Here’s Something You Don’t Find Every Day

Exploring a world of record hunting that does not end up crushed beneath the umpteenth discovery of Frampton Comes AliveOut of the Blue and the Carpenters catalog, Spin Cycle tumbles into a box full of 78s, and emerges with a grin and an Al Bowlly record.  Hooray!

mtHGWssmb51tr5ZA4riefvABy March, 1941, Britain had been embroiled in the Second World war for exactly 18 months, and enduring sustained enemy bombing for six.  It was a time of tremendous personal courage and sacrifice, and an era, too, in which the islanders’ world renowned “Bulldog Spirit” flowed with even greater potency than ever before.

Nightly, German bombers filled the skies, raining destruction down upon the country’s cities, and after a while, it became routine.  Home from work, time for tea, then down to the shelter to wait out Mr Hitler’s latest tantrum.  Some people even stopped going to the shelters – if the Germans wanted to kill them, a popular saying went, they’d have to find them first, and so the nightclubs and theaters started reopening evenings, pubs and cafes stopped closing when the air raid sirens sounded, and all over London, the hottest topic of conversation was the upcoming reopening of the Royal Albert Hall, for a series of promenade concerts in June.

The sense of confidence was everywhere, even across the water in occupied Europe, to the airfields where the Germans waited for their hated enemy to collapse.  Although the bombers did still come over, their numbers dropped and continued dropping, and the massive raids of just a few months earlier were suddenly little more than inconveniences – lethal ones, admittedly, but nothing compared to the carnage they had once represented.

Two events within a few weeks of one another, however, not only shocked the people out of their burgeoning complacency, they also robbed the British music scene of two of its most vital talents: “Snake Hips” Johnson, the band leader at the Cafe De Paris, and one of the first black superstars on the London scene, killed in March, when a pair of German bombs hit the Cafe itself; and singer Al Bowlly, who died in a raid the following month.  But while “Snake Hips” is all but completely unknown today, Al Bowlly has ascended to at least a hint of renown within the modern rock scene.

Guitarist Richard Thompson says, “my parents saw Al Bowlly sing at Hammersmith Palais during the war.  I quite like him… I don’t think he was Bing Crosby or anything, [but] he was the Great British Hope.”  Thompson subsequently introduced the singer to a brand new generation with a track on 1986′s Daring Adventures album, “Al Bowlly’s In Heaven.”

Nine years before that, Bowlly’s music was one of the star turns of a new BBC TV wartime drama, Pennies From Heaven, and amongst the millions of rapt viewers was a young Jyoti Mishra, a boy who would grow up to become “Your Woman” hitmaker White Town.  “I remember there was a piece of music in there by Al Bowlly, called ‘My Woman,’ which I just loved and remembered for years. Then, when I was writing ‘Your Woman,’ that was the kind of feel I wanted, so I went back to the Al Bowlly song.”

Thus, it came to pass, that in January, 1997, two years shy of the centenary of his birth, Albert Alick Bowlly found himself at the top of the British chart, hypnotically sampled into one of the most memorable singles of the entire decade.  Let’s see Bing Crosby top that.

Although Thompson is right to call him the Great British hope of his era, Al Bowlly was actually born to a Greek father and Lebanese mother in Maputo (Lourenco Marques) in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, in 1899.  The family moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, while Al was still a child, and by the early 1920s, Bowlly was working at his uncle’s barbers shop, supplementing his income singing and playing guitar, banjo and ukulele in various local dancehalls.

It was there that he was discovered by jazzman Edgar Adeler, and recruited into his band, The Syncopaters, in time for a tour of Asia.  The group would travel throughout the Indian subcontinent, and were just about to head for Singapore when Bowlly and Adeler had a major falling out.  Bowlly was fired on the spot, and left stranded in Calcutta, to make his own way home.  Instead he met American band leader Jimmy Lequime, at the Grand Hotel, and joined his group just as they themselves were departing for Singapore.

By 1927, Bowlly was in Berlin, recording with both German and visiting American groups, and working again with Edgar Adeler.  It was one of these recordings which brought Bowlly to London.  The controversial jazzman Fred Elizalde had just been appointed leader of the resident band at the Savoy Hotel – more out of respect for his public popularity, than for the traditionally highbrow Savoy’s love of Elizalde’s saucy “hot” jazz style – and was playing through his record collection in search of suitable musicians.  Bowlly’s smooth, seductive vocal style fit Elizalde’s bill perfectly, and within days, the singer was on his way to England.

Unfortunately, the Savoy was not the only establishment which found Elizalde too hot to handle.  The BBC, too, was unimpressed, and when the corporation announced it intended to cease its regular live broadcasts from the Savoy, for fear of Elizalde’s style offending listeners, the hotel management had no choice.  The band was sacked, and broke up soon after, and Bowlly found himself out of work and penniless.

