Click on these links to take you to special pages for Al Bowlly enthusiasts
By Terry Brown
Most Bowlly fans are familiar with the fact that Al sang on a few of sides issued on the Piccadilly record label with Percy Chandler and his Band during late April of 1931. Chandler went on to record a further dozen or so sides for Piccadilly in May, June and August 1931, and that was it. Perhaps surprisingly despite his recordings information on Percy Chandler himself is extremely scant to say the least. Despite considerable effort I don't have his dates or place of birth. He gets not one mention in the whole run of Melody Maker or indeed any of the contemporary music press, and a search of the internet produces only references to his recordings, nothing about the man. But a few tantalising clues in Chris Ellis's cuttings file at the National Jazz Archive have led me to the following.
Percy L. Chandler seems to have been something of a dilettante on the music scene as his first love as will become clear was yachting. Indeed at some time in the mid thirties his love of the sea finds him joining the Royal Navy which was to become his full time career. He eventually retired from the Admiralty much later as a Third Commander to live in Hastings. The first reference to him in a musical context is the fact that he led a quartette at Quaglino's restaurant during 1930. We know he was a pianist and presumably a fairly good one to get the Quaglino's job. Quaglino's at the time was a restaurant for high society which would have included the yachting fraternity and this was the sphere Chandler seemed to be at home in.
His Quaglino's Quartette was good enough to broadcast and did so on the BBC London Regional Programme. 'Percy Chandler's Quaglino Quartette', appeared at 8.20 on August 29th 1930 as part of, 'Prunes and Prisms - One Of These Musical Things', Book and Production by John Watt, with Wynne Ajello and Anona Wynn with the Review Chorus. The programme was repeated on the National Programme at 9.00 the following day.
This picture shows a rare record on which Al Bowlly sings.
Although Percy Chandler is given label credit, the actual
recoding is by Howard Godfrey and his Waldorfians!
The Quartette broadcast for a second time in a variety show on the London Regional Programme on 2nd September 1930. They were billed as a 'vocal and instrumental act' and performed with Stuart Ross and Joe Sargeant in their 'syncopated harmony' and Norman Long, with 'a song, a joke and a piano'. By the time of his next broadcast on the National Programme on 8th September 1930, Chandler had become, 'Percy Chandler and his Band from Chez Quaglino's'. Rudy Starita and Harry Jacobson were on the same programme. The band was out of Quaglino's by December 1930 and nothing is known about any further engagements prior to it's appearance on Piccadilly records in April the following year.
Al Bowlly cut three sides with Chandler at the April 1931 session. Al at this time was already getting regular work with Roy Fox, but was still happy to gig around for recording work whether it be with the prestigious HMV label and The New Mayfair Dance Orchestra or as in this case Chandler at Piccadilly.
The Piccadilly label was the budget line of Metropole Records and is an interesting one as it rarely obtained the services of any of the bigger name British bands. As such some of the smaller and more obscure outfits such as Chandler's managed to make a mark on posterity and for that we should be thankful. Chandler completed three more sessions using Harry Bentley and Jimmy Mesene for his vocals. Chandler never recorded again after August 1931 and although he remained on the periphery of the dance band scene he seems to have devoted more and more of his time to the sea. By 1933 as a member of the London Corinthian Yacht Club he was competing on his yacht, 'Sancho Panza', on the River Crouch for the British Championship Trophy. He was unplaced. In March 1934 his yacht, 'Echo' retired from the International Class competition at Raneleigh Sailing Club. The same happened in April 1934 at the Thames Club Easter meet in Teddington. In July 1935 his yacht 'Ace' was competing in the Prince of Wales Cup, and so on.
But as said before Chandler remained associated with dance music albeit I suspect as a 'fixer' for his society friends. When they needed a band who better to ask to arrange for one than Percy Chandler. Thus we find at the High Sherrif of Surrey's Appeal Fund, 'Jarrow Ball', at the Ace of Spades, Kingston By-pass on 18th January 1935, Percy Chandler's Band providing the music.
At Lady Malcolm's Servants Ball in aid of the West End Hospital for Nervous Diseases at the Royal Albert Hall on 17th November 1936, again its Chandler and his Band providing the music.
Chandler disappears from the scene completely about this time and this is probably due to Royal Navy commitments and his subsequent career.
I'm sure the publisher of Memory Lane won't mind a little plea for any other information on Mr Chandler. I for one would be extremely grateful.
My thanks to David Nathan at the National Jazz Archive for his help in producing this article.
Terry Brown examines press coverage of a summer season in the deep south.
Newspaper reports can be a rich source of historical information for dance band enthusiasts. Whilst researching another matter I came across a sequence of stories appearing in the Galveston Daily News, a Texas based newspaper that described the stay of Ray Noble's Band in the city during June and July of 1936. Ray Noble with success after success since his arrival in America had decided to take his band with singer Al Bowlly on tour during 1936. Part of that tour included Galveston, Texas. Galveston is south of Houston, off the southern mainland coast of Texas, in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a narrow and lengthy series of shingle and sand banks which run parallel with the coastline, joined to the mainland by a bridge with the sea on all sides.
A local entrepreneur Sam Maceo owned a night club complex, the Hollywood Dinner Club which could be found at the north end of Galveston, an area known as Treasure Island. He had booked Ray Noble and his Orchestra to appear during the summer season. Fortunately, the local daily paper, the Galveston Daily News gave substantial coverage to the arrival and stay of Noble. The reports that appear give a fascinating insight into the reaction of the Texan public to both Noble and Bowlly and provide an interesting insight into this more or less unrecorded aspect of their careers. The following sets out the sequence of reports in date order as they appeared in the paper.
7 June 1936: The paper announces Noble's impending arrival with an article featuring photos of Noble and Al, described as, 'his ace singer', saying they would be opening on the coming Wednesday at Galverston's Hollywood Dinner Club, for 'one of the most brilliant musical and social events of the season'. Noble is, 'known to millions for his radio broadcasts and phonograph records, but not so many realise that the young Britain is widely acclaimed as a composer and lyric writer'. The piece goes on to list many of Noble's songs and extolling the, 'wonderfully balanced arrangements, exciting rhythm and that unapproachable Noble style', of his recent recordings, listing, We Saw The Sea, Let Yourself Go, Dinah and others.
9 June 1936: Under the headline, 'Ray Noble Greets Greeters After Unexpected Arrival', the piece says, 'Ray Noble slipped into Galveston practically unnoticed yesterday, but when he heard last night that a crowd was waiting for him at the interurban station, Come on, he said, let's go down and see the good people. After all I was supposed to arrive at 11.30 PM and it is nice that such a crowd was there to meet me'. In the crowd were the Mayor and ' a host of musically and socially prominent Galvestonians'. It continues, 'Also sharing in the welcome was Nobles ace singer Al Bowlly, who was the best known popular singer in England before he left that country to join what now is acclaimed as one of the three greatest bands in America'. The piece mentioned that those unable to attend the dinner club would be able to hear half hour broadcasts of Noble and Bowlly, direct from the club, at 10.30 on Monday's, Wednesday's and Friday's on KPRC radio and the Texas Quality Network stations.
11 June 1936: This edition covered Noble's opening night on the 10th. It reported, 'Playing to a crowded house, the orchestra proved one of the most popular that has ever appeared. One of the outstanding attractions was Al Bowlly, one of England's best known popular singers, whose voice sweet and clear in tone, made him equally well liked in his first appearance in the sunny south. Ray Noble with a personality that the crowd took to immediately, wields a masterful baton, merging his orchestra into a smooth yet brilliant ensemble. His music has a sweetness tempered with a lilt that makes it delightful to hear and entrancing to dance to'. In the same edition is a large quarter page advertisement for the Hollywood Dinner Club, billed, Ray Noble and his World Famous Orchestra with Al Bowlly. The performances would be at 11.30 and 1.30 and would also showcase singer Lila Carmen, dancers Enrica and Novello and tap dancer, Janis Williams. The add also draws attention to the club broadcasting the performances on Monday, Wednesday and Friday's.
14 June 1936: The edition contains a photo of the dancing crowd at the Hollywood Club under the title, 'Gay Crowd at Hollywood Opening'. It reports, 'Shown above, obviously enjoying themselves to the utmost is part of the gay crowd which attended the opening of the Hollywood Dinner Club on Wednesday'. It refers to Noble's music, 'where the sweet strains of Noble's music provide inspiration for dancing feet'.
15 June 1936: The equivalent of a gossip column starts, ' Tally Ho, my friend, Tally Ho, Tally Ho. No this isn't an English fox hunt. It is this columns greetings to that prince of good fellows, Ray Noble and his great band'. The piece goes on to describe Noble's opening at the Hollywood Dinner Club. 'The crowd jammed every inch of the dance floor. When Al Bowlly, the Bing Crosby of England sang Noble's own creation, The Touch Of Your Lips, the music of his soft deep voice rested as lightly on the spirit as tired eyelids rest on tired eyes'. 'When four bells sounded in the morning and the music was over, Noble who had been up 22 straight hours preparing for the opening night sat down at a table with his vivacious wife, the striking blond Mrs Bowlly and the king of wit, Billy Burton. When a waiter asked what he would like he said a feather bed and a vodka. Mrs Noble and Mrs Bowlly said the two things they wanted to do while in Galveston was to dig an oil well in front of the Buccaneer Hotel and find a wild Indian tribe'. 'The Nobles went home by the beach front route, one would never have guessed that the Nobles on the back seat had been married eight years, they acted like college sweethearts'.
21 June 1936: The paper reports that Ray Noble would be presenting, '30 Texas Duchesses' at the centennial oleander ball at the Hollywood Dinner Club. It refers to Nobles, 'ultimate in dance music', and, 'Noble's ace singer, Al Bowlly who was the best known popular singer before he left that country to join Noble's band, has a soft sweet style, that fits in well with the distinctive band music'.
22 June 1936: Readers were reminded that the oleander festival which had been running a week would climax in a grand gala at the Hollywood Dinner Club with Ray Noble providing the music.
25 June 1936: Under a photo of Noble, it says, 'Ray Noble and his world famous orchestra whose distinctive dance music has scored such an enormous hit at the Hollywood Dinner Club for the last two weeks will continue for an additional four weeks, managing director Sam Maceo announced last night. The decision also applies to Noble's featured vocalist Al Bowlly. Instead of closing 7 July Noble will continue through 21 July'.
