In which Al Bowly becomes ‘a heart-throb’ and conquers America.
“This is the BBC, and it’s time for the late night dance music program. Tonight, as on every Tuesday night, our broadcast brings you, live from the Monseigneur Restaurant in London’s West End, the Roy Fox orchestra featuring vocalist Al Bowlly.”
Across London in hundreds of houses and apartments rugs were rolled up as couples prepared to dance across their living rooms to the strains of the season’s popular tunes. Many dreamed that they were there, dressed in gowns and tuxedos, circling in front of the bandstand as the band played. Many pictured the popular bandleader, elegant and erect, wielding his baton as he directed his talented musicians. Others, especially the womenfolk imagined the attractive eyes and charming smile of Al Bowlly as the strains of his sweet voice drifted out from their radio sets.
After the broadcast was over, Al and some of his bandmates, such as Matt Langella or ‘Tiny’ Winters, would often head for one of the nearby all-night clubs, such as Kate Merrick’s 43 Club or Milly Hoey’s Bag O’Nails. There they could unwind and ‘let their hair down’ before heading home to sleep. The atmosphere at these establishments was private and relaxed, and they were rarely raided by the authorities, both proprietors having reached ‘an arrangement’ with the local police.
Al Bowlly, an incurable ‘night owl’ rarely returned to his new flat at 17, Orange Street, Piccadilly much before daybreak. His life now had become a hectic round of daytime recordings followed by nightly performances at The Monseigneur. However, he was strong and energetic, and kept himself fit with visits to the YMCA gym and pool on Jermyn Street. He also enjoyed ‘a flutter’ on the horses or the dogs, an indulgence afforded him by his now substantial earnings from his various musical engagements.
Al Bowlly sat drinking coffee at the all night Lyons Corner House in the Strand. Open twenty-four hours per day, it was a popular haunt for musicians, actors and dancers, but the man who sat opposite him across the table was not in show business. He was a dapper man in a pin-stripe suit and a colorful tie. He wore a morose expression on his sallow face, and his wavy black hair was neatly plastered down.
“Show me your scar again, Harry,” said Al, leaning forward in his chair.
A smirk of bravado showed on his companion’s face as he drew the tails of his shirt up from the waistband of his pants. An ugly purple scar showed across his belly.
“Tell me the story of how you got it again, Harry,” continued Al eagerly.
He had met the notorious Harry Santini at one of the racetracks he frequented. They had got talking about horses. Al had given his new acquaintance a rare winning tip, and had soon captured the affection of the gangster with his ready charm and wit as well as his ill-concealed admiration for his new friend’s underworld exploits.
“It was back in ’22,” began Harry Santini, speaking slowly and deliberately. In spite of bearing his Italian father’s name, he had never been to Italy and did not speak a word of the language, instead sporting a broad Cockney accent. “Me and Charlie and Darby was runnin’ the protection game at all the major tracks in the sarth of England. At the time the Cortesi brothers were with us, but they didn’t fink they was getting’ their fair whack. They star’ed gettin’ stroppy, so Charlie sent me raund to sort it. Well, I took out my shooter and waved it araund a bit. I reckoned they’d got the message pretty clear, but a few days later me and Darby was in the Fratellanza Social Club on Great Bath Street in Clerkenwell ‘avin’ a quiet drink. So just then the door bursts open and in come four of the Cortesis with Alex Tomaso.”
“So then what happened, Harry?” asked Al, an expression of expectancy on his face.
“Well, Paul Cortesi up and chucks a cup of ‘ot coffee in my face. Scalded me something awful! Then Gus Cortesi pulls his shooter, and aims it at my brother, Darby, but this girl, Louisa, that’s the daughter of the bloke wot runs the club, she knocks ‘is arm aside and the bullet goes art through a window. Then a proper rumble starts. Tomaso ‘its Darby with a bottle, and ‘e falls dahn. Enrico Cortesi comes to shoot me, and streuf, that Louisa gel puts herself right in ’is path to stop ‘im. Now don’t get me wrong! She’s a plucky gel and no mistake, but I’m not ‘idin’ behind a woman’s skirt, so I shuve ‘er aut the way, and…bang!…Rico plugs me right in the belly. Well there’s shots going off, and bottles flyin’ all over the place. Finally the Cortesi shower run outa the club, and the secretary calls for an ambulance. They took Darby and me to the ‘ospital. He got stitches in his head, and I was in there fer a week. I was lucky. The bullet missed all me vitals, and I ‘ealed pretty quick.”
