Albert Allick "Al" Bowlly (7 January 1898 - 17 April 1941) was a Mozambican-born South African/British singer, songwriter, composer and band leader, who became a popular jazz crooner during the British dance band era of the 1930s and later worked in the United States. He recorded more than 1,000 records between 1927 and 1941. His most popular songs include "Midnight, the Stars and You", "Goodnight, Sweetheart", "The Very Thought of You", "Guilty" and "Love Is the Sweetest Thing".
Early life and career:
Bowlly was born in Lourenço Marques in the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique, to Greek and Lebanese parents who met en route to Australia and moved to South Africa, where he was brought up in Johannesburg. After a series of odd jobs across South Africa in his youth, namely as a barber and jockey, he gained his musical experience singing for a dance band led by Edgar Adeler on a tour of South Africa, Rhodesia, India and Indonesia during the mid-1920s. However, he fell out with Adeler and was fired from the band in Surabaya, Indonesia. After a spell with a Filipino band in Surabaya he was then employed by Jimmy Liquime in India. Bowlly worked his passage back home through busking. Just one year after his 1927 debut recording date in Berlin, where he recorded Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" with Edgar Adeler, Bowlly arrived in London for the first time as part of Fred Elizalde's orchestra, although he nearly didn't make it after foolishly frittering away the fare money sent to him by Elizalde.
That year, "If I Had You" became one of the first popular songs by an English jazz band to become well known in America as well, and Bowlly had gone out on his own by the beginning of the 1930s. First, however, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 resulted in Bowlly being made redundant and returning 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 Restaurant in London, the other a record contract with Ray Noble's orchestra in November 1930.
During the next four years, he recorded over 500 songs. By 1933 Lew Stone had ousted Fox as bandleader, 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. There was considerable competition between Noble and Stone for Bowlly's time as, for much of the year, Bowlly would spend all day in the recording studio with Noble's band, rehearsing and recording, only then to spend the evening playing live at the Monseigneur with Stone's band. (Many of these Noble sides were issued in the United States by Victor, which meant that by the time Noble and Bowlly came to America, their reputation had preceded them.)
Move to the United States and return to Britain:
A visit to New York City in 1934 with Noble resulted in more success, and their recordings first achieved popularity in the United States; he appeared at the head of an orchestra hand-picked for him and Noble by Glenn Miller (the band included Claude Thornhill, Charlie Spivak and Bud Freeman, among others).
During the mid-1930s, such songs as "Blue Moon", "Easy to Love", "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "My Melancholy Baby" were sizable American successes--so much so that Bowlly gained his own radio series on NBC and traveled to Hollywood to co-star in 1936 with Bing Crosby, one of his biggest competitors, in The Big Broadcast.
He had appeared with his own band, the Radio City Rhythm Makers, but they had split by late 1937 when his vocal problems were traced to a wart in his throat, which briefly caused him to lose his voice. With him and Marjie separated and his band dissolved, that year he was once again down on his luck. He was forced to borrow money from friends for a trip to New York for the surgery of which he was so in need. In 1938, he finally returned to the United States to undergo successful major throat surgery for the removal of his vocal wart, but still had difficulties later in his career.
His absence from the UK when he moved to the States in 1934 damaged his popularity with British audiences. His career began to suffer as a result of problems with his voice from around 1936, which affected the frequency of his recordings. He played a few small parts in films around this time, yet never professed to be an actor. The parts he did play were often cut, and scenes that were shown were brief. Noble was offered a role in Hollywood although the offer did not, unfortunately, include Bowlly, as a singer had already been instated. 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.
The partnership was an uneasy one, as Messene suffered from a serious drinking problem by this stage, and was known to turn up incapable on stage, or to not turn up at all, much to Bowlly's consternation. His last recorded song, made two weeks before his death, was a duet with Messene of Irving Berlin's satirical song on Hitler, "When That Man is Dead and Gone".