28 June 1936: This edition contains a featured article and photo of Al. Introducing him as 'the Bing Crosby of the British Isles', it reminds readers of his appearance at the Hollywood Dinner Club with Noble and that he was a native of Johannesburg, South Africa. It goes on, 'The true facts of Al Bowlly's life would make a very interesting feature picture. Briefly, Al was born in a box car. Just previous to his birth a plague had struck the little colony where his people had settled. So his dad packed the family into a box car to find a future home and to leave the plague behind. En route Al was born and his people settled in Johannesburg. Later on in life Al became a barber, a prize fighter and then left home to conquer the world. But he found it better to sing love songs for a living than to fight. He sang his way around the world in such hidden places as, Sumatra, Singapore, Java, Shanghai and such prominent countries as Germany, France, England, Russia, Holland and now the USA'. Al is then quoted, ' The hospitality of the Texans is probably the warmest in the world, and I am happy that Mr Maceo, (Sam Maceo, owner of the Hollywood Dinner Club), has decided to hold Mr Noble, his orchestra and myself over for an additional two weeks'.
6 July 1936: The gossip columnist refers to Mr and Mrs Noble watching a bull fight on Galveston Downs. 'From one of the boxes Mr and Mrs Noble took movies with a tiny camera', 'Mrs Al Bowlly said she wouldn't have missed it for anything'. The same piece mentions that on the previous Saturday,' half a dozen beachcombers were trying to teach Al Bowlly how to swim'.
13 July 1936: Another Texan paper, The Port Arthur News carries a large box advertisement for Nobles continuing appearance at Galverston's Hollywood Dinner Club. Al is billed as 'featured soft voiced singer'.
20 July 1936: In this edition Noble gets three mentions. First, George Van Epps, Long Island New York musician with Ray Noble's Orchestra, is quoted, 'Galveston's deep sea fishing is one of the most enjoyable of the city's many features'. There's a note of some of the important members of Texan society who had been to see Noble. The paper also reports Noble's impending departure under, 'Noble To Go'. It continues, Ray Noble and his band to leave the Island for a two day stand in San Antonio and then the band breaks up until the Bowlly's and Noble's return from a vacation to their homes in England. Noble and his band will always hold the top spot with us. We will miss Nobles keen philosophical slants, Al's warm personality and the dancing of Gladys and Margy, (Marjie) ', (Noble and Bowlly's wives respectively).
It’s at this point that the reports conclude. Noble and Bowlly did indeed leave for England for a break and returned to the US a few weeks later. Of course by the end of the year, Al decided to return permanently to England, a decision that continues to puzzle, especially as the reports above only seem to confirm their continuing popularity.
For many years Arthur Briggs was credited erroneously as
being the first bandleader to record the voice of Al Bowlly. A discographical
error incorrectly dated another recording session which in fact turned out to be
Al’s first. Returning to Briggs, like Al Bowlly, there is controversy over when
the African-American was born. Some say the 4th September 1901,
others 1899. Moreover, some give the place of birth as Canada, others South
Carolina! What is certain is that he spent his childhood and adolescence in
Charleston where he took music lessons from Eugene Mikell, a music master at an
orphanage. He developed into a fine trumpeter so much so that he actually
excited Louis Armstrong’ admiration. In fact his cousin was tuba player
Pete Briggs who recorded with Armstrong's Hot Seven in 1927.
Arthur Briggs performed in the 369th U.S. Infantry Band but was too young at the
time to be sent overseas during World War I.
Arthur’s friend Dan Parish helped him get into the New York jazz scene and into the recording studios as a sideman Wilbur C Sweatman’s band in 1919. Incidentally, Briggs does not show up in the line-up for Sweatman’s recording sessions, although Don Parish does. Later that year he sailed for Europe as a member of Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra which includedSidney Bechet. Briggs spent most of his life living in Europe, becoming virtually forgotten in America,. After playing in England and France, Briggs returned home with the band in 1921. A short spell with Leslie Howard's Orchestra followed and then it was back to Europe in 1922, forming his own Savoy Syncopated Orchestra in Belgium.
His first sixty or so recordings were made in Berlin, and it was with this band that Al Bowlly recorded some 30 vocals in 1927 and 1928. Al’s first vocal with the band was the highly appropriate, Song Of The Wanderer. Over 30 titles have been traced of Al with Arthur Briggs. I have not heard every one, but of those I had Ain’t She Sweet and Do The Black Bottom With Me would be the best. Some titles were recorded twice by Briggs, one with vocal and one without. This has led some collectors to assert that Al did not record a particular song because they possessed the non-vocal version! Overall, in common with most records he made in Germany, Al did not come over particularly well with Briggs. Perhaps the early microphones were not really suited to crooners of Al’s ilk!
The band was a great success, due in no small measure to Briggs’ fiery trumpet style, pushing forward relentlessly against the beat, the driving effect intensified by his practice of chopping up the melodic line into a rapid series of staccato notes. They also played in various European cities including Vienna and in Germany (1926-28) even playing as far afield as Egypt.Briggs worked with Noble Sissle off and on in Europe during 1928-30, visiting the U.S. with him briefly in 1931 before returning overseas. In the 1930's Briggs co-led a band with pianist Freddy Johnson, led several of his own groups, recorded with Coleman Hawkins (1935) and Django Reinhardt, and was considered one of the best trumpeters in Europe, even playing in Egypt. During the latter part of Nazi occupation, Briggs was interned but fortunately survived and resumed his musical career in 1945.
Arthur Briggs gigged regularly in France into the mid-1960's, becoming a music teacher and a professor in 1964. Arthur Briggs' Savoy Syncopators' Orchestra recorded no less than 64 selections in Berlin during 1927, mainly dance band arrangements with some jazz solos. He also led one session in each of 1929, 1933 (four numbers backed byFreddy Johnson), 1940 (four cuts with a band that includes Django Reinhardt), 1945 (two titles) and ten selections with a studio orchestra in 1951. He died in 1991 in Canada.
Percival Mackey was born on 15th June 1894 at 179, Edgeware Road, Saint Johns, Paddington . Hil full name was Thomas Percival Montague Mackey. Percival had six brothers and sisters, their father Thomas Mackey being a music publisher in London
Percival was taught to play the piano at school but started his career as a dentist! He was deeply interested in music, and soon took it up professionally. He began on tour as accompanying pianist in a solo act which included ventriloquism, conjuring and comedy material. He also accompanied silent films. Mackey went to Ireland in 1912 and toured with the Royal Irish Animated Picture Co. with a three-piece band, accompanying films. When war broke out he joined up and served with the Durham Light Infantry in France and was wounded there. He arranged army concert parties, and after the war worked in cinema orchestras, which had quickly become the largest employers of musicians.
He formed his own band, the Broadway Five which recorded for Columbia in 1922-23. He was pianist in an early Jack Hylton band and from 1925 became musical director for a succession of West End Musical shows. Mackey eventually formed his own dance band which from time-to time included such sidemen as Bill Harty, Ben Oakley, Reg Pink, Tiny Stock, Andy Hodgkiss, Spike Hughes, Teddy Foster, Peter Yorke, Ivor Mairants, Paul Fenhoulet, Jack Jackson and Ronnie Munro.
Mackey's records are often of interest for quite hot solo-trumpet and, especially, trombone. The early ones often have a piano solo by Mackey himself, in a most distinctive choppy syncopated style. He began recording in 1925, for Columbia, and was one of their first bands to "go electric" in that October, with the benefit of Columbia's excellent process. Percival Mackey's band soon became Columbia's most prominent band (with the defection of the Savoy bands to HMV), until eclipsed by Debroy Somers and Jack Payne - who anyway only started on the less up market Regal label. Mackey recorded many revue and musical comedy selections because of his experience in that field. He formed his Kit-Cat Club band in July 1927, recording for Edison Bell. He moved to Piccadilly records in November 1928, and a year later to Broadcast. He was back at Columbia again in March 1931, and six months later was on their Regal label, with the Kit-Cat Club band which he had taken over from Reggie Batten. There had been staff difficulties at the Kit-Cat, and the musicians warmly welcomed the surprise arrival of Percival Mackey, who was quite unusual in being a bandleader who was popular with his musicians.
After a gap in recordings, owing to his film commitments, Percival Mackey succeeded Ray Noble as director of HMV's New Mayfair Dance Orchestra in October 1934. Mackey left in March 1935 and this was more-or-less the end of his career on records.
Percival Mackey worked in many media, although it must be admitted that he very seldom broadcast, or had a West End hotel residency. He specialized in theatre work. In 1925 he directed the pit orchestra for the smash-hit show No No Nanette, in which he used saxophones for the first time in a theatre band. He took a shine to the song Tea For Two which was one of the show’s numbers and made it his signature tune. In October 1928 he made a short tour of Germany. Next he conducted Merry Merry at the Carlton Theatre. In February 1930 he appeared at the Savoy Hotel, for almost a year. Then he was back in the pit again, in Cochran's 1931 Revue, Stand Up And Sing, Walk This Way, Follow Through and in September 1933 he was in a Leslie Henson show Nice Goings On followed by Yours Sincerely.
Al Bowlly’s association with Percival Mackey came in April 1929, not long after his arrival in England and whilst still a member of Fred Elizalde’s band at the Savoy Hotel. Al featured on just two songs, When The Lilacs Bloom Again and Up In The Clouds which were not issued back-to back, but on different records. The titles were released on Piccadilly and also on the more obscure Octacros and Metropole labels. However, all versions are extremely hard to find. Al comes over on these recordings better than he had done with Fred Elizalde and in particular Up In The Clouds is a joy.
Early in 1934 Mackey became an impresario as well as a bandleader, and his first show was Cat in the bag, followed by Happy Weekend . Percival was the first to use jazz musicians in pit orchestras and employed the best, regardless of cost. He made the band an important part of musical shows - previously many of them had been pretty grim, and he raised their quality enormously. Dance band enthusiasts would go to some of these musicals just to hear the band.
Percival Mackey did much work for films: he scored, conducted or arranged for 87 of them between 1931 and 1946 although they were mostly shorts rather than features . In some of these, Percival Mackey appeared. He was a pioneer, as his trio made a short for British Instructional as early as January 1929. His first score was for the film This Week of Grace which featured Gracie Fields and included hit songs by Harry Parr-Davies. Other films included Charming People (Paramount-British), Service For Ladies, Stamboul, Death At Broadcasting House, This Man Is News and Silent Passenger. The larger studios that Mackey worked for were British and Dominions (Herbert Wilcox's Imperial Studio at Elstree), British Lion and Associated Radio Pictures at Ealing. Mackey's main output, especially from 1937 onwards, was, however, for one of the small companies, Butchers Films. There he did many little gems of the type Gert and Daisy's Weekend and Music Hall Parade, followed by a similar series for British National.
