The Amazing Story of Al Bowlly , Ace Of Crooners .

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.

One Fans Search for “The Voice” – The Journal – Saturday Magazine – 14th September 1983

MANY people have hobbies, but for some the interest becomes more than that, taking up most of their spare time and a considerable amount of energy. In some cases it very nearly amounts to an obsession. Over the next weeks DICK GODFREY will be telling the stories behind some of these passions. Today he explains how popular local radio broadcaster and preacher Frank Wappat become a leading light in the revival ofinterest in the popular music of the 1930’s

FRANK Wappat reckons to have invented the first method of adding artificial echo to records. That is debatable. He also claims to have “re-dis-covered” Britain’s first pop star. That isn’t. Both achievements. and the enthusiasm that dominates much of his life. were the result of a meeting at Jarrow Grammar School where the young Frank was a pupil in the late 1940’s. A dislike of physical activity, and a forged letter from his mother meant that he was excused games and spent those periods in the school hall when he met another 11-year-old who had fascinating hobby. He collected gramophone records. Each month. the lad compiled a list of his latest acquisitions and Frank decided to do the same. But after a couple of months or so he had just four discs while his friend had dozens.

“One day I was passing a junk shop in Jarrow and saw a pile of records in the window at 6d (2 1/2p) each. I had five bob (25p) in my pocket and so I bought the ten cleanest records I could sort out.”

These were the days before such things as LPs and 45 rpm singles so Frank’s bargains were brittle and breakable 78s. He duly added them to his list. The record of part of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony he recognised, but who on earth were Roy Fox, Ray Noble and Lew Stone .Wary of revealing his own ignorance, he assumed that everybody knew who these men and their bands were and didn’t think much more about it. But he did think quite a bit about The Voice. It cropped up several times on the Roy Fox and Ray Noble records. The labels, though, didn’t say who The Voice belonged to, simply identifying it as a “vocal refrain”.

It was unlike anything else he had heard. “It could sing jazz and sweet and low stuff,” he explains. “There was something haunting and plaintive about it. but it could also be swinging and effervescent. “The more I listened, the more I grew to like it. I’d never heard a singer who had all those attributes. even though the recordings were diabolical.” The collection grew and soon it became more than simply a matter of adding numbers to his monthly lists .

He began to concentrate on Roy Fox and Ray Noble because they had The Voice. He also began to take notice of the serial numbers on the records and was soon able to know which numbers to look out for because it would appear, if only briefly. But the more he listened, the more dissatisfied the became with the quality of the records. They somehow lacked the texture of the live music he heard in the dance halls he visited. And so the Wappat echo technique was born. At the time when these records were made, echo was considered an evil.” he explains. “The record companies did everything they could to remove it. I wanted to add it on.” His solution was both ingenious and successful .By coupling two needles together one behind the other and wiring them both to his speaker he could get what sound engineers call delay echo .The idea was never patented .By the time Frank had perfected the technique. recording tape was being used in studios and echo , now no longer outlawed , could be added very easily. But that juvenile exploration developed into a life-long fascination with the technical side of recording that runs parallel to his enthusiasm for the contents .

There was still. though. the matter of The Voice . Nobody he spoke to could tell him who it was . At the age of 16. Frank took a holiday job in a record shop and took the chance of asking a local musician if he’d ever heard of the singer who appeared with Roy Fox and Ray Noble. “Oh, that was Al Bowlly.” said the drummer instantly . At last The Voice had a name .Frank learned that Bowlly was a South African who had performed and recorded in Britain in the 1930s and had been killed when a bomb struck his London flat during the Blitz of 1941 .

