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