Few popular singers have won the admiration and affection of the public to the extent that Al Bowlly did . It was a tribute not only to the uniqueness of his voice and style but also his personality – gay spontaneous ,sincere – that shone through his singing .
A South African of Greek descent Al Bowlly joined Fred Elizalde’s band at the Savoy hotel in 1928 . His companion on the trip to Britain was Monia Liter , with whose band he had been singing at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
From 1929 Al Bowlly worked with Roy Fox’s orchestra until Lew Stone took the band over in 1933. It was while he was with Lew Stone that the titles on this record were made . Monia Liter , who had joined the Lew Stone band plays the piano accompaniment.
In 1935 Ray Noble and Al Bowlly visited the United States , where their tour with a band of American Musicians was a great success. When Al returned to England he started on his own as a singer , later teaming up with Jimmy Mesene in a double act . But the war came , and during an air raid on London in April 1941, al Bowlly was killed.
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 .”
….. On my break the other night I took a short walk across Piccadilly Circus and up Jermyn Street. I went in search of The Monseigneur Restaurant. You wont find it in on the map. It closed down in 1934.
So why the interest? Because back in the early 30s, The Monseigneur was home to some of the best music in England. Its founder, Jack Upson, made his fortune in the shoe trade. Dolcis shoes was his family business. When he found himself in need of a venue to entertain his many lady friends a restaurant seemed the obvious choice.
A restaurant like the Monseigneur could stay open long after the pubs had shut. On Thursdays it stayed open as late as 2am.Patrons walked in down through the fan lit door on the right, guided by gold balustrades. Downstairs in the basement the walls were frescoed in lavish red and blue amid rich, silk tapestries. The band swung out to a clientele including the future King Edward VIII.
Roy Fox and Mantovani led bands here. And so did Lew Stones band between 1932 and 1934. Among his personnel were the trumpet player Nat Gonella and 30s heart throb Al Bowlly on vocals. Listening to him, it was said, was like having lemonade poured down your spine. He died nearby aged just 43 when a Luftwaffe bomb exploded outside his flat.
So what’s it like now? First of all the building wasn’t bombed or bulldozed. The ground floor now houses Gotti’s Italian Restaurant. But walk down the steps into what’s now the Jermyn Street Theatre and you’re standing in the very room where Stone’s band broadcast live on the BBC for 90 minutes every Tuesday night at 10.30pm.
Dancing at home was a big deal during the depression. With as many as five million radio sets in the country its easy to understand how Lew Stone became a household name. Nowadays it takes imagination to keep the glamour alive.
After the Monseigneur closed the building was converted to a cinema, later renowned for showing sleazy movies. Its transformation into a theatre in 1994 restored its respectability.
Martin, a helpful member of the theatres staff, is the only person I meet who has any knowledge of the buildings provenance. He walks me through to the office and shows me one of The Monseigneur’s original menus, preserved in a frame. Aside from the backstage dressing rooms its the sole reminder of the hotspot this place once was.
I walk out onto Jermyn Street, home of high fashion, where Beau Brummell once polished his boots with champagne. Directly opposite the former Monseigneur there’s now a Tesco’s Metro.
In true 30s style I buy a pack of fags and pitifully puff my way back to work. I hope to make it onto the X90 before oblivion covers my tracks. I checked, and Lew Stones name didn’t even make it on to the menu.
………. Back in London I started immediately to form my new recording band. First of all I had to find someone who knew the best musicians and could help me by suggesting the kind of boys I needed. I’d heard of a very fine arranger who was a pianist named Lew Stone, and a top drummer called Bill Harty. I got together with them and, after they had agreed to join me, they told me of a vocalist who had been out of work for quite some considerable time and was finding it pretty difficult to make both ends meet. I thought that if this singer was all that good why wasn’t he working. But Lew and Bill pressed the point and, at last, I asked this man to come along and give me an audition. When he arrived, I noticed he made a good appearance – most necessary, of course – and he had a pleasing personality. Lew Stone accompanied him at the piano and when he started to sing I was sure he was the person I was looking for. His name was Al Bowlly. I soon made up the band with the best musicians I could find and we started turning out records for Decca by the dozen.
