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)
He had been without regular work for nearly eighteen months since he left Fred Elizalde at the Savoy Hotel. Al returned home to his landlady with his good news but realised that having entertained Mr and Mrs Fox, he was now broke once again and he didn’t then know when the Fox band was to start work recording at Decca. His landlady had never heard of Roy Fox and was, of course, displeased at Al’s inability to pay the rent. However, Al could turn on the charm when he wanted to and managed to persuade his landlady to let him stay on. The Roy Fox Band commenced recording in January 1931 but since it was still only a recording band, Al still had no regular daily engagement. However, he was becoming quite well known in the recording studios where he was spending time hoping to find free lance work with any band that happened to need a vocalist for a recording, and in this way he made dozens of records with all manner of bands and groups.
Al’s first record with Roy Fox was made on January 5th 1931, the titles being “You’re lucky to me” and “Thank your father”, the “vocalist” on the label being mistakenly credited to Kenneth Allen, Fox’s ex-vocalist from the Café de Paris. During Al’s time with Roy Fox, which lasted over the next twenty months, over 150 titles were recorded and all but a handful featured the voice of Al Bowlly. Roy Fox and his Band continued to record but its big break did not come until the Spring of 1931 when Roy arranged for the band to be auditioned for the new luxurious Monseigneur restaurant which was to soon open in Piccadilly. The audition at which Al sang Ray Noble’s recent composition “Goodnight Sweetheart”, was a success. Roy won the contract and the band opened there on 27th May, 1931. Al Bowlly was so grateful for his pay after his first week at the Monseigneur that he took Roy Fox for lunch at an Italian Restaurant in Soho !
Up to May 1931, Al had no regular work, only recording work with Ray Noble and Roy Fox, plus free lance work with other lesser known bands; this recording work was Al’s main sauce of income at the time. Once settled at the Monseigneur Restaurant, the Roy Fox Band became one of the high-lights of London’s night life. Playing in the band were several musicians that were later to achieve success in their own right, in particular Lew Stone, Spike Hughes and Nat Gonella. The quality of the music and especially the presence of Al Bowlly, attracted many of the West End “Society” people to come to listen and dance to the Roy Fox Band. In fact, among the Restaurant’s socialite clientele, Al became as well known and well liked as. Fox himself. Roy soon arranged to broadcast weekly from 10.30 p.m. to midnight every Tuesday on the late night dance music programmes put out by the BBC.
Thus the fame of both the Band and Bowlly spread. “Al Bowlly” soon became a well known name among those in the entertainment world and members of the public who took an interest in popular music. To give Al a chance to concentrate on his vocal work, he was frequently relieved of his guitar playing duties by Bill Herbert, who later appeared regularly with Billy Cotton and his Band. Life was now sweet for Al; he had a regular job and had money in his pocket once again. He moved into better class accommodation, taking a flat in Charing Cross Mansions in the West End. Life was now one big round of hard work, with rehearsals and recording during the day, plus also a night’s work at the Monseigneur. But Al was strong — he could take it, and because he never tired of singing he loved his work. His voice was his main interest in life, and with physical culture, his second passion, he was well placed for the hectic life he was now living.
In 1923 after he joined Edgar Adeler, Al’s singing, then ahead of its time, was sometimes considered effeminate. Even in 1931 some people held this view and reckoned that popular singers, or crooners as they were then known, like Al Bowlly, were representative of the “soft and decadent youth”. One anecdote that Al later recalled was that he once heard a customer at the Monseigneur making offensive remarks about crooning while Al was singing. At the end of his vocal he went over to this person and knocked him down with one blow. Obviously this particular individual realised to his cost that Al Bowlly was not a representative of the “soft and decadent youth” ! As mentioned, during his employment with the Roy Fox Band, Al achieved a measure of fame in his own right, and he was now asked by Decca to make records as a soloist.
Apart from the Afrikaans recordings already mentioned, and three titles recorded for Decca in November 1930 and issued sometime later, Al’s first regular solo recording work began in September 1931 when he recorded “Were you sincere” and “I’d rather be a beggar with you”. Al went on to make many solo records during his career, firstly on Decca and later on HMV. It was in December 1931 in the nearby Lyons Corner House that trumpeter Nat Gonella introduced Al to a well known local girl, Freda Roberts, a daughter of a merchant seaman. Al, not knowing her and having very little guile, fell for her and on 18th December 1931 married her in the St Martin Register Office, London. None of the boys in the band expected him to be serious about her, let alone marry her, for he was so popular in the West End that he could have virtually had the pick of any woman from the cream of West End society. But he calmly announced to the band, shortly after the event, “I got married today” — and the bandsmen were stunned. The members of the band were not really surprised when they learned a few weeks later than the marriage had broken up. Al returned to his flat after work one evening to discover his pretty young wife with another. This was a terrible blow for poor old Al and the whole band felt bad about it, for although professional musicians were often noted for their “earthy” way of living, Al was really the exception. Although the marriage broke up in January 1932, it was not until January 1934 that his divorce was finalised, after Freda had sued Al for adultery.
In 1931, Lew Stone, the pianist and arranger with Roy Fox and his Band, became musical director for the British and Dominion picture company. One of the earliest films for which Lew did the music arranging was “A night like this” released in 1932. In this film Lew Stone can be seen in several sequences conducting a band consisting of Roy Fox’s men in which Al sang one or two numbers. Thus Al could now be seen on the cinema screen. Two of the songs from this film were “If anything happened to you” and “In London on a night like this”. Both songs were recorded at the time by Al with Fox’s men under the pseudonym of “The Rhythm Maniacs”.
During 1932, the Monseigneur management sought to control the activities of Roy Fox too tightly and in September of that year he announced his intention of leaving the restaurant. Since the majority of the band, including Al Bowlly, were under contract to him, he could have insisted that they all leave the Monseigneur with him. But instead he released them to work for the “new” band at the Monseigneur, which was to be led by Lew Stone under the billing of “Lew Stone and the Monseigneur Dance Orchestra”. Inevitably there was some bad feeling, and even thirty years later Lew Stone was not keen on commenting on the switch. Things were said on both sides and at one stage Roy Fox was going to sue Al for breach of contract, thus bearing out what an import-ant member of the band Al was. However, the case was dropped and Al went on to work with Stone. Lew had claimed that he was going to form a completely new band when asked to do after Fox had decided to leave, and later he said “I did not take over the band — the band took over me.”