Ray Pallett – April 1975

In this souvenir book, we have endeavoured to record the story of Al BowIly. We have also covered separately several important aspects of his career, such as his recording and radio work, his last record session and debut as a solo variety act. The fact that this book came to be written at all is proof that there is a tremendous interest in Al Bowlly and the popular music of his era. There should be no doubt by now in the minds of readers that Al’s main interest in life was his singing. In a very definite second place he liked all sports and was extremely keen on physical culture. He had a vitality and perenial freshness which was due to keeping fit and was lithe, muscular and bright-eyed.

As a person, Al Bowlly was unaffected and natural, he usually had a bright optimism, was emotional and fastidious. Al was in the depths of depression one moment and on top of the world the next. These words have been spoken by people who knew Al, but it is not that easy to weigh up a man’s personality. Chris Hayes of the Melody Maker says that Al was quiet, modest and introvert, although he was gifted with great personal charm and was a bit of a raconteur. This is how Ike Wilson, the man who promoted Al’s shows in the north of England, remembers Al Bowlly … “Al had a magnetic personality — you just couldn’t help taking to him. He had no airs or graces, yet he was extremely courteous, very well-mannered and very considerate. Mind you, although he would give you the coat off his own back if he thought you needed it and was very generous to the extent of being just plain foolish, if he once discovered he was being taken advantage of, or taken for a ride, he could switch to the opposite end of the scale with no bother, and become a different personality with a blazing temper. He would soon calm down and never bore any malice afterwards. No gramophone record has ever been able to capture his charm, warmth and indeed the spiritual power of his personality”.

Al Bowlly was a deeply religious person, belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church. Al believed his voice was a gift of God and often thanked God for his voice and his success. Al took with him wherever he went a large silver crucifix which he wore round his neck and slept with under his pillow. He used to say that this crucifix would protect him and look after him. It didn’t, but it illustrates the strong faith that he possessed. What more can we say about Al Bowlly ? The purpose of this book is not to list his entire recorded output — this has already been done and the “Al Bowlly Discography” by Brian Rust, is now in its third edition. It is not to delve too deeply into his personal life as most readers are, I believe, more interested in Al’s career in the music world. I will conclude, therefore, by commenting still further on his professional career and, in particular, the impressions that he made on others. Al always created a good impression with whoever he met, and like his idol and rival, Bing Crosby, was, and is, admired by both men and women.

He was admired by and popular with not only his audience, but show business people as well. He could well be described as the artiste’s artiste. Bing Crosby was highly impressed when he met Al, as was Glenn Miller.:.. And Tommy Trinder, for example, can be quoted as saying that Al Bowlly could “paralyse an audience”. Dickie Valentine, Britain’s singing star of the 50’s, who like Al was killed during the course of his career, really admired Al. He once said that he learnt a lot from listening to Al’s records. Even the late Gilbert Harding liked Al. Actor, Hubert Gregg, who has presented several nostalgic series on BBC radio, said in an interview that his favourite period in entertainment was the 1930’s, and if he was forced to choose any particular artiste as his favourite from all fields of entertainment it would be Al Bowlly.

Roy Fox, the bandleader who gave Al his first really big break in England, said in an interview :—”I formed a band for the Monseigneur. Al and I became close friends. He was charming and a very happy man. He was a very fine vocalist and had a feeling for a song. Above all, he had a terrific personality — so likeable. Really could put a song over. Nice smart appearance, handsome. I was lucky to have him in the band.

Finally, I end with a quote from a letter sent to the magazine MEMORY LANE, from a fan of Al Bowlly, Edward Towler of Kent :—
“Al Bowlly was truly the greatest popular singer of all time, and he achieved that distinction in an era that was resplendent with great singers. He was the embodiment of all the qualities that are to be found in the consummate artiste and which are significantly lacking in today’s so called entertainers — unbounded talent, poise, charm, dignity and perhaps above all sheer professional competence, qualities that were prevalent in so many artistes of the ’30’s but which were expressed by Al Bowlly with just that extra urgency and imagination that are the hallmark of genius”.

