“When his voice comes on the air, it’s just like fizzy lemonade being poured down my spine”,was how one young American fan described Al Bowily’s singing.
It is often said of popular entertainers that their appeal has no lasting significance, yet this is far from true in Al’s case for, even now, many decades after his tragic death, his fans remain faithful, searching junk-shops and second-hand stores for his recordings. And how prolific those recordings were . Only a fraction were issued under his own name—though these alone make up a formidable catalogue. Al’s contribution to many records which appeared under the names of famous band-leaders of the Thirties is only known thanks to the dedicated research of enthusiastic discographers. Besides being a great among the crooners, Al was a highly talented banjoist and guitarist and much of his work was as a session man.
Al’s life-story reads like a Hollywood script. He experienced depths of poverty and despair and the glamour of the high-life. And it wasn’t a question of a straightforward haul up the social scale. Even at the peak of his career, Al knew what it was like to be abandoned, penniless, by erstwhile “friends”.
His father was a Greek who fell in love with his Lebanese mother on the boat to Australia. They married and later moved to Lourenqo Marques, Portuguese East Africa, where Al was born on January 7th 1898, fourth eldest of ten children.When he was a year old, Al’s family settled in South Africa. At the Newtown School in Johannesburg, Al was a good scholar, though he often played truant. The school had some excellent music teachers who helped Al develop his voice, and he also sang in the church choir. He described himself as -a real little ruffian” and he used to love a good fight,something which stayed with him throughout life !
Excelling as a runner, swimmer, horseman and marksman, his easily excitable personality made him a danger to any referee at a sports’ meeting for, if Al didn’t like a decision, he would hop over the barrier and have it out with the poor unfortunate concerned. Al left school at 14 to work full-time in his brother- in-law’s barber shop. He loved to sing as he worked, eventually being dubbed “The Singing Barber”. He took up banjo and guitar and soon became proficient, playing dates with local bands for ten shillings a session. A big chance came when Edgar Adeler and his Syncopators arrived in town in 1923. After listening to the band for six nights, Al plucked up courage to ask for a job, was given an audition and joined the band. Al’s parents were against the idea, but they gave way and off he went on a long tour of the Far East with the band. Al quarrelled with two others in the band, quit, and found himself completely broke, thanks to his passion for gambling,and miles from home.
He worked his way back to Calcutta, and there he was given a job at The Grand Hotel by American Jimmy Lequime. Al then spent a year with the band at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, appearing on several records but not as a vocalist. Spring 1927 saw Al in Germany where he recorded with Arthur Briggs’ Savoy Syncopators, The John Abriani Six, Fred Bird’s Salon Symphonic Jazz Band and George Carhart’s New Yorkers. After a year, he went to Paris and there received a contract to rejoin Edgar Adeler in Berlin. The venue was changed to Munich and Al was delayed, arriving 12 hours late, to find the band had left.Once again he was broke and stranded but a friend of Fred Elizalde had heard some of his Berlin recordings , he sent them to Elizalde and the bandleader offered Al a job. Al used the last of his money to send a cable asking for a bigger fee.Elizalde agreed and even sent a £20 advance for the fare. But, in true style, Bowlly used some to throw a farewell party for his friends and put the rest on a horse , which lost ! This time a local businessman lent him the money, an act of generosity which deeply affected Al, who saved diligently till he could return it.
Elizalde had secured a residency at the Savoy Hotel and the band made several records, Al singing on some. But Elizalde had an argument with the Hotel management and suddenly Al found himself out of work again. This time he was in big trouble. His landlady had treated him with extreme kindness, but eventually she had to threaten him with eviction if he did not pay the rent, so Al turned up his collar, picked up his guitar and went busking. A week’s hard work produced just £2.17s., then one day a big car went by. Al recognised the man at the wheel and called out to him. It was drummer Bill Harty. He told Al that Roy Fox had just arrived from America to form a band.They went along to see him and Al played a couple of demo discs, but Fox would not give a decision and his wife wanted to go to lunch. So Al took another gamble “I know a good place where they have a fine band ; let me take you to lunch”he said. After they had eaten, Al asked the band to accompany him as he sang “I Love the Moon”.Fox was suitably impressed and Al, quick thinking, produced a pen and paper and a contract was signed there and then. He had just 3s. 6d. left for his landlady ! While Fox was setting up the rest of the band, Al filled in with recording dates for Ray Noble and others.
The Fox band was an immediate success and Al was able to pay his debts. Recording sessions, dances, charity matinees, a nightly appearance at the Monseigneur Restaurant and weekly radio broadcasts spread his fame. When Fox was taken ill, pianist-arranger Lew Stone took over and the band went from strength to strength.
Now Al branched into films, with appearances in “A Night Like This” and “The Mayor’s Nest” in 1932, as well as a Pathe Short. In 1933 Al added solo variety appearances to his demanding programme, and became the first dance-band vocalist to win a solo spot in a BBC Variety programme. To prove that he could sing straight as well as “croon”, he recorded the standard “Glorious Devon”, while Owen Brangwyn, tenor, tried his hand at crooning the comedy number “Let’s Put Out The Lights” on the ‘B’ side.In 1934, Al went to Holland with Ray Noble and they then travelled to New York, to play at the Rainbow Room”, 65 floors up in the Rockefeller skyscraper. The band, which included the great Glenn Miller, was a big hit, making numerous broadcasts. 14 telephone operators dealt with the phone calls and eight girls sorted the letters which mirrored their fantastic success.
On his return to London, Al formed his own band, with his talented pianist brother Mish included. On March 1st, 1937, they opened at the Empire, Birmingham, then went on to a natio wide tour. But once again, the evil gremlin hit . His voice failed and he had to disband his outfit, losing a lot of money in the process, and most of his so-called-friends walked out on him. He had to go to New York for a difficult and dangerous operation to his vocal chords. But, on his return, Al once more clambered to the top, making records with Geraldo, Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, Maurice Winnick and other top band-leaders, and numerous BBC broadcasts as well as weekly transmissions on Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, Radio Lyons and Radio Hilversum. In 1939 he went into partnership with Jimmy Mesene—another guitarist-vocalist of Greek ex-traction—as The “Radio Stars With The Two Guitars”. With him Al made what were to prove his last recordings “Nicky The Greek Has Gone”and “When That Man Is Dead And Gone”. They were sadly prophetic titles ,for on April 17th, 1941, a land-mine exploded outside Al’s flat, and he was killed by the blast.
Sincere, warm-hearted, extravagant and generous to a fault, Al was also a tough, well-built man, with a quick, fiery temper, a nomad and a real character. His voice had a unique range and timbre and he gave a superb, and never stylised, treatment to everything from ballads to comedy numbers, country items to the blues. Al Bowlly is dead, but his music lives on as testament to his greatness and justification for the continued dedication of his countless fans.
Edited Original Sleeve Notes by Roger St Pierre from “The Big Swoon of the Thirties” ( 1965)