He remained in dire straits for most of the year, simply singing and playing wherever he could find work, but by Christmas, he was back on his feet, singing at the newly opened, and fashionably prestigious Monseigneur Restaurant with the Ray Fox Band.  He would later join a splinter danceband formed by Fox sideman Lew Stone, but by far the more important engagement came when Bowlly was invited to join Ray Noble’s famed New Mayfair Orchestra, in November, 1930.

Noble was director of light and dance music at the HMV Gramophone Company, and had been turning out a succession of suitable hit records for the label for over a year now.  Most featured some kind of vocal refrain, but usually an understated performance by  anonymous performer.  For his latest disc, however, Noble required something a little more special – “How Could I Be Lonely” was a beautiful song, but one which required someone who could do more than simply sing.  They also needed to be versed in what journalist Brian Rust later called “the modern rhythmic idiom,” and Bowlly – obscure though he might have been – was the best in town.

“Without any shadow of a doubt,” Melody Maker‘s review of the record announced, Bowlly was “the leading style singer in the country.  His phrasing, diction and intonation are superb, whilst the individualism he manages to get into his renderings is really amazing.”

Neither was it a one-off.  By the end of 1930, Bowlly and Noble had recorded three more songs, including the monster selling waltz “Underneath The Spanish Stars,” the vigorous “Sunny Days” and the rousing “Make Yourself A Happiness Pie.”  But it was the Orchestra’s next session, in February, 1931, which would truly establish Bowlly as Britain’s number one.  “Goodnight, Sweetheart” would become THE closing number of dance clubs all over the country, not just at the time, but for decades after, a true standard which has since been reinterpreted by any number of singers, but never with the sheer panache which Bowlly brought to its bittersweet lyric.  “When he sang a love lyric, it really got him,” Ray Noble reflected.  “The sincerity came through.  I have seen him sing at the mike in front of the band, and there have been tears in his eyes as he turned away after finishing.”

Buoyed by such success, Bowlly and Noble suddenly seemed unstoppable.  Bowlly himself became the first singer ever to be granted a solo spot on BBC radio, and recorded over 250 songs during 1931 alone (a number of these have been anthologized within Vocalion’s HMV Sessions 1930-34 series).   Most were hits: indeed, both “Time On My Hands” and “Lady Of Spain” kept the cash registers screaming for years, while “Pages Of Radioland” offered dancers a swinging medley of nine of the day’s biggest hits (spread over two sides of a disc), and “Lights Of Paris” tied their feet in knots with one of the trickiest time signatures ever devised, a nine-eight-one step.  Perhaps inevitably, this became one of the Noble/Bowlly team’s biggest flops, while its composer, Tolchard Evans (author, too, of “Lady Of Spain”) vowed never to try such an experiment again.

In 1934, Noble and Bowlly decided to take their talents to New York, and after some initial union-led teething problems, America, too, took the singer’s cool, good looks and rich, dark voice to its heart.  He performed at the Rainbow Room, recorded for the Victor label, and was even involved in a few unseemly incidents where excited female fans attempted to remove his clothing and hair for souvenirs.  Such sights were never seen in staid old Britain (there, fans merely fainted at the sight of him, hence Bowlly’s reputation as “The Swoon Of The Thirties”) and Bowlly – happily married to his second wife, Marjie – had to be rescued by the police, and promise never again to leave his hotel room unaccompanied.

al-bowllyBowlly’s American sojourn ended when Ray Noble was offered a regular spot on radio’s Burns And Allen Show, backing up the program’s regular vocalist.  Already homesick, Bowlly decided against seeking new opportunities in the U.S., and returned to London in January, 1937.  He arrived home to discover that times had changed dramatically during his absence.  New singers and new styles had moved up to replace him, and though he did enjoy some success working with the famed trumpeter Nat Gonella, and continued to record some quite masterful records, a throat operation pushed him even further away from the limelight.  It would be late 1938 before Bowlly was back to his performing best, by which time he was regarded as even more old-fashioned.

His marriage crumbled along with his career, and when war broke out in September, 1939, Bowlly seized the only opportunity for regular work that was available, entertaining the troops with a new stage routine built solely upon his nostalgia valuesure-fire hit, it transpired, in a world which was getting blacker by the day.  By early 1941, Bowlly’s career was again in the ascendent, and it was a rare night-off indeed when he could simply return to his London flat, curl up in bed with a good cowboy novel, and read himself to sleep.

Wednesday, 16 April was one of those rare nights.  Unfortunately, it was also one of the now-equally rare occasions when the German Luftwaffe decided to put on a major show of force in the London skies.  According to one eye witness, writer Charles Graves, the Stuka dive bombers came in so low “that I mistook [them] for taxi cabs,” and the following morning, the city left the shelters to find over a thousand people dead, some 80,000 houses damaged, Chelsea’s beautiful Old Church demolished, the Admiralty headquarters wrecked, and one magical voice stilled forever.  A bomb had exploded in the street immediately outside the bedroom of Bowlly’s apartment, blowing in one entire side of the building, and killing the singer instantly.

“Goodnight, Sweetheart” would never be sung quite so sweetly again.

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