Al Bowlly sings again. Hush , Listen. The very thought of you … And I forgot to do … The little ordinary things that everyone ought to do …. Listen to Al Bowlly. Listen to the voice, the white-tuxedo voice, the smoothie Valentino of a voice; the voice that feels like it’s raining honey yet there are rainbows round your shoulder and Al Bowlly loves you, he really sincerely does … the very thought of you and Al Bowlly really does forget to do the little ordinary things that everyone ……

Never, never break your promise … For I believe in You … Listen to Al Bowlly, crooning with Geraldo, crooning the way he crooned when he knocked Crosby kneecaps over larynx in the 1935 pop-polls in America. Visualise him standing there, glistening teeth and glistening hair and lover’s eyes and hero’s jaw, the finest thing you ever saw … Time on my hands and You in my arms .. Listen to Al Bowlly, singing from the grave. From his 30 year grave. Say it isn’t so. Al Bowlly lives. He lives again. Say, don’t you remember ? They called me Al …

Al shares his resting place with 200 other unfortunate souls … mingled with all the other names is inscribed simply, BOWLLY A.A….” Say, don’t you remember ? I’m your pal … You’re their pal, Al … Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime ? ..

The Al Bowlly scene, 1972. In Britain, Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand.. Al Bowlly lives .. Hold that thought .He was born at the end of the century in Portuguese East Africa; raised in Johannesburg. His father was Greek and his mother was Lebanese and Al turned out to be a small, slim, gigolo-haired man. He worked as a singing barber and as a jockey, he busked in the streets of London. By Reel Two he was a superstar crooner in Britain and America. By Reel Three, in the late 30’s he was sick and broke … It was a schmaltzy, MGM-ish showbiz story. The final punchline, like Glenn Miller flying into the sunset in his doomed aeroplane, had Al Bowlly sitting in his London flat while the air-raid sirens howled and the German bomb-bays opened above his head. His last record was called “When That Man is Dead and Gone” … Too bad. But so what .. So 31 years later the Al Bowlly Circle are still mad about the boy.

“The Al Bowlly Scene, 1972” by Martin White


Melody Maker. 26th, April, 1941

“Tomorrow, Saturday, 26th at 10.30 a.m., Al Bowlly, killed in London’s heaviest air-raid last week, goes to his last resting place at the Westminster City Council Cemetery, Uxbridge Road, Hanwell. He is the second jazz celebrity to fall a victim to the German murder gang, and it is tragic that the first, Ken Johnson, was one of his greatest personal friends. For the benefit of friends and admirers who wish to pay tribute to his memory, there is a good train service from Paddington, or alternatively from Oxford Circus by Green Line, and No. 17 bus. Al had been top-lining with tremendous success all over the country in Vaudeville with Jimmy Mesene, who is carrying on alone, and will appear at the Empire Theatre, Glasgow, for the week commencing on Monday”. (An appreciation of Al Bowlly by Stanley Nelson, appears on Page 4 of Melody Maker) — (Reprinted below).


The above lines, from his famous signature-tune, Buddy Can You Spare a Dime ? might well be the epitaph of one of the finest singers British jazz has ever known, and whenever they are heard in the future they will always recall a lithe, muscular, bright-eyed figure “selling” his songs in a way that has never been excelled and rarely equalled by a Britisher. I have watched Al Bowlly’s career ever since he came here from Germany in 1928 as vocalist and banjoist to join Fred Elizalde’s Band at the Savoy Hotel. I have seen him rise from obscurity to international fame and when I met him last, only a few days before he was to lose his life in the latest Luftwaffe murder raid on London, it was forcibly brought home to me just how unaffected and natural he had remained all through the years. I thought then that he seemed troubled inwardly, under the bright optimism which flowed from him, and now I know that his hypersensitive, emotional nature had received a shock which all his laughs couldn’t hide.


While he was playing a theatre date in the Midlands a week or two ago, he received a letter from someone who told him that she had dreamed that she had seen him talking to a black man and suddenly he had been blown to pieces ! Possibly the more stolid and unemotional of us would have dismissed this, but Al was of a superstitious nature, and was plainly worried; all the more, because the very morning he received the letter, he also heard that one of his closest friends, Ken Johnson, had been killed.

Advert from “The Tatler” Dated 5th March 1941 just 3 days before tragedy struck.

He confessed to the “M.M” Scunthorpe representative, Jack Whitfield, with whom he was on terms of intimate friendship, that he believed that it was a warning to him. He freely admitted that the remarkable coincidence worried him. It was some time after this when I met Al in Denmark Street, but he hadn’t rid himself of this fear and the third and concluding link in this appalling chain of circumstances has now been completed.

Al would have wanted to leave behind him a reputation not merely as a great jazz singer, but also as a man. I can say now that he was considerably older than most people suspected, and that only his remarkable enthusiasm for physical well-being and rigid adherence to exercise gave him a virility and a perennial freshness which belied his long experience in the business.

The homage of everyone with the welfare of the British jazz at heart must go out to this South African of Greek descent, who rode to world fame with those great recordings which Ray Noble made with the New Mayfair Orchestra. Those discs forced the attention of America to Britain’s jazz amd culminated in Al going to the States with Ray Noble and Bill Harty.


