FOR THE FIRST TIME – THE FULL FACTUAL STORY OF AL BOWLLY AND HIS LIFE OF MUSIC AND SONG.
WRITTEN AND RESEARCHED BY RAY PALLETT (1975)
At the end of July 1928 Al Bowlly went back to the continent again when the Elizalde band went over there for three months .They first went to Paris to play at a restaurant along the famous Champs Elysees. The other band playing was the Noble Sissle Orchestra. Al got on famously with the coloured French musicians and even sung a few numbers with Noble Sissle who liked his style. Then the Elizalde Band moved on to the Casino , Ostend in Belgium, but the band were not allowed to gamble there – much to Al’s dismay . However he soon found his way to the sea front each day where he passed the the time away with the Belgian and French girls on the beach. Incidentally the band did find somewhere to gamble . The stay in Ostend lasted six weeks and in October 1928 the Fred Elizalde Band crossed the channel and returned to the Savoy Hotel where they stayed for a further eight months.
During their stay at the Savoy, the band made frequent broadcasts over the BBC, but the sound quality of these were very poor and it was not until January 1929 that, after many complaints, a second microphone was installed to improve the sound balance. Unfortunately Al Bowlly came over very badly in the broadcasts; his high notes appeared to waver and he could do himself no justice at all. Late in April 1929, the band had a three week engagement at the London Palladium in which Al was the featured vocalist. But once again, he could do himself no justice with this orchestra. Apart from the record already mentioned, Al made a further five titles with the Elizalde hand. In the main these records did little justice to Al either — particularly as the company for which most of them were made, Brunswick, did not have its own, or indeed any permanent recording studio at that time.
Fred Elizalde was a hot tempered person and he had recurring rows with the management of the Savoy Hotel over the style of music that should be played, and this led up to the band leaving the Hotel during the Summer of 1929. This initially put Al out of work. During his spell at the Savoy he only managed to save £17. However, he managed to team up once again with Edgar Adeler who had now come to England, and together with Len Fillis and Al Starita, formed a quartet called the Blue Boys. With this group Al made appearances in England and Ireland; but the two Al’s in the quartet seemed always to be at loggerheads which, on more than one occasion, nearly ended in a fight. This resulted in the band breaking up after only a very short lifetime.
Although he had achieved a degree of success with Elizalde, and to a much lesser extent with the Blue Boys, who incidentally did not record, Al had still not established himself in England. Len Fillis had coached Al further in playing guitar and by the time he was with Elizalde and the Blue Boys, he had become a competent rhythm guitarist. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Len Fillis made numerous records on various labels under his own name and names such as “Honolulu Serenaders”, “Brooklyn Broadcasters” “Linn Milford and his Hawaiians”, “Al Vocale”, “Ferrachini” and several others. On many of these Fillis used a vocal duet and often this was between Les Allen and Al Bowlly, occasionally both were allowed a solo spot. The first of these records with Al Bowlly was made in May 1929, the next in November and throughout 1930. Although Al appeared on these records he didn’t earn very much money as many of these were made for small and insignificant labels.
The Summer of 1929 was indeed a lean time for Al; he had no recording work — not even with Len Fillis ! Poor old Al Bowlly could not even afford to pay his rent and his landlady explained that in these difficult times, if he couldn’t pay the rent he would have to leave. The only thing for Al to do was to swallow his pride and sing in the street. So with his guitar in his hand he went out and found a busy street corner in Piccadilly and sang to the passing crowd near a busy underground station. He pulled his collar well up in an attempt not to be recognised in this undignified pursuit. Al just managed to pay his rent out of the £2.17.0d which was his week’s takings as a busker.
It was during 1930 that Bill Harty, a drummer who had made Al’s acquaintance, introduced him to Ray Noble, a talented young pianist who led the house band at the HMV recording studios from 1929 to 1934. Ray Noble was to play a very important part in the musical life of Al Bowlly from 1930 onwards. In June of 1930 Al had made a couple of solo tracks on HMV in Afrikaans for the South African market. HMV wanted a few more titles in this language and these were made with an accompanying orchestra led by Ray Noble. On being introduced to Al, Ray Noble asked him if he sang in “printed key”. Being anxious to record with Noble, Al said “yes” immediately and it was not until some months later that Noble realised Al’s true range was about one third lower. This story, which was related by Ray Noble himself, shows how wide Al’s vocal range was.
In November of 1930, Ray Noble invited Al to sing with his HMV house band, the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra. The titles recorded were “I’m telling the world she’s mine” and “How could I be lonely ?”. These were excellent samples of Al’s singing and both Ray Noble and HMV were sufficiently impressed that Al became Noble’s regular vocalist at HMV. This was then the start of what was probably the greatest combination in British dance music history, and Noble and Bowlly went on to make well over 200 recordings for HMV. The Ray Noble orchestra was, except for one occasion, purely a recording band and never existed outside the HMV studios.
Although in 1930 Al appeared in the recording studios with Ray Noble, Len Fillis, Harry Hudson and a few other bandleaders, these were only free-lance jobs and he still hadn’t had any regular work since leaving the Fred Elizalde band at the Savoy Hotel. However, towards the end of 1930, Bill Harty, the drummer, had some news that raised Al’s hopes of getting a regular job. Harty was then working with American bandleader Roy Fox who had been invited from the U.S.A. to play at the Café de Paris. Although Roy’s engagement there had ended, he had been awarded the contract to lead a recording band for Decca and was looking for a “new” vocalist. But unlike Noble, Fox had plans for his band to work regularly both in and out of the recording studio. Bill Harty arranged for Al to meet Roy Fox at the Coventry Street offices of Ralph Dean. Al was introduced to the immaculate Roy Fox and Mrs Fox, and he asked Roy to listen to the record he had previously made with Ray Noble, which he had brought with him.
After hearing both sides of the record, Ray told Al that he would be hearing from him. Al was still desperately trying to impress the American bandleader, and with less than £3 in his pocket he invited Mr and Mrs Fox for lunch at a nearby restaurant. At the restaurant, lunch ever, Al went over to the bandleader playing to the patrons and after a hurried conversation got up with the band and sang “I love the moon” plus a couple of hot (IA ferry) numbers. When Al returned to his table Roy Fox said simply “O.K. you get the job.” Al pressed Roy into giving him written confirmation of the engagement, which he did, and to Al’s delight the salary placed him among London’s highest paid dance band vocalists. Al Bowlly left the restaurant feeling on top of the world because he knew his first big break had come now that he was vocalist and guitarist with Roy Fox and his Band.