Music on Agatha Christie's Marple
1/7/1898, Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), Mozambique, South Africa
The Monseigneur Restaurant in London was one of three main hot spots for dance music in the 1930s. It shared rival prominence with the Savoy Restaurant and the Mayfair Hotel as the top showcases for the popular music of the day. Roy Fox and Lew Stone were the bandleaders who inhabited the Monseigneur during the depression years in the UK. These two men, both good friends and colleagues were to turn into enemies over a contract of the singer of vocal refrains, Al Bowlly.
It may seem odd to us today, but a singer in the band of the 20s and 30s was not as prominent as the featured musician or even the bandleader. The vocal refrain was slipped well into the middle of the number; the singer sang and promptly sat down again. Al Bowlly was one of the few exceptions.
Al Bowlly was born in South Africa on the 7th January, 1899. Al began working life in his uncle's barber shop, and it was there he began his love for performing music. He learned the ukulele, banjo, and guitar and found little gigs playing with a local jazz orchestra in Johannesburg. He sings a little, but is primarily the banjo player. Al had enough measure of popularity with this orchestra to catch the attention of Edgar Adeler and his Syncopaters.
Adeler's was a travelling band, and Al was asked to join. The band played many stops in Asia Minor - as far east as Singapore. During the tour, Al had a falling out with Adeler and was fired. Stranded in India with little money, Al struggled to make enough money to travel to England. He was lucky enough to secure a place in Jimmy Lequime's ensemble, another travelling orchestra at Calcutta's Grand Hotel. He ended up touring in the footsteps of Adeler anyway, finding himself in Singapore during 1926. Ultimately, the Lequime band broke up and Al travelled to Germany. He was reunited with Adeler, who fortunately needed him as his original band lost key members.
In 1928, he left Adeler and found a place at last in England with Fred Elizalde's band. Fred Elizalde was a premiere engagement during the 20s at the Savoy Restaurant. His place in Jazz Age history is very muted, but his and recognition are not as appreciated as it should be. He was a reluctant choice of the Savoy management, but his popularity brought customers even though his band played less 'danceable' music than the smoother contemporaries of his day. His was the 'Hot' jazz, in the traditional raw motif. With Elizalde, Al truly began his career as a primary vocalist. Unfortunately, Elizalde's contract with the Savoy ended a few months after the BBC refused to continue broadcasting from the Savoy because of Elizalde's unbending artistic licence. It was hardly the best of times for Al, because the stock market crashed and Al himself would end up on the street with guitar and hat. He managed to do cheap recording gigs with various bands during 1930, but actually lived hand to mouth for most of 1930.
In Piccadilly, a new restaurant was due to open, 'The Monseigneur'. Roy Fox, an American bandleader won the contract and set about filling some important slots; this included a vocalist. He was tipped to Al Bowlly, who by this time was in very dire circumstances. He heard Al sing and immediately took him on. Al's celebration on being selected was quite animated and was easily remembered by Fox in later years. Al's big break had finally arrived and he was now primary vocalist with Roy Fox and his band at the Monseigneur.
Ray Noble and his Orchestra was probably the most innovative post-Jazz Age musical ensemble. His music bridged the gap from Whiteman to Goodman. His band included members, such as Glenn Miller, who went on to stardom. In a sense, he carried on the tradition of Whiteman without the orchestration en masse. Yet his bore a unique romanticism with strong arranging, that displayed his own signature. He wrote songs that are known today, 'The Very Thought of You' and 'Goodnight Sweetheart', were both rendered for posterity with Al Bowlly vocals. Al was working harder than ever now, recording and performing with both Roy Fox and Ray Noble.
At the end of 1931, Al married a night club hostess, Freda Roberts, and the marriage ended within a month. The reason for the split is unknown, but the woman was spiteful to Al over it. In this otherwise rich year, this was the one low point for Al. 1932 was to bring collisions over his loyalties.
