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)
This was to be the high spot in Al’s career where he later claimed to be earning over £150 a week. Arrangements made, Ray Noble, Al Bowlly, plus drummer Bill Harty, set sail for New York in 1934. Al took with him his girl friend, the lovely Marjorie, and after they reached the States, they married in New Jersey. However, the first thing they did on arrival in New York was to meet officials of the Music Corporation of America who had arranged for them to stay at a classy hotel. Arrangements were already in hand for forming the band which was to contain such American stars as Glenn Miller, Charlie Spivak, Bud Freeman and Claud Thornhill. Unfortunately Ray Noble ran into problems with the American Musicians’ Union which delayed the final formation of the new band.
Such was not the case with Al Bowlly who, whilst awaiting formation of the Noble Band, commenced recording with Victor Young and his Orchestra. Four tracks were recorded, two with Al as the principal artiste and two featuring Al as vocalist with the orchestra. These recordings were indeed a fine start to his career in America where he went as a band vocalist and became a star. Indeed it was in January 1935 that Al went over to the top-flight HMV company for his solo recordings and this was the highest compliment that could be paid to a popular recording artiste in those days.
His first “HMV” solo (recorded by the associate company, Victor) was “Blue Moon” — a record considered by many to be Al’s all time finest, One of the first things that made an impact on Al when he arrived in America was the high cost of living. He later wrote :— “Within ten days of our arrival I realised I was actually spending sixty dollars a week more than I was earning. Naturally I learnt to be more careful with my expenses !”. Early in 1935 the Ray Noble Orchestra opened at the Rainbow Room where they were an instant success, appearing nightly and broadcasting from there. Al was now employed solely as star vocalist not now as guitarist also. The large American radio audiences responded overwhelmingly towards Al and he later recalled :— “The first thing that amazed me was the terrific pull of radio in America. Rudy Vallee showed me the letters he received after one broadcast.
It was not uncommon for him to receive as many as seventy-five thousand pieces of fan mail following each broadcast. And in addition, a barrage of telephone calls from his admirers immediately following each programme. I was filled with envy when Rudy showed me his well organised office that he maintained just to deal with his radio fans. But within ten days of opening at the Rainbow Room and broadcasting on network radio, I had the happy experience of seeing the same type of fan mail staff and phone operators frenziedly busy handling the incoming enquiries about the “new British singer”.
One of Al’s favourite fan letters came from a girl who wrote : “When your voice comes on the air, it’s just like fizzy lemonade being poured down my spine !”. On February 9th 1935 the Ray Noble Orchestra started its recording career in America, during which time Al cut thirty-eight sides with the band in addition to those he made as a soloist and with Victor Young. The band also did many sponsored radio programmes, the most well known being presented by Coty Cosmetics.
Al also signed personally with NBC for thirty-six half-hour programmes with the Al Goodman Orchestra.A short time after their appearance at the Rainbow Room, Ray Noble arranged with the Music Corporation of America for the orchestra to appear at other prominent night spots, including the elite Astor and New Yorker, plus also the concert halls. In 1935 the Orchestra appeared in the film “Big Broadcast of 1936”. Being on the set enabled Al to meet his one and only singing idol, Bing Crosby, with whom Al broadcast whilst in the States. In the 1936 unity poll in America, Al’s popularity was such that he came second in the poll to Kenny Sargent knocking Bing into third place.
Al later recalled an amusing anecdote from his New York days. On the occasion in question Al was in a desperate hurry getting changed at his hotel as he was already late, and he broke his braces. He telephoned to the hotel office asking for a new pair to be sent up urgently. Presently there was a knock at the door and upon opening it, Al found a carpenter holding a brace and bit. The carpenter said “Look here Mister, if you want anything done to the furniture, you had better let me do it.” Al frantically explained that he wanted a pair of braces to hold his trousers up, only to be told that in America these are known as suspenders !
Al’s popularity in the States was such that he was often mobbed as he arrived and left the Rainbow Room. One particular night Al arrived only a few minutes before he was due to go on, and not wanting to disappoint the army of autograph hunters he hurriedly signed a few books. as he was about to sign one of them he noticed that the page was folded over at the top. He signed the page to see typed above the space where he would have signed, the words “Please pay the bearer on demand the sum of eight thousand dollars”. It was addressed to Al’s bank realising that he had been discovered, the crook who had tried on Al one of the oldest con-tricks tried on the famous, hurried off and lost himself in the crowd.
I mentioned at the beginning of the story that Al was a very patriotic Britisher. One of my favourite stories about Al happened one night in the States when he was in a theatre and the British National Anthem was played. Al stood to attention, but while the Anthem was being payed, an American in the seat behind him tugged at Al’s shoulder and told him to sit down as he couldn’t see the stage. As soon as the Anthem had been played, Al turned round and after one blow from Al the man who couldn’t see the stage had to be carried out of the theatre.
Whilst in America, Al retained his interest in sports, and in his few spare moments Al, with of the other members of the Ray Noble Orchestra, would go along to watch the ice hockey at the Madison Square Gardens. When watching any sports contest, Al could get very excited if he disagreed with a referee’s decision, or something of the like. It was easy to tell if Al was getting excited as the veins on his face would become enlarged and very noticeable. When Al went to the Madison Square Gardens, he used to sit between two members of the band so they could restrain him should he get excited. Otherwise he could get carried away and get involved in arguments with one of the players or the referee.
In 1936 Al and Ray Noble returned to London for both a summer holiday and to fulfil some commitments. During this spell in England they made what turned out to be the last Noble/Bowlly record in England. It was the now sought-after 12″ 78 entitled “The Ray Noble Medley” on which Al sang “The Touch of your lips” and “Goodnight Sweetheart”. It was also at this time that Al appeared in another Pathe’ short film in which he sang “My Melancholy Baby”, teaming up with Monia Liter once again for this. After the short holiday and back in America, Ray Noble decided to tour with the band from the Canadian border to the deep south.
There was now absolutely no doubt that Al had “arrived” and the fans of those days could be quite hysterical and violent as this incident that happened in Boston demonstrates. Al happened to leave the rehearsal one day just as nearby factory workers were coming out for their lunch break. Several factory girls recognised him and he was s surrounded by shrieking females, kissing him and tearing at his collar, tie and shirt to get And some of the girls were trying to cut off locks of his hair with scissors. Poor old Al was desperately trying to hold his trousers up with one hand and protecting his eyes with the other .Luckily the police arrived on the scene and rescued him, his clothes in shreds and his face coverall with every shade of lipstick.