Newcastle who wanted to do an interview on the Al Bowlly Circle and what had then become the Thirties Club .The resulting interview was also broadcast nationally on the old light Programme in the days before Radio Two.
“All of a sudden. I round myself bombarded with about 300 letters from people all over Britain. It was a revulsion away from Beatlemania really, and the destruction of the system of dance music and swing music as people had known it “
Everybody was saying how pleased they were that somebody was fighting pop music and bringing back the real singers. Thus it was that Frank Wappat , by then working as a clerk in a Newcastle office found himself at the head of a musical revival. One of the letters was from the veteran bandleader Lew Stone. who enclosed seven pound notes for the train fare to London and an invitation to meet him at Putney Railway Station that Sunday. That meeting ,the first with one of the men who had become his musical heroes, led to the formation of a London branch of the Bowlly Circle . Others soon cropped up all over the country as the word was spread.
“It was like a magnet.” says Frank “Everything was coming to me, records, old photographs, programmes, every thing.” Letters from the Continent started to arrive. Frank started to produce a magazine that now circulates in 18 countries world-wide . So why the fascination with a singer who almost everybody seemed to have forgotten.For a start, there is The Voice, mellow, slightly husky tones riding on a rich sea of brass and reed, provided by the dance bands he sang with “Perfect phrasing, beautiful timing. perfect pitch. Bowlly’s pitch was far better than Sinatra’s,” enthuses Frank Wappat revealing the rivalry that still exists between fans of the two singers . But it’s more than that to a dedicated enthusiast like Frank Wappat and many more people nowadays .
Al Bowlly’s place in the musical hall of fame is secure as Britain’s first pop star. Until he arrived on the scene. Frank explains. singers were considered as unnecessary evils by record companies whose main concern was with the dance bands that dominated popular music at the time . Barely did they warrant a mention on the record labels which simply had “with incidental singing” or “with vocal refrain” alongside the title of the tune . The singers were known. dismissively at the time. as “crooners”. Then Al Bowlly appeared on the scene “He had everything that other singers at the time lacked, Most of the men sang like emasculated toms and the girls had deep voices like Dame Clara Butt. When Bowlly appeared. he had the voice and the looks . Band leaders found that when he sang a love song women didn’t bother dancing and just gathered around the band stand .
But Al Bowlly became a victim of his own success. He spent some time in America and returned to Britain as a star . A lot of band leaders ,still suspicious of crooners as a breed , wouldn’t use him because he had become too big .While across the Atlantic , Frank Sinatra was performing and recording with the Tommy Dorsey Band , Al Bowlly was forced to sing with the much smaller “combos” which was all the record companies felt that solo singers needed .His career then lacked the push that elevated the likes of Sinatra to true international star status . Then came the fateful night a bomb demolished his flat in London.
A singer died and a legend born with all the elements that have become sadly familiar to a younger generation of pop fan. An attractive young singer with with an intriguing career who dies when so much has yet to happen That is the fascination that is inspired Frank Wappat on his 20 year campaign to get Bowlly the recognition he feels he deserves . His success is measured in the number of LP’s of Bowlly material now available and the books and plays that have been written about him. But Franks commitment to the music of a bygone age doesn’t end with Al Bowlly. His massive collection of 78’s covers the whole spectrum of 30’s music.
He stopped counting sometime ago . These days he goes by weight . His collection is stored in a room in the church he runs in Albion Road ,North Shields .The floor is stressed to take three tons and Frank reckons he’s close to the limit “At a rough guess that’s around 15,000 records” Bowlly is believed to have recorded around 1200 titles .Nobody is exactly sure how many because so many were anonymous and that is part of the fascination , listening through a pile of old 78’s and checking their vital serial numbers to see if any may contain The Voice ,the thrill of the hunt .
And there is one quarry that causes Frank Wappats’ eyes to light up . Bowlly signature tune was “Buddy can you spare a dime” with it’s very fitting line “Say don’t you remember they called me Al ” He is known to have recorded it twice but for various reasons neither version was released . But Frank knows that one of the recordings was with Ray Noble and his band rumoured to have been withheld by Decca Records because they had also released a version by Sinatra. Franks researches have told him that a dozen test pressings were actually made .He even has a serial number .Somebody somewhere must have one he enthuses it’s only time before it comes to light . But Frank Wappat gets more from his absorbing interest than the excitement of the chase and the excuse to collect the obscure tracks that true enthusiasts for any hobby thrive on . He also makes a bit of money .
And that goes back to those early echo experiments .Over the years he has developed his own system of remastering old 78’s by taping them via a series of filters and other devices that eliminate the hiss crackle and pop .The cleaned up tapes are then sold or leased to record companies who release them on LPs which ironically sound a lot better than the originals although of course they don’t somehow have the magic of the 78s . All of this dedicated activity would seem to add up to an obsession, especially when you learn that Frank Wappat has been known to get massive enlargements made of the photographs of 1930s recording sessions to see if you can read the titles on the sheets of music
“Obsession , No ! ” he insists with a grin . “With obsession , people tend to become warped and twisted and think of nothing else and I’m not , it’s just the consuming interest , that’s all .”