In the 1940s, Percival Mackey made one or two records for the Decca Music While You Work series. He continued to work for the film studios after the war and was married to singer and dancer Monti Ryan. He died in 1950.
THE BOWLLY BANDS - Jack Leon
Jack Leon was born Louis Aronoff in Kiev on 24th April 1905, the son of Persia and Grecia Aronoff and brother of Clara. His father was a Jeweller. In 1906 the family left Russia and moved to live in Antwerp. At the outbreak of the 1st World War in 1914 the family moved to London and lived in Whitechapel.
He attended Stanhope School in Deptford, where he developed his musical skills on the violin, playing at various fund raising concerts with the East London Philharmonic Orchestra (most of the players being made up of friends and family!)
In 1929 Louis changed his name by deed poll to Jack Leon and became a British subject.
Jack’s first big break came as a musical director when he was asked to conduct the Anglo-Russian ballet at the Royal Festival Hall. Positions as conductor of cinema and theatre orchestras in London followed soon after.
What followed was a versatile career in the world of music, ranging from leading a dance band to conducting the Guildhall Orchestra for folk dancing in Hyde Park, to conducting the London Symphony Orchestra for ballet, and to conducting two separate bands daily at the Prince Of Wales Theatre for several years. Jack's film of Concerto For Two/Look Out can be seen at the ITN archive website.
Jack’s foray into dance music can be traced from 1929 to 1932 when Jack Leon and his Band recorded about 150 titles for the Piccadilly and related labels Octacross and Metropole. Al Bowlly cut a dozen sides with Leon in June 1931. The best were probably I’ll Keep You In My Heart Always and Oh1 Rosalita. Al also cut a version of Goodnight Sweetheart with this band. It has to be said that overall, apart from the two titles singled out, Al’s work with Jack Leon can only be described as "average".
Overall, Jack was much more part of the light music field than dance music. Whilst producing dance music for Piccadilly he also appeared as 'Jack Leon and his Concert Orchestra' making recordings such as The Wayside Shrine backed with Barcarolle and The Wonder Bar Selection. It is also thought he was behind a number of issues as by 'The Viennese Orchestra', and 'The Athenaeum Light Orchestra' which populate much of Piccadilly's catalogue.
Everything was going pretty well until the slump came in 1931 particularly since Jack had invested in the film business and became a producer. However he was impatient to return to his more accustomed position of musical director. He had a spell as musical adviser to Josephine Baker and then he became greatly in demand as MD for the big West End Shows - perhaps his longest spell was at the Prince of Wales theatre. At the London Casino he played for dancing - the other band was led by Jack Harris.
When the war came Jack was summoned by Basil Dean, director of ENSA, to his
HQ at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and appointed him musical advisor. During
this spell he made many guest appearances with big orchestras. Surprisingly,
according to an article in Radio Times Jack’s orchestra broadcast for the
first time in 1940. It seems his became a regular broadcasting band throughout
the war years. Perhaps the two radio series which he made him most well known
were Variety Bandbox and Music While you Work. He did over 500
Music while you Work programmes (recording a couple of sides in the Decca
Music While You Work series in 1944) and notched up over 2,000 radio
broadcasts. He seemed to have become well-known with his name and photograph
appearing on a few pieces of sheet music around this time.
There are few artists of note from this period who have not worked under the baton of Jack, including Vera Lynn, Petula Clark, Tommy Handley, Ted Heath, Frank Weir, Nat Temple and George Melachrino. Jack played for Petula Clark's first radio performance when she was only 8 years old and sang Mighty like a Rose. (Later he appeared in Petula Clark's This is your Life TV programme in January 1964.)
Also during the war he can be found as conductor of the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra, a notable recording being a Paul Jones Medley recorded for both HMV and Columbia.
One of the greatest eras of British light music was the post war period of the mood music libraries and the broadcasting light orchestras. Jack Leon became part of this and also using the name Joy Jerome directed his own orchestra, arranged and composed. At HMV Jack conducted the New Concert Orchestra who recorded light classics such as High Heels, Vision In Velvet and The Roundabout
In later years, during the summer months he often took his band to Southsea, where he performed with his orchestra from May to September with several famous guests throughout the season. He is reported to have had a really swinging band. So Jack did not desert more popular music entirely! He also played at the Villa Marina on the Isle of Man.
In 1956 Jack moved to Glasgow and became conductor to the Scottish Variety Orchestra. The orchestra had four regular radio programmes every week, including 17 Sauchie Street, with Rikki Fulton and Kenneth McKellar in a Song For Everyone. In addition the orchestra played for the Scottish Music Hall and several other special programmes for St Andrew's Night, Hogmanay, Scottish Dance Music and accompanying television programmes.
In 1966 he retired from the BBC at the age of 60 and set up his own 23 piece orchestra which was called "The Caledonians" and fixed up bookings for concerts and broadcasts for months in advance.
Sadly in 1967 he collapsed and died in Sauchiehall Street - just seven weeks after he had retired.
He married twice - and had three children. Ray and Julian, who live in the United States and Miriam who lives in England. He has several grandchildren and great grandchildren in America and the UK. One of his grandchildren, Alice Leon is an American born musician/composer and carries on the family tradition!.
Special thanks to Miriam Tate (Jack Leon’s daughter) who would like to hear from anyone who can supply sheet music or records of her father on 01636 813479. Also thanks for assistance to Alice Leon (JL’s granddaughter) and to dance band experts Peter Wallace, John Wright, Barry McCanna andTerry Brown and for contributions to this story.
By Tony Staveacre
When I was researching for a new musical play about the singer Al Bowlly, I put some flags up in local papers and on the radio, asking whether any readers or listeners had memories of seeing the legendary crooner in Bristol. I got two very helpful responses: one from a lady in Worle, whose mother had made dresses for Al’s second wife, and the other from a Bristol musician, who actually played alongside Bowlly in Bristol dance bands. Ron Cox still plays the double bass, but seventy years ago, while he was at Bristol Grammar School, he used to skive off in his lunch-hour and hang around the Bristol Coliseum, where Reginald Williams rehearsed his dance band – the Futurists. The Coliseum was an ice-rink on Park Row that had a ballroom on the floor above. Al Bowlly sang there with the Lew Stone band in 1934, when the Bristol Evening Post reported that nearly 3000 dancers thronged the floor. Ron Cox remembers:
"The stage door to the Coliseum was in Woodland Road, and it had a little recess there, and I would hide in that recess and listen to the bands rehearsing. I used to go there every day from school, in the dinner hour. There was no such thing as school dinners then, you had a bun in a bag! I reckon I knew the names of the people in the bands before I knew my alphabet, nearly. The Futurists was the first regional orchestra to broadcast late night dance music on the London wavelength. Reginald Williams had really good blokes in his band – George Shearing was the piano player."
Ron left school in 1936, and soon he was sitting in with local bands, and playing bass alongside his idols. When Al Bowlly came to Bristol for BBC broadcasts with the Futurists, he stayed overnight with the band-leader in Falcondale Road. Ron Cox remembers meeting him there: ‘he seemed to me like a darned good bloke.’ And later Ron got a chance to play in a small band that accompanied the singer on BBC broadcasts. This was for a series called ‘The Dansant’. The dance bands had become hugely popular to listeners, through late night broadcasts from the top London dance venues; the Savoy, The Dorchester, the Monseigneur Restaurant. Building on this success, the BBC scheduled an afternoon session of dance music, between Children’s Hour and the News. Ron Cox remembers that the four musicians had to play spread right across the big studio in Whiteladies Road, to get a good balance on the sole microphone. ‘I found myself about half a mile away from the drummer!’ He also went to London, to make a recording for Columbia Records with the Futurists and Al Bowlly, of ‘What Do I Know About Love?’
Al Bowlly’s journey to the Whiteladies Road in Bristol had by that time taken him half way round the world. He was born in Laurenco Marques, on the East Coast of Africa. He was a singing barber in Johannesburg in his teens. He worked in Shanghai, Singapore, Calcutta and Munich as a singer and banjo player, before he reached England and sang at the Savoy Hotel with Fred Elizalde and his band in 1929. From that early success, he fell from grace, and found himself busking for theatre queues in the West End of London.
But broadcasting created a huge interest in the dance bands that played in West End hotels and restaurants: Bowlly auditioned for Roy Fox, and got a job as his vocalist.
With Roy Fox, Bowlly developed the soft and persuasive ‘crooning’ technique that was ideally suited to the newly invented microphone, and perfectly tailored to the smoochy repertoire of the dance bands. From the London bands of Roy Fox and Lew Stone, Bowlly graduated to the Ray Noble Orchestra at HMV, which was his passport to the Rainbow Room in New York, playing alongside Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. After years on the road in the USA, rivalling Bing Crosby in record sales, he returned to England, to find his position had been usurped by other up-and-coming singers: he was reduced to playing one night stands in less glamorous surroundings, and picking up occasional studio recordings and BBC ‘The Dansant’ sessions.
Then came the war. Ron Cox joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve. He was based at Wembley for a while. During the Blitz, his CO encouraged the musicians in the unit to go up to the West End and play in the underground stations, for the Londoners who had gone down there to shelter from the bombing. "And that worked wonders!" Ron recalls. "A chap called Sid Isaacs, a good piano player, used to collect us in his car, and we’d drive into town even though the air raid sirens were going. And down on the Tube station platforms, we’d find the place was packed; people had brought their bedding down, everything for the night. We’d play for them: they really loved it. In the early morning, some of the musicians from the West End bands would come down and join us for a jam session. Then when the ‘All Clear’ sounded, this feller Sid Isaacs used to collect us to take us back to Wembley. And as we walked along the platform with our instruments, people used to stand up and cheer us, it was embarrassing."
On one such night, April 16 1941, a landmine fell in Jermyn Street off Piccadilly, behind Dunhills the tobacconists, where Al Bowlly had a flat in Duke’s Court. It did no structural damage, although it blew in all the windows of the flats. After the ‘All Clear, The porter went to check on his tenants, and found Al Bowlly dead on the floor beside his bed. He was unmarked, but the blast had blown the bedroom door off its hinges: it struck him on the head and killed him outright.