Although he was a terrific success in America, Al didn’t care for the life there and he eventually returned home where the legions of fans who had listed rapturously to his singing with the great Lew Stone Band at the Monseigneur Restaurant soon had the opportunity to hear him in the flesh. For some years Al toured all over the country as a single act, but recently he had been for some time in partnership with Jimmy Mesene, and this had become one of the biggest vocal acts in variety.

Al and Jimmy were appearing at the Rex Theatre, High Wycombe, last week, and Al came back to his West End flat and went to bed during London’s worst blitz. Reading in bed, he was killed —Tragically enough, not by a direct hit on his house, but by the blast from a bomb which demolished much of the street a few yards away.

There were many good judges, and the late “M.M.” cameraman Jack Butterworth was one of them, who considered Al Bowlly the greatest rhythm singer this country has ever had. Concentrating as he did in late years on variety work, present-day swing fans probably only knew him as a singer of pop songs. But to the older fans, his pioneer singing with Elizalde, Lew Stone , Syd Lipton and other leaders, will always be one of the brightest features in the small British constellation which had a very real place in the world firmament of Jazz.

We in the MELODY MAKER office first learned of Al’s tragic end late on Thursday afternoon, when a Press Association “flash” brought the news over the tape. It was thus too late for us to carry it in our last week’s issue, for the paper was already off the machines, ready for distribution on Friday The dailies carried the story the next morning, and immediately our ‘phone bell started to ring, and continued ringing most of the day, from admirers of Al all,over the country, only too ready to believe that it wasn’t true. It was an astonishing proof of the tremendous esteem in which he was held, not in the profession but amongst the general public.


It was an index, too, of the man’s own great-heartedness. I have never met Al Bowlly without feeling his own innate sincerity, without realising that his destiny in this world was to charm people with his voice, and to lift them for a few moments out of the drabness of their workaday lives. Al really lived for his job. He lived and dreamed of it, and nobody was more conscious of the debt he owed to his Maker for giving him the gift of song. There have been times when I have smiled at the rather melodramatic way in which he would throw up his arms in the street and say “Thank God, It’s terrific !”, when I asked how his act was going.

Now I know that behind the facade which we knew as Al Bowlly was a deeply religious man. Know that he carried a message of destiny, and if there are any among you who might feel that a description of a singer of popular songs hardly warrants such a conclusion, let me tell you just one more astonishing fact in this awful story. The very last record broadcast by the BBC of Al singing, was the one in which he sang with Ken Johnson’s Band …….


It was in March 1941 that Al received the letter asking him, and his partner of the day, Jimmy Mesene, to make another record at the St John’s Wood Studios of “His Master’s Voice”, the Company for which they were now recording exclusively, as the “Radio Stars with 2 Guitars”. I for one will never know why Al wasted his talents, yoked together, to the intemperate Jimmy Mesene, who, on more than one occasion ruined shows with his drunken and offensive behaviour in Newcastle. However, HMV wanted a recording made of Irving Berlin’s latest hit “When that man is dead and gone” — “that man” being of course Adolf Hitler — A stupid song — childish, and in very bad taste, and it was going to be sadly prophetical for poor Al.

No one will ever know now, what Al thought of this trashy song. It was not the sort of lyric that one could ever imagine Al choosing but H.M.V. were calling the tune, and paying the pipers. For the “B” side, Al and Jimmy both fancied and chose “Nicky the Greek” — an obvious choice too, for both of them had Greek blood in them. Here in contrast was a nice little song with a lovely melody, and a lyric which was dated to the war years of 1941/42.

Two weeks later, on Wednesday, 2nd April 1941, Al and Mesene turned up at the HMV Studios, where the M.D. for the session was Pat Dodd. Pat went over the 2 numbers on the piano of the smaller studio where the recordings were scheduled. I have read that the music for the Berlin song was late in turning up, and consequently was recorded last. This is not true, as both numbers were worked out, and gone over at the same rehearsal, and photographic evidence proves this, for during the rehearsal the official HMV Supplement photographer popped in to take a picture of the two of them at work, (Certainly not during the actual recording as has also been stated elsewhere).

Al, tired and needing a shave, was by now clad only in shirt and trousers. His top shirt button was undone, and his tie slackened — he went on singing as the cameraman fiddled around. Mesene, larking about as usual, was wearing a hand-knitted pullover, and trousers. In both of the Al Bowlly discographies by Harvey and Rust, among omissions, is the fact that Pat Dodd accompanies on these two recordings at the piano. This is a very serious omission for the very last recording, for Pat also worked out the arrangements with the boys. Pat, in the R.A.F. at the time, did the session in R.A.F. uniform complete with “Bandsman’s Badge”.

