A potted biography by Ray Pallett, author of “They Called Him Al”
Albert Allick Bowlly was born on the 7th January 1899 in what is now Maputo in Mozambique. His father was Greek, born on Rhodes and his mother was Lebanese. They met on board a ship bound for Australia, were married in Perth Cathedral and subsequently moved to Southern Africa. While Al was still a baby, the Bowlly family moved to South Africa where he was brought up. So it can be seen that Al already had a cosmopolitan background.
When Al left school, he got a job in his uncle’s barber shop and eventually had a hairdressers of his own. At the same time, Al being a bit of a singer and banjoist, was enjoying being a semi-pro entertainer. However, it wasn’t long before he was spotted by Edgar Adeler, who was one of South Africa’s top bandleaders, who offered him the chance to become a full-time professional member of his organisation. So Al hung up his scissors and cut-throat razor and started to sing and play ukulele in Edgar Adeler’s Band around Johannesburg.
Edgar’s ambition was to come to England so he proposed to the boys in his band that they should work their way to London. This they did, touring through Rhodesia, East Africa, the Indian sub-continent and the Far East. Edgar Adeler later recalled that Al had a voice "out of this world". Al and Adeler had an argument en route and went their separate ways. However, they were to meet up again in Germany.
It was in 1927 that Al arrived in Berlin to work again with Edgar Adeler. Al’s stay in Berlin, which lasted about one year was an important stage in Al’s career for it was here that his first vocal records were made. In Berlin, which was then the jazz capital of Europe, he recorded as a soloist and with a number of jazz bands including those led by Arthur Briggs and John Abriani.
But Al’s ambition was still to get to London. Len Fillis, who had worked with Al in South Africa, had made it and knew that bandleader Fred Elizalde required a singer for his band which had a residency at the famous Savoy Hotel. So he tipped Al the wink. Al sent over to Elizalde his recording of Muddy Water. Fred was so impressed that he immediately sent Al his fare to London. Being a gambler, Al promptly lost this money and had to borrow some from a friend in order to get his ticket.
However, he eventually arrived in London and took his place in the Elizalde Orchestra. Elizalde wanted his orchestra to play jazz. But the Savoy management wanted him to play sweet music for dancing. So when the contract expired it was not renewed and Al found himself out of work. The year 1929 was a bleak one for Al. He managed to pick up a few recording dates and did some freelance work with a semi-pro band. He is even reputed to have resorted to busking to theatre queues in order to make ends meet.
During 1930, things began to pick-up. Al was now obtaining much free-lance recording work with a wide variety of bands on a wide variety of record labels. He continued this free-lance work during 1931 and 1932 and made hundreds of records in this capacity. Far more importantly, Al received two major breaks towards the end of 1930. Firstly, he was recommended to Ray Noble who was musical director at HMV and was invited to participate in a recording session with Noble’s HMV house band, known as The New Mayfair Dance Orchestra. Over the following years, Al sung on the vast majority of Ray Noble’s records including classic performances such as Goodnight, Sweetheart, Love is The Sweetest Thing and The Very Thought Of You.
The other major break that Al enjoyed at the end of 1930 was being signed-up by Roy Fox for his new recording band for Decca. It was only a matter of months before Roy’s band with Al obtained the residency of a new luxurious eatery in Piccadilly known as The Monseigneur Restaurant. Both the restaurant and its band were an instant success. Regular radio work followed and records on Decca continued. Al was now becoming well-known.
While he was with Roy Fox’s Band he entered into a disastrous marriage to Freda Roberts, a night club hostess who he met in the nearby Lyons Corner House. The marriage lasted only a few weeks and they were eventually divorced in 1934.
In the Autumn of 1932, Lew Stone took over Roy Fox’s band and in the year that followed, Al reached the peak of his career. With Roy Fox and Lew Stone, Al was undertaking theatre dates as well as radio, records and a regular West-End engagement. The critics acclaimed him as our top vocalist.
Meanwhile, Ray Noble’s HMV records were being exported to the US where they were being snapped-up by the record buying public and applauded by the American critics. Too good to stay in London, they said. So Ray received an invitation to come to New York to re-create that New Mayfair sound. To give him any chance of achieving this, Ray took with him his drummer Bill Harty, who would be his business manager, and Al Bowlly whose distinctive voice was in many ways the hallmark of the New Mayfair sound.
No sooner than Al was in New York he was in the recording studios making beautiful solo records such as Rogers’ and Hart’s Blue Moon considered today to be among Al’s finest recordings. He also got married again to the beautiful Margaret Fairless who had accompanied Al to the States. Ray Noble, meanwhile was writing songs in Hollywood while his band was being put together in New York by Glenn Miller. Ray Noble’s American band was an instant success, on coast-to-coast radio, making records and with a residency at the Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockefeller Center. The band went on to tour the States.
By the end of 1936, Ray Noble had accepted an offer to work on a radio show. Al was now on his own. But he had this vision of running his own band in England with his brother Mish. So he sailed back to England and worked hard with his brother to get the band ready. Al had been out of the public eye in England for over two years and he underestimated how short the public’s memory was. He had to work very hard to re-establish himself. He took his band billed as Al Bowlly’s Radio City Rhythm Makers out on tour but was dogged with bad luck. His voice kept giving out. And the band bookers had advised against the venture as Al had not got back his former popularity and a band built around a singer was maybe too premature. So it was no surprise that the project folded after only a month or so.
Not long afterwards, Al lost his voice completely. He was devastated, as he thought he had cancer. However, his doctor diagnosed "singer’s node", which is a wart on the vocal chords. Operations for this condition were only being performed then in America. Al made the return trip to the States and underwent surgery. Only given a 50-50 chance of success, the operation was a complete success and Al was recording again before he returned to England.
Back home, Al had to work even harder now to win back his popularity. He was soon recording for HMV and freelancing with various bandleaders including Lew Stone, Maurice Winnick, Sidney Lipton and Geraldo. He toured the country as a solo artiste, sometimes with his brother as accompanist. For one series of dates he was accompanied by Robin Richmond at the Hammond Organ. However, some say he never achieved the popularity he enjoyed in his glory years of 1931-1934.
After the second world war had started, Al teamed-up with fellow Greek vocalist Jimmy Mesene and they formed a double act "The Radio Stars With two Guitars". They made records and toured the country entertaining the war-weary population. However, they were not a top-of-the-bill act.
Their last date was at the Rex Theatre in High Wycombe. After the show, Al returned to London to see his doctor as his throat had been troubling him again. He returned to his flat in Dukes Court, Piccadilly as London was suffering one of its heaviest air raids. Instead of taking cover in the air raid shelter, Al was sitting up in bed reading a cowboy book. Outside, a German bomb came silently down and exploded in the street outside Al’s window.
After the "all-clear" had been sounded, the caretaker made his rounds to see that everyone was all right. When he entered Al’s apartment, he found him dead in bed, killed outright by the blast from the bomb. With Al’s passing, an era was ending. The dance bands were soon to be replaced by vocalists as the main attraction and within a decade the rock ‘n’ roll era had started.
Would Al have had a place in the new order of things? I think not. Al was part of the dance band era. As it is, on the 60th anniversary of his death, the BBC published the results of a poll to find the "Voices of the Century". Frank Sinatra was No 1. But at Number 54 was Al Bowlly, beating such stars as Perry Como, Neil Diamond, Vera Lynn and Dick Haymes. Not bad for someone who was known in England for only about 10 years and whose career finished over 70 years ago. So long as there are people who enjoy a good song well sung, the unique voice of Al Bowlly will continue to be heard.
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Below are the two famous Pathe film clips of Al on YouTube: