In which talented but troubled singer Al Bowlly sets out on an eventful journey on the road to fame.
Johannesburg, June, 1923.
“May I join you,” the newcomer asked.
He was a tall angular fellow with a round cheery face. A pair of spectacles with round wire frames was perched on his prominent nose.
Al Bowlly gestured amiably to an empty chair. A handsome young man with wavy dark hair and a firm jaw, he was taking a break in the back of his barber shop.
“I’m Edgar Adeler,” said the man taking his seat. “You might have heard of me. My father and I run a band agency here in Johannesburg. We’ve got the market pretty much cornered out here, but there’s only so many places we can play in South Africa. I’m putting together a small band to go on tour. There may be a slot for you. I’ve heard that you can sing and play guitar. I’m told that they call you ‘The Singing Barber’ and that you have a group that plays Saturday nights at the Tattersall Club. I’d like to hear what you can do.”
Al gave Adeler one of his warmest most winning smiles and climbed lazily to his feet.
“I’m afraid the guitar’s at home today, but I do have this with me,” he replied, picking up his ukulele.
Regaining his seat, he began to strum the instrument lazily. For all his outward calmness, he felt very nervous. This could be a real opportunity, and he didn’t want to blow it.
Taking a deep breath, he launched into a rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies’, a song he had just learned. It suited his soft tenor voice. As he played and sang, he grew more relaxed, and became immersed in the words of the song projecting them with deep feeling and resonance.
Edgar Adeler listened attentively, and as the last chord died away, he sat up in his chair, an expression of approval on his face.
“Very nice,” he remarked carefully. “What about something a shade hotter?”
Al began to tap his feet, and all at once launched into an African song he had learned from a Zulu youth who played outside his barber shop in the afternoons. Al was a quick study with a sharp ear and a strong appreciation of tempo, and he soon had Adeler swaying in his chair to the rhythm of the song.
When he was finished, Adeler stood up and held out his hand.
“You’re very talented, Mr. Bowlly,” he said. “A fine tenor voice we can use, and your prowess on ukulele will certainly come in handy.”
“Who else is in this band of yours?” asked Al.
“It’ll be called Edgar Adeler’s Hawaiian Band,” the other replied. “I’m on piano, Johnny Jacobs plays violin, there’s Len Fillis on guitar and banjo, Desmond Gregg on sax, and you’ll be vocalist and ukulele. We’ll be rehearsing tomorrow down at my club. You should come over and meet the boys. That’s if you’re interested!”
“Oh, I’m interested all right, Mr. Adeler,” said Al eagerly, “but where are we headed?”
“First we’ll play some dates here in South Africa,” replied Adeler, “then we’ll head to Rhodesia, Kenya and on up East Africa to the Suez Canal. I’d like to get to England eventually. That’s where I’m from originally. Came down here from Birmingham when I was a kid.”
“Going to England is my dream too!” exclaimed Al. “Just got my British citizenship. America and England, that’s where the new music’s coming from!”
“By the way,” said Adeler. “I’m curious. ‘Bowlly’, what kind of a name is that?”
Al smiled broadly.
“My father’s last name was ‘Paulos’,” he explained. “He’s Greek from the island of Rhodes. He changed it to ‘Pauli’ at some point, then when he was applying for naturalization, the official misheard his pronunciation of that name and wrote it down as ‘Bowlly’. We just stuck with that. It seemed easier. Sounds more English, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so, Al,” said Adeler dubiously. “But anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow at the rehearsal.”
“I’ll be there,” promised Al.
He watched as Adeler disappeared through the shop door and off down the street.
Somewhere on the South African veldt, August, 1923.
The tour’s going better than I could have possibly expected, thought Edgar Adeler, and Al’s sure the kingpin of the band! That boy has talent, and personality to spare. The audience goes crazy when he does that “Yes, we have no bananas” song! We didn’t have much of an act to begin with, but it’s all coming together quite nicely. Tighter and tighter every time we play! And we’re making good money! Fifty pounds in Mafeking, twenty-five in Francistown!
He stretched out on his bed, and let his thoughts wander. There were just a few niggling concerns that once in a while disturbed him. For example, he had been surprised and irritated when drummer Des Gregg, who shared a room with Al, had shown him the pair of ‘knuckle-dusters’, laying on the top of Bowlly’s suitcase. He’d never seen these carried by a musician before although he knew very well that they were used by bouncers in some of the Johannesburg clubs when the clients got a little too frisky! But what was Al doing with such an ugly weapon. He was appalled. He had suspected that Al might be prone to outbursts of violence. He’d already seen him lose his temper a couple of times with waiters, hotel staff and even occasionally with one of the band members. He certainly didn’t want his most prized asset getting into trouble with the law! Without even waiting for an explanation from his vocalist, Edgar had thrown the knuckle-dusters out of the window off into the veldt! Al had not so far made any enquiry about their disappearance. Edgar hoped it would stay that way.
