Radio Review – June 30th 1934

The Amazing Story of Al Bowlly , Ace Of Crooners .

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Then – 2/6 a week as a Hair-Dresser , Now – ? as a Crooner .

As you go along to Al Bowlly’s attractive green flat in Charing Cross Road, and have a chat, you will hear the most startling life story a crooner is capable of telling—told with superb clarity and detail. Al’s story starts with the black plague. At least, it was during this terrible scourge that he was born, in Portuguese East Africa. As soon as a the family was able to move from the affected area Al’s father took them to Durban, and from there to Johannesburg, where Al grew up, doing everything that small boys do. When he was eight, Al worked in his brother-in- is law’s hairdressing saloon for two-and-sixpence a week ,scrubbing out the place, preparing hot towels, and sweeping up hair, and when he was twelve he gave his first haircut and shave. All the family played various string instruments at this time, and Al had cultivated the guitar habit. Singing was almost as natural to him as talking. He sang in a Johannesburg church choir and at his work, accompanying himself on the guitar in the little parlour behind the shop in his odd moments.

Al Gets His Break

One day Edgar Adeler, who ran a Pierrot show and managed the principal dance halls in Johannesburg, came in for a shave, and hearing Al crooning in his familiar, casual way, asked him if he would like to “earn a bit on the side ” by singing in his dance halls. What boy of fifteen doesn’t want to earn a bit “on the side”?

So Al accepted like a shot, and was soon earning twelve pounds a week !

Later, he toured Africa with his boss, appearing in such places as Nairobi ,Mombasa, and Zanzibar. After that came an Indian tour, and while they were playing at the Eden Gardens, Calcutta, they landed an important engagement with a music hall in Afghanistan. This turned out to be a failure, however, owing to the arrival of a certain General, whose sudden appearance prevented all the soldiers in the locality from attending the show that night !

At Samarang, Al had a spot of bother with some other members of the troupe, and promptly left the show, without his week’s money. Broke and alone in Samarang ! How would you like it ? Well, Al was planning where to sleep on the night he quit, when he met the manager of the theatre where he had last appeared. The manager, a kind old man, converted one of his dressing-rooms into a bedroom for Al, and there he spent several nights.

Meet the Trapeze Artiste

One night Mr Shwartz, who ran a big theatre in Sourabaya, spotted Al in the theatre and said, ” Hey, Bowlly, I’ve been looking for you. You’re coming into my new show !” Well, in those days crooning wasn’t Al’s only job. He did comedy features and acrobatic turns. It was during a trapeze act in this new show that he contracted a serious injury from a kick, which necessitated his retiring to hospital for an operation. The operation was successful. It took place early in the week, but on the following Monday Al was due to fulfil an important engagement at the Grand Hotel, Calcutta. And they had threatened not to let him out of the hospital for another fourteen days ! Meantime, Polly, his doctor’s daughter, had grown very fond of him, and seeing that he was really well enough to work again, helped to smuggle him from the hospital at dead of night. She got him into her car, covered him . with blankets and drove at full speed to the quay, where he took the boat for Calcutta.

The boat arrived on Sunday night at Calcutta, where further difficulties arose.

After six, the Customs officials were absent, and no passengers were allowed to land until their return the following morning. And Al’s contract insisted that unless he showed up at the hotel before ten on Monday morning, the engagement was automatically cancelled. Al just had to get off that boat !

Well, he did get off, thanks to his experience as a trapeze artiste, and the aid of a length of rope. He arrived at the hotel at exactly twelve minutes to ten. But he needn’t have bothered, because he soon got sacked for dotting a tough guy on the jaw when he heard him using bad language in the presence of ladies. So back to Singapore Al went, and here he found a cable from Adeler, his original employer, who offered him a job in London. At Paris, Adeler had promised to cable some more money, but the tourist agency had mislaid the cable. For three days Al roamed the streets of Paris with nine francs in his pocket, until the agency ultimately discovered his cable. So he shaved, bought himself a good meal and some new clothes, and took the first available boat back to London. But he was too late this time. The job was already taken.

Into Roy Fox’s Band

Anyhow, Adeler introduced Al to Fred Elizalde and Len Fillis at the Savoy, and it was there that he first began singing in London. Then one day Bill Hardy, the drummer, told Al that Roy Fox, who was opening at The Monseigneur with a new band, wanted a singer. Afterwards, as you probably remember, Roy went to Switzerland for his health, and the band was taken over by Lew Stone, with whom Al now sings and broadcasts. But Al doesn’t believe that crooning’s a new fashion. Twenty years ago, in the ” pre-Crosby ” days, he was singing exactly as he does today.

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The 1920s & 1930s. Vintage Fiction. Al Bowlly.

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