“That’s an exciting tale, Harry,” said Al. “Much better than the flix!”
“It ain’t so fuckin’ thrillin’ when you’re in it,” commented Harry Sabini ruefully. “I was crappin’ my pants. Thought I was a goner! But those were the days all right! Never a dull moment! Things is a lot quieter now. We got aut of the racetrack bizness. It was get tin’ too ‘airy. The police were movin’ in, and the toffs at the Jockey Club was gettin’ antsy. Now we work the dog tracks – they gets less attention from the law, and we’re putting aur money into night clubs and such. You know, playin’ at bein’ legit business men and all that.”
“Aren’t you afraid the law will catch up to you, Harry?” asked Al.
Harry Santini’s lip curled.
“Nah worries,” he answered. “Old Charlie’s got a few judges and Chief-Supers in his pocket, and he’s got the goods on a few politicians too! We ain’t too worried on that score!”
At that moment Al glanced up, and was momentarily transfixed. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen had just walked into the café and taken a seat at the counter. He turned to his friend.
“Harry, old buddy,” he said, his mouth dry. “Do you by any chance have any idea who that gorgeous woman is who just walked in?”
Harry glanced casually towards the counter.
“I’d steer clear of that bint if I was you,” he said.
“Why? What do you mean?” asked Al incredulously.
“That’s Freda Roberts,” answered Harry. “She’s a showgirl. Gets araund a bit. Loves ‘em and leaves ‘em! She’s trouble, pal!”
“Do you know her?” asked Al nervously.
Harry nodded. “We’ve met,” he replied.
“Introduce me, Harry, please,” begged Al. “Be a pal!”
Harry glanced at his friend scornfully. Jeez, these night-club singers, he thought! They must really believe that romantic crap they sing about!
He shrugged and got to his feet.
“Your funeral, mate,” he said laconically. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
“So you’re a singer, aren’t you?” asked Freda.
“Yes,” replied Al. “How do you know?”
“I was at the Monseigneur one night with a friend,” answered Freda.
“What did you think of the band?” asked Al shyly.
Freda glanced at him, a playful expression in her eyes.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off you!” she said. “I thought, ‘What a simply gorgeous man!’ I forgot all about the bloke I was with.”
“You’re teasing me, of course,” chided Al.
“No, I’m dead serious,” she replied. “You’re such a dreamboat, and, boy, can you put a song over. Your big brown eyes mesmerized me! Me and every other woman in the audience!”
“Now, I know, you’re really joking!” he said.
Freda shook her head.
“You’ve got this thing going on,” she continued. “This…this…” She searched for words. “It’s a magnetism that attracts women irresistibly. There was this actress years ago, in the silent film era. Clara Bow was her name. The named her ‘The It girl’. ‘It’ was this quality of attraction she had for members of the opposite sex. You’ve got it, Al?”
“And you know this how?” asked Al dubiously.
Freda leaned forward, and placed her hand gently on his knee.
“Because I have it too,” she answered, her lips curling into an irresistible smile.
Al felt a tingling sensation run up his spine.
“Men are attracted to me. They can’t resist me. I have to fight them off,” declared Freda. “I could feel you staring at me the moment I walked in here.”
Al felt his face redden with shame.
“Don’t be embarrassed, Al,” said Freda in a silky tone. “You and I we have that in common. We’re both irresistible.”
“Marry me, Freda!” Al blurted out before he knew what he was saying.
Freda threw back her head and laughed heartily.
“Slow down, my friend,” she said when her amusement subsided. “We only just met. Listen, you buy me a nice breakfast, and then we’ll go for a nice walk along the river, and who knows what might happen after that!”
She shot him a roguish glance, at the same time tilting her pretty face back with a tantalizing gesture.
Al was bewitched. He’d never before encountered a woman of such overt sexuality. And one so beautiful.
He swallowed, and gestured for the waiter.
Later as they drank cups of tea, she told him a little about herself. She was from Yorkshire. He could detect slight traces of her northern origins beneath the overlaid London accent. The daughter of a merchant seaman, she’d left home as a teenager to seek her fortune in ‘the smoke’, taking a position as a night club hostess. It was her job to entertain customers and convince them to buy the over-priced champagne on sale at her club. She frequently served as an escort for businessmen ‘out on the town’. Al was discreet enough not to enquire the extent of services as escort. He was so entranced with Freda that he did not care. All he knew was that he had a gorgeous woman on his arm, and that she seemed to like him.