Four photographs (not one as stated elsewhere) were taken at the session during rehearsals. Only 3 made it — (1) Al and Jimmy larking with a not amused Pat Dodd between them ! (2) Al singing, and (4) both Al and Jimmy singing the lively bit of “When that Man”. Picture No. 2 appeared on an HMV E.P. printed in reverse, then the right way on “Ray Noble Story” Vol. 1 (Encore).

Picture 4 minus Mesene who had been cut off on “Ray Noble Story” Vol. 11 (Encore). No. 3 does not exist, and No. 1, though never published to my knowledge, I have on the wall of my studio. H.M.V. were reluctant to issue the record after Al’s death but finally did, on B.D. 922 in June 1941.

The 1930’s are considered to be the golden age of radio. Listeners in Great Britain did not listen to BBC programmes, but continental stations, the most popular being Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy which beamed programmes of popular appeal to Britain. The success of these overseas commercial stations was much due to the fact that the BBC failed on any occasions to give the British people what they wanted to listen to.
Al Bowlly appeared on the BBC as vocalist with a variety of dance bands, some such as Henry Hall and Ambrose with whom he never recorded. He appeared in the late night dance music programmes from 10.30 to midnight with Roy Fox and Lew Stone. Popular gramophone records were seldom played on the BBC, but Christopher Stone, the first D.J , usually played one dance record in his programmes, and often it was Al with Ray Noble.

Christopher Stone

Apart from appearing as a guest on Henry Hall’s Guest Night, he also sung as vocalist with Henry’s band on one occasion in place of the band’s regular singer, Les Allen. Al Bowlly appeared in a variety of programmes over the BBC, including “Hear, Hear” with Archie de Bear, “One Good Turn” with Ray Noble and “America Calling” with Eddie Pola in addition to light

Ray Nobles American Orchestra

programmes such as “Crooner’s Corner” and “Friends to Tea”. In America, where all radio was commercial, he appeared in several programmes, the most well-known being the Coty programme with Ray Noble’s American Orchestra. He also broadcast regularly with Al Goodman and his Orchestra, as well as “guesting” with other American Bands.

On the continental stations, Al could frequently be heard. On Radio Lyons he was heard on Sunday and Tuesday nights_on the programmes sponsored by Hinds Honey and Almond Cream, which he opened with the number, “I kiss your hand, madame”. On Hilversum, AI could be heard vocalising with the Ramblers Dance Orchestra. One of the most successful,programmes for Al was on Radio Luxembourg and broadcast Sunday afternoon at 3.45, sponsored by Black Magic Chocolates. The programme presented “Music in the new sweet manner” with Monia Liter directing the Ace of Hearts Orchestra. Al was introduced as “your singer of romantic songs”. Also on Luxembourg, on Sundays, Al Bowlly was featured regularly in the programme “Symingtons Sunday Night Excursion” with Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch and Marjorie Stedeford, together with an excellent band directed by Harry Carr. Al often starred on Radio Eirann’s popular evening programme “Ten minutes with a star” as well as various variety shows on Post Parisien.

Al With Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch

Television was on the air for three years during Al’s lifetime, and although documentary evidence has yet to be traced, it is believed Al “guested” on T.V. in 1938 and 1939.

Radio played a very important part in the career of Al Bowlly. He broadcast much material which he never recorded — it is a pity that the vast majority of these are now lost in space for ever.



On Monday night, September 11, 1933, fully half an hour after the Holborn Empire had closed, there was an extraordinary scene in Holborn, when a mob of a hundred or more people, mostly women, asked Al Bowlly for his autograph, around a sand-bin on which he was perforce made to write his signatures. He had just enjoyed a personal triumph on the stage, where he appeared for the first time a a solo variety artist.


Solo is perhaps the wrong word, as it would do less than justice to Al’s brilliant accompanist, a young man from Singapore by the name of Monia Liter, a pianist of exceptional all-round ability. comes from a poor family and is in many respects a self-taught musician. Not only does he play the piano with the ability of a concert virtuoso, but in some way or other he has acquired a style seemingly every bit as futuristic as Fred Elizalde’s. Some of his blue harmonies when he was accompanying Al were most arresting, and he certainly is an accompanist of no mean order.
Al also gave him the opportunity of featuring a solo, when he played a most interesting transcription of “Please”. It is said that Liter is also a fine arranger, and it seems quite evident that we shall be hearing a great deal more about him in the near future.