Personal life and death:
In December 1931, Bowlly married Constance Freda Roberts in St Martin's District, London, but Bowlly discovered his new wife in bed with another man on their wedding night. The couple separated after a fortnight, and sought a rapid divorce. He remarried in December 1934, this time to Marjie Fairless, the marriage lasting until his death (Freda remarried in 1965, dying in Richmond-upon-Thames in 1967).
On 17 April 1941, Bowlly and Messene had just given a performance at the Rex Cinema in Oxford Street, High Wycombe, now demolished. Both were offered the opportunity of an overnight stay in the town, but Bowlly opted to take the last train home to his flat at 32 Duke Street, Duke's Court, St James, London. His decision proved to be fatal, as he was killed by a Luftwaffe parachute mine that detonated outside his flat later that evening. His body appeared unmarked: although the massive explosion had not disfigured him, it had blown his bedroom door off its hinges and the impact against his head proved fatal. He was buried with other bombing victims in a mass grave at what is today known as Hanwell Cemetery, Uxbridge Road, Hanwell, where his name is given as Albert Alex Bowlly.
Al Bowlly is invariably credited with inventing crooning, or "The Modern Singing Style", releasing a book of the same name. Bowlly experimented with new methods of amplification, not least with his Melody Maker advert, showing him endorsing a portable vocal megaphone. With the advent of the microphone in 1931, Al adapted his singing style, moving away from the Jazz singing style of the 20s, into the softer, more expressive crooning singing style used in popular music of the 1930s and 1940s. It was Bowlly's technique, sincerity, diction and his personality that distinguish him from many other singers of the 1930s era.
Al is also credited with being the first "pop star". Prior to the advent of Bowlly, the bandleaders were the stars and the main attractions, with the records being sold as "Ray Noble and his orchestra (with vocal refrain)", a phenomenon that can be seen on 78s of the period. Most singers were all but anonymous; however, Al's popularity changed this, with him being the first singer to be given a solo spot on BBC radio due to popular demand, and records appearing featuring his own name. Bowlly's personality, good looks, charisma, and above all his voice, earned him the nickname "The Big Swoon", with Al finding himself being mobbed by female fans for autographs and photos after his performances.
As well as singing, Bowlly played both the guitar and the ukulele, with Joyce Stone, Lew Stone's wife, saying: "You only had to play anything once to Al and he'd got it." Bowlly remains one of the most highly regarded singers of his era because of his extraordinary range, his command of pitch and rhythm, and, above all, the sincerity with which he could deliver a lyric. Ray Noble is often quoted as saying that Al often stepped away from the microphone with tears in his eyes; "never mind him making you cry, he could make himself cry!"
A Blue Plaque commemorating Bowlly was installed by English Heritage at Charing Cross Mansion, 26 Charing Cross Road, described as "his home at the pinnacle of his career", in November 2013.
References in popular culture:
"My Hat's on the Side of My Head" was prominently featured in the movie Murphy's War (1971),
"Midnight, the Stars and You" and "It's All Forgotten Now" were featured in the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining (1980).,
Bowlly's music is an integral part of many Dennis Potter teledramas, such as The Singing Detective (1986), Pennies from Heaven (1978) and in particular Moonlight on the Highway (1969). Potter also used Bowlly's song titles for his plays, e.g., Rain on the Roof and Cream in My Coffee.,
In 1978, "Isn't It Heavenly" by Lew Stone and his Band featuring Al Bowlly was used in the award-winning television series Edward and Mrs Simpson made by Thames Television, starring Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris in the lead roles. The couple are seen dancing in their Hotel suite ca. 1935. It is a touching moment as they romantically live Al Bowlly's song message. There were two recordings of this song for Decca Records on 1 August 1933 and 25 October 1933 respectively, listing Lew Stone and the Monseigneur Band. It is not known which recording was selected for the television series.,