“I really fancy you, Al,” she said to him as they strolled down Regents Street one day.
“Fancy me?” echoed Al in a puzzled tone.
“Cor, you really are naïve,” giggled Freda. “‘Fancy you’ means I’d like to take you to bed!”
Al Bowlly, who had always considered himself a man of the world, blushed like a young schoolboy at this woman’s astonishing directness.
“You don’t believe in beating around the bush, do you, Freda,” he said as he attempted to cover his embarrassment.
“Come off it, Al,” teased Freda, squeezing his arm. “We’re both fully grown. Let’s go to your flat. It’s only half past two. We’ve got hours before it’s time to go to work.”
Al looked into her wide blue eyes, and felt himself melt.
“Okay,” he said simply.
“You look happy, Al,” declared Matt Langella as the singer strolled jauntily into the band-room on the top floor of the Monseigneur Restaurant three days later. Three of the band members were playing poker together.
“I should be,” replied Al, “seeing as how I just got married!”
His friend looked up from studying his poker hand.
“And who’s the lucky lady?” he said with interest.
“Miss Freda Roberts is the new Mrs. Bowlly,” replied Al.
Langella’s mouth dropped open in surprise.
‘Tiny’ Winters laid his cards face down on the table and said:
“Are you crazy, Al?”
“What do you mean, Tiny?” replied Al belligerently. “Freda’s a fine lady, and I love her to death!”
“You do know that she’s a showgirl,” said Tiny. “She has quite a reputation. She’s…been around.”
Al bunched his fists.
“Now look here, Tiny,” he spluttered. “I’ve a good mind to knock your block off! That’s my wife you’re talking about!”
“Alright! Alright!” exclaimed Tiny, raising his hands in apology. “Don’t get stroppy! I don’t want to fight! But don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!”
“Watch what you say,” continued Al angrily, “or I’ll give you a good hiding!”
“Steady, Al,” said Matt Langella, intervening. “I dare say Tiny didn’t mean what he just said, did you, Tiny?”
He gave Tiny a meaningful look.
“Okay! Okay!” said Tiny. “I spoke out of turn! I take it all back! Satisfied?”
Al gave Tiny a stern look, and remarked in a voice, still tinged with anger:
“If I come across anyone insulting or badmouthing my wife, I’ll beat him to within an inch of his life! Got it!”
Tiny and the others nodded and picked up their cards. Al stormed out of the room.
Al was whistling as he climbed the last flight of stairs in his apartment building. He was back early from a recording session, and he planned to surprise Freda.
Life was glorious! He had never been so happy! His singing career was flourishing, and he was in constant demand. And now he was married to the most beautiful woman in all of London!
He put his key in the lock, and turned it. Just as he was about to open the door, his ear caught a murmur of voices from inside the flat. Pausing he edged the door open softly, and stepped inside. The living room was deserted. Where were the voices coming from? He was about to call out when he suddenly froze in his tracks. The voices were coming from the bedroom!
He tiptoed across the room, and paused a second time outside the bedroom door. His hands were trembling as he reached for the handle. In one abrupt movement he flung open the door.
There were two people on the bed. The woman was Freda. The man, he had never seen before.
Instinctively Freda reached for the sheet to cover herself. The man grabbed a pillow. They both turned to stare at the figure of Al outlined in the doorway.
Freda saw the expression of pain and bewilderment on her husband’s face, and tried to speak. Her lips moved, but no words would come. Suddenly she was afraid. She knew he had a temper, and could be provoked to anger. She stretched out her arm in his direction.
All at once Al emerged from his shock. Turning on his heel, he stalked back across the living room out of the door of his flat, and downstairs into the street.
He walked blindly down the pavement. In an instant his perfect life had been shattered, and he didn’t know what to do.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” declared the MC, resplendent in his tuxedo, “let’s give a warm Yorkshire welcome to the Lewis Stone Band!”
The hearty applause of the theater Bradford audience was liberally sprinkled with cheers and whoops as the band eased briskly into the opening bars of the Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’. A few moments later a cheer went up around the auditorium as a dapper, well-groomed figure emerged from the wings, and strode to the microphone. Al Bowlly acknowledged his enthusiastic reception with a smile and a wave of the hand. Moments later his warm, velvety tones could be heard, delivering the lyrics with style and practiced ease, matching the bands’ brisk tempo, chopping and stretching the notes effortlessly.