Although Al had safeguarded himself satisfactorily in this matter, it cannot be said that no one missed the usual band support which he enjoys. It is indeed questionable whether any crooner can possibly be as good without his usual orchestral accompaniment. Opening in a simple curtain set, Al introduced himself with “Some of These Days”, without the use of a mike. His voice and his deportment were easy, although he has yet to acquire the art of avoiding restless movements of hands. He got into his stride with “Learn to Croon,” using one of two mikes which was definitely superior to the other, and this number suited him down to the ground and produced a warm response from the audience. Monia Liter’s delicate variations in the accompaniment, both on piano and celeste, were charming to a degree. The next number was “I Cover the Waterfront,” sung leaning against the proscenium arch and without the mike. This is a number in which Al always registers a tremendous amount of sentiment, and those near enough to the stage could plainly detect real tears in his eyes ! When he concluded his last chorus, this time with a very inferior mike, the reception could only be described as rousing.


He followed this number with “Minnie the Moocher,” in which the usual band harmonies were definitely and sadly missed, notwithstanding the fact that Liter was as good as any two average pianists together. After this came Liter’s piano solo, and then Al again, singing “A brivela der Mama” alternately in Yiddish and English with the mike on. The next number was “If You Were the Only Girl in the World,” and it was here that the first real sign of inexperienced stagecraft showed itself, because, without looking at what he was doing, he put out his hand to seek the support of the piano and groped vainly for it as he was too far away. Nevertheless, the number provoked loud cheers and the first part of his signing-off tune, again “Some of These Days,” was drowned in the applause.


So enthusiastic indeed was the audience that, after taking several bows, he was compelled to come before the tabs and sing yet another number, choosing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”. In this number many a lesser artist might have come a cropper, because, for some reason or other, he had slipped on an old ragged jacket of such peculiar Norfolk cut that it aroused a few titters in the auditorium. Nevertheless, these soon died down as he progressed into this number, which suits him so well, and he definitely held up the show at its conclusion. Making all allowances for his obvious anxiety to please on this, his first solo variety date, there can be no question that Al has sung better, but he did enough to prove that he is a great draw and a real top-liner and, had he been better served with more efficient mikes, he would undoubtedly have sung to even greater effect.

He certainly has no peer among British crooners.


  • How old were you when you started singing – 6
  • How old were you when you were a choir boy in South Africa – 12
  • At what age did you start crooning – 16
  • How many countries have you visited – 19
  • How many records have you made – 1,000
  • How many favourite vocalists have you – 1
  • How many ties – 60
  • How many instruments can you play – 7
  • How many shaves a day – 3
  • How much do you weigh – 11 stone 2 lbs
  • How tall are you – 5′ 7 3/4″
  • How many cars have you had – 24
  • How many real friends – 4

Reprinted from the Melody Maker 1941


Al Bowlly was always anxious to please whoever he was working for. He took great care to ensure he put over a number correctly. He even used a dictionary to help him get pronunciation correct. Al really sold his song. He could sing anything, jazz, blues, comedy, ballet,. country and ballads. It was, of course, as a singer of romantic songs that Al really excelled, and this was the way he won his reputation. He really projected a song with strong dramatic scene and gestures. Those who have seen any of his film clips on television would have noticed this. He could sing in several languages including Dutch, French, German and Yiddish .He was also successful on the South African market being able to sing in Afrikaans.

Whatever kind of treatment a song required, Al could provide and make each type of song seem his speciality. To illustrate this, one need only play a cross section of his records. Al recorded most kinds of material with the exception of sacred music. This surprises me since Al was a very religious person .Other singers of the day such as Sam Browne and Bing Crosby did and it is a shame that Al didn’t as he could have put over such material so well with his intimate and sincere style of delivery.

The voice of Al Bowlly has a remarkable range, greater than many of his contemporaries or successors including stars like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra . It seems as if Al could sing baritone tenor, alto and falsetto, although he was generally billed as a baritone. The range can be heard on such numbers as “If you’ll say ‘yes’, Cherie”, “Maria, My Own”, “Love is the Sweetest Thing” and “Blue Moon”, plus many others.

Al’s breath control was perfect . I’ve rarely heard him take a breath or pause for one. He had a strong sense of rhythm and a feel for music and these qualities came over in his singing. Al’s vibrato and intonation were perfect and his diction good, although at times I have heard a trace of a “Cockneyish” accent. Some singers sing in their “speaking” voice. It seems as if Al spoke in his “singing” voice !