63 years later, his name still conjures up more than a thousand web-sites, and CD reissues of his many recordings are selling as briskly as they ever did. Senior citizens remember him vividly: ‘When his voice comes on the air, it’s like fizzy lemonade being poured down my spine…’
‘When Al sang a love lyric, it really got to him. The sincerity shone through. If you saw him sing at the mic in front of the band, there’d sometimes be tears in his eyes when he turned away after finishing…’
‘I used to watch the girls on the dance floor in front of Al, doing their smoochy-smoochy business with their partners; but their eyes would always be following Al Bowlly…’
‘You always got the feeling that Al was singing personally to you, even if you were listening on the end of a radio. You didn’t have to see him to get that personal feeling…’
(The new musical play about Al Bowlly toured the West Country last Autumn. Singer
Kate McNab plays Al Bowlly’s second wife, who recalls his hectic life and times
through music and memories. It was called The Very Thought of You’ – Songs and
Souvenirs of Al Bowlly.)
THE BOWLLY BANDS - Reginald Williams
Al Bowlly made many records freelancing or guesting with various dance bands. In this series we will be concentrating on the bands Al graced with his presence on only a few occasions, particularly the less well-known giving a potted biography of the bandleader and an assessment of Al’s work with them. We start with Reginald Williams.
Reginald Williams was born on 18th August, 1914, in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, was educated at Burton House School and Kingsholm College, where he was taught the violin and piano. In an interview he said he practiced seven hours a day and received additional private tuition before gaining two musical diplomas. He also learnt to play the trumpet and saxophone. At the age of 14, he was given the opportunity of playing with Teddy Foster’s Band during the summer season at the Winter Gardens, Weston-super-Mare, and was paid 7/6d.
His first job after leaving college was playing the piano at a Silent Cinema in Burnham-on-Sea, and bought his first car which was a Model-T Ford, to take him to the cinema and back. In 1934, his first professional debut was with Phillip Brown's Dominoes and after spending a year with them, he left and formed his own quintet. Great local interest was shown and the following year, the band was augmented and called "The Futurists". They went on to take up residency at Bristol in a Ballroom which Reg's brother, Kenneth had designed. In the years that followed, Reginald Williams and His Futurists made over 1,000 broadcasts on the B.B.C. National Programme, many of these being late night dance music.
In the late 1930s, the number one summer season show was at The Grand Spa, Scarborough, Yorkshire and in 1939 it was awarded to Reginald Williams. Earlier that year, Reg had had two recording sessions for Columbia (which were the extent of his recording career). Al Bowlly was present on both in a freelance capacity. Reg had telephoned Al at his London flat and asked him to join his band in Bristol. With recording sessions, broadcasts and a summer season ahead, Al agreed as work was fairly scarce at that time. Al’s recordings with the Futurists are among the rarest 78's of all those he made in England. I recall finding one among a box of unused Columbias in a junk shop years before World Records re-issued them on LP. The Futurists were of the "big band swing" ilk and reminded me a little of the Tommy Dorsey sound. Because of this we get a glimpse of how Al might have sounded if he had stayed in America and recorded with the swing bands. Al sung on one side of three 78s, the titles being I’m Madly In Love With You, Small Town and What Do You Know About Love, Al receiving no label credit at all. The singers on the other sides were Sandra Shayne, the band’s drummer Bill Richards and Dinah Miller.
Somehow, Reg managed to attract star musicians for his band; other names who were on these recordings at different times were: Max Goldberg, Tommy McQuater, Alfie Noakes, Frank Weir, Hughie Tripp and George Shearing. The band subsequently did well in the west country but with the outbreak of war, Reg disbanded and joined the Merchant Navy. In post war years Reg moved into entertainments management based in Sidmouth and then Bristol. He died on 8th April 1988.
THE BOWLLY BANDS - Howard Godfrey
Howard Rigg Godfrey was born in 1903 in London and was educated at Madame Marie Gyde & St Paul's School. Howard came from a musical family mostly in the field of brass band music several of whom gained national fame. In particular, his grandfather was Lt. Dan Godfrey of The Grenadier Guards and his uncle was Sir Dan Godfrey founder and conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra. He trained as a chartered surveyor and worked for the National Building Society. However, this employment did not last long for in 1922 he went into dance band business professionally playing saxophone and drums with various west end bands including John Birmingham’s band at the Hotel Cecil. His first engagement as bandleader was fronting a quintet at the Queen's Hotel, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex succeeding Jack Hylton. He became Musical Director at the Waldorf Hotel in October 1926 where he remained until 1940 when he left to join the RAF.
Harry Francis was the drummer with Howard Godfrey and recalled: "I had been arranging for several years, and the Waldorf orchestra directed by Howard Godfrey provided an instrumentation which was most interesting from a music writers point of view, consisting of trumpet, two trombones, baritone doubling as clarinet, violin, piano bass and drums. Godfrey, himself a drummer had been leading a quartet at the hotel for some time, the other three players being, Bill Taylor (reeds), Sid Ruben (violin) and Eddie Cross (piano), but when the opportunity for augmentation came Howard decided to front the orchestra and also to adopt the style of the American "sweet music' orchestras of the day. Either Eddie Cross or myself, when invited to arrange for the orchestra, were not particularly interested in the sweet music style.............so the style of the Waldorf orchestra developed a decided leaning to swing..........".
Howard Godfrey made a number of records in the 1929 to 1931 period for the smaller labels such as Victory and Piccadilly with some titles being simultaneously issued on the obscure Octacros, Simcha, Empire and Mayfair labels. One of the pseudonyms he used was Aldwych Players, presumably due to the Waldorf Hotel being in Aldwych. Al Bowlly managed to pick up some freelance recoding work with Howard and recorded 15 known tracks with him. The titles on Victory were not very well recorded and Al in the main comes over only with mediocrity. Sweeping The Clouds Away is probably the best of the Victories. However, Piccadilly had a much better recording capability and most of Al’s performances with Godfrey on that label were really good. The band is also first rate which is surprising that it had none of the West End star instrumentalists. My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes is often cited as brilliant not only due to Al’s vocal but for the hot band work as well. Time On My Hands was described once by a record auctioneer as "beautiful" and That’s What I Like About You is a first rate dance band number – well played and well sung. All in all, Howard had a good band at a premier location, the Waldorf; it therefore surprises me that it wasn’t recorded and broadcast more frequently. I suspect if it wasn’t for those Bowlly vocals, the band would be totally ignored now.
Howard, still at the Waldorf, recorded five titles for Panachord in 1935 featuring vocalist Gerry Fitzgerald. During the war Howard was a navigator in Bomber Command after which he gave up music, resumed work as a surveyor and lived quietly in London in retirement. Very little is known about Howard; this brief profile was compiled from the limited published information and with some additional details supplied by Doug Wilkins and Peter Wallace, plus a little found on the internet. Doug Wilkins rang Howard in 1986 and found that he was most gracious and modest concerning his war-time activities. He endeavoured to assist with information about his career but due to his age and that he was a sufferer of chronic bronchitis, this was minimal. Howard Godfrey died in 1992.
THE BOWLLY BANDS - Billy Bartholomew
Having covered two British bands so far in this series (Reginald Williams and Howard Godfrey), I thought we might take a brief trip across the channel for the next instalment as Al Bowlly’s recording career did start in Germany. Billy Bartholomew was a mystery man until relatively recently; the first three versions of Brian Rust’s Al Bowlly Discography made no mention of the several titles Al recorded with Bartholomew in Berlin in 1928. So who was he?
William John Bartholomew was born in London on October 1st 1901 where he was raised and learnt the piano and alto sax. Like may musicians, it is thought he earned his first money as a pianist accompanying silent films. In the early 20s, he managed to get jobs in various dance bands both in England (including bands at Ciro’s and the Trocedero) and in France. In the early 20s, he had arrived in Germany and was a member of Eric Borchard’s Concerto Jazz Band and subsequently Eddie Woods And His Kentucky Serenaders. In the mid 20s Billy joined Julian Fuhs Band with whom he made a considerable number of records and now, becoming a sought-after sideman, freelanced with many bands.
In 1927 Billy formed his first group, The Eden Five to play at the Eden Hotel in Berlin. The following year he enlarged the group and in the Spring won the prestigious contract to play at Berlin’s new Delphi Palast. Al Bowlly became a member of this band. It is thought that Al was appearing with the Fred Rich Band at the time when Fred unexpectedly returned to America leaving his band stranded, some of whom joined Bartholomew. The new band made a number of recordings for German Polydor and so far eight have been traced with an Al Bowlly vocal.
The first Bowlly recording I heard with Bartholomew was Changes which was released on a German LP some years ago. Having heard most of the others in the meantime, I have concluded the Changes is Al finest recording with this band and one of the finest he made in Germany. Other titles Al is known to have recorded with Bartholomew are Sing Hellelujah, Under The Moon, After My Laughter Came Tears, The Sweetheart Of Sigma Chi, Rain, Beloved, And When? When I wrote Goodnight Sweetheart – the Life And Times Of Al Bowlly I had no evidence that Al was on some of these titles so many are shown as "unconfirmed". The records have since been traced and Al’s presence has been confirmed.
The Delphi Palast contract only lasted a few months and after which, in June, Billy Bartholomew disbanded. Billy went on to Paris and joined the band of Lud Gluskin for a few months before returning to Germany to form a new orchestra for the Palermo in Berlin. Between engagements he freelanced with several bands, the most well known being Dejos Bela and Marek Weber. He went on to lead and play in bands notably in Hamberg, Dresden, Berlin and Copenhagen appearing on many records in the process. On a return engagement to the Delphi Palast, Billy could also be heard on the radio. By now the year was 1931. During the 1930s, Billy appeared in many venues in Germany and also played in Switzerland. In Spring 1939, the British Embassy in Berlin advised Billy to leave the country due to the political situation.
During the war, Billy worked for ENSA as a member of a band. After the war he became a solo entertainer, playing saxophone and becoming a sort of clown, his speciality being playing three instruments at once. He toured theatres and nightclubs and even appeared at the London Palladium. He died in London in January 1972.
Crooner Mel Torme gives a singer’s perspective of the talent of Al Bowlly
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if Al Bowlly had lived he would be one of the top two or three singers in the world today. If the word "heartfelt" ever applied to any vocalist, then the likely recipient of that word would be Bowlly.
