Memories of Al Bowlly – Vol.2 (ODLP 7518 – 1958)

ODLP 7518    When Al Bowlly was killed by a German land-mine in his flat in London’s West End on April 17th, 1941, Britain lost her top-ranking light vocalist, “Bing Crosby’s most dangerous rival” as one critic put it in 1934. Of Greek extraction and South African by birth, Al Bowlly perfected a style of singing ballads without raising his voice, yet with golden tone and as sincere an inflection as any of today’s soul-baring emotionalists. He played excellent guitar, taught by his fellow-countryman Len Fillis; he sang with bands of renown in many parts of the world, from Calcutta and Singapore to Munich, Paris, New York and London. A list of the leaders with whom he recorded covers over 90% of British dance music personalities, and they all loved him. His singing career paralleled that of his partner and friend Ray Noble. From 1928 until late 1934 the “His Master’s Voice” house band was under the direction of Noble, who was also Musical Director for The Gramophone Company.
During the time he was with “H.M.V.” he was responsible for assembling the instrumentalists for recording sessions of groups variously known as Ray Noble’s Orchestra, New Mayfair Dance Orchestra, New Mayfair Novelty ‘Orchestra, and New Mayfair Orchestra. There is no doubt that Bowlly’s vocals were the predominant feature of the recordings. His fine voice was one of the main factors which drew American attention to British’popular music of that period. It led to Bowlly and Noble going to the U.S.A. in 1935 where the partnership continued successfully. Noble tells us that “Al Bowlly saw everything as black and white; if you were his friend, nothing was too good for you. If you were his enemy—look out!” There must have been very few, if any, in the latter category. “Al loved to sing, and was always happy singing,” another friend of his tells us. In that happy spirit, “H.M.V.” dedicates this record to his memory.

By The Fireside (Brian Rust – 1968)

cache_17351273        The year 1932 was one of deep economic depression all over the civilized world. Towards its close, Americans were pleading “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” while the growing army of unemployed sold apples, five for a nickel, on street-corners, queued for bread or in desperation, marched to Washington to lay their claims for relief at the door of President Herbert Hoover. In England, much the same thing happened; the hunger – marchers footed it from Jarrow to Whitehall, we were advised to “Buy British, ” and in Germany, a little man with staring eyes and a Charlie Chaplin moustache led his National Socialist party to election triumphs, seizing power early in 1933.

Generally speaking, it wasn’t a very happy year.