At the end of the opening number the audience responded with whistles and cheers and vigorous clapping.
“Good evening, everybody,” said the vocalist with a grin. “My name is Al Bowlly, and now I’d like to sing a number, made famous by American singer Gene Austin. It’s called ‘Melancholy Baby’.”
He began the song slowly and smoothly, accompanied simply by the piano. The rest of the band sat attentively, their instruments on their laps, waiting for their cue. Al sang the entire song once soulfully, using his hands to emphasize certain words and phrases. Then he raised his hands closer to the mike, and in synch with the piano, began to click out a faster tempo, lending the song a jaunty swing. The band picked up their instruments and came in behind him.
He followed with ‘Blue Moon’ and I’ve Got You under my Skin’, each song received with warmer and warmer applause. Then he stepped away from the microphone back into the wings as Lewis Stone took center stage to lead his band through some instrumental versions of popular hits.
Al returned twenty minutes later to sing again, and an expectant hush greeted his arrival. He launched into a medley of songs he had recorded himself, beginning with Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’, followed by ‘If I Had You’, ‘Easy to Love’, ‘Frankie and Johnny’ and several others.
At last he introduced his last song. Speaking softly into the microphone, he said:
“This is a lovely song, written by my very good friend, Ray Noble, who has been a teacher and a mentor to me for a number of years. It’s called ‘The Very Thought of You’.
As he leaned into the microphone to croon the opening lines, Al seemed to go into a trance, closing his eyes and delivering the lyrics in a soft poignant tenor. The female members of the audience seemed transfixed, staring at the figure on the bandstand as if he were singing directly to each one of them.
As Al sang the closing line, tears were rolling down the cheeks of several women in the audience. The last notes died away, and Al let his head fall forward for a moment. There was a hush, followed by wild applause and shouts of ‘More, more!’
Al bowed, and turned away to walk off-stage. As he did, one of the trumpet players leaned over to his neighbor, and murmured:
“Check him out! He’s got himself in tears too!”
After the concert was over, a long line of female audience members formed around the outside of the auditorium, all anxious to meet the debonair Al Bowlly, exchange a few words with him and get his autograph. Al himself was standing by the piano near the stage at the edge of the orchestra pit, intending to use its closed top as a makeshift table on which to sign the books of his admirers.
He beckoned the first fan forward. She was a pretty, fresh-faced young woman with long curly hair pinned up neatly with a hair slide.
“I just adore your voice, Mr. Bowly,” she said in a breathy voice. “We have all your records at home, and we play them all the time. When I heard you were coming to our town, I just had to see you!”
“So did you enjoy yourself?” asked Al.
“It was…you were… wonderful!” the woman stammered, blushing to the roots of her hair.
“What would you like me to write in your book?” inquired Al gently.
“Write something nice,” replied the young woman wistfully. “My name is Deirdre.”
Al smiled as he scribbled in her book, and then handed it back to her. When Deirdre read what he’d written, she blushed again even more deeply. It said:
‘To my pretty young friend, Deidre, from Al Bowlly. I could turn the skies to blue, If I had you.’
“Wow, thanks, Mr. Bowlly,” she murmured gratefully. “That’s so beautiful.”
He leaned over, and kissed her gently on the cheek. She looked stunned for a moment, then turned away and walked off in a daze.
His next visitor was a strikingly beautiful woman with wavy jet-black hair and high cheekbones. Al guessed her to be in her thirties. As he glanced into her pale blue eyes, he felt an electric tingle run up his spine. She returned his glance with a detached insouciance. This was no star-struck young girl! She held out her hand, saying:
“My name is Natalia, Al. I am so pleased to meet you. You are a very fine singer.”
She spoke with a noticeable eastern European accent. Al felt suddenly slightly uneasy.
“So, I gather you enjoyed the evening, Natalia,” he said.
“Oh yes,” she answered in a husky voice. “It was…divine. I do hope it is not yet over.”
Her voice had a suggestive tone to it.
“You don’t have a book, Natalia,” said Al. “Do you want an autograph?”
“Of course,” replied Natalia, looking him full in the eye. “You may sign on the cuff of my blouse.”
