IN which young Al Bowlly heads for England and the beginning of his fame and fortune.
August, 1927, Berlin Germany.
Al Bowlly, guitar in his lap, shifted nervously in his seat. He had been in a recording studio before in Calcutta, but only as an instrumentalist, a member of a band. This would be the first time his baritone voice would be heard on a disc, and he was understandably anxious. What if his voice cracked or he couldn’t stay on key?
He glanced across at Edgar Adeler seated at the piano. His friend gave him a smile and a thumbs up.
I never believed we’d get together again after that bust-up in Jakarta, thought Al. After they’d parted, he hadn’t seen his buddy for a long time. After some gigs in Surabaya, Edgar had disappeared off to Europe while Al had found himself a spot in a band playing in the famous Calcutta restaurant, Firpo’s. It had been a wild unsettled period in his life, Al reflected. Gambling, drinking, brawling, chasing skirt! In one epic fight, he’d broken a fellow’s jaw at the Calcutta Palais de Dance! He couldn’t even remember what had provoked the argument that led to the fight. Still he had found a place in Jimmy Riquelme’s Jazz Orchestra, and had made a new friend in the piano player, a quiet Russian refugee named Monia Liter.
Riquelme’s band had moved on to the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and Al had become the main vocalist, continually developing his style and his chops, revealing a versatility that saw him singing up tempo, jazzy numbers as well as slow dramatic ballads. The latter inevitably drew a cluster of adoring young women to the bandstand. As one of his bandmates put it:
“Al could bring the weeps on any dame at any time just by looking at them with his dark eyes and working his tonsils!”
Al had written to Edgar, at that time in Munich, Germany, asking his forgiveness for the dispute in Indonesia. The fence-mending effort had paid off when his long-suffering friend had replied. inviting Al to join him in German violinist Robert Gaden’s new band as vocalist/guitarist. After a long and exhausting journey, punctuated with Al’s usual mishaps, the young singer had arrived in Germany for a warm re-union with his friend.
Now here they were together months later in Berlin at the Homocord recording studios about to record Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”.
Across the studio Al caught sight of Felix ‘Tutti’ Lehman, recording manager, standing alongside his engineer, give a signal to Edgar, who began to play the introduction to the song. Al took a deep breath to calm his nerves, and waited patiently. His would not begin to sing for several moments, so he cleared his mind to focus on his delivery.
Al met his cue smoothly and launched into the first line of the song. He was soon singing with ease and confidence. His mellow baritone soared into its higher reaches in the song’s bridge and dropped again as he sang the closing lines. His task was not over as he immediately launched into a guitar solo, his fingers picking out the melody above Edgar’s piano chords. They played the entire song once again before closing.
As the last notes died away, Al glanced across the room at Felix. With a sigh of relief he saw that the German was nodding and smiling.
Al Bowlly’s career as a recording artist was well and truly launched. Little did he know that he was destined to make hundreds of such recordings over the next fourteen years.
He got up from his chair, and crossed to Edgar’s stool to pat his friend gently on the back. Edgar looked up and smiled.
“Lovely job, old fellow,” he remarked.
Over the next year Al found himself in constant demand to perform ‘the vocal refrain’ over many Berlin bands, recording numerous popular songs of the time. He also performed regularly in clubs and concert halls, earning a considerable reputation as an innovative stylist. As saxophonist Don Barrage put it:
“He loved for me to play sax obligatos behind his vocals. He said it gave him ideas for phrasing.”
In July of 1928 Al received an invitation from his former South African acquaintance, guitarist Len Fillis, to join him in England as a vocalist with Fred Elizalde’s band. Al had sent the bandleader a recording of “Muddy Water” as an example of his vocal chops, and Elizalde had offered him twenty pounds a week.
Al bid a fond farewell to Edgar Aveler who was headed in the opposite direction back to Calcutta, and later that month the young singer arrived in London, England, having at last reached his ‘promised land’.
London, England, October, 1928.
“Hey, Fred,” said Al. “What the blazes is ‘sweet legato’?”
“How do you mean?” asked Philippine-born band leader Fred Elizalde patiently.