There were many shades to Al’s voice and whether the song was happy or sad he sung it with exactly the right feeling. l{e was very emotional and was able to live out the words of a song and, according to Ray Noble, even turning away from the microphone with real tears in his eyes. He was able to get right inside a song and enact its meaning; no other singer then or since has put so much into a song as Al did. It is interesting here to quote Al Bowlly’s own words upon this aspect of popular singing …

“If you cannot impress yourself with the story you are conveying through the medium of your voice, how can you expect to impress others ? If it is a sad lyric, it is not sufficient for you to be sad you must be moved. If your lyric expresses grief’, you must live for a moment in the atmosphere of the story and be grief-stricken. A lot depends on your sensitivity to the emotions. If you can feel the fullest degree, anger, pain. fear, love, hate, sorrow and happiness, they will animate your song and give it an artistic value. Without these emotions your voice is worthless, whether it has quality or not.

Gimmicks are by no means a new innovation. Al Bowlly and others used them in the 20’s and 30’s. Pop stars of today use “way-out” gimmicks to attract attention, but before the war gimmicks were more subtle. Two of Al’s gimmicks are quite noticeable on his records. One is, to sing the last line(s) or words in falsetto. He used this technique in his early days in Germany and continued with it throughout his career. It is very effective when used on such numbers as ” Its time to say goodnight” and “Why stars come out at night”. The other gimmick was to add a word or two immediately before the vocal chorus.

ln 1937, shortly after a recording session, Al lost his voice due to a wart on the vocal chords. An operation performed to remove the wart was so successful that many people believed his voice even better afterwards, being deeper and richer. There is a “change of voice” between Al’s early recordings and his late ones, but there are other reasons that could account for this. Firstly recording techniques were improving and therefore Al’s voice tended to come over better in later recordings. Secondly, Al was getting more experienced and his voice more mature as his career progressed. Thirdly, the style of number Al was singing was changing as the decade slipped by. Compare some of Al’s work before the operation (e.g. “Blue Moon, to some afterwards (e.g. “I can Dream, can’t I”). ln my view “Blue Moon” sounds more like Al after the operation and “l Can Dream, Can’t I”, more like Al before . It seems just as likely that the change in the voice was due to the other reasons mentioned, just as much, if not more, than the operation

Al’s voice was unique. He did not copy anyone’s style and no-one really set out to copy his. Some people have commented that on some occasions Al copied Bing Crosby, but that is not a true statement taken in isolation. Bing originated a style of singing that set the standard for the 1930’s, and because of this one could argue that every popular singer of the period was influenced by Bing. Some made every effort to sound like Bing. Denny Dennis was often billed as England’s Bing Crosby” while Al Bowlly was referred to as “England’s answer to Bing Crosby” which, of course, is a totally different statement.

Often Al would use scat singing as Bing did (and I think Al did this better than Bing, having greater range) and he also sung numbers associated with Bing. Both singers had in common their sincerity in putting over a song. But none of these things meant that Al was copying Bing’s style for he simply had no need to since he had a style all his own.

As regards anyone imitating Al. many people consider that the post war singer, the late Steve Conway, copied, or at least sounded like Al. I do not agree with this entirely. On certain vowel sounds, there is a similarity but Steve can sound just as “Jolsonish” as “Bowllyish” But any people did draw the comparison and believed Steve to be Al’s replacement. Even Lew stone was to have wanted to engage Steve as vocalist if he had reformed his successful dance band after the war . However, there was one man who, in my opinion, did deliberately try to copy Al, and this was Ray Warren, who broadcast on Radio Eirann and made a few records. On the titles I have heard Warren sing , he sounds very much like Bowlly sounded on his early solo recordings, copying his scat singing and “falsetto” gimmick. But since his voice did not have the professionalism smoothness or polish that Al’s had, one can still describe the voice of Al Bowlly as the one and only .



Both Al and Jimmy had been feeling the pinch work-wise. As mentioned earlier, there was very little session work available and they could not find good musicians available for accompanists. And so the two of them decided to team up and form a double act. Mesene was a very competent guitarist and they would not have to rely on anyone else for accompaniment. The act was known as “The Radio Stars with Two Guitars” and their debut was at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in January 1940. Mesene’s voice did not blend particularly well with Al’s, which could properly be partnered with any other male voice. It is now generally felt that this was the beginning of the end for Al.

“The Radio Stars with Two Guitars” was not, unfortunately, a top-of-the-bill variety act, although it was Al’s “bread and butter”. After hours, Al kept on working as a soloist and broadcasting with Lew Stone and one or two others. He made a few records with bandleaders Maurice Winnick and Ken Johnson, plus some solos for HMV. Al’s voice showed signs of weakening. was now singing in keys lower than copy key. His range was decreasing and he was singing in what was only a little more than a whisper. Al Bowlly was no longer Britain’s leading vocalist, for Joe Loss’s singer, Chick Henderson, had now toppled him from his No. 1 position. With all these problems, as well as the war, Al was not nearly as happy as he had been a year or two before.