He had also noticed that Al seemed to have a weakness for betting on horse races. Whatever city or community they were playing in, the handsome singer always enquired about the location of the race-track. In conversation with his young musician Edgar had learned that Al had worked as a jockey for a while back in South Africa, his short wiry frame proving suitable for that profession. Edgar suspected, however , that Al had more than once placed some rash bets on local races, and lost a good deal of his share of the concert receipts.
Oh well, he thought, he’s young and reckless, but I’m older and wiser. I have a clear head. I can keep him out of trouble. He’s so important to the act. I can’t afford to lose him.
With these thoughts in his mind, Edgar Adeler drifted off to sleep.
Salisbury, Rhodesia, October, 1923.
“Could you lend me a fiver, Edgar?” asked Al Bowlly, turning his most winning smile on the band leader.
“But I just loaned you five yesterday,” replied Adeler in a puzzled voice. “We’ve not been paid for this gig yet. Funds are a bit tight.”
“Please, please,” pleaded Al, raising his hands in an exaggerated gesture. Then he adopted a sly grin. “I’m taking one of the girls from last night’s audience for a drink. She’s a hot one, Edgar. You’ve got to help me out here. She’s really got a serious crush on me.”
“They all got a crush on you,” remarked Edgar dryly. “You have to fight them off. None of them seem interested in a piano player with glasses!” he added gloomily.
“I’ll bet I could fix you up with one of her friends, mate,” said Al, “especially if you could see yourself to lending me that fiver! Aw, come on, Ed,” he continued in a wheedling tone. “Just this once. Just a fiver.”
“What happened to the fiver I gave you yesterday, Al?” asked Edgar accusingly.
“What’s this? The Spanish Inquisition?” complained Al. “If you must know, I had a little flutter on the horses. Someone gave me a sure thing, but the nag turned out to be a flop! What can I say?”
“You’re hopeless, Al,” declared Edgar. “Totally unreliable!”
He felt in his pocket, and pulled out a couple of crumpled notes.
“Here’s a couple of quid, but that’s it, okay. No more!” he said firmly.
Al received the money gratefully, and kissed his fingers at Edgar.
“Thanks a million, Edgar,” he said with a charming smile. “You’re the best. I won’t forget this.”
“Just be there on the station platform at six tomorrow morning. We’re headed for Mombasa, so don’t be late!” warned Edgar as Al sailed jauntily out the door.
“Have I ever let you down?” replied Al glibly.
Not yet, thought Edgar ruefully, but you’ve come close. It’s only a matter of time, I fear.
“What happened to you?” gasped Edgar Adeler as he came upon Al Bowlly the next day seated in a compartment on the train to Mombasa.
Bowlly was sporting a blackened left eye and a large purple bruise on his jaw. He smiled sheepishly.
“You remember the woman I told you about yesterday when I borrowed that money?” he said. “Well it turns out she’s married. We were at her flat. Things were just getting hot and heavy when the door burst open, and in stalks her husband. Apparently he’s a copper supposed to be on night duty, but one of the neighbors saw me creep in with his wife and tipped him the wink. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t too happy to find me and his good lady in a clinch, and a slight fracas ensued!”
“He’s given you a proper shiner and no mistake!” exclaimed Edgar, gesturing at Al’s eye.
“You should see him!” replied Bowlly with a crooked smile. “I broke his nose and chipped his front tooth!”
Edgar frowned. He felt uncomfortable with Al’s casual lack of concern about violence.
“You seem proud of your escapade,” he commented drily. “Didn’t you know she was married for Christ’s sake?”
“She didn’t mention it, and I didn’t ask,” Al replied truculently. “She was mooning around the bandstand, making cow-eyes at me just like the rest of the girls! How was I to know?”
“You’re hopeless!” exclaimed Edgar. “You’ll get yourself in real trouble one of these days, Al. You mark my words.”
“Listen, you ain’t my Dad or my guardian angel neither,” remarked Al crossly.
“Yes, but I am responsible for this band,” insisted Edgar, “and you are an important member. You’re the featured vocalist and your natural skill on the ukulele is an added asset. We can’t afford to lose you now that we’re going to India.”