We recorded at least twice a week, making four titles at each session and that was the very beginning of the hundreds and hundreds of discs I made during my career. The new band was an instant hit on records and, sure enough, I have never seen such publicity as Decca gave me. My photographs and records were in the windows of nearly every record shop, we had the full front page of the Daily Mail, and our records were played by the BBC almost every time you listened and also on the Continent. Yes, we were on our way. One of the very first things we did was a recording of The Peanut Vendor. It was just one of the many sides Al Bowlly did with that first band, which started him on the road to being one of the most famous of all British vocalists.
The Peanut Vendor was recorded in February 1931. So popular were our records becoming that one day I was asked by a man who was building a new club in the West End to come to see him. His name was Mr Upson and he owned the Dolcis Shoe Company. He told me the new club was going to be the smartest thing in London and would be exclusive. He said he had found when he went to other clubs they were generally too crowded to dance and that was why he was opening his own club so that he could provide a bit more comfort. He was going to call this new night spot The Monseigneur. It was right in the heart of Piccadilly. Would I be interested in opening with my band? He made it sound so worthwhile with the amount of money he offered and the fact that I wanted some place to be seen by the public apart from just making records, I had no hesitation in accepting. There would be only a few short weeks before the opening and there were one or two changes I intended making in the band. I engaged the brass section from the Billy Cotton Band and when it was time for the opening, the personnel in the band were Al Bowlly (vocalist), Lew Stone (piano), Bill Harty (drums), Don Stuteley (bass), Syd Buckman, Nat Gonella (trumpets), Joe Ferri (trombone), Ernest Rine, Jim Easton, Harry Berly (saxophones).
Opening night was really something! The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Kent, King Alfonso (of Spain), they were all there and the room was decorated so beautifully. All the walls were dark blue and draped with red silk and a large painting of Monseigneur hung near the cocktail bar – very French and in the most excellent taste.
When thinking of Al, I can’t help recalling that when we finished our first week and he received his first cheque , he was so happy to have had the chance of working again after so many ups and downs that to show his gratitude, he invited Dorothea and me to a little Italian restaurant in Soho . We went along with him and he ordered a very special dish he thought we would both like and during the course of this delicious chicken entrée, I thought I heard a most peculiar kind of sound. After much detective work I discovered Al was chewing on a chicken bone. I queried this and he said: ‘Boss’ (he always called me Boss), `haven’t you ever tried chewing chicken bones? They’re the best part and very good for the teeth.’ Well, I knew Al had beautiful white teeth but I never realized how he kept them looking that way.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Things were swinging along nicely for the Fox band, then fate took a hand yet again,
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.
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.
Home Notes by Miles Henslow
No.2. Al Bowlly , of Lew Stone’s Monseigneur Band
SEVENTEEN, Orange Street, at two-thirty. The two-thirty part was easy. It happened while I was still in the ‘bus. But Orange Street, no. At three o’clock I decided that I did not know my London.
First Policeman : ” Third to the right, second to the left.” Taxis applied their brakes as I followed instructions.
Second Policeman : “Round to the right, round to the left, third right.” As I got back to where I started the friendly clock said “Three-fifteen.”
The first match-seller said the same as the first Policeman. Fortunately, there was another match-seller stationed by Policeman No. 2, so I was able to get back again by three-forty-five, plus two boxes of matches. I stood for a while to cool off. It was most trying. Somewhere, also cooling his heels in the friendly Bowlly doorway, was THE MELODY MAKER’S tame photographer. He always accompanies me on these missions of mystery. His job is to take pictures and other things that I miss. We share out afterwards
“Love is the sweetest thing ——–” I turned my head the better to hear. I knew that voice !
” Twang — twang — twang — twangka – twang.” Likewise did I know that guitar ! Then, as the rich baritone voice echoed down the street, I realised the terrible truth. I looked up.