Now that he had a name. young Frank could apply himself to finding out more about the singer and to track down yet more records .”They were pretty hard to find, but at least I knew who it was ” In the early 1950s, Frank wrote to the record companies asking them if they could re-issue old Bowlly and other Thirties material. But this was the height of the “Beat Boom” and the company bosses said that nobody would be interested in pre-war pop . Wappat thought otherwise . He wrote a letter to the Evening Chronicle asking if anyone had any old Al Bowlly records. He got 20 replies .Three said that they did have records and the others were just interested. All 20 turned up for a get together and the Al Bowlly and Lew Stone Society was formed. A year later, 21 years ago this month in fact. the Al BowIly Circle started as a separate identity. That letter sparked off a revived interest in the music of the 1930s that was eventually to cover the globe. Not long after it appeared Frank Wappat was approached by a radio producer at the BBC in Newcastle who wanted to do an interview on the Al Bowlly Circle and what had then become the Thirties Club .The resulting interview was also broadcast nationally on the old light Programme in the days before Radio Two.

“All of a sudden. I round myself bombarded with about 300 letters from people all over Britain. It was a revulsion away from Beatlemania really, and the destruction of the system of dance music and swing music as people had known it “

Everybody was saying how pleased they were that somebody was fighting pop music and bringing back the real singers. Thus it was that Frank Wappat , by then working as a clerk in a Newcastle office found himself at the head of a musical revival. One of the letters was from the veteran bandleader Lew Stone. who enclosed seven pound notes for the train fare to London and an invitation to meet him at Putney Railway Station that Sunday. That meeting ,the first with one of the men who had become his musical heroes, led to the formation of a London branch of the Bowlly Circle . Others soon cropped up all over the country as the word was spread.

“It was like a magnet.” says Frank “Everything was coming to me, records, old photographs, programmes, every thing.” Letters from the Continent started to arrive. Frank started to produce a magazine that now circulates in 18 countries world-wide . So why the fascination with a singer who almost everybody seemed to have forgotten.For a start, there is The Voice, mellow, slightly husky tones riding on a rich sea of brass and reed, provided by the dance bands he sang with “Perfect phrasing, beautiful timing. perfect pitch. Bowlly’s pitch was far better than Sinatra’s,” enthuses Frank Wappat revealing the rivalry that still exists between fans of the two singers . But it’s more than that to a dedicated enthusiast like Frank Wappat and many more people nowadays .

Al Bowlly’s place in the musical hall of fame is secure as Britain’s first pop star. Until he arrived on the scene. Frank explains. singers were considered as unnecessary evils by record companies whose main concern was with the dance bands that dominated popular music at the time . Barely did they warrant a mention on the record labels which simply had “with incidental singing” or “with vocal refrain” alongside the title of the tune . The singers were known. dismissively at the time. as “crooners”. Then Al Bowlly appeared on the scene “He had everything that other singers at the time lacked, Most of the men sang like emasculated toms and the girls had deep voices like Dame Clara Butt. When Bowlly appeared. he had the voice and the looks . Band leaders found that when he sang a love song women didn’t bother dancing and just gathered around the band stand .

But Al Bowlly became a victim of his own success. He spent some time in America and returned to Britain as a star . A lot of band leaders ,still suspicious of crooners as a breed , wouldn’t use him because he had become too big .While across the Atlantic , Frank Sinatra was performing and recording with the Tommy Dorsey Band , Al Bowlly was forced to sing with the much smaller “combos” which was all the record companies felt that solo singers needed .His  career then lacked the push that elevated the likes of Sinatra to true international star status . Then came the fateful night a bomb demolished his flat in London.

A singer died and a legend born with all the elements that have become sadly familiar to a younger generation of pop fan.  An attractive young singer with with an intriguing career  who dies when so much has yet to happen  That is the fascination that is inspired  Frank Wappat on his 20 year campaign to get Bowlly the recognition he feels he deserves . His success is measured in the number of LP’s of  Bowlly material now available and the books and plays that have been written about him. But Franks commitment to the music of a bygone age doesn’t end with Al Bowlly. His massive collection of 78’s covers the whole spectrum of 30’s music.