“I thought we were going to England,” said Al in a puzzled tone.
“I just received an invitation from a friend of mine in Bombay to play there and there’s a chance to perform also in Calcutta, Allahabad, Delhi, Hyderabad and Madras” said Edgar. “And there’s also a possibility of playing at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, maybe Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s a chance to see the world, and make good money besides. Too good an opportunity to pass up. So are you in, Al?”
Al’s battered features had brightened visibly.
“You bet!” he said eagerly.
“You’ve got to promise me, Al. No more wild escapades!” said Edgar earnestly. “Leave the women and the horses alone! Okay!”
“Sure, Edgar,” said Al in his most ingratiating tone. “Whatever you say, my friend.”
Ipoh, Malaysia, two months later.
Edgar lay on his bed, trying to sleep. He shifted restlessly. He’d never been keen on these afternoon siestas even though he knew they were necessary to prepare for the long exhausting evenings of performing in the clubs. The tour had been hectic what with all the traveling and the exotic food and the sometimes doubtful accommodations.
Across the room on a bed by the window his father, who had joined the tour to help with logistics, lay dozing fitfully.
All of a sudden the early afternoon calm was shattered by the sound of a voice raised in anger somewhere below the guest-house window. Edgar immediately recognized Al’s distinctive South African accent mouthing some colorful language.
“You damned careless Kaffir!” Al was shouting. “Look at my shirts! They’re all creased! Not a one that’s fit to wear tonight! I’ve a good mind to kick you in your worthless…”
The tirade was interrupted by the sound of Edgar’s father raising the window.
“Some of us are trying to get some sleep, Bowlly,” he called irritably. “So pipe down!”
Al’s retort was swift and cruel:
“Aw, shut up, you old bastard! Mind your own business!”
Edgar was mortified that his friend could address his father in this callous and disrespectful manner. He got to his feet, crossed to the window, and looked out, but apparently Al and the laundry boy had already made themselves scarce. He turned to his father.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he said apologetically. “Sometimes Al speaks out of haste. He’s a rough diamond. I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”
“I don’t like that feller!” replied his father. “Not one bit!”
Then he lay down on his bed again, turning his face to the wall.
Damn you, Bowlly, thought Edgar. Damn you to hell!
Jakarta, Indonesia, two weeks later.
“You’re fired, Al!” roared Edgar Adeler angrily.
The band had just finished the second set at the Jakarta nightclub.
“You can’t mean that, Edgar,” said Al incredulously.
“Oh yes, I do!” insisted Edgar, red-faced with fury. “I’ve had just about enough of your antics, Bowlly. “You’re never satisfied unless you’re acting up, drawing attention to yourself. You’ve no respect for anybody, and we’re all fed up with you!”
“Is that true, fellers?” asked Al, glancing around the dressing room with a foolish grin on his face.
His fellow members refused to meet his glance, some looking down at the floor, others glancing off into the corners of the room.
Al had been dazzling as usual with his nimble fingers dancing across the strings of his ukulele before stepping forward with his megaphone to hypnotize the female members of the audience with his pure emotional vocal delivery.
Then it had been Edgar’s turn in the spotlight, stretching his long fingers across the keyboard of the piano. He had just been getting into his stride when a large soft object struck him in the face throwing him off and causing him to completely lose the thread of his solo. He glanced down to see a cushion lying at his feet!
There was scattered laughter from the audience as Edgar glared furiously across the platform to catch one of Al’s owlish grins. The sax player had flawlessly taken over the lead, but Edgar was inwardly seething with anger, and as soon as they were off stage, he had laid into Al.
“I’ve just had enough of you,” screamed Edgar, grabbing Al by the collar.
The two men grappled, and tumbled to the floor, flailing at each other with their fists. The other band members pulled them apart, and someone whispered into Al’s ear to make himself scarce.
“You’re fired!” He heard again as he walked away down the hallway.
He’ll be over it by the morning, Al thought, as he stepped outside into the cool night air.
When Edgar Eveling climbed onto the train to Surabaya the next morning, he instantly spotted Al seated in the compartment reserved for the band. He walked up to his former friend and said coldly:
“Don’t you understand? I said you’re fired! Get off this train!”
“But, Edgar…” began Al.
“Off!” roared Edgar, bunching his fists.
“Okay!” replied Al backing away, raising his hands in acceptance. “Keep your shirt on!”
Edgar’s last sight of Al Bowlly was of the erstwhile star vocalist standing forlornly on the platform as the train pulled out of the station.