Nevertheless Al and Jimmy were doing their part in entertaining the troops and war workers up and down the country. There continued to be little session recording work for Al. The recordings he made in May 1940 with Macari and his Orchestra were the last he ever made with a dance orchestra, but unfortunately they were never issued. Al continued to make solo records up to July 1940 when Al and Jimmy Mesene entered the recording studios to make the first record of their double act. They went on to record another two discs later in 1940 and one in 1941,

Al Bowlly was a personal friend of bandleader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson; not only did they record together, but he sung with the Johnson band at their resident engagement at the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street, Piccadilly. The titles that Al had recorded with Ken Johnson were jazz arrangements of two of Shakespeare’s sonnets.”Blow, Blow thou winter wind’ and ‘It was a lover and his lass’. Certain theatrical people considered it extremely unlucky to perform Shakespeare in this way, and this record did turn out to be a bad omen for what followed. A tragedy in the music world occurred on March 8th 1941 when a bomb destroyed the Cafe de Paris and Ken Johnson was among the thirty-four people killed there.

Al was naturally very upset when he heard this news, not only because he lost a good friend, but for the following reason — he now believed his own passing was soon to come. During the early months of 1941, Al continued with his variety work in the provinces and in March he received a letter from a woman telling him of a vivid dream that she had had. In the dream she saw Al and a black man talking, when suddenly both of them were blown to pieces. Later the same week he learnt of the death of Ken Johnson who, since Al was very superstitious, he believed to be the man in the dream. Being a deeply religious person, Al was not afraid to die, but he believed he still had more to achieve and more to offer in his career.

He pressed on working both as a soloist and duettist and on April 2nd 1941 Al and Jimmy Mesene went into the HMV recording studios to record another two songs. The two titles recorded were “When that man is dead and gone” and “Nicky the Greek (has gone).” And ironically these two sadly prophetic songs turned out to be the last that Al was to record, for in just fifteen days time he would be dead.

After the recording session, Al and Jimmy carried on working in the provinces and broad-casting from the BBC’s wartime studios in Bristol. On Wednesday night, the 16th April 1941, they had been appearing at the Rex Theatre at High Wycombe, after which Al hurried back to London to fill a late night solo appearance at the Berkeley Hotel. At the hotel, Al met a friend who was a BBC engineer and Al invited him back to his flat in Dukes Court. Dukes Court (No. 32 Duke Street) was at the corner of Duke Street and Jermyn Street in Piccadilly and among Al’s neighbours on the second floor were a judge and two Lords. Outside, London was suffering one of the heaviest airs of the war so far.

After supper, the engineer left Al’s flat. Despite the heavy blitz, Al decided, as many did, not to bother to go to the safety of the shelter. Instead, he went to bed with a “cowboy” book. In the carry hours of Thursday morning, the air raid continued. Al was still in bed when a land mine came silently down outside Dukes Court. Brickwork, plaster and glass flew everywhere, and as soon as the “All clear” was sounded, the hall porter hurried round to make sure all his tenants were safe. But on entering Al’s room he found him dead on the floor by the side of the bed, evidently killed outright by the blast from the landmine. Al had died in the early hours of April 17th 1941.
On Saturday, 26th April, nine days after he died, Al went to his last resting place, a communal wave at the Westminster City Council Cemetery, Uxbridge Road, Hanwell in North London. Among those present at the funeral were Chick Henderson, the singer who had beaten Al in the popularity stakes during the months before he died. A minister of the Greek Orthodox Church conducted his funeral service, whilst a memorial service was held in his honour at the Anglican Church Jermyn Street.

His epitaph was surely “Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al”.



Soon after arriving in America he entered hospital for the operation, after which it was reported in newspapers that during the operation he had to actually sing to guide the surgeon’s knife, the slightest deviation of which could have ended Al Bowlly as a singer. Fortunately the operation was a complete success and Al became full of joy and thankfulness that he could sing again. He often thanked God for his voice, which he believed to be a charisma, and for his success. Al was religious, deeply so. He belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church and attended frequently.

Now that Al’s voice had come back to him he was feeling on top of the world. Journalist Sidney Petty, after an interview with Bowlly, said that he had never seen a man so madly happy. Al had lost all his false friends and found one or two real ones who made up for everything. Al said at the Petty interview, which took place some while after:— “I’ve never been so happy, so cheerful, so contented of mind, as I have in the last seven months. I think right now I’m the happiest man in the world. I’ve got something that I’ve been looking for all my life, Honest to God, in my whole life — and I’ve had some good times. I’ve never been so happy.”