“Well,” continued Al. “There’s a review in ‘Melody Maker’ of our recent recording of ‘Just Imagine’ that says: ‘Al Bowlly is a real find. He has an alluring voice, and favors the sweet legato rhythm style of rendering a song.’”
“Legato is an Italian word that means tied together,” explained Fred. “So for a vocalist it means a style of smooth, flowing singing where words are connected with little or no space between. It makes you sound effortless and professional. That reviewer was paying you a compliment. You should be proud of yourself!”
Al scowled as he remarked:
“Not all the reviewers are so kind! You should have seen the write-up I got in the last edition. It said that I didn’t enunciate clearly and that my high notes were pitchy!”
Fred felt a surge of sympathy for his new vocalist. He was fond of Al. He shared his sense of being an outsider, an intruder in the tight social and cultural circles of their adopted country. Although he himself came from a wealthy, influential Philippine family and had attended prestigious Cambridge University, he still felt a constant need to prove himself, to make a favorable impression.
“Don’t take their criticisms too seriously, Al,” he said. “Don’t let it get to you. You’re young, and you’re learning the business. You have natural talent and you’re sure to get better.”
“I’ll never be as good a musician as you, Fred,” said Al moodily. “You’re a bona fide genius. You went to a music academy. You compose and arrange music for Christ’s sake!”
“There are different kinds of talents, Al,” responded Fred modestly. “You have a natural gift as a vocalist. You feel a song. You can put it across. Why, last night at the Savoy half the audience was in tears with that last ballad you sang. Technique can be learned, but your ability to connect with the audience, that’s a gift!”
Al was smiling shyly as he listened to the band-leader’s generous praise.
“That’s kind of you to say, Fred,” he said quietly. “Sometimes I’m afraid I’m not good enough to share the stage with musicians such as you or Len Fillis.”
“Oh, you’re good enough, Al,” said Fred firmly. “Trust me, you’re more than good enough!”
The weeks that followed were hectic for Fred Elizalde’s band as they crossed the Channel to fulfil an engagement in Paris. French audiences warmed to the tight cohesive sound of the band, and in particular the shy, handsome vocalist. The Paris gig was followed by a stint at a casino in Ostend where Al was chagrined to learn that none of the band would be allowed to gamble during their stay!
On returning to London, the band returned to HMV studios to record more songs. The release of ‘Lover Come Back to Me’ generated another savage review which attacked Al Bowlly’s ‘unsure pitch on the high notes and a certain measure of untutored enunciation’!
Once again Fred Elizalde came to the rescue, soothing Al’s bruised ego.
“Look,” he told a disconsolate Al, “HMV’s equipment is shoddy and out of date. The mikes are poor. That’s bound to affect the reproductive quality, especially the clarity of the vocals. Don’t lose confidence! The equipment’s improving all the time. Be patient. You’ll soon have the chance to sing in a studio that does justice to the quality of your voice. Just remember how those women cluster around the bandstand when you’re performing. They know something these critics don’t!”
“I suppose so,” admitted Al reluctantly.
A week later a jubilant Al burst into Fred’s dressing room, waving a copy of Melody Maker high in the air.
“You were right, boss,” he crowed excitedly. “Listen to this! It’s a review of our recording of ‘Sometimes’. You remember we did it at Columbia who have much better equipment than HMV. It says: ‘Al Bowlly sounds vile when broadcast on the BBC. Never seems to be in pitch. Is it the mike or the megaphone he uses? Hear him on the radio and you’ll say he’s rotten. He’s not! He’s a wonderful singer, and if you want to prove it for yourself, hear him on this record.’”
“What did I tell you?” answered Fred. “I have faith in you Al. I know you can deliver.”
“Thanks for believing in me, Fred,” said Al warmly.
Fred could have sworn that he caught sight of tears forming in the corners of Al’s eyes. This guy really gets emotional, he thought. He feels things deeply.
He put his arm around the singer’s shoulders.
“You know, Al,” he said. “We foreigners, we outsiders, we gotta stick together!”
London, England, a year later.