Al was momentarily perplexed, but he took her proffered arm, and let it rest on the piano top. He had to hold her hand to keep it steady while he signed his name on the white cuff of her blouse. As he wrote, he could feel something indefinable pass between them. He knew that she had asked him to sign her cuff because she wanted to feel his touch. There was not much space on the starched linen surface for words, but he managed to scribble: ‘To the lovely mysterious Natalia, Al.’
When he released her hand, Natalie read what he had written and chuckled throatily:
“Oh, Al, you are too kind!” she purred in a silky voice.
At that same moment Al felt something slipped into his hand. He glanced down to see a scrap of paper with a telephone number written on it. He put it hurriedly into his pocket, and looked up to see Natalia regarding him with a mocking smile.
“I do hope I will see you again very soon, Al,” she said before pivoting and gliding away down the theater aisle. Al watched her long willowy form and gently swaying hips until she disappeared through the door into the lobby.
“Eh, lad, but tha can’t half sing!” a loud voice exclaimed into his ear.
Al turned to see a middle-aged woman, smartly-dressed but heavily made-up with lipstick and mascara, standing by the piano.
“You were dreamin’, lad,” she continued, “and I can’t say as I blame you. That lass were a stunner, a real glamour-puss and no mistake. Listen, I’ll not keep thee. Tha must be tired. Just write something short and sweet in my book, and I’ll be on my way. The name’s Gladys.”
Al wrote: ‘To my new friend, Gladys, with gratitude and affection, Al.’ Then he handed back the book.
Gladys perched a pair of pince-nez on her nose as she read, then gave him a broad amiable smile.
“You’re a charmer, lad,” she exclaimed, “and you’ve made this old girl very happy!”
Then she leaned over, and planted a big sloppy kiss on his cheek. Al looked sheepish as she turned away and flounced down the aisle. He pulled out his handkerchief to surreptitiously wipe the lipstick from his cheek, trying to ignore the giggles emanating from the waiting women.
He gave a deep sigh. It’s going to be a long evening, he thought.
London, a few weeks later.
“You must go,” said Margaret Fairless urgently. “It’s the chance of a lifetime! Think of it! New York City! Hundreds of Americans just waiting to swoon at the smooth sweet sounds of Al Bowly! That’s what your fans are calling you – ‘The Big Swoon’!”
“I’ll only go if you come with me,” said Al earnestly. “I love you, and I need you. I couldn’t bear to be without you for a moment.”
“Oh, Al,” said Marjie, touching his cheek, “you’re such a romantic. No wonder you cry every time you sing! Of course, I’ll come with you. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Besides,” she continued in a playful tone, “I’ve got to keep an eye on you, what with all those young women slipping you their telephone numbers!”
Does she really know, thought Al? Of course she’s seen ‘the come-ons’, but does she know how many times I’ve taken advantage. A momentary image of Natalia’s lithe body flitted across his mind, but he dismissed it sharply. No, he thought, Marjie’s the best thing that’s happened to me! I’m not going to ruin it!
“There’s only one woman for me now, Marjie,” he said firmly. “You saved my life. I was a wreck after Freda left me. I couldn’t believe she’d cheated on me the way she did. I was hurting, and I didn’t trust anyone, especially women. And the she kept showing up at the restaurant with other men in tow. It was as if she were taunting me!”
“I know, darling,” said Marjie soothingly. “I’d see your face go white as a sheet the moment she walked in. Why, one night you broke off in the middle of a song, and rushed off stage. It was cruel of her! I decided I had to do something.”
“I remember,” said Al. “You came rushing after me, and took me to the Lyons Corner House for a cup of coffee. You calmed me down and lent me a sympathetic ear. You were a life-saver. I’d never have got through it without you.”
“I didn’t realize it then,” continued Marjie, “but I’d fallen in love with a sweet talented man who was in great pain. You needed a shoulder to cry on, someone to take care of you, and I wanted to be that someone.”
“And I’m so grateful,” declared Al earnestly.
“By the way,” commented Marjie thoughtfully, “I don’t believe I’ve seen Freda in a while. She seemed to suddenly get tired of bothering you. I wonder what happened.”
“Er…well,” began Al, somewhat hesitantly, “I…er…had a word with a friend of mine, Harry Sabini, and he suggested to Freda that it might be better for her to do her dancing somewhere else!”
