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

 

The Nat Gonella Story – 1985

Things were swinging along nicely for the Fox band, then fate took a hand yet again,IMG_1890
when Roy was taken ill with pleurisy in November 1931. He tried to struggle on but he was forced to take his doctor’s advice to go to Switzerland in order to recuperate, living in a small village high in the mountains. With the Billy Cotton affair no doubt still fresh in his mind, Roy was well aware of what could happen when the leader of a band went absent so he kept the band running at the Monseigneur by handing the baton over to Lew Stone as a temporary measure. This was fine with the rest of the band , for as well as being a most proficient musician, Lew was a very popular chap on and off the bandstand. Although Roy Fox took all the limelight through fronting the band, it is generally acknowledged that Lew Stone was really the musical brains behind the success of the outfit with his arranging skills.

       It would seem that apart from musical prowess, to possess a strong constitution could be a good asset to a dance band musician in the 1930s. Akin to many of his colleagues, when the band at the Monseigneur had played the last waltz, usually around 2A.M , Nat would pop into a late club and sit in on an impromptu jazz session, all for free.

     The Bag O’Nails Club off Regent Street was one of his favourite haunts and on occasion the sessions could go on until five in the morning. When he had blown all the jazz out of his system Nat would stagger bleary-eyed out of the club just in time to see another day dawning. He would then nip into one of  Joe Lyons’ establishments for a breakfast of bacon, eggs and a cup of tea.

    Rather similar to the coffee stall in Brighton, Lyons also served as a meeting place for the “night people”, that is folk such as nightclub staff and entertainers, musicians, and ladies of doubtful virtue.

      IMG_1891 It was during one of his early morning breakfasts that Nat dropped his knife and fork for a few moments to take on the role of Cupid. Unfortunately, the arrow in this particular case went way off target. It happened when one of Nat’s great pals in the band, Al Bowlly, joined him for a cup of coffee. As they were sipping and chatting, a good looking girl in the shape of Freda Roberts came into the restaurant, and just one look at her immediately bowled Al over, he could not take his eyes off of her.

      As it happened, Nat knew Freda from the Bag O’Nails where she worked as a hostess. After prompting from Al, he introduced him to Freda, whereupon the sexual chemistry began flowing like water from a tap. At that time, Al Bowlly had the world at his feet and could have had his pick from any member of the opposite sex that he so desired. Knowing Al’s reputation with the ladies, Nat put it down as just another of the handsome singer’s casual affairs. To his amazement, and horror, the couple were married within a week. “Oh my gawd!” thought Nat. “What have I done?” His worst fears were realized, the marriage lasted only a few weeks. It appeared that as far as Freda was concerned, old habits were hard to break, and when she said that she would like to keep her friends after she was married, she meant men friends.