“I’m truly sorry, Al, but I have to break up the band,” said Fred Elizalde apologetically. “The tour of northern England and Scotland was a successful one, but now it’s over and the Savoy is not willing to renew our contract. They’re not happy with the style of music we’re playing. They want us to play like a Viennese band, but you know that’s not what we do! We do American rhythm style! So several of the musicians have had offers in other bands, other places. You’ve earned something of a reputation as an up and coming vocalist. I’m gonna spread the word around. You should be able to pick up some free-lance bookings.”
“Times are hard for everyone right now, I guess,” said Al gloomily. “Lots of folks out of work. Well, so long, boss. It’s been a good ride.”
The two men shook hands warmly, and promised to keep in touch.
Al Bowlly stood in Piccadilly, shoulders hunched against the cold. He held his ukulele in frozen fingers, strumming gently and singing softly as the afternoon commuters swept by on their way to the underground station. Few of them gave him a second glance, nobody recognizing the erstwhile star vocalist from the Savoy Hotel.
Every so often a coin would clink into the ukulele case at Al’s feet, and he would pause to mutter a hurried ‘thank you’ before continuing his song.
Never thought it would come to this, he thought. Busking in the street! He felt a new sympathy for all the street musicians he himself had passed by without a glance in better days.
It was growing dark, and the flow of passers-by was ebbing. Al paused wearily, and squatted down on the pavement to count his earnings. There was a tidy pile of copper pennies, a scattering of sixpences and shillings, five half-crowns, even a ten shilling note.
Crikey, he thought, someone was feeling generous! Altogether he calculated that he’d earned about two pounds for three hours of playing and singing. Could be worse, he thought. At least I get to eat today!
“Excuse me!” said a voice. “Aren’t you Al Bowlly?”
He looked up to see a burly fellow with curly dark hair looking down at him.
“I’m Bert Davenport,” continued the newcomer. “I saw your show at the Savoy two or three times. You’re good. I’m a drummer with Ernie Rutterford’s band. I think I could persuade the boss to let you sit in with us. Our vocalist’s been making noises about quitting. Could be a break for you. What d’you say?”
“Sounds great,” said Al with enthusiasm, gathering all the coins up into his coat pocket. “Listen, I’ve just come into all these riches. Let me take you for some baked beans on toast at the café down the street. You can fill me in about the band.”
“Lead on, MacDuff!” exclaimed Bert Davenport.
“You’re definitely a hit, and I think the boss likes you,” said Bert Davenport as he weaved deftly through the afternoon traffic on his way to the band’s nighttime engagement.
“Do you think so?” asked Al dubiously. He was wedged into the backseat, surrounded by various pieces of Bert’s drum kit.
“He likes your showmanship and your sense of humor,” continued Bert. “Like that time you showed up to the gig with your hair parted in the middle and your trousers hitched up to reveal those god-awful socks and those garish suspenders. You brought the house down!”
“Really?’ remarked Al modestly.
“Oh, sure,” said Bert. “And that time when we took the curtain call, and you were doing all those comic ballet poses. People love that sort of thing. You come across as a very carefree, happy-go-lucky kind of fellow.”
“Well, thanks, Bert,” said Al.
“Did you always have all those women eating out of you hand the way you do every night?” asked Bert.
“I do seem to have some success in that area,” admitted Al modestly.
“Well, see if you can’t send some of that action my way,” remarked Bert wistfully. “Nobody ever pays the least attention to the drummer stuck way in the back!”
“Let me see if I can’t fix you up,” said Al encouragingly. “After all the help you’ve given me, it’s the least I could do.”
London, England, January, 1930.
“Just like the old days, eh, boys,” said Edgar Adeler, grinning from ear to ear.
Len Fillis was tuning his guitar.
“That’s right!” he mused. “You, me and Al, we all started out in South Africa, and then set out to conquer the world! And here we are together again in London!”
“So who else is going to be in this ‘Blue Boys’ group of yours?” asked Al to Edgar.
“There’s a fellow who should be here shortly, name of Starita. He’s an Italian-American who plays sax and clarinet. They say he’s pretty good,” answered Edgar.