Hugh Hefner is a close friend. On Monday evenings I join him and a few more of his intimate buddies at his mansion in Holmby Hills, California. We have dinner, listen to the music that nourishes us, and then retire to his projection room to run an old movie. More than any other single band's or singer's, the music of AI Bowlly dominates these evenings.
We sit and listen and talk about him and his work and decry the fact that he died an early tragic death. Bowlly was a product of the Twenties and Thirties, and the songs he recorded reflect his taste in singing, tunes that stick to your ribs.
The Day You Came Along, I Never Had a Chance, You're My Everything, and It Must be True are all redolent of a bygone era, when the melodies were strong and the words wrenched at you with a vengeance.
Luckily, Bowlly made lots of records, and they can be heard and enjoyed by anyone interested in really fine singing. He had a tenor's range and he sang directly from the left ventricle in a pure, piping, clear tone that made him one of the most beloved performers of his time. Strangely, as in the case of many English singers, his accent is undetectable on these records; he could be American. His singing, though, is delicate, straightforward and delicious.
There were tributes to Bowlly throughout the English press and the music magazines. His passing was a great loss, and I can't think of a single English singer who has come along since who has the style, the voice, and the panache that Bowlly had.
His discography is voluminous - page after page in his biography (by Ray Pallett) of the wonderful songs of the Twenties and Thirties. Bowlly was a handsome man, with a soulful countenance, heavy eyebrows, strong chin, thick dark hair, and a sympathetic mien that was attractive in the extreme.
A great singer; an untimely loss.
The above was taken from MY SINGING TEACHERS by Mel Torme, Copyright 3994 by Mel Torme. Used by permission of The Oxford University Press, Inc. (Omitted are ten paragraphs about the life and death of Al Bowlly.)
by Ray Pallett
One or two new readers of Memory Lane have written to me asking why Al Bowlly left America to return to Britain. After all, the States should have been the place to be if you were a popular singer. The Americans had already catapulted Bing Crosby from band singer to international superstar and in a few years Frank Sinatra would take the steps that would make him probably the most famous singer in the world. Al’s visit to the US started off on such a high. What ever happened to make him give up and return to the UK where he almost had to start again to build up his career?
The reasons have always been open to speculation. This varied from views that Al did not like the sophisticated American way of life to a theory that he got involved with a gangster’s girl friend and had to leave the country in a hurry. Nat Gonella speculated that it might be to do with Al’s temper. Vocalist Pat Hyde remembers meeting up with Al soon after his return from America and found him depressed. Al had apparently told her that the reason he left America is because he was a flop. Monia Liter, interviewed many years later recalled Al being depressed and disappointed with his American tour.
His American adventure certainly started out as a success with radio and records as a solo entertainer, his photo on sheet music and enormous fan mail. But it seems from the above-mentioned observations from Pat Hyde and Monia Liter, which were made independently of each other, that things started to go wrong. For example, in 1936 Al was no longer recording in America as a solo artiste. Alfred, Al's cousin in America said Al felt he was not getting the breaks in the US that he deserved. He was not happy with his billing as second to the band and although he was to appear in the film Big Broadcast Of 1936, for some reason his contribution was edited out.
I also think the following factors played a significant part. Firstly and simply he did prefer living in Britain which was the country he liked the best. Being a simple person, in the nicest possible way, he didn't particularly like the sophisticated American way of life. Secondly, Ray Noble was offered a contract to join the Burns and Allen radio show in which there was no part for Al.
Thirdly he was of the opinion that he could do better in England, especially as he now had the idea that he could get his own show on the road.
Although Al was unhappy with his stay in America, looking back on it, it can be seen as one of the high spots of his life. Not least because of the many wonderful records he mad there. Ray Noble later recalled that when Al was on tour in America he was leaving a trail of broken female hearts behind him, and was meeting Crosby and the rest of them on their home ground and beating them at their own game.
Back in England, Al refused to speak about his American experiences - it seemed to include bad memories for him. Because of this we may never know really why he decided to leave.
Why Al quit America, - sequel
Since publishing the piece on why Al Bowlly left the States in the last issue, we have had a number of people write in with their analysis of the situation. So this time we will give you three creditable expalnations. Firstly, we were very pleased to receive a letter from Joyce (Mrs Lew) Stone. Joyce, of course, new Al quite well due to his long association with Lew’s band. Joyce writes:
"Concerning the speculation about the return of Al Bowlly to England, the answer is really very simple. I, like Lew, have heard several times from Al himself "I have come back to London because I was homesick, not only for the city but because I miss the way of life here and most of all my friends".
From France, Barry McCanna believes that the reason Al returned were due to problems with Ray Noble’s American orchestra. Barry speculates:
"If, instead of asking "Why did Al come back from America?" the question was rephrased to ask ‘Would Al have stayed in America but for the problems in the US band?’ then I think the answer to the latter question is probably ‘Yes’.
"Those problems stemmed from the manner of the band’s inception. Because Ray couldn't take a band with him he relied instead on Glenn Miller to form one for him. Big mistake! (for two reasons mainly.)
"First, Miller was already effectively leading a band on Smith Ballew's behalf, and it was almost the identical personnel whom he made available to Noble. He might have thought Ray would be content simply to front the orchestra and that he would retain control, but that wasn't the deal.
"Secondly, Miller was done a great favour, posthumously, when Hollywood cast James Stewart as him in The Glenn Miller Story (and June Allyson as Mrs. M.) Neither bore any resemblance to the characters they were playing; Miller was a martinet, which is not necessarily a bad thing for a bandleader, but not conducive to the situation.
"Just imagine, there's the band, used to playing under Miller's direction, being asked to transfer allegiance to a foreigner (Ray Noble). Hardly a recipe for success, and to make matters worse, he'd bought Bill Harty along as the new manager who also supplanted Ray Bauduc on drums! I think the atmosphere must have been quite strained at times.
"The other nuance was that things came to a head, allegedly, when it came to light that Harty was being paid more than the others. Taking all of those factors into account, it's hardly surprising that Al quit and came back to England. My guess is that Noble saw the end coming and forewarned him."
Finally, David Glowacki wrote from his North London home with a perceptive analysis as follows:
"Having gleaned various bits over the years, I believe that Al loved the US and really his return was forced on him through economic circumstances. Simply put, he failed in the USA and got to a point where he had no work and becoming quickly forgotten. Depressingly for him, he was to return from the gaiety of the US to the grey of the UK.
"It seems he never spoke of his US experiences because of his sense of failure but also due to some bitterness to Ray Noble as he was effectively shut out by him (in a non-malicious way) from gaining further recording work. On his return the feeble excuse he used for returning (the variety tour) never materialised and so added to his gloom and his renitence is understandable."
So, there you have it. Three contrasting views. The reality of the situation is that Al took the real reason he left the States to the grave. I doubt we will ever know for sure.
Reviewed by Edward Towler
Whenever I listen to A1 Bowlly, I get a warm, comforting glow inside of me. To put it plainly, he makes me feel good; he uplifts my spirits, and gives me a sense of elation and well-being, sensations which I am sure others must share when under the spell of that unique voice. It is an abundantly expressive voice, and a very persuasive one, full of warmth and subtleties of nuance and intonation. It is a soothing and beguiling voice that is both relaxed and relaxing. It has a pleasing charm, and an aura of innocence and goodness about it that must surely reflect something of the singer's nature and character, for one can never imagine A1 Bowlly to have been an unkind, ungracious or unsympathetic man. It is these qualities and the strong bond of communication that seems to exist between Bowlly and the listener, that must account in very large measure for the immense appeal which his voice has had for several generations of music lovers and record collectors in the years since his death more than half a century ago.
Throughout tile nineteen-thirties, A1 Bowlly recorded a whole succession of great songs, and his interpretations of the majority of them are as perfect examples of the art of popular singing as one is likely to hear. The warm and tender interpretations of Ray Noble's love songs amply demonstrate Bowlly's ability to involve himself in the sentiments of a lyric, and the recordings of such masterpieces of song-writing asThe Very Thought of You, I'll Do My Best To Make You Happy, Love Is The Sweetest Thing, Goodnight, Sweetheart and What More Can I Ask'? are classics of their kind. Whatever the mood and emotions of a song, Bowlly captured the essence of them to telling effect, whether it be the plaintive melancholy of Love Locked Out, or the sense of exultancy in My Hat's On The Side Of My Head with that unexpected twist to the lyric at the end, and which is so perfectly in keeping with the singer's buoyant mood. With Ray Noble in the United States, there were typically emotive performances of ballads like A Little White Gardenia, Dinner For One, Please James, Where Am I?, and Yours Truly Is Truly Yours, the latter with a sensitive guitar accompaniment by George Van Eps that brings to mind the earlier Lew Stone recording of Straight From The Shoulder, the entire chorus of which Bowlly sings to the sole support of Harry Sherman's guitar.
Notwithstanding the excellence of the Ray Noble recordings, A1 Bowlly was rarely heard to better advantage than in the recordings he made with Lew Stone's band. Stone possessed an intuitive understanding of Bowlly's talents and potential, and within the framework of his arrangements, he provided sensitive and sympathetic accompaniments that were always perfect complements to Bowlly's voice. The combination of their unique talents, together with those of the accomplished instrumentalists who made up Lew Stone's band, resulted in some of the finest recordings of the dance band era. I find it impossible to listen, for instance, to their versions of Close Your Eyes, Just Let Me Look At You, Thanks, Easy Come, Easy Go, How Could We Be Wrong? or Riptide and not be unmoved by the sheer spell-binding brilliance of them. They are valid examples of band, singer and arranger at their creative best. Incidentally, so far as I know, Lew Stone's was the only band to record Riptide, a lesser-known song from the team of Gus Kahn and. Walter Donaldson. It is difficult to understand why it was not recorded by other bands, for it has a splendid lyric and a beautifully conceived melodic line, and is in fact just the kind of number that hits of the 30's were made of. One can only wonder why it never achieved that status; but Al Bowlly and Lew Stone have provided for posterity permanent evidence of the merits of both the song and the performance of it. Another performance of equal merit is their version of Little Lady Make-Believe. Here again, Bowlly illustrates to the full his commitment to the mood and sentiment of a song, expressing the lyric, with its theme of filial love, with a warmth and sincerity that quite belies the fact that he was not, so far as is known, ever a parent.
