Memory Lane No. 71 – Summer 1986

PETER HERON RECALLS RECORDING WITH AL BOWLLY …. AS TOLD TO ROGER DESMOND


The act which came to be known as the Five Herons began as a trio of sisters who abandoned their typewriters for close harmony. They were working for Bram Martin when their younger brother, Peter Heron, came up from the country still dressed in britches. Charles Tucker who was producer at the Trocadero and Holborn Empire auditioned the group and assumed the act was a five piece (three sisters and a brother, who acted as their manager, and Peter). He booked the act immediately, which was not surprising since the whole family were natural harmonists and always sang together. This was in 1935 and the act lasted until 1940 when war service took the boys overseas. After the war the act never re-formed, but in those five years the Herons had topped the bill in Variety and made over two hundred broadcasts with the BBC and Radios Normandy and Luxembourg.

The Herons were frequently booked by band leaders like Carroll Gibbons to record shows. At the end everyone was paid in white five pound notes, with considerable generosity. In the theatre the Herons performed on the same bill as Tommy Handley and Arthur Askey, long before ITMA and Garrison Theatre and with Charlie Chester and The Crazy Gang. In fact Charlie Chester did his first job as compere at The Palace of Varieties opposite the BBC with the Herons. The show was to be broadcast to Britain and the Empire and included Tommy Handley and George Robey on the bill. Charlie was so nervous that he needed constant encouragement from the Herons to get through the ordeal.
The recording career of the group was in addition to their stage and broadcast work. It was a relatively straightforward process: once arrangements to make a record had been made with a company a rehearsal date was fixed. Titles were sometimes not decided until the actual rehearsal. Once the producer agreed on titles a recording could be completed in a few hours. The whole group used just one box microphone and worked out their own balance. Making the master recording was a solemn business as any mistakes meant a further recording, and each one cost £50. The master recording could only be played back once to check for mistakes.

When the Herons came to record with Al Bowlly, it was particularly dramatic as they had been rehearsing for a very long time and Al kept changing his mind about titles. When the master record had been made they all sat round to hear the play-back. Al Bowlly sat with his head on his knees and they all feared that another take would be necessary, but finally he slapped his leg and said ‘Okay, boys and girls’, to their great relief. The recording was all done in one day. The Herons arrived at 11.00 at the HMV studios and met the engineer and producer. They were all to be on the same microphone with Al. Balancing the group took only a few minutes. Violet Carson, who was to accompany the recordings, arrived at 11.30 and rehearsed the numbers once with the Herons. At noon Al arrived and they all rehearsed again, making some slight alterations. Around 12.30 everyone went to lunch, returning about 2.30 for a final run-through and then the master takes. When the Herons heard the play-back they all realised that the final chord of “Sweet As A Song” was out of tune, but Al Bowlly let it pass. The reason was that at rehearsal the Herons finished the number but on the master take Al came in humming – offkey ! Similarly on the other title recorded “Sweet Someone” Al fluffed his lines and sang “for be” instead of “to be” .

The Herons were not credited on the record as issued, simply referred to as the “Crooner’s Choir”. Peter explained the reason was their own ‘musical snobbery”. The Herons simply had no idea of Al Bowlly’s extensive career. They were at school when he was at the height of his popularity and they did not listen to the wireless. With Al’s years in America, he was completely unknown to them. As an established close harmony group they didn’t wish to be associated by name with (for them) an elderly crooner !

The contact with Al Bowlly came about through his agent who had been instructed to find the best close harmony group to back Al in his efforts to re-establish his recording career in Britain. The Herons agreed to meet Al, but made the stipulation that they would not be credited on any records issued, nor would they receive any royalties. However, immediately the Herons met Al they were staggered by the amount he was prepared to offer them, including rehearsals, and by his professionalism and dynamism. To illustrate a point he would leap on a chair or even on to a grand piano one handed, ‘Boys and girls, what I want you to do is to bring out that big sound there, just get the choir effect! The Herons loved him for his warmth and enthusiasm. To them Al was a much older man and there was controversy about his age. One morning Al arrived at a rented studio and announced that they were all to have champagne to celebrate his fortieth birthday. This was in 1938. Peter remembers him as anything but elderly, although he was twice their age. A very short, dark, powerfully-built man, Al had the shoulders and build of a Welsh miner. After shaking hands with Al fingers had to be prised apart, so powerful was his grip.

The background to the recording of Sweet As A Song” and “Sweet Someone” is interesting. Al had returned from America determined to be the first crooner to make a record with only a backing group, no orchestra. Apparently no-one else had done this, although Bing Crosby had used backing groups with orchestras. Al was prepared to make the recording at his own expense. The resulting record was extremely popular and proved that Al still had a tremendous following. For the period of the ‘phoney war’ the Herons worked at the Opera House, Blackpool, with George Formby, for whom they had great affection. His simplicity and humour off-stage matched his stage personality. From there the Herons went on to the Victoria Palace, then to the Adelphi in ‘Fig Leaves’ and then to the Garrick in ‘Eve on Parade’. This was a huge production starring Maurice Chevalier but, after weeks of rehearsal, Chevalier broke his contract because of the situation in France and the show closed after a short run.

And so the Herons too closed their act, initially for the duration only. They had never even purchased a copy of their recording with Al. Memories of Al remain clear to Peter despite the half century which has all but elapsed. He remembers him as a good looking man with crinkly hair, always very smartly dressed as if for a cocktail party and with a penchant for American ties. Although a chain smoker of Capstan Full Strength (which none of the Herons could smoke, they were so strong) his hands were always beautifully clean, with manicured nails. He spoke at about a pitch higher than he sang. His manner was always charming and he had a great sense of humour although he did not tell jokes. He was invariably polite, never rude or vulgar. Despite his obvious charm he was in no sense a ‘womaniser’, in fact the Heron sisters found him quite shy, and no-one ever saw him with a woman. On his return to Britain, Al was very reluctant to speak of his American experience. Possibly he had found himself pushed out by the big boys, the Crosbys and so on, or there may have been trouble over a woman – he would never say. Joan Heron, one of the Five Herons, recalled that Al obviously thought the throat condition he suffered the previous year was more serious , a cancer – than it turned out to be. He also said that on his return to Britain he felt free for the first time in years, but he had doubts whether he would ever be successful again. However, the Herons formed the impression that he had made a lot of money in America and that although he was a generous man he was very careful not to waste his earnings.

The contact with the Herons began in September 1937 but it was not until April 1st, 1938 that the recording was made. Much of the delay was due to Al trying out different songs – ‘The Girl In The Alice Blue Gown’ and ‘Ferryboat Serenade’ were among those considered. The Herons did not usually rehearse with Al but with his arranger who they only knew as Margaret. As a professional, Al knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, but there was some evidence to suggest that he did not read music as he never looked directly at the arrangement when making alterations . Although he had no regular band work, Al always gave the impression of being tremendously busy, arriving late for rehearsals, but no-one knew how else he spent his time. However, he was well in with HMV and had plenty of capital to live off while negotiating contracts. Whether he was still recovering from his throat operation is a possibility, although Peter thought that his voice would not have lasted for many more years. The image remains of a man who was generous, likeable, meticulous in planning and a perfectionist in execution, and totally relaxed in front of the microphone – a true professional.