Image: (English Heritage): “The plaque for Bowlly is on Charing Cross Mansions, 26 Charing Cross Road – his home at the pinnacle of his career, 1933-1934.”
Rob Baker wrote at flashbak.com on April 17, 2015:
“The band leader Ray Noble once said of Al Bowlly that he often stepped away from the microphone with tears in his eyes: “never mind him making you cry, he could make himself cry!” Albert Allick Bowlly, who some say invented ‘crooning’ or as he called it “The Modern Singing Style” – an expressive style of singing that took advantage of the invention of the microphone in 1931 – was an incredibly influential singer before World War 2. Women, in particular, were susceptible to his not inconsiderable vocal charms. His music has featured in some of the most famous ‘cult’ films of the last few decades including The Shining, Amelie and Withnail and I.
He was born (on 7 January 1898) in Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony, to Greek and Lebanese parents who met en route to Australia but moved to South Africa…
(Geoff Milne): “Albert Alick Bowlly, was born at Delagea Bay in Portuguese East Africa and lived there until his parents decided to move to Johannesburg. This move to the Union of South Africa was made without too much difficulty, for although his mother was of Greek origin his father had always retained his British nationality. Al’s interest in music was first awakened when as a youngster he used to sit and listen for hours to the Zulu and Bechuanaland mine boys providing their own entertainment after a day in the mines around Johannesburg. Some of these miners were exceptionally gifted on the guitar and it was not long before the young Bowlly had persuaded his parents to buy him a cheap guitar and he was busily engaged in emulating the strange rhythms which he heard at those impromptu concerts.”
…After travelling and busking his way to Europe he made his first recording in 1927 in Berlin with Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies. He then came over to London as part of the Fred Elizalde’s orchestra. Their version of ‘If I Had You’ became a hit in America – maybe the first British jazz record to do so. It wasn’t initially a smooth ride to fame for Bowlly; the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 meant that he had to return to several months of busking to survive.
In the 1930s, he signed two contracts—one in May 1931 with Roy Fox, singing in his live band for the Monseigneur Grill, a stylish restaurant at 16-17, Jermyn Street, St James’s, London SW1, the other a record contract with bandleader Ray Noble in November 1930.
During the next four years, he recorded over 500 songs. By 1933 Lew Stone had ousted Fox as bandleader…
(Wikipedia): “Roy Fox’s Band opened at the Monseigneur Restaurant in 1931 and Stone took up the position of pianist and arranger. When Fox became ill in October he was sent to Switzerland to rest and Stone assumed leadership of the band. The main vocalist at the Monseigneur was Al Bowlly who had already sung on over 30 recordings. When Fox returned to London in April 1932, he found that his band was the most popular in the city. A contemporary article in “The Gramophone” magazine described events.
In 1932, Stone also worked with a studio band and several recordings were issued on the flexible Durium Records featuring vocals by Al Bowlly, Sam Browne and Les Allen. Some of the arrangements on Durium were by Stan Bowsher. In October 1932, when Roy Fox’s contract at the Monseigneur ended, Stone was offered the post of bandleader and this story filled the pages of the music press. An article from “Rhythm” magazine describes how this happened. The Tuesday night broadcasts from the Monseigneur established Stone’s band as a favourite with the listening public, who recognised the sheer quality of the music, and the royal clientele attracted an unsurpassed reputation.”
…and Bowlly was singing Stone’s arrangements with Stone’s band. After much radio exposure and a successful British tour with Stone, Bowlly was inundated with demands for personal appearances and gigs—including undertaking a subsequent solo British tour—but continued to make the bulk of his recordings with Noble…
…With Ray Noble, Bowlly travelled to New York City in 1934…
…Bowlly moved back to London with his wife Marjie in January 1937.
With his diminished success in Britain, he toured regional theatres and recorded as often as possible to make a living, moving from orchestra to orchestra, including those of Sydney Lipton, Geraldo and Ken Johnson. He underwent a revival from 1940, as part of a double act with Jimmy Messene (whose career had also suffered a recent downturn), with an act called Radio Stars with Two Guitars, performing on the London stage. It was his last venture before his death in April 1941.
Bowlly’s last recorded song was, like his first, by Irving Berlin – the satirical song on Hitler called “When That Man is Dead and Gone”. Two weeks later Bowlly gave a performance at the Rex Cinema in High Wycombe. Although offered an overnight stay in the town he decided to take the last train home to his flat at Duke’s Court at 32, Duke Street, St James’s. It was an unfortunate decision.
When the all-clear sounded around dawn on the 17th April the caretaker of Duke’s Court went round to check on the safety of his tenants. It had been one of the worst bombing raids on London of the Blitz. The night would be forever known as ‘The Wednesday’. The caretaker found Al Bowlly on the floor by the side of his bed killed outright by the door of his room smashing on his head from the blast of the parachute bomb.
Two friends of Bowlly’s also lived in the same apartment block. The pianist Monia Liter, who had fortunately been away in Bangor on the night of the raid, had known Bowlly since 1929. As the leader of his own orchestra, he had employed the young vocalist at Raffles, the famous hotel in Singapore and was subsequently an accompanist on some of Bowlly’s recordings.
When Liter arrived back at Duke’s Court, he saw the comedienne and actress Beatrice Lillie, another inhabitant of the serviced flats. He later recalled: “When I got back to Jermyn Street on the morning after the raid, Bea Lillie met me in the hall. She said ‘We’ve had a terrible night – look here’, and showed me a number of large sacks in the hall with labels on them. ‘These are the people who were killed last night.’ I saw that one of the sacks had Al Bowlly’s name on the label. It was a terrible shock.” Lillie’s own son died a year later killed in action aboard HMS Tenedos (H04) in Colombo Harbour, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). An inveterate entertainer of the troops she heard about her son’s death just before she was about to go on stage. She refused to postpone the performance saying “I’ll cry tomorrow.”
Bowlly’s remains were taken to the local Council’s mortuary at Glasgow Terrace and a death certificate was eventually produced which misspelt Bowlly’s name and gave the cause of death as “due to war operations”. He was buried in a mass communal grave on Saturday 26th April at 10.30am at the Westminster City Council Cemetery on the Uxbridge Road in Hanwell. Jimmy Mesene and several others tried to make arrangements for a proper tombstone for Al Bowlly to be erected. The required licence was refused by Westminster City Council, however, for the reason that it would set a precedent – the section of the cemetery was designated as a war grave and private memorials were not allowed.”