” Orange Street,” said the neat, enamel plate on the wall. At three-forty-eight and a half the voice ceased and Al Bowlly poked his head out of the window. “Can’t you two fight somewhere else ?” he pleaded. Then, as he noticed our gentlemanly attire, ” Oh, are you looking for me ? Come right up.” We floated in to the strains of “Mother Machree.” ” Take off your hat, Jack,” I whispered, ” and don’t stand on those records.”
” Are you Mr. Bowlly ? I’m so ——————
“Well, there’s the decanter,” said our host. I was going to have said “Sorry,’ but I was thirsty, so it didn’t matter.
“Have a cigar ? Sit down. My name’s Al.”
I helped myself to the largest cigar in the chest, and put Jack Marshall’s in my pocket. He doesn’t smoke. Al introduced us to a friend, “Young Johnny Brown.” ” Ex-featherweight champion of Great Britain,” he said. ” He is teaching me to box and giving me a course of massage.”
I saw Jack Marshall replace a silver spoon. Jack is very discreet. ” Well, Mr. Bowlly— er, Al,” I began, ” what is your favourite occupation
I mean when you are at home ?
Haven’t you a hobby ?
We were progressing rapidly.
“Do you drink ?
“Never. But there is always plenty for my friends. Have another ? “
Al is human.
” Do you smoke ?”
“Like a chimney.”
Al is very human. Soon he will be super-human. When he is not wrapped up with his singing he is wrapped up with towels and having his ribs bruised by “Young Johnny Brown.”
“You were singing ‘Mother Machree’ when I came in, Al ; but wasn’t it a new tune ? ”
Al smiled. “Yes,” he said, it was my own arrangement. Don’t you think it a great improvement ? ”
I did, and I said so. Whereupon he sang it again. It was Al Bowlly in a new vein. I understood why he sang at home. As he explained, it is one thing to be able to sing what you like how you like, and another having to sing what other people like how they like.
“But you’ve always sung modern stuff, haven’t you ? ” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
He got up and opened a long forgotten cupboard. From a stack of records some six feet high he levered out a disc that was scratched and gnarled with age. The label had come off and there were sundry pot-holes and dents on its surface, but it played. As the sound-box rose and fell over its contours, we marvelled. “Muddy Water” was the title. I seemed to recall having heard it before. Was it ’26 or ’24 ? No matter it was good.
” If,” I said, ” you were to do that number to-morrow, exactly as you did it then, it would go down as well as the best.” And it would.
Another cupboard yielded yet more records. Once Al got started nothing could stop him. Down on the floor, with guitar and gramophone, he entertained us. In the depths of the chair, with glass and cigar, I listened.
” Do you sing ? ” he asked.
” Well,” I said, modestly, ” I used to be quite outstanding in the choir at school.”
” Let’s hear ! ” Good King Wen–“
“Have another drink,” said Al. ” must be moving. I have still got to have my massage, a bath, a meal, a rehearsal, and then I’m on the air.” He rushed from the room. A few seconds later a deafening report and the rushing of water intimated that he had lighted the geyser.
” Love is — splash — the sweetest — splash. — The — splash — splash — and the latest splash.” Seizing camera and rate-book we crept to the bathroom. ” I only hope that fate will bring– splash — splash — splash.” Outside the door the photographic virtuoso stealth-rutty erected his tripod.
” Love’s old, sweet story to — splash you “
” When I say Go ‘,” whispered the picture merchant, “push the door.”
” Land of hope and—splash, splash .”
” Go ”
There was a blinding flash as I kicked at the door. We caught Al on bottom ” G.” It was rather like abusing hospitality, but the chance was too good to miss. The result which we print here is, I am sure, the only authentic evidence supporting the well-worn phrase, “He sang in his bath.”
After that episode Al became quite cheerful. It was obvious that he realised the futility of resistance. Amidst splashing, soap bubbles and snatches of song, we got his story. Born in South Africa, he made his debut in a concert party. He had always wanted to sing. He, too, was in the choir. In those days ten bob for an evening was a fortune. He continued to sing. Now, as I have said before—” rich baritone.”
He has no quaint hobbies. He does not make fiddles out of biscuit tins, neither does he breed guinea-pigs. His two objects in life are a perfect voice, and perfect health.