At that moment the door burst open to admit a well-dressed man with neatly-combed black hair and a pencil-thin moustache. A pair of spectacles, balanced on his nose, gave him a professorial appearance. There was an air of relaxed self-confidence about him.
“Hey, fellers,” he announced. “I’m Armand Starita, but you can call me ‘Al’!”
“That’s going to be awkward,” said Edgar nervously. “We’ve already got one ‘Al’!” He pointed to Al Bowlly who was examining the newcomer with curiousity. “That’s Al Bowlly, guitar, ukulele and vocals.”
The two men nodded perfunctorily at each other.
“This is Len Fillis, maestro of the guitar,” continued Edgar, “and I’m Edgar Adeler, piano.”
Hands were shaken all around. Edgar noticed with some misgivings a certain coolness displayed between the two Als. He decided to ignore it.
“Okay, chaps,” he said in an effort at heartiness. “Let’s get busy. We’ve got to put a show together, and get it on the road.”
He sat down at the piano stool. Len began idly strumming on his guitar. Al Starita opened his instrument case and took out a glistening saxophone. Then he took the mouthpiece from his pocket, and inserting it, put the instrument to his mouth and blew a smooth, resonant scale.
Edgar glanced across at Al Bowlly, who was staring thoughtfully at the newcomer. His expression could not be described as exactly hostile, but it was certainly not a warm one.
Oh-oh, thought Edgar. I smell trouble.
Keighley, England, three weeks later.
“Bowlly gets all the attention,” complained Al Starita. “He’s featured too much. We need less vocals, more playing by the band. Len and you and I, we deserve more of the limelight. We can play! We can improvise on our instruments. That Bowlly, he’s just passable on guitar.”
“Times are changing, Al,” replied Edgar Adeler. “People don’t come out anymore only just to dance. The women, especially, like to hear a good singer really put a ballad over. Bowlly can do that, and he’s handsome besides. A lot of those ladies show up just to see him.”
Al Starita curled his lip into a sneer.
“He sings like a girl!” he snapped, and turning on his heel, stalked out of the room.
“Edgar, I don’t like that Starita fellow,” said Al Bowlly. “He’s always giving me these funny looks, and he plays too loud. My voice can hardly be heard over his noise. Can’t we get rid of him? You and me and Len, we could be a trio, friends together like the old days!”
Edgar bit his tongue, and decided not to remind Al about the cushion in Jakarta.
“Look, Al,” he said, “Starita’s a fine player. He’s great on clarinet and sax. He gives the music an extra dimension that would be lacking if we only had piano and guitars. Besides, we’re just starting to jell after that shaky start in Birkenhead and Belfast. It’s all coming together. There’s plenty of scope for all of us to get some time in the spotlight. We’ve got that engagement coming up in a few days down in Folkestone. Try to get along with him, okay?”
“All right, Edgar,” said Al brightly. “Just for you, I’ll give it a try.”
“You gotta come quickly, Edgar, before they kill each other,” said Len Fillis urgently.
“What are you talking about, Len?” asked a perplexed Edgar.
“Never mind! Just come and see!” continued Len, tugging at his sleeve.
Edgar followed Len as he rushed down the hallway to the cramped room at the back of the theater that served as the band dressing room. Len flung open the door. Edgar’s mouth dropped open in surprise at the dramatic tableau that met his eyes.
Starita stood in the center of the room, with a soda bottle in one raised hand, his other hand gripping the collar of Al Bowlly’s jacket. His face was scarlet with rage, his glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose. Bowlly, eyes flashing was holding a sharp-pointed knife close to Starita’s throat.
“Whoa!” shouted Edgar. “Hold it, guys! Back off each other! We can work this out!”
At first, nothing happened. The two men stood frozen, each about to deliver a damaging blow. Then all at once, Bowlly let his hand fall, and Starita released his grip on the other’s jacket. They backed away from each other, and stood apart, eying each other warily.
“Now, what’s this all about?” asked Edgar.
“You can guess,” growled the sax player. “This guy’s impossible. I just made a simple suggestion about his singing, and he blew up!”
“He’s trying to tell me how to do my job, Edgar,” complained Bowlly. “I don’t have to stand for that!”