      It was a glorious hot summer, though.  It was a good year for songs, too. The fashion in these had turned from the rather hard-boiled style of the mid-twenties to tuneful, if sometimes rather too sentimental, love-ballads that would have beaten most other kinds of song to the top of the charts if such things had existed then. (There were exceptions, of course; two of the best-sellers of 1932 were the American ELEVEN MORE MONTHS AND TEN MORE DAYS and the British marching-song, AIN’T IT GRAND TO BE BLOOMING WELL DEAD? which grimly summarized a number of people’s feelings just then). To sing these sentimental numbers, America offered Will Osborne, Russ Columbo, Rudy Vallee and above all, Bing Crosby; while here in Britain we didn’t glamourize our top pop stars as we do now, nor had we so many to offer. In fact, far and away our most popular “ambassador of song” as he was later billed was the guitarist of Roy Fox’s fine dance band that broadcast weekly late at night from its place of work, the Monseigeur Restaurant, Piccadilly, London, W.1.
Al Bowlly was the name.
       He had come from Lourenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa via Johannesburg,
where he had worked as a barber, also via Calcutta, Singapore, and Germany in the days of the democratic Weimar Republic. He arrived in London in the summer of 1928, at the invitation of the Spanish-American pianist and bandleader, Fred Elizalde, whose forward-looking band, crammed with top American jazz talent, played for dancers in the ballroom of the Savoy Hotel. Bowlly was then thirty years old; an age nowadays considered in the pop world to be bordering on dotage, but he had a charm both in his singing and his personality that conquered female hearts wherever he went (the famous British composer and bandleader Ray Noble, on whose records Bowlly sang from 1931 to 1936, both here and in the U.S.A., recalls that when Al Bowlly was on tour through the States, with the Noble band, he left a trail of broken hearts behind him; he was meeting Crosby and the rest on their home ground and beating them at their own game).
        By 1932, he had established himself as Number One dance-band vocalist, and there
were few leaders with whom he did not appear at some time. Among those who claimed his services were, apart from Roy Fox, and later at the Monseigneur, Lew Stone, such leaders as Sid Phillips, Geraldo, Mantovani, Billy Cotton, Carroll Gibbons, Sidney Lipton, Oscar Rabin, Van Phillips, Bram Martin and Jay Wilbur. His ,silky voice, easy delivery and sincerity (“he really believed what he sang, ” Ray Noble ‘tells us, “and I have seen him turn away from the microphone with tears in his eyes after` singing a song such as THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU, which has a lyric as sincere as I could make it”)  were just what the public of 1932 wanted. In the hardbitten days of 1968, it is easy for some of our flint-hearted “realists’ ‘ to deride the “escapist” appeal of the singer and his songs; but the fact remains that by no means all the many who collect his records – and pay big money for originals that have not been transferred to LP – are middle-aged nostalgiacs, wiping tears from their eyes as they listen; a good many of his 1968 fans were not even born when the Nazi land-mine fell near Al Bowlly’s flat in Jermyn Street, London, in the dawn of April 17, 1941, killing him outright without wounding.
           Lew Stone arranged the twelve songs of 1932 presented on this record. For the sessions – there were three in all, that took place on March 15, April 1 and April 20 – he used the finest talent in London’s dance music. Nat Gonella, Paul Fenoulhet, Harry Hines, Bill Harty and Dick Ball are among the better-known personalities taking part; the scoring ranges with typical Lew Stone brilliance from the richly sentimental (ALL OF ME, or BY THE FIRESIDE, or the appropriate closing number, AUF WIEDERSEHEN MY  DEAR) to the blazing heat of MY SWEET VIRGINIA, via the cheerful jauntiness of JUST HUMMING ALONG or RAIN ON THE ROOF, the latter a little-known song by that comparative rarity, girl-composer Ann Ronell, better remembered as the writer of WILLOW WEEP FOR ME and WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?
          The late Sigmund Spaeth, in his excellent book POPULAR MUSIC IN AMERICA,  deplores the arrival in 1932 of WAS THAT THE HUMAN THING TO DO? as a reaction to the tear-jerker ballads of the nineties. It is difficult to understand why this number should have been singled out, as it is no worse than many others of the day, and a good deal better than some, for it has a singable tune matched by a singable lyric that, if it is not great poetry, at least it bears comparison with many others of its time, and for this writer’s money, it is far and above the average popular song of the sixties. Al Bowlly, in delivering this gently reproachful song of a jilted lover, might well have turned away from the microphone with tears in his eyes.
        These twelve tracks are also remarkable for other reasons. They are extremely well-recorded; compared with certain other discs of the same date, they sound remarkably clear, well-balanced and crisp, with Al Bowlly very much on form. Also, half of them were never recorded by Al for other labels.
       “After all these dangerous years, ” says Ray Noble, “I still get many enquiries about Al Bowlly, and sometimes, when a middle-aged father says to me, ‘You know, I first met my wife the night we danced to your band and heard Al Bowlly singing  GOODNIGHT , SWEETHEART, and we’ve never forgotten it, ‘ well  then I feel that Al and I have contributed in a small way to other people’s happiness; and I wish he were here now to share that feeling.”
Don’t we all?
Brian Rust

 

Al Bowlly Sings Again (Geoff Milne – 1964) –

     cache_17310595   The night skies of London during 1941 were filled with the droning of enemy aircraft bent on blasting the life and spirit out of this ancient city. Although battered and weary the inhabitants at no time gave any indication of defeat and the life of the metropolis carried on as nearly normal as possible. The cinemas and music halls were playing to capacity audiences; theatre land, although darkened to the outside world by the black-out still sparkled with all it’s old brilliance inside the theatres, and in a hundred dance-halls and clubs the bands and vocalists of the swing era were entertaining thousands of Londoners determined to enjoy themselves—Hitler or no Hitler. April the 16th of that year, was a typical example of one of those nights. The crowds had groped their way home through the murky streets and prepared for another battle of the blitz and the sirens were sounding throughout the south-east of England. That night is remembered as one of the worst of the battle of London, and as the weary citizens prepared themselves for another day’s work their newspapers carried the headlines announcing the death by enemy action in the early hours of April 17th of one of the greatest stars of the London musical scene —AL BOWLLY.

      Al, who had been called by many England’s Bing Crosby’, was at that time at the height of his career and was recognized as the most popular vocalist n the United Kingdom. For the decade prior to his untimely death his warm and intimate style of singing had been heard over the air-waves from the B.B.C., and countless thousands had been entranced by his crooning with some of the greatest bands in this band-laden era. Possibly ‘croon’ is not the correct verb to describe Al’s style of delivery, for his voice had about it a real sense of artistry, power and originality with a gift for investing the most banal of lyrics with real meaning.

       Given a song with a true intrinsic value such as “THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU”, he created something more than ‘just another song’ He would inject it with his personality and weave a golden sound which set him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. Although Al spent the greater part of his career working with large bands, a large number of his records were made with a small group and this setting seemed to suit the intimacy of his delivery, in addition to which it gave him full opportunity to use his distinctive style to it’s best advantage. The fifteen songs selected for this album are all in this setting, and each and every one is further proof of this fact. Albert Alick Bowlly, was born at Delagea Bay in Portuguese East Africa in 1906 and lived there until his parents decided to move to Johannesburg. This move to the Union of South Africa, was made without too much difficulty, for although his mother was of Greek origin his father had always retained his British nationality. Al’s interest in music was first awakened when as a youngster he used to sit and listen for hours to the Zulu and Bechuanaland mine boys providing their own entertainment after a day in the mines around Johannesburg. Some of these miners were exceptionally gifted on the guitar and it was not long before the young Bowlly had persuaded his parents to buy him a cheap guitar and he was busily engaged in emulating the strange rhythms which he heard at those impromptu concerts. Upon leaving school Al was apprenticed to his brother-in-law who ran a barber’s shop. This was a fortunate step for Al’s relative also had a flair for the mandolin whilst his fellow assistant loved nothing better than to strum away on his guitar. It was only a matter of time before the three of them had formed a group and were spending most of their spare time practising.

