FOR THE FIRST TIME – THE FULL FACTUAL STORY OF AL BOWLLY AND HIS LIFE OF MUSIC AND SONG.
WRITTEN AND RESEARCHED BY RAY PALLETT (1975)
Soon after arriving in America he entered hospital for the operation, after which it was reported in newspapers that during the operation he had to actually sing to guide the surgeon’s knife, the slightest deviation of which could have ended Al Bowlly as a singer. Fortunately the operation was a complete success and Al became full of joy and thankfulness that he could sing again. He often thanked God for his voice, which he believed to be a charisma, and for his success. Al was religious, deeply so. He belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church and attended frequently.
Now that Al’s voice had come back to him he was feeling on top of the world. Journalist Sidney Petty, after an interview with Bowlly, said that he had never seen a man so madly happy. Al had lost all his false friends and found one or two real ones who made up for everything. Al said at the Petty interview, which took place some while after:— “I’ve never been so happy, so cheerful, so contented of mind, as I have in the last seven months. I think right now I’m the happiest man in the world. I’ve got something that I’ve been looking for all my life, Honest to God, in my whole life — and I’ve had some good times. I’ve never been so happy.”
During the autumn of 1937, Al Bowlly had been through hell, but he came through it all a wiser and happier man. Perhaps he believed, as many do nowadays, that his voice even improved as a result of the operation, becoming deeper and richer than it was hitherto. After the operation, Al didn’t want to remain in America for long, although he did record there again. Indeed, as soon as his throat healed he was back in the recording studio again in New York with studio orchestra billed as “Al Bowlly and his Orchestra”. When you listen to the six titles recorded, there is no doubt that Al’s voice had returned in all its splendour.
Back in London in December 1937 he was now eager to resume his work with renewed enthusiasm now that he had a “new voice”. The first bandleader to approach him was Sydney Lipton, with whom he signed a contract in which there was also a clause allowing Al to work with Lew Stone. However, Al “fluffed” one or two titles with Lipton, who later released Al from the contract, thus enabling him to go freelance. Al was soon recording and broadcasting with Syd Lipton, Maurice Winnick and Lew Stone, the man who had shown such great friendship towards Al. For his solo recordings he was now on the exclusive HMV label. He also sang with Felix Mendellsohn with whom he made a short film in which, unfortunately, he did not sing.
Not long after his arrival back in England, Al was introduced to Helen Bevan — a very charming and attractive girl. This developed into the only permanent relationship that Al had, although he didn’t marry her.
As well as free lancing in the record and radio studios, Al continued with his variety act, appearing up and down the country, sometimes appearing with accompaniment by Archie Slavin and brother Mish. During 1938, the musical partnership between Al and Lew Stone was re-formed and in February of that year they made their first records together since 1934. Al appeared on most of the records that Lew made in 1938, and a view held by many people is that these records even surpassed the ones they made in the period 1932 to 1934. In 1938 Al free lanced with the Lew Stone Band on radio and records and also appeared with the band at Butlin’s holiday camps at Clacton-on-Sea and Skegness. This was the first time that a top line band had ever appeared at Butlin’s.
August of 1938 the famous Gaucho Tango Orchestra leader, Geraldo, formed a new band lie mgr, a wider and sweeter variety of music. Geraldo realised how popular Al was and asked him on the recording sessions for the new band which Al agreed to do. He thus recorded with Geraldo from September 1938 to April 1939 during which time they cut twenty-nine titles. On each of these titles Al sounds completely at home with the band, and many collectors agree that these are among his best band recordings, certainly of those he made since his return from America.
1939 was not a very good year for Al. Although he was well established as a solo artiste and made sixteen records as such, free lance recording work was scarce. Only Geraldo, Bram Martin and Reginald Williams used Al on their dance band recordings. Record sales at this period were not air at high and in particular the three titles Al cut with Reg Williams are about the rarest of all those – England — showing how low sales were. Al spent most of his time making personal appearances nationwide and these were successful as Al certainly had plenty of “pulling” power.
However, in 1939 Al became worried about his voice once again, and in June of that year he suffered a severe throat infection which prevented him from working for several months. On the last record he made before the infection, which was made with Bram Martin and his Band, Al sounds a little like he did on the Ronnie Munro record he made before his voice gave out in 1937. Although he not require surgery on this occasion, his voice started to deteriorate and to some people’s minds it had lost much of its sparkle. However, he was still able to put a song over with all the feeling and professionalism for which he had always been noted. It is noticeable from subsequent recordings that the power and range of Al’s voice was beginning to diminish.
As soon as his voice returned to him he was able to fulfil a promise he made sometime earlier. The promise was to record the four winning songs in a song-writing competition. The four titles were recorded, but not for commercial issue, the pressings being given to the winners of the
In September of 1939, World War II broke out, and this seemed to be the beginning of the end of the dance band era in Britain. Bandsmen were being called up and the dance bands were no longer the big attraction they were. Poor old Al Bowlly was now not getting the amount of work he would have liked. He had not been called up for military service since he was too old. He was to spend the early part of the war entertaining the war workers and blitz-weary population of London and elsewhere. During this time, Al had become very friendly with fellow singer and guitarist Jimmy Mesene. Mesene used to sing with Nat Gonella and met Al when they were both on same bill. They were both of Greek extraction and shared the same religion and profession. personality-wise they were poles apart. Jimmy Mesene was a swash-buckling devil-may-care sort fellow — smart talking, brash and intemperate. Just the antithesis of Al who was quiet and modest. In 1940 Al was the best man at Jimmy Mesene’s wedding.