“I can’t work with this guy,” said Starita, throwing up his hands. “I’m outa here.”
He pushed past Edgar and Len, and strode off down the hallway.
Edgar let out a sigh of frustration.
“Now, look what you’ve done, Al,” he sighed.
Al raised his shoulders in a self-deprecating shrug, and smiled sheepishly at the bandleader.
Over the next few months after the demise of ‘The Blue Boys’ Al Bowlly found himself even more in demand for recording sessions, providing numerous dance bands with ‘vocal refrains’ to decorate the middle of their numbers. His name never appeared on the record label, and he often earned a meager two pounds a session, but it kept the wolf from the door. Occasionally he would duet with Canadian vocalist, Les Allen. He sang in Afrikaans for HMV who were considering releasing his efforts on the South African market. Little came of this venture for Al except that he came to the attention of Ray Noble, Musical Director at the label, who saw potential in the young singer’s voice.
In November 1930 Noble’s New Mayfair Orchestra recorded two songs, ‘I’m Telling the World She’s Mine’ and ‘How Could I be Lonely’ with Al providing the vocals. This time his name appeared in the credits.
The Melody Maker critic gave Al his best review to date:
“Al Bowlly demonstrates here that without a doubt he is the leading singer in the country. His phrasing, diction and intonation are superb whilst the individualism he manages to get into his renderings is really amazing.”
AL became the regular studio vocalist with Ray Noble’s HMV house band, and the two would go on to make more than 200 recordings together.
London, England, December, 1930.
“Listen, Al,” said Ray Noble. “I think some of these songs are pitched too high for your voice. You’ve been straining to reach some of the high notes. It’s important that you sound relaxed and smooth. That’s your natural style. I’m going to put them in a lower key that’ll be more in your vocal range. You’re at the center of our recordings. It’s important that you sound just right.”
“Thanks, Ray,” replied Al. “Hey, I trust you. I’ve never had anyone pay so much attention to how my voice sounds. When I listen to some of my earlier recordings, they don’t sound so great,” he continued with a touch of regret in his voice, “so anything you can suggest, I’m anxious to try.”
“That’s good, Al,” said Ray.
He liked the young singer’s enthusiasm, and his willingness to listen to advice.
“I’m going to pay you six pounds a session from now on, Al,” continued Ray. “I think you’re worth it. Our records are selling really well. Everyone at the label is pleased.”
“Thanks. That’s generous,” said Al.
“I have one more suggestion for you, Al, if you have a minute,” said Ray.
“Sure,” answered Al promptly.
He had considerable respect for the talented bandleader, knowing his experience and knowledge as a song-writer and arranger.
“I notice that you’re regularly singing as much as three quarters of a bar behind the band,” said Ray. “Now I know what you’re up to, Al. You’re trying to sell the pathos of the song. But I know that you can get the pathos across just as well if you sing on the beat. It’ll sound better! After all it’s the quality of your voice, the tone, the phrasing that’ll really communicate the mood. Okay! We can get together later, and I’ll show you what I mean.”
“Great!” exclaimed Al. “I’d appreciate that!”
He enjoyed working with the bandleader for whom he felt a tremendous respect, and as the days went by, he found that he was looking forward to the studio sessions more and more.
London, England, June, 1931.
“It must be so-o-o exciting to play with the Ray Fox Band every night, Mr. Bowlly,” said the young debutante breathlessly.
Al Bowlly smiled slightly and nodded.
“And Mr. Upson has such a lovely restaurant here,” continued the young woman, glancing around the ornately furnished room with its bandstand, dance floor and scattered tables. “I come here all the time,” she said, her eyes sparkling, “such interesting people to meet. People like you, Mr. Bowlly. I just love your voice! It gives me the shivers! Especially when you sing ‘The Very Thought of You’!”
“No kidding?” said Al, his face spreading into that warm wide grin that so entranced the female members of the nightly audience. “Well, thanks for the compliment, and you can call me Al, by the way!”
“Wow! Really!” said the debutante. “My name is Kathleen. Kathleen Stewart. I’m so happy. I got to talk to you.”