He stopped counting sometime ago . These days he goes by weight . His collection is stored in a room in the church he runs in Albion Road ,North Shields .The floor is stressed to take three tons and Frank reckons he’s close to the limit  “At a rough guess that’s around 15,000 records” Bowlly is believed to have recorded around 1200 titles .Nobody is exactly sure how many because so many were anonymous and that is part of the fascination , listening through a pile of old 78’s and checking their vital serial numbers to see if any may contain The Voice ,the thrill of the hunt .

And there is one quarry that causes Frank Wappats’ eyes to  light up . Bowlly signature tune was “Buddy can you spare a dime” with it’s very fitting line “Say don’t you remember they called me Al ” He is known to have recorded it twice but for various reasons neither version was released . But Frank knows that one of the recordings was with Ray Noble and his band rumoured to have been withheld by Decca Records because they had also released a version by Sinatra. Franks researches have told him that a dozen test pressings were actually made .He even has a serial number .Somebody somewhere must have one he enthuses it’s only time before it comes to light . But Frank Wappat  gets more from his absorbing interest than the excitement of the chase and the excuse to collect the obscure tracks that true enthusiasts for any hobby thrive on . He also makes a bit of money .

And that goes back to those early echo experiments .Over the years he has developed his own system of remastering old 78’s  by taping them via a series of filters and other devices that eliminate the hiss  crackle and pop .The cleaned up tapes are then sold or leased to record companies who release them on LPs which ironically sound a lot better than the originals although of course they don’t somehow have the magic of the 78s . All of this dedicated activity would seem to add up to an obsession, especially when you learn that Frank Wappat has been known to get massive enlargements made of the photographs of 1930s recording sessions to see if you can read the titles on the sheets of music

“Obsession , No ! ” he insists with a grin . “With obsession , people tend to become warped and twisted and think of nothing else and I’m not , it’s just the consuming interest , that’s all .”

Recalling Lew Stone and Some Food For Thought – Oxford Mail – 19th January 2015

rabbit foot…..  On my break the other night I took a short walk across Piccadilly Circus and up Jermyn Street. I went in search of The Monseigneur Restaurant. You wont find it in on the map. It closed down in 1934.
So why the interest? Because back in the early 30s, The Monseigneur was home to some of the best music in England. Its founder, Jack Upson, made his fortune in the shoe trade. Dolcis shoes was his family business. When he found himself in need of a venue to entertain his many lady friends a restaurant seemed the obvious choice.
A restaurant like the Monseigneur could stay open long after the pubs had shut. On Thursdays it stayed open as late as 2am.Patrons walked in down through the fan lit door on the right, guided by gold balustrades. Downstairs in the basement the walls were frescoed in lavish red and blue amid rich, silk tapestries. The band swung out to a clientele including the future King Edward VIII.
Roy Fox and Mantovani led bands here. And so did Lew Stones band between 1932 and 1934. Among his personnel were the trumpet player Nat Gonella and 30s heart throb Al Bowlly on vocals. Listening to him, it was said, was like having lemonade poured down your spine. He died nearby aged just 43 when a Luftwaffe bomb exploded outside his flat.
So what’s it like now? First of all the building wasn’t bombed or bulldozed. The ground floor now houses Gotti’s Italian Restaurant. But walk down the steps into what’s now the Jermyn Street Theatre and you’re standing in the very room where Stone’s band broadcast live on the BBC for 90 minutes every Tuesday night at 10.30pm.
Dancing at home was a big deal during the depression. With as many as five million radio sets in the country its easy to understand how Lew Stone became a household name. Nowadays it takes imagination to keep the glamour alive.
After the Monseigneur closed the building was converted to a cinema, later renowned for showing sleazy movies. Its transformation into a theatre in 1994 restored its respectability.
Martin, a helpful member of the theatres staff, is the only person I meet who has any knowledge of the buildings provenance. He walks me through to the office and shows me one of The Monseigneur’s original menus, preserved in a frame. Aside from the backstage dressing rooms its the sole reminder of the hotspot this place once was.
I walk out onto Jermyn Street, home of high fashion, where Beau Brummell once polished his boots with champagne. Directly opposite the former Monseigneur there’s now a Tesco’s Metro.
In true 30s style I buy a pack of fags and pitifully puff my way back to work. I hope to make it onto the X90 before oblivion covers my tracks. I checked, and Lew Stones name didn’t even make it on to the menu.

