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 .
Muddy Water ( A Mississippi Moan)