Of his solo recordings, the partnership with pianist Monia. Liter was a compatible and rewarding one, resulting in several records of exceptional quality and excellence. Madonna Mine provides a prime example of the rapport that existed between singer and pianist on these recordings, and their performance of this lovely romantic ballad is an utterly enthralling and enchanting one. There was also an unique recording of You ,Ought To Be In Pictures which, in addition to the usual lyric, has a splendidly contrived chorus in which Bowlly relates the attributes of the girl in the song to those of the glamorous Hollywood film stars
of the period. Listening to it today, it provides an evocative and nostalgic reminder, for those of us old enough to remember, of the golden era of the cinema.
After his return from America, Bowlly enjoyed a successful association with Ronnie Munro, and there were many fine solo records of songs like Carelessly, 0n A Little Dream Ranch, Somewhere In France With You, and a sparkling, easy-paced
version of the Irving Berlin waltz song Marie.
Mention must also be made of the splendid recordings which Bowlly made with the fine Geraldo orchestra of 1935/9. There was a quality of mellowness in Bowlly's voice at this time and this, allied to his long acquired skills and expertise, seemed to invest them with a charm and appeal of their own. The voice was beautifully poised and balanced, and full of its customary warmth and charisma, and this is fully demonstrated on such recordings as My Own, Never Break A Promise, In A Little Toy Sailboat, ,While A Cigarette Was Burning, and that most entrancing of Bowlly's songs, They Say.
There are many more examples of Bowlly's ‘way’ with a song. Suffice to say, they are all models of the art of popular singing, and a testimony to A1 Bowlly's stature as one of its finest exponents.
By Ray Pallett
Al and his partner of the day Jimmy mesene were booked for one week to do "Cine Variety" at the Rex Theatre at High Wycombe starting Monday 14th April 1941. The engagement at the Rex, which was in Oxford Street, High Wycombe, and which was closed some time after the war, turned out to be Al’s last theatre date. The Rex Theatre was running Cine-variety that week, and the top-of-the-bill was Al Bowlly and Jimmy Mesene billed as "the Anglo-Greek Ambassadors of Song – Two voices and Guitars in Harmony". The week got off to a bad start as the theatre had engaged a new organist who, although perfectly adequate for his solo spot turned out to have had no experience in accompanying. In the middle of their act at the first house, Al, who had been stamping out the beat as hard as he could to Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime? stopped, advanced to the organist, raised his guitar menacingly, and told him he was killing the act and that if he played another note he would kill him. Between the two houses, the organist met with a mysterious accident, and never played again.
John Watsham, manager of the Rex Theatre recalled :
"Little did we guess what the week would have in store for us! After the second house on Wednesday night, 16th April, we were having a little private party in a nearby hostelry – Al, Jimmy, my manager Captain Talbot Bullock, my wife and myself. The night wore on, and it was a good party, Al being about the only stone-cold sober one. I believe he was always a teetotaller, and I can still recall my horror at the amount of tomato juice he managed to consume. He suddenly told us that he was leaving to catch the last train to London. He was adamant, despite all our efforts to make him change his mind. Even cutting off his tie was to no avail and he just disappeared into the night leaving us to continue without him. Little did we realize then that we should never see him again."
Geoff Nash who was the projectionist at the Rex Theatre has his own memories of Al Bowlly:
"I must have been one of the last to talk to Al, which I remember clearly. Rehearsal was Sunday afternoon. Most artistes took the advantage of staying in High Wycombe for the week, in which way they could get a reasonable night’s sleep; things were not too hectic here. Al was the exception, as far as my memory allows, deciding to travel back to London. I was delegated, with a colleague, to ensure he was on the last train, 10.34pm from High Wycombe station for Marylebone. That allowed just time for the night cap at the ‘Red Lion’, where Jimmy was staying, and on to the station (in total darkness, of course). I well remember the last time talking through the carriage window, waiting until the train pulled out. ‘Cheerio, Al – see you tomorrow’, which for him never came."
Jimmy Mesene later told the Melody Maker that before catching the last train from High Wycombe he said to him "If anything happens to me, remember the Greek spirit". One report was that on the night in question, Al had decided to see his throat specialist as he had apparently been worrying about his voice.
So Bowlly returned to his flat in Dukes Court in the West End at a time when London was being bombed nightly. Al decided not to bother to go to the safety of an air raid shelter. Al’s bravado stemmed from a strange experience he had had. In one of the first daylight raids he happened to be walking in London’s Brewer Street when a bomb fell right in the middle of the street. When it exploded, the force of the blast seemed to go in one direction – away from Al – and he was unharmed. And from then on, he really thought he had a charmed life, which is why he often ignored the air raid warnings.
On this particular night, Al’s partner, Helen, went down to the shelter and left Al alone in bed with a cowboy book. It was now the early hours of Thursday morning, 17th April, and the air raid continued. Al was still in bed when a land mine came silently down and exploded in Jermyn Street. Al’s flat on the second floor overlooked Jermyn Street. As soon as the "all clear" was sounded the hall porter hurried round to make sure all his tenants were safe. But on entering Al's room he found him dead on the floor by the side of the bed, evidently killed outright by the blast from the landmine.
Photographs taken the following morning reveal the devastation caused to the neighbourhood. Extracts of official reports show there were two explosions at 2.20am and 3.10am. The reports indicate that the bomb which killed Al was a parachute mine which fell in the roadway opposite No. 77 Jermyn Street. The Parachute was seen coming down by an Army Officer who was wounded. He was one of 23 casualties including seven dead.
Al Bowlly had died in the early hours of 17 April 1941. Pianist Monia Liter recalls the scene which greeted him on his return to Dukes Court the next day:
"When I got back to Jermyn Street on the morning after the raid, neighbour Bea Lillie met me in the hall. She said ‘We’ve had a terrible night- look here’, and showed me a number of large sacks in the hall with labels on them. ‘These are the people who were killed last night.’ I saw that one of the sacks had Al Bowlly’s name on the label. It was a terrible shock."
Jimmy Mesene telephoned John Watsham at the Rex Theatre to break the news of Al Bowlly’s death. John’s instinct was the cancel the remainder of the show. However, Jimmy persuaded him to open again on the Friday with "A Tribute To Al Bowlly".
Ray Pallett conducts some research
Despite all that has been written and spoken about Al Bowlly, one question which still remains unclear is: how good a musician was he? Principally he was regarded as a rhythm guitarist. Early in his professional career he played the ukulele and banjo, before the guitar replaced these instruments in the typical dance band. He is also cited as a pianist. A story recorded in an early edition of Memory Lane is how he demonstrated to the pianist on one particular gig the sort of accompaniment he required. He sat down at the piano and played "flowery runs". Musicians who worked with Al, who have been asked about his ability on the guitar, seem to be agreed that he was quite good, although not brilliant. Billy Amstell says that he had an insight into harmony.
But I will concentrate here on Al’s ability as a rhythm guitarist and look at the evidence as to his ability. In the nineteen twenties, to get a job as a singer with a band, one had to play an instrument. Singing was considered not sufficiently important to employ someone to do nothing else. Al’s first engagement was with Edgar Adeler who employed Al as a banjoist, guitarist and "incidental" singer. When Al came to England, he eventually became guitarist with Roy Fox and Lew Stone.
However, examination of the personnels in Brian Rust’s Dance Band Discography reveals that only Roy Fox ever used Al in the recording studio as a guitarist. All the other bands with which Al made a number of recordings used Al purely as a singer and employed a separate guitarist for recording. This includes Lew Stone, Ray Noble, Carroll Gibbons, Howard Godfrey and Geraldo. I accept, however that there were probably odd occasions when Al may have played guitar with some of these bands. But I am satisfied there can be no definitive evidence of Al’s ability as a guitarist by listening to the records of these bands. However, Ray Noble seemed to employ Al as guitarist when the band played a season in Holland in 1933. A film clip exists of the band in Holland and Al is clearly seen and heard playing rhythm guitar. However, it is not really enough to judge his ability.
There may be some evidence on Roy Fox records, but there were occasions when Fox used a separate guitarist in the recording studio. Listening to some of the Roy Fox Monseigneur discs, a decent rhythm guitarist is evident. Occasional guitar solos can be heard such as the intro. to Gone Forever.
The fact that both Lew Stone and Roy Fox used Al as a guitarist on their regular evening engagements, and probably also when they went out on tour, suggests Al must have had a certain standard of playing to be able to perform in two of the country’s top dance bands.
There are some recordings where the discographies show Al is present as guitarist. During the late 1920s Al was involved instrumentally with various Len Fillis groups and in accompanying The Trix Sisters and George Metaxa. He was also a member of the group backing some records made by Nat Gonella And His Trumpet at the time when both he and Nat were members of Lew Stone’s Band. Al can be heard playing rhythm guitar on some, and on two tracks he has a solo. On Sing, (It’s Good For You) he plays a rhythm solo and on I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me Al plays the melody. Listening to these, I would conclude that his guitar playing is more than adequate, but not particularly brilliant.
Further recordings on which Al is credited as guitarist in the discographies are some of his early solo recordings. Bowlly’s first vocal record made in Berlin was a coupling of Blue Skies and Say Mister, Have You Met Rosie’s Sister? The Brian Rust discography of Al Bowlly shows these as vocals with "own ukulele". However, there is some controversy as to whether it is Al playing ukulele. The details on the label of the 78, provided by Dave Cooper, are as exactly as follows:
To my mind this strongly suggests Al is accompanying himself on both these titles. Say Mister has a decent ukulele(?) solo à la George Formby. Some while later, still in Germany, Al made a solo recording of Dear Little Gadabout again listed by Rust as "own ukulele", but I am not aware of any controversy in this case. It also contains a ukulele solo à la George Formby, but better than Say Mister. You can draw your own conclusions, but I believe it is the same ukulele player and that it is Al. After all, Al did have ukulele lessons in South Africa and Jimmy Lequime had previously initially employed Al as banjoist and not as a singer.
Examining Al’s solo records made in London, Rust’s Discography shows Al as the guitarist in his recordings of Lonesome Road and Little Pal both sung in Afrikaans. The guitar playing on these tracks is pedestrian, but adequate. Further solo records listed with "own guitar" are Nigger Blues, Frankie And Johnny Blues and By The Old Oak Tree. On the record labels, however, it simply says vocal with guitar accompaniment, nothing indicating it was Al’s own guitar playing. The guitar accompaniment is excellent. My view is that this isn’t Al on guitar for the simple reason that it is too good! However, if it were Al accompanying himself, I would say this is certainly the best evidence of his ability as guitarist.