She paused for a moment, and then said shyly:
“You’re so handsome, Al. A real dream-boat!”
Al grinned again.
“Well,” he said, affording her another glimpse of his sparkling white teeth, “that’s so flattering, Miss Stewart. You’ll have to excuse me now. My break is over. I’ve got to go play again, but if you’re still here when we finish, I’ll be sure to look out for you, okay?”
Kathleen simpered with pleasure as the handsome young singer made his way back to the bandstand of the Monseigneur Restaurant, the latest addition to London’s night-life spots. Opened by Jack Upson, managing director of Dolcis Shoes, it was fast becoming the destination of choice for the young crowd. Upson had hired renowned bandleader Roy Fox to form a band, and provide the musical setting for his customers to dance the night away. In search of a vocalist, Fox had hired Al Bowlly on the recommendation of his good friend, Al Noble.
Al took his seat, and picked up his guitar. He knew that as a musician he was just one of the crowd. He rarely soloed, and most of the time his instrument was barely audible, drowned out by the bass section, but he had an acute sense of the rhythm and tempo of each song, and he enjoyed strumming away and filling out the overall sound of the band. However, it was in his moments at the microphone that he really came alive. He had never been comfortable with megaphones (although he had actually lent his name and endorsement to a particular brand!) He had never cared for the strident ‘minstrel’ sound of singers like Al Jolson or Rudy Valee. The microphone was an invention that had set him free to explore and develop his own style of singing. The amplification allowed him to sing smoothly and intimately with shades of tone and emotion that enabled him to put a song across powerfully. More than one female visitor to the Monseigneur restaurant had commented that it felt as if Al was singing directly and personally to her.
The band started playing, and couples drifted out to the floor to dance the foxtrot. Al watched idly as he strummed his guitar, noticing how several couples drew closer and closer together as the night wore on. He enjoyed dancing himself and the chance to hold a warm female body close to his.
As the number drew to a close, and the couples separated to applaud, Roy Fox, handsome and dignified in his coat and tails, looking as classy as a movie star, stepped to the microphone to announce:
“Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Al Bowlly!”
Al set down his guitar, and strode forward. Turning a dazzling smile on the expectant audience, he spoke softly into the microphone:
“For a certain young lady in the audience I’m going to sing her favorite song: ‘The Very Thought of You’.”
As the band launched into the opening bars of the song, Al closed his eyes and swayed from side to side, preparing to deliver the ballad, written by his friend and mentor, Ray Noble, with all the yearning tenderness that the lyrics suggested.
As he crooned the opening lines:
“The very thought of you, and I forget to do,
The little ordinary things that everyone ought to do,”
There was an audible sigh from the audience. The couples joined together again on the dance floor, cheek to cheek, and glided gracefully around as Al continued:
“I’m living in a kind of daydream,
I’m happy as a king,
And foolish though it may seem,
To me that’s everything,”
He couldn’t help noticing that as each couple passed below him, the eyes of the female partner would lift inexorably to meet his. Tears had formed in the corners of Al’s large brown eyes, and there was a slight choke in his voice as he sang:
“The mere idea of you, the longing here for you,”
He touched his heart, noticing as he did so that a cluster of women had gathered below him. Their eyes were upturned in adoration, and he noticed with some satisfaction that Kathleen was among them.
“You’ll never know how slow the moments go till I’m near to you,” he crooned
“I see your face in every flower,
Your face in stars above,
It’s just the thought of you,
The very thought of you,”
He paused to gaze down into the faces of his admirers before uttering the last two words: “My love.” As he uttered them, it seemed to each of the women that he was directing them personally to her.
He gave a tiny bow, and stepped back from the microphone. For a moment there was an awed silence, and then loud applause broke out all around him. Some of the women, sitting at tables stood to applaud. He stepped back to the microphone and murmured “thank you so much”, blowing kisses to all corners of the room.
As he passed Roy Fox on his way back to his stool, the bandleader smiled and touched his arm, saying:
“Great job, Al! You sure know how to put a song across. They were eating out of your hand! I’ll put you up again in a while, but let’s give those girls a chance to recover!”