         Once again fortune smiled on Al, for it was during one of these slack periods in the shop that a famous band leader walked in for a haircut and heard him singing. The maestro was so impressed with Al’s style and delivery that he offered him a contract with his band and Al embarked on a world tour with Adler’s Syncopated Band, a tour that was to lead to world fame. Eventually Al found his way to London and joined Fred Elizalde’s band at London’s Savoy Hotel in June of 1928. His engagement with this band lasted until December of 1929 when AI found his luck had temporarily run out, a state of affairs which were to continue until January, 1931. As the early days of the new year passed coldly by Al, so the story goes, was reduced to singing in the streets as a busker, when he was seen by Bill Harty, at that time on drums with Roy Fox, who persuaded him to come along and audition for Fox. The audition was a great success and he was immediately signed to appear with the Fox band at the Monseigneur Restaurant in London’s West End.

When the leadership of this orchestra was taken over by Lew Stone, Al stayed on and eventually be-came one of London Society’s greatest favourites. His reputation by now, was such that Ray Noble, who was leading a band in New York’s famous Rainbow Room, asked him to join him as the band’s vocalist. This was in 1935, and as soon as Al had fulfilled his London commitments he took Noble up on his offer and sailed for America. Unfortunately his triumphs in Manhattan proved to be short lived, for in January of 1937 he was stricken down with throat trouble and was forced to quit the Noble orchestra and return to England. His homecoming how-ever turned out to be something of a triumphal return and he was welcomed by a public who had reserved a place in their affections for this talented South African. Al formed his own band and took it out on a protracted music-hall tour packing them in wherever he appeared.

       It was while on this tour that he was introduced to an American who told him of a surgeon in the States who had had some success with the malady which was troubling Al.

       Bowlly decided to investigate the truth of this information and in October of 1937 he sailed for New York. The operation, which was of a dangerous nature and could have resulted in the complete loss of his voice, was an unqualified success and Al was seen back on the bandstand and in the recording studios.

       The closing years of the thirties found him appearing throughout the country in night clubs and on the variety stage as a soloist and occasionally as a double act with fellow vocalist Jimmy Mesene as “The radio stars with two guitars’. As far as his voice is concerned there is considerable recorded evidence in support of the theory that it was even better after the operation than before,having taken on a richer and more mellow tone. With the advent of the fateful forties, Al had reached the zenith of his profession and was in demand for every media of entertainment.

         With Al Bowlly’s untimely death the world of show-business lost one of it’s greatest artists, a man with a voice and personality which were to prove irreplaceable, and an entertainer who is warmly remembered by countless thousands throughout the world.

Memories of Al Bowlly – Vol.1 (ODLP 7517 – 1957)

img_1887When Al Bowlly was killed by a German land-mine in his flat in London’s West End on April 17th, 1941, Britain lost her top-ranking light vocalist, “Bing Crosby’s most dangerous rival” as one critic put it in 1934. Of Greek extraction and South African by birth, Al Bowlly perfected a style of singing ballads without raising his voice, yet with golden tone and as sincere an inflection as any of today’s soul-baring emotionalists. He played excellent guitar, taught by his fellow-countryman Len Fillis; he sang with bands of renown in many parts of the world, from Calcutta and Singapore to Munich, Paris, New York and London. A list of the leaders with whom he recorded covers over 90% of British dance music personalities, and they all loved him. His singing career paralleled that of his partner and friend Ray Noble. From 1928 until late 1934 the “His Master’s Voice” house band was under the direction of Noble, who was also Musical Director for The Gramophone Company.
During the time he was with “H.M.V.” he was responsible for assembling the instrumentalists for recording sessions of groups variously known as Ray Noble’s Orchestra, New Mayfair Dance Orchestra, New Mayfair Novelty ‘Orchestra, and New Mayfair Orchestra. There is no doubt that Bowlly’s vocals were the predominant feature of the recordings. His fine voice was one of the main factors which drew American attention to British’popular music of that period. It led to Bowlly and Noble going to the U.S.A. in 1935 where the partnership continued successfully. Noble tells us that “Al Bowlly saw everything as black and white; if you were his friend, nothing was too good for you. If you were his enemy—look out!” There must have been very few, if any, in the latter category. “Al loved to sing, and was always happy singing,” another friend of his tells us. In that happy spirit, “H.M.V.” dedicates this record to his memory.