Stuart Macbeth


Daily Herald – February 8th 1933

Who is our Best Crooner ?

One of the most amusing novelties ever turned out by a dance band is the ” Little Nell ” of Lew Stone and the Monseigneur Band, now issued on Decca F 3394. It is. of course, just the same ” production ” as the band has broadcast many times already, so you probably know all about it: how, for instance it tells in burlesque form and strictly in fox-trot rhythm, of the villainy per-formed against Little Nell and how that villainy is brought to book by the aged father and the village “constabule.” Neither on the air nor on the record do you enjoy the supreme good fun of hearing this number as worked by the band in person. for then the boys use props on the job and it not only sounds funny but looks funny as well
However, the record is such a quaint one as to be well worth having, especially by the collectors who make a hobby of knowing all about the principal rank and file performers in the star dance bands as well as the leaders themselves.

What’s in a Voice?

Such as these will be intrigued in recognising the quavery voice of Little Nell’s father as belonging to Jim Easton, the sax player and in tracing the piping treble of Little Nell herself to Tiny Winters, the diminutive bassist of the band.
Nor will they have any difficulty in identifying the bucolic diction of the ” constabule ” Only two musicians have a frog in the voice like that: one is Louis Armstrong. in America, and the other is his faithful disciple in England ,namely Nat Gonnella, the trumpet player of Lew Stone’s Band.
There remains only one other character to be solved—the villain with the dirty voice and the dirtier curse. Yes. it is Al Bowlly—Al Bowlly. the crooner.

The Barber’s Bias

It seems all wrong somehow to cast a crooner as the villain of the piece – yet I don’t know.
A certain tonsorial artist who plies an artistic scissor In the saloon which I favour for my hair cuts has constituted himself my guide and mentor.
Only a few days ago. when I went in for a trim, he came over to my chair and said gravely. ” I was sorry to see you make such a bloomer In one of your recent articles as to refer to Al Bowlly as the senior crooner. He’ll never be that Sir , What about Sam Browne? There’s a real singer.”
We debated the point and then he finished off the discussion by saying ” After all, when it comes to singing dance songs, there’s only one artist worth talking about – Bing Crosby. And If you want to do your readers a real service. you’ll tell them to get his “Brother ,Can You Spare a Dime?'”

In Defence of Bowlly

Well as far as Bing Crosby is concerned I am quite in agreement with all that, and the record in question is Brunswick 1434 , so hear the record and find out from it not only what good popular song singing is like, but also what America has come to with its unemployed millions, bread queues and the like.
But I am still unrepentant about Al Bowlly. To my mind he is the supreme British crooner, although, to tell the truth. there is Latin blood in his veins as you would suspect from his swarthy complexion ,large dark brown eyes, sideboard whiskers, and the extra ‘”l” in his surname.

Bowlly sings like a musician. He is not just content slavishly to sing a song exactly as the composer wrote it and precisely as it is phrased on the in song copy.
No ,Al sings it his own way and when he has worked it up on his own lines it usually is a long way better than the composer ever made it .
This style of singing is a secret shared by most of the leading American vocalists: the Al Jolson’s, Harry Reichmann’s , Bing Crosby’s , Sophie Tuckers, Ethel Waters and the rest .
Not only that, but Al is the real artist always practicing, living only for his work ,dreaming about it night and day and as the photograph shows ,literally singing in his bath in by way of a busman’s rehearsal.
And now. hear one of the best of his solo records, namely “Rosa Mia.” Decca F3275

Mathison Brooks



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