He may well be accompanying himself on other solo records. However Brian Rust does not list the backing groups. There is a nice little guitar solo in True which I have always believed to be Al, because it is of about the standard I would have expected from him and it also reminds me of Al’s guitar playing on the Gonella track I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me. If it was played by a dedicated guitarist, I would have expected something better. Incidentally, when True was remastered for the LP "Al Bowlly Sings Again", back in the 1960s, the guitar solo was edited out.
Towards the end of his career, Al teamed up with Jimmy Mesene for a double act "The Radio Stars With Two Guitars". Can we glean anything about Al’s ability on the guitar from listening to the four records they made? Jimmy Mesene was regarded as a good guitarist. I therefore lean to the view that the good guitar playing heard on these records, especially the short "rock" solo in When That Man Is Dead And Gone was probably the work of Mesene. If one assumes that it is Mesene who plays guitar when Al sings and vice versa, there is some reasonable guitar work accompanying Jimmy Mesene when he sings I’m Stepping Out With A Memory Tonight and Nicky The Greek (Has Gone). It is a fair assumption that this is Al and the style seems consistent with his other known work. Again it reminds me a little of the guitar solo in True. Generally, the rhythm guitarist heard on the Bowlly/Mesene sides is more than adequate and can be safely assumed to be Al.
Considering the limited definitive recorded evidence, the fact that both Stone and Fox used Al as a guitarist on engagements although not on record, my conclusion is that Al was more than adequate as a rhythm guitarist, who could get away with a short and not too difficult guitar solo. If he was anything better, I believe there would be more evidence of his ability.
A special feature to mark the 60th anniversary of Al's passing
by Ray Pallett
In this special article commemorating the 60th year since the passing of Al Bowlly, let us start by taking a trip back to those black-and-white days of London in the 1930s. We find a city where the musical stars are bandleaders like Jack Payne, Ambrose and Jack Hylton, or singing and comedy acts such as Jack Buchanan or Gracie Fields. But where is Al Bowlly in all of this. For, surely, he was a star, a household name? Well, no, in actual fact. If we are in London in 1933, then we will find Al playing guitar and singing with Lew Stone’s band. at the peak of his career, already having appeared on over 400 discs. So, if Al was not famous then, why is there so much interest now. This interest is evidenced in many ways.
During the nostalgia boom of the 70s and 80s, over 40 LPs were issued in Al’s name. I can only recall a handful of LPs issued in the name of any of Al’s contemporary singers. Including LP re-issues by various dance bands, about two-thirds of all Al’s recorded output were re-issued on microgroove. Regarding CDs, so far there are over 20 albums in Al’s own name issued and in total just over half of his recorded output has been transferred to this medium. And whilst on the subject of modern technology, there are two internet web sites devoted entirely to Al plus an "e-group" where members discuss things Bowlly through the use of E-mails.
During the 1980s, a touring show called Melancholy Baby, built around the Al Bowlly Story was written by actress-writer Marie McNeil. A delightful production centred around the accidental meeting of Al’s first and second wives. The show closed with a performance in the West End.
As regards radio, there have been dozens of tributes to Al broadcast by radio stations around the world ranging from pirate transmitters in the Thames Estuary during the 1960s to BBC national and local radio and commercial stations. Notable examples include a 13-part series on South African radio, a six-part series on BBC radio narrated by Roy Hudd and a one hour special on Radio Two presented by John Thaw which has become known as The Inspector Morse Al Bowlly Tribute. And whenever radio, TV and film producers want 1930s "period music", how frequently they play Al as the voice of that decade.
There have been at least two TV documentaries about Al to my knowledge. The first was the hour-long Impressions Of Al Bowlly shown on BBC 2 in 1975 which featured interviews with celebrities who knew Al and music from a modern day singer Stuart Damon. The other was a 10 minute film shown on Anglia TV’s Bygones series in 1982. This film was mainly an interview with Pam Barrie who seemingly had been a girl friend of Al’s. It did include a couple of brief film clips by Al and a few snatches of him singing.
These tributes in the main only provided an outline of Al’s life. Two serious attempts have been made to document the full Bowlly biography. The first came in the 1980s when producer of Impressions Of Al Bowlly, Tony Staveacre joined forces with one of the contributors to the programme, Sid Colin who had actually worked and sung with Al when they were both in Lew Stone’s Band in 1938. They authored the first hardback biography of Al called simply Al Bowlly. It was certainly a well-crafted book, but analysts at the time considered that the detail rather thin-on-the-ground. A few years later, in an attempt to provide a fuller account of Al’s life story, the second book Goodnight Sweetheart was published. Written by yours truly, it presented all the material I had collected about Al over the previous 15 years. Both books are now out-of-print,
To mark the 50th anniversary of Al’s death in 1941, the South African Embassy in London hosted a special event at South Africa House. Here many of the celebrities who knew or worked with Al were present, a modern day trio performed some of his songs, film clips were shown on video and records were played. A film crew were present and shot a number of celebrity interviews.
Al is known mostly as a recording, variety and broadcasting artiste. He is not thought of as a film star. Nevertheless, he did appear in a number of films and last year the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank presented a short season of feature films and "shorts" in which he appeared.
From all the foregoing, it can be seen that today Al is something of a phenomenon. I believe that there are a number of reasons why. Firstly, an artiste dying relatively young and especially in tragic circumstances as did Al, engenders a lot of interest, human nature being what it is. Compare the similar interest in subsequent popular singers who died. Another factor is that until both biographies of Al were published, his life, particularly his origins, were shrouded in mystery. For example, few knew his nationality, and nobody knew how old he was.
In the 1930s, Bowlly was thought of as one of our top singers in the company of Sam Browne, Billy Scott-Coomber, Les Allen, Jack Plant, Denny Dennis, Chick Henderson and others. But comparatively, these other names have all but drifted into obscurity, known only to dedicated fans of the dance bands. But I walked down Southend High Street recently and called into one or two record shops. And they each had a special partition for Bowlly CDs labelled with his name. I have never seen anything similar for the other singers mentioned, or indeed for the famous English bandleaders in my 30 years of buying firstly LPs and now CDs.
In book Sinatra And The Great Song Stylists, all the singers profiled are American, apart from one. I wrote to the author complementing him on his book and noting with pleasure his inclusion of Al Bowlly and asked why he hadn’t included any other English singers. He wrote a very nice letter in reply and asked "Who would you have me include? There is no other English singer who comes under the heading "song stylist"".
So what made Al a "song stylist" whereas his contemporaries were merely singers or crooners. We have all read or heard the observations that Al’s voice was unique and that when he sung, it made it sound as if he was singing personally to you, even when he was on the radio. But Al also had a number of techniques many unique to him.
I have read reviews criticising his performance on Ray Noble’s Close Your Eyes because he slurs his words. Surely this was deliberate to give a sleepy kind of affect. But our reviewer would have preferred a version sung by one of our other top dance band singers perhaps, who would give you a clear, perfectly pronounced, rendition of this charming song. A version devoid of personality, feeling or character.
Then Al was slated for his pronunciation of "platter" in Lew Stone’s You’re My Thrill. Al sings this as "pladder". In fact he uses this kind of pronunciation quite widely. Again, Al is attempting to do something to give popular singing a particular characterisation. Bing Crosby was doing similar things in the States. But it was Frank Sinatra who managed to completely break the mould of the straight matter-of-fact performances delivered by most popular singers. But Bowlly was clearly moving in this direction years before Sinatra hit he big time.
I recall receiving a letter years ago from a reader of Memory Lane saying that back in the ‘30s, he and his group of friends didn’t rate Al. And the reason given was that Al used to hit just below a high note of a song and then slide up to it. Again, the preference for a straight performance. Yet, this was one of Al’s special tricks of which there is plenty of recorded evidence. I have never heard any other singer use this technique. Other techniques which Al used include adding additional words (e.g. "Gosh! I’m Mad" in Who Walks In When I Walk Out) and the falsetto ending (e.g. on Why Stars Come Out At Night).
These techniques which Al devised and cultivated were the things which made him a "song stylist" as opposed to just another singer. In this, he was ahead of his time in this country by about 20 years. And I believe that in the 30s, we were just not ready for this. I conjecture that Al’s techniques actually held him back. Sam Browne was our number one singer more often than Al and was generally more well known. Ray Noble obviously rated Al, as did the other bandleaders who employed him. Al also received good reviews in the press.. However, as far as Joe Public was concerned, I now seriously wonder whether Al’s techniques were wasted and perhaps even caused many folk to prefer Sam Browne and others who sang in a less stylised manner. (Please do not think I am deriding Sam Browne and the other singers; Sam was an extremely popular singer. I certainly do not under-estimate his contribution to popular music.)
However, it is Al Bowlly who has stood the test of time.
As I write, research into Al continues. Discographical information is still being discovered, particularly about the records Al made in Germany and those on which he is heard instrumentally rather than vocally. And, following the restoration of four feature films in which Al appeared, knowledge about his work in films, as limited as it was, is expanding. And with the ability of recording companies to let us hear the voice of Al Bowlly on CD clearer than ever before without the background hiss, I am confident that wherever there are people who like a good song well sung, we will hear the voice of our song stylist supreme, Al Bowlly.
by Ray Pallett
During July, 2000, the British Film Institute presented a short season of films featuring Al Bowlly at the National Film Theatre in London’s South Bank. The season comprised:
Pathe Roy Fox short "It Ain’t No Fault Of Mine"
The Chance Of A Night-Time (British and Dominion)
3rd July 6.20; 8th July 4.00
Pathe short Al Bowlly "The Very Thought Of You"
A Night Like This (British and Dominion)
10th July 6.20; 12th July 8.45
Pathe New Sound Pictorial Al Bowlly "My Melancholy Baby"
The Mayor’s Nest (British and Dominion)
17th July 6.20; 22nd July 4.00
Pathe short Douglas Byng and Roy Fox and his Band
Up For The Derby (British and Dominion)
24th July 6.20; 29th July 4.00
The Pathe Roy Fox short features the band performing It Ain’t No Fault Of Mine. Nat Gonella takes the vocal and Al Bowlly can be clearly seen playing guitar. The film lasts 4 minutes and was made in 1932. It has been televised at least once.