Lew Stone was a valued member of the Roy Fox band. He used to step in as conductor for Fox when he was unavailable or ill. He ultimately became a great bandleader in his own right. With Al Bowlly, the Fox band was getting more engagements outside the Monseigneur. The Palladium concerts were especially successful and Fox wanted to keep this momentum going by committing to more activities outside the Monseigneur. The management didn't want anything of this, because it would mean too much unsettled scheduling at the restaurant. Fox refused to comply and the Monseigneur cut the contract. With the band broken up, the Monsiegneur turned to Lew Stone about collecting members for a new band. Unfortunately, the members from Fox's band lined up for the job. Stone was initially against this, because it could cause a legal battle with Fox, not to mention bad blood. Just the same, old Fox members were willing to face lawsuits to be back in the Monseigneur with Stone. The only member that was served an injunction was, you guessed it, Al Bowlly. Fox allowed all the rest free of the contract except Al. So, until the fight was resolved, Lew Stone and his Orchestra would play one member short - the most important one. Al Bowlly was a pawn in a senseless game between two friends turned rivals. Ultimately, the injunction was overturned and Al sang with Stone.
Al was still recording with Ray Noble during the day, and performing with Lew Stone in the evenings. Ray Noble relied on many of the musicians from the Stone band for his recordings, so live engagements were never seen. That is until the summer, when the Monseigneur was closed for renovation. Ray Noble seized the opportunity and organised a tour in the Netherlands. By 1934, Noble's popularity through his recordings was popping the thermometer in the USA. He asked Al if he was willing to leave the Lew Stone Band for the opportunity in America. Al Bowlly could not resist this chance for ultimate stardom and travelled across the sea to a new phase in his career.
Ray Noble had difficulties getting started, while everything was in place for him to begin performing, the musician's union in America held things up. He was scheduled for the Rainbow Room in New York, but the union prohibited this engagement because of regional rules concerning outside musicians. Noble fought his way through, going to Hollywood first to record for the motion pictures. Al Bowlly, not constrained by the union rules, was able to sing on various radio shows.
Ultimately, in 1935, Ray Noble played in the Rainbow Room of RCA with Al Bowlly. Victor records exploded with success from their presence in America. This success led to another tour in 1936 and Al married his girlfriend Marjie, whom he had known since 1933. Al had difficulty with popularity. He didn't realise how unsafe it was to be wandering around where he could be recognised. In one incident, he was attacked by a mob of girl fans trying to get souvenirs of his clothing. Poor Al! Covered in lipstick and clothing torn, clenching his trousers to hold them up, and relieved to be rescued by police. This was upsetting for Al, because he wanted to visit the towns and cities he played, rather than be holed up in hotels during the tours.
By the end of the year, Ray Noble was offered another radio spot on the 'The Burns and Allen Show'. The show already employed a singer and Al was not needed. Rather than stay in the US and try to build on his success on Ray Noble's coat tails, he travelled back to England in January 1937 only to find younger faces had won the spotlight. Al tried to regain his popularity with fellow vocalist Nat Gonella, with only limited success. During 1938, he made a happy comeback after an operation to his throat and sang with many different orchestras. By 1939 however, his bookings were less and less prominent.
His second marriage was over, the war started, and even though he was still highly regarded by his dedicated fans, Al Bowlly's days of popularity were gone. He was still doing recordings at HMV, but dates were few. In 1940, Britain was going through the blitz, where death and destruction were becoming commonplace.
So it was on the evening of 17th April 1941, when Al Bowlly retired to his room to read a cowboy-western novel. He had a new girlfriend and was over his depression of being relegated to the status of a lesser light. In fact, he relished his new role as the veteran singer to the new generation. Public nostalgia usually brings happier days ahead for experienced singers, and surely it was on the cards for Al Bowlly. But it was not to be. The German Luftwaffe dropped a heavy barrage of bombs over the west end of London. A landmine drifted silently down into the street outside Al's flat and the world lost Al Bowlly forever. The newspapers made little mention of the tragedy, and public grief over his death was left to the music magazines. Very few people attended the funeral because so many people were dying at that time, and lack of public transport was a problem.
Al Bowlly was known as the 'The Swoon of the Thirties', and although he had had chances to become a star of the magnitude of Crosby or Sinatra, this kind of success eluded him. His signature tune, popularised originally by Crosby in America, was 'Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime'. The lyrics epitomised Al's desperate years, for it was Al himself. 'They called me Al ... it was Al all the time'.
'Al Bowlly' Sid Colin & Tony Staveacre
Elm Tree ©1979
The Jazz Age Page Biographies
Copyright © 1999 R. Richard Savillmoreless
Albert Alick Bowlly
Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), Mozambique, South Africa