During the autumn of 1937, Al Bowlly had been through hell, but he came through it all a wiser and happier man. Perhaps he believed, as many do nowadays, that his voice even improved as a result of the operation, becoming deeper and richer than it was hitherto. After the operation, Al didn’t want to remain in America for long, although he did record there again. Indeed, as soon as his throat healed he was back in the recording studio again in New York with studio orchestra billed as “Al Bowlly and his Orchestra”. When you listen to the six titles recorded, there is no doubt that Al’s voice had returned in all its splendour.

Back in London in December 1937 he was now eager to resume his work with renewed enthusiasm now that he had a “new voice”. The first bandleader to approach him was Sydney Lipton, with whom he signed a contract in which there was also a clause allowing Al to work with Lew Stone. However, Al “fluffed” one or two titles with Lipton, who later released Al from the contract, thus enabling him to go freelance. Al was soon recording and broadcasting with Syd Lipton, Maurice Winnick and Lew Stone, the man who had shown such great friendship towards Al. For his solo recordings he was now on the exclusive HMV label. He also sang with Felix Mendellsohn with whom he made a short film in which, unfortunately, he did not sing.

Not long after his arrival back in England, Al was introduced to Helen Bevan — a very charming and attractive girl. This developed into the only permanent relationship that Al had, although he didn’t marry her.
As well as free lancing in the record and radio studios, Al continued with his variety act, appearing up and down the country, sometimes appearing with accompaniment by Archie Slavin and brother Mish. During 1938, the musical partnership between Al and Lew Stone was re-formed and in February of that year they made their first records together since 1934. Al appeared on most of the records that Lew made in 1938, and a view held by many people is that these records even surpassed the ones they made in the period 1932 to 1934. In 1938 Al free lanced with the Lew Stone Band on radio and records and also appeared with the band at Butlin’s holiday camps at Clacton-on-Sea and Skegness. This was the first time that a top line band had ever appeared at Butlin’s.

August of 1938 the famous Gaucho Tango Orchestra leader, Geraldo, formed a new band lie mgr, a wider and sweeter variety of music. Geraldo realised how popular Al was and asked him on the recording sessions for the new band which Al agreed to do. He thus recorded with Geraldo from September 1938 to April 1939 during which time they cut twenty-nine titles. On each of these titles Al sounds completely at home with the band, and many collectors agree that these are among his best band recordings, certainly of those he made since his return from America.

1939 was not a very good year for Al. Although he was well established as a solo artiste and made sixteen records as such, free lance recording work was scarce. Only Geraldo, Bram Martin and Reginald Williams used Al on their dance band recordings. Record sales at this period were not air at high and in particular the three titles Al cut with Reg Williams are about the rarest of all those – England — showing how low sales were. Al spent most of his time making personal appearances nationwide and these were successful as Al certainly had plenty of “pulling” power.

However, in 1939 Al became worried about his voice once again, and in June of that year he suffered a severe throat infection which prevented him from working for several months. On the last record he made before the infection, which was made with Bram Martin and his Band, Al sounds a little like he did on the Ronnie Munro record he made before his voice gave out in 1937. Although he not require surgery on this occasion, his voice started to deteriorate and to some people’s minds it had lost much of its sparkle. However, he was still able to put a song over with all the feeling and professionalism for which he had always been noted. It is noticeable from subsequent recordings that the power and range of Al’s voice was beginning to diminish.

As soon as his voice returned to him he was able to fulfil a promise he made sometime earlier. The promise was to record the four winning songs in a song-writing competition. The four titles were recorded, but not for commercial issue, the pressings being given to the winners of the
In September of 1939, World War II broke out, and this seemed to be the beginning of the end of the dance band era in Britain. Bandsmen were being called up and the dance bands were no longer the big attraction they were. Poor old Al Bowlly was now not getting the amount of work he would have liked. He had not been called up for military service since he was too old. He was to spend the early part of the war entertaining the war workers and blitz-weary population of London and elsewhere. During this time, Al had become very friendly with fellow singer and guitarist Jimmy Mesene. Mesene used to sing with Nat Gonella and met Al when they were both on same bill. They were both of Greek extraction and shared the same religion and profession. personality-wise they were poles apart. Jimmy Mesene was a swash-buckling devil-may-care sort fellow — smart talking, brash and intemperate. Just the antithesis of Al who was quiet and modest. In 1940 Al was the best man at Jimmy Mesene’s wedding.

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