Chance Of A Night-Time. This film starred Ralph Lynn who plays a bachelor solicitor who meets a dancer at a railway station and for various complicated reasons ends up deputising for her absent partner at a country ball. After two rather boring reels there is a glimpse of a pianist which looks like Al. A little later we see the pianist again, this time in close-up. It is Al and he sings Leave The Rest To Nature. He is purportedly accompanying himself on the piano, but as his hands were not shown, it may be assumed he is miming. He then had a small acting part lasting about three minutes during which Ralph Lynn bribes Al to sing the song whilst hiding, during which time Ralph mimes to Al in order to impress the girl.
Al then sings the song again hiding behind a pillar while Ralph stands on the dance floor and mimes the words. Afterwards, Al steps out to take a bow and is thrown off the dance floor by Ralph Lynn. Later Al is heard singing I’m So Used To You Now, but he is seen for only 3 or 4 seconds. Al’s name does not appear in the film’s credits.
This film probably constitutes Al’s major film appearance, as far as acting goes, even though his part only last for about 3 minutes. Al acquitted himself very well in the thespian role and it is a puzzle why he was not exploited more in films.
The Pathe short of Al Bowlly performing The Very Thought Of You has an interesting introduction. Al is "pushed" on to the film set and says something to the effect "OK folks, Pathe have got me at last! Where is my accompanist?". Monia Liter then comes on and sits at the piano still wearing his trilby hat. Al leaps on to the grand piano, takes Monia’s hat off his head and throws it across the room. He then goes into The Very Thought Of You. This film last 3 minutes, was shot in 1934 and has been televised one or twice.
A Night Like This Starred Ralph Lynn and Tom Walls. Another convoluted story concerning a certain Clifford Tope (played by Lynn) trying to retrieve a necklace held by the proprietors of the Moonshine night club in lieu of gambling debts. Also at the club at the same time is plainclothes police officer Michael Maloney (played by Tom Walls) who is investigating alleged illegal gambling there. The majority of the film was in the setting of the club, so there was plenty of opportunity for music. Roy Fox’s Band could be heard intermittently throughout this film with the famous muted trumpet to the fore. Early-on in the film Roy Fox and his Band were heard playing In London On A Night Like This. Al took the vocal lead with a trio which sounded very much like the Rhythm Maniacs disc. Neither the Band nor Bowlly were seen.
On reel two Roy Fox and His Band play Considering on a platform behind a troupe of dancing girls. Al stood up and is seen singing whilst strumming his guitar swaying slightly from side to side in rhythm with the music. His vocal is brilliant, much better than his performance on record of this song. Unfortunately, there is no close-up of Al and his face could not be seen in detail.
On the next reel, Roy Fox and his Band play If Anything Happened To You. Al took the vocal and was shown in close-up for about two seconds singing through a megaphone. The band were is seen at all. In reel four we hear Roy Fox and his Band play a non-vocal version of Hello Mike. Playing this number, the band is again seen in the background behind dancing girls - but Al was virtually completely obscured.
The Pathe New Sound Pictorial was a cinemagazine and features Al singing My Melancholy Baby. This item was released on 17th September 1936 and the song is one he had then recently recorded in America. The film starts with a brief clip of Al playing guitar with Roy Fox and his Band. The scene changes to the Pathe studio on the top of Film House in London’s Soho and Danvers Walker, who is the voice on all the Pathe news clips, introduces Al who then sings My Melancholy Baby accompanied by Monia Liter, at the piano. The film lasts just over 3 minutes. This is probably Al’s most well-known film appearance as it has been televised several times.
The Mayor’s Next is the only feature film where Al’s name is included in the cast list at the beginning of the film. He is shown as playing the part of "George". The storyline of the film is about an unemployed trombone player, Joseph Pilgrim, played by Sydney Howard who meets a rich woman who sponsors him to enter local politics on the ticket of slum clearance. During all of this he stumbles into Paradise Row, a slum area where George (Al Bowlly) is found with some children. Al sings The Wedding Of The Slum Town Babies while the children enact a mock wedding. Al engages in some brief patter before and after his song.
Pilgrim goes on to get elected, become the town’s mayor and magistrate. In a later scene, Pilgrim is presiding over the magistrate’s court and one of the cases concerns a group of unemployed musicians accused on busking. Al, as George, is among them and speaks up for the group saying that group were only playing and that he was just singing. Al then goes into the typical 1930s "cheer-up" song Say To Yourself ‘I Will Be Happy’ and gets the whole courtroom personnel dancing and singing. Naturally, as the Pilgrim, the magistrate, remembers Al from Paradise Row, the case is thrown out of court. Al Bowlly is not in any other scene from the film. Nevertheless, this is Al’s major film appearance where he performs two songs accompanied by the Luton Brass Band, the only time Al ever sung with such an outfit. The Mayor’s Nest lasts 74 minutes and was released in 1932.
The Pathe short Douglas Byng and Roy Fox and his Band was a Pathetone Weekly made in 1932 and is set in the Monseigneur Restaurant. Al Bowlly is clearly seen playing guitar whilst Roy Fox and the Band play an unidentified song. Then Douglas Byng comes on and does his cabaret act partly performed in drag. For most of the time Al can be seen holding his guitar in the band behind Byng and he seems to be enjoying the show! The clip lasts 6 minutes.
Up For The Derby again starred Sydney Howard as down and out Joe Burton who finds employment at a riding stables run by a villainous trainer. He becomes the owner of a horse, "Marquis" who is considered past his best but enters it into the Derby. While the opening credits are shown, Al can be heard singing I Gotta Horse. This is interesting in itself as Al never recorded this song and, according to the Rust-Forbes Discography, neither did any British dance band.
During the film, Al can be seen playing guitar in the night club scene. We start by seeing his back view while the band is playing My Sweetie Went Away. Nat Gonella takes the vocal. A few minutes later, Al is again seen playing guitar with Lew Stone’s Band behind a cabaret act featuring singer Jane Carr and some dancing girls. Al is frequently obscured by Lew Stone. This is the extent of Al’s appearance in the film which was made in 1933 and lasted 70 minutes.
Conclusion. As far as feature films are concerned, the only ones where Al is both seen and heard are Chance Of A Night-Time, A Night Like This and The Mayor’s Nest. If there are any other appearances in feature films by Al, they are most likely to be of Up For The Derby variety. My remaining impression having seen a number of film appearances by Al Bowlly is that this medium is admirably suited to his voice and that he is definitely "filmogenic". His film versions of songs are generally sung better than the equivalent gramophone record.
The reason that Al appeared in feature films was that early on Lew Stone became musical director for British and Dominion Films. Therefore, whenever a band was required, Lew used his own or Roy Fox’s Band in which he played before becoming a band leader himself. The Lew Stone book A Career In Music indicates the possibility that Lew Stone and his band appeared in another four films whilst Al Bowlly was part of the band. These are Antoinette, The Love Contract, The Little Damozel and Just My Luck. It remains to be seen whether or not Al performs in these.
by Ray Pallett
Initially, Al Bowlly’s signature tune was "Some Of These Days" ; he later changed it to the Jay Gorney/Yip Harburg song "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?". This is because it always went down well with audiences when Al performed it as it has the line "Say don’t you remember they called me Al; it was Al all the time". Even now, all these years later, I am frequently asked about Al’s recordings of "Brother".
Al Bowlly recorded "Brother" three times, but only one version was issued. This was recorded on 1st December 1933 as part of a medley issued on a 12 inch 78rpm entitled "Lew Stone Favourites" on Decca K715. It lasts only 40 seconds but has been re-issued a couple of times notably on the Decca LP "Al Bowlly - The Ambassador of Song" on ACL 1204.
However, on 25th May 1938, Al recorded the song again, once more as part of a medley. This was on a standard 10 inch HMV 78. On the side with "Brother" he also sings "Stormy Weather". However, this was rejected. The reason is there was a fault with the cutting equipment. The first disc recorded at the same session was "Goodnight Angel" and "When The Organ Played ‘Oh! Promise Me’". Accompanied by George Scott-Wood on the pipe organ, many, myself included, consider this as one of Al’s finest, certainly among his solo recordings. His voice has charisma and presence. However, if you possess the original 78rpm which was issued on HMV BD 565, the problem with the cutting equipment can be apparent if you listen carefully. The problem must have become more noticeable when the second disc, the medley, was recorded.
However, the biggest mystery surrounds a third recording of "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" recorded by Al, this time on 17th March 1933, for HMV. The entry in the Al Bowlly Discography published as part of the Complete Entertainment Discography by Brian Rust and a previous edition published by Brian as a separate booklet give the following details:
vocalist with Ray Noble and His Orchestra
OB-6357-1, -2 Brother Can You Spare A Dime HMV
OB-6358-1, -2 Sweetheart test
It seems, however, that Brian subsequently modified his view of this session, for in his booklet "HMV House Bands Discography" he states "The files show no vocalist’s name but Al Bowlly was probably present". In the Rust-Forbes "British Dance Bands On Record" discography, the session is actually entered as a non-vocal session!
However Frank Wappat recently informed me that in the HMV files, this session is in the name of Al Bowlly. This opens up a fresh and exciting possibility. At that time, 1933, Al Bowlly was on annual contracts for his solo records with the rival Decca label. HMV was always considered more "up market" and to get on that label was a great achievement. In fact, Al had recorded solo previously for HMV in Afrikaans - for the South African market. And when Al recorded solos in America for Victor, they were issued in the United Kingdom on HMV. And when Al returned from the States, his solo records were made (apart from one exception) for HMV. So Al made it in the end.
But...what if it was Bowlly who had a test for HMV back in 1933. This would explain the "HMV test" description. Who else could it have been a test for? Certainly not Ray Noble! (As Ray had been associated with HMV for several years as their MD (musical director), HMV would not need to test him!) As MD, Noble would have supplied the backing and there would be no vocalist shown as part of the band. If the HMV files were either unclear or misinterpreted by the discographers, then Al’s 1933 recording of "Brother" would have been a solo and not a vocal refrain with Ray Noble. It means it would have been a full length vocal with verse and chorus.
Of course, this is conjecture, but the more one considers the matter, the more likely it is that the 1933 recording of "Brother" was a solo test for Al. As Al’s next solo record issued on HMV did not appear until 1935, it seems that Bowlly was not accepted by HMV back in 1933 and the test was unsuccessful.
The final mystery is why have no copies of this or the 1938 recording of "Brother" ever been traced? (Copies of other unissued Bowlly records exist.) Some day, someone, somewhere will unearth copies. Until then the mystery will remain.