In 1986, British singer/songwriter/guitarist Richard Thompson paid tribute on his album Daring Adventures with the song "Al Bowlly's in Heaven", about a veteran who reminisces about the days when he used to see Bowlly sing in the clubs of London.,
In 1990, Bowlly's recording of "The Very Thought of You" was used in Australia for the advertising campaign for Dine Cat Food.,
"Midnight, the Stars and You" has been used for many years as the final closing music for Nightline with Bruce Mansfield and Philip Brady on radio 3AW, in Melbourne, Australia.,
"Midnight, the Stars and You" has been the signature piece and the final music cut since 2001 on the John Batchelor Show, an American national radio program.,
Played by Danny Huston, Bowlly comes to life as a fantasy character in the 2007 film I Really Hate My Job.,
Bowlly is portrayed by Graham McPherson in the 2008 film The Edge of Love. Also, Bowlly's version of "My Hat's on the Side of My Head" is heard later in the film.,
Bowlly's recording of "South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)" was used in Steven Spielberg's 1987 film Empire of the Sun.,
Al Bowlly's "Guilty" was featured in the soundtrack for the French film Amélie.,
The song "Guilty" was used by the BBC soap opera EastEnders in 2000, playing over the end credits instead of the programme's usual title music to signify the final appearance of character Ethel Skinner (Gretchen Franklin) who had persuaded her friend Dot Cotton (June Brown) to help her die.,
His rendition of "Love is the Sweetest Thing" was used in the 2004 adaptation of Death on the Nile in the series Agatha Christie's Poirot.,
In 1997, Bowlly's "My Woman" was sampled by the British one-man band White Town, appearing in the song "Your Woman.",
The song "Hang Out the Stars in Indiana" was featured in the cult comedy film Withnail and I.,
In 2005, Bowlly's 'Guilty' was used in A Murder Is Announced, an episode of Agatha Christie's Marple.,
In December 2009, Al Bowlly - Megaphone to Microphone had its first performance at the Jermyn Street Theatre.,
Suspense novelist Jack Higgins regards Al Bowlly highly in many of his novels.,
He is mentioned in the novel White Lies by Raymond Wacks, set in the 1960s in South Africa.,
An Al Bowlly version of "Empty Saddles" figures prominently in the novel A Good Clean Fight by Derek Robinson.,
Bowlly's song "Shout For Happiness" was used in the 2010 film The King's Speech.,
Al's recording of I Love You Truly was used in the second series of the BBC horror drama Being Human.,
Al Bowlly's recording of "What More Can I Ask" with Ray Noble's orchestra appears in the 1987 movie soundtrack "Someone to Watch Over Me" with Mimi Rogers.,
The Al Bowlly version of "Twentieth Century Blues" was used in the Doctor Who episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp". "Love is the Sweetest Thing" was also used in this episode.,
An Al Bowlly version of "The Very Thought of You" was used in a scene from the "Upstairs Downstairs" TV remake in Season 2, Episode 1: "A Faraway Country About Which We Know Nothing", 7 October 2012.,
"Midnight, the Stars and You" was featured in the DLC pack Burial at Sea for the 2013 video game BioShock Infinite.,
"Midnight, the Stars and You" can also be heard in the 2013 film Snowpiercer.,
Al Bowlly's rendition of "Close Your Eyes" was used in the 2014 BBC Two film Castles in the Sky (film) which depicted the fight to invent radar by Robert Watson-Watt and British scientists.,
According to her appearance on the radio show 'Wits', Sadie Doyle (one of the leads from 'Beyond Belief', part of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, played by Paget Brewster), "Midnight, the Stars and You" was her first favorite song, but (in her words) 'it's not canonical'.,
"If I Had You"
"Time on My Hands"
19 February 1931
19 February 1931
2 December 1931
"Lullaby of the Leaves"
10 June 1932
"Looking on the Bright Side of Life"
1 September 1932
"Love Is The Sweetest Thing"
8 September 1932
"What More Can I Ask?"
23 December 1932
"Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby"
16 March 1933
"Isn't It Heavenly"
1 August 1933 and 25 October 1933
"Close Your Eyes"
7 December 1933
"Midnight, the Stars and You"
16 February 1934
"The Very Thought of You"
21 April 1934
"Isle of Capri"
30 August 1934
12 January 1935
"Dinner for One Please, James"
14 November 1935
"It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow"
15 February 1940
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license