For the first he has made Bing Crosby his model ; for the second, Young Johnny Brown is his tormentor.
At that moment the latter entered, hauled Al out of the bath, threw him full length upon the table and commenced to lam into him. Al seemed to enjoy it. Here again I suppose he realises the futility of resistance.
” Thank you, Al,” I said.
” Not at all,” he replied.
Al is essentially hospitable. He makes you feel at home. His heart is as big as his voice. We turned the corner of Orange Street. ” Love is the sweetest thing. The ——– ”
Al Bowlly is essentially a singer.
Al Bowlly featured on two recordings of Muddy Water in 1927, firstly with Arthur Briggs Savoy Syncopators Orchestra ( only guitar accompaniment) and then with Edgar Adeler .
Who is our Best Crooner ?
One of the most amusing novelties ever turned out by a dance band is the ” Little Nell ” of Lew Stone and the Monseigneur Band, now issued on Decca F 3394. It is. of course, just the same ” production ” as the band has broadcast many times already, so you probably know all about it: how, for instance it tells in burlesque form and strictly in fox-trot rhythm, of the villainy per-formed against Little Nell and how that villainy is brought to book by the aged father and the village “constabule.” Neither on the air nor on the record do you enjoy the supreme good fun of hearing this number as worked by the band in person. for then the boys use props on the job and it not only sounds funny but looks funny as well
However, the record is such a quaint one as to be well worth having, especially by the collectors who make a hobby of knowing all about the principal rank and file performers in the star dance bands as well as the leaders themselves.
What’s in a Voice?
Such as these will be intrigued in recognising the quavery voice of Little Nell’s father as belonging to Jim Easton, the sax player and in tracing the piping treble of Little Nell herself to Tiny Winters, the diminutive bassist of the band.
Nor will they have any difficulty in identifying the bucolic diction of the ” constabule ” Only two musicians have a frog in the voice like that: one is Louis Armstrong. in America, and the other is his faithful disciple in England ,namely Nat Gonnella, the trumpet player of Lew Stone’s Band.
There remains only one other character to be solved—the villain with the dirty voice and the dirtier curse. Yes. it is Al Bowlly—Al Bowlly. the crooner.
The Barber’s Bias
It seems all wrong somehow to cast a crooner as the villain of the piece – yet I don’t know.
A certain tonsorial artist who plies an artistic scissor In the saloon which I favour for my hair cuts has constituted himself my guide and mentor.
Only a few days ago. when I went in for a trim, he came over to my chair and said gravely. ” I was sorry to see you make such a bloomer In one of your recent articles as to refer to Al Bowlly as the senior crooner. He’ll never be that Sir , What about Sam Browne? There’s a real singer.”
We debated the point and then he finished off the discussion by saying ” After all, when it comes to singing dance songs, there’s only one artist worth talking about – Bing Crosby. And If you want to do your readers a real service. you’ll tell them to get his “Brother ,Can You Spare a Dime?'”
In Defence of Bowlly
Well as far as Bing Crosby is concerned I am quite in agreement with all that, and the record in question is Brunswick 1434 , so hear the record and find out from it not only what good popular song singing is like, but also what America has come to with its unemployed millions, bread queues and the like.
But I am still unrepentant about Al Bowlly. To my mind he is the supreme British crooner, although, to tell the truth. there is Latin blood in his veins as you would suspect from his swarthy complexion ,large dark brown eyes, sideboard whiskers, and the extra ‘”l” in his surname.
Bowlly sings like a musician. He is not just content slavishly to sing a song exactly as the composer wrote it and precisely as it is phrased on the in song copy.
No ,Al sings it his own way and when he has worked it up on his own lines it usually is a long way better than the composer ever made it .
This style of singing is a secret shared by most of the leading American vocalists: the Al Jolson’s, Harry Reichmann’s , Bing Crosby’s , Sophie Tuckers, Ethel Waters and the rest .
Not only that, but Al is the real artist always practicing, living only for his work ,dreaming about it night and day and as the photograph shows ,literally singing in his bath in by way of a busman’s rehearsal.
And now. hear one of the best of his solo records, namely “Rosa Mia.” Decca F3275