“Oh, Al!” exclaimed Marjie in a tone of mock horror. “You mean Harry Sabini, the gangster. How dreadful!”
“He’d never have hurt her,” Al assured her hurriedly. “Just scare her off. Besides, she wouldn’t listen to me!”
“Oh well,” said Marjie with a wry smile, “I suppose one sometimes has to fight fire with fire!”
“So can I tell Ray Noble that we’ll go to New York with him?” asked Al.
“Of course, Al,” replied Marjie, brightening. “I can hardly wait. It’s going to be such fun!”
New York, USA, March, 1935.
“There is nothing I couldn’t do, if I had you,” crooned Al Bowlly as he concluded the end of his opening number in the stylish Rainbow Room atop the Rockefeller Center in New York City.
As the last notes died away, loud applause sounded from the tables surrounding the bandstand.
“Thank you very much,” said Al into the mike. “My name is Al Bowlly, and I’m excited to be here in New York City for the very first time. I chose to open with that number because it was the very first of my recordings to make any impact ‘on this side of the pond’. Now I’d like to continue with a song made familiar to you all by the great Sophie Tucker. It’s called ‘Some of these Days’.”
Al launched into the upbeat refrain with its syncopated rhythm, did the number once through, and then again, the second time scatting instead of singing the lyrics. Then he backed away from the mike with a nod to the band to ‘blow a little.’ He exchanged a glance and a smile with the bespectacled trombone player in the front row, a talented and ambitious musician named Glen Miller who had been such a help in finding good musicians to back him and Ray Noble on their American engagements.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of the trim figure of Ray sweeping his hands back and forth to the rhythm of the music, guiding the musicians through their part. He owed so much to the bandleader who had given him vocal assignments in the studio when times were lean and guided his career with invaluable insights and suggestions.
A few dancers had wandered out onto the floor. Al caught sight of Marjie dancing with a handsome friend of Miller’s. She was smiling at her partner, and Al experienced a momentary twinge of jealousy and fear. Despite his enormous attractiveness to women in the audiences to whom he performed, he still felt insecure and afraid of losing the one woman who, he hoped, loved him.
Steady, Al, he thought. She’s just enjoying herself while you work. She’s loyal and faithful. You can trust Marjie.
The number concluded, and he stepped back to the microphone to sing again. The songs flowed: ‘All I Do is Dream of You’, ‘Careless Love’, ‘Heartaches’, ‘I’ve Got You under My Skin’ and the showstopper, “The Very Thought of You’. Each song was greeted with thunderous applause. There were none of the whistles or screams that had greeted him in English provincial theaters, but this was New York, an altogether more sophisticated audience.
However, there was no doubt that they enjoyed and appreciated him. By the end of the evening he was walking on air.
“How are you feeling, darling?” asked Marjie, taking his arm.
“On top of the world!” exclaimed Al jubilantly. “In more ways than one!”
And there on the 65th floor of The Rockefeller Center they both collapsed in merriment as the double meaning of his reply came home to them.
New York City, June, 1935.
“So,” said the reporter from the women’s magazine. “I’m sure all our readers will want to know how it feels to be Mrs. Al Bowlly, to be married to the most attractive singing star in America.”
“Careful what you say!” replied Marjie Fairless archly. “Bing Crosby might not be too pleased to hear you say that Al is more attractive than he is! I understand that he considers himself quite the ladies’ man! But to answer your question, I’m thrilled and happy to be Al’s wife. He’s such a sweet charming man. I’ve known him for quite some time. We meant to get married months ago, but he’s been so busy. There’s the nightly engagement at the Rainbow Room until 3 a.m., and the Coca Cola show on NBC once a week. Not to mention that he’s in constant demand in the recording studios. And now he and Ray and the band are filming their spot in that movie out on Long Island!”
“Ah, you mean ‘The Big Broadcast of 1936,’” prompted the reporter, scribbling in her notebook.
“Yes, that’s right,” answered Marjie. “They’re doing one of Ray Noble’s songs. I think it’s called ‘Why Stars Come Out at Night’.”
“Has Al…your husband been in the movies before?” asked the reporter. She was an eager young woman, dressed fashionably, with carefully manicured finger nails and neat hair cut into a bob.
“Actually he was in a couple of pictures in England,” replied Marjie. “Not really acting. He was sort of being himself, singing in the background, while the real actors were talking. But I think he’d like to act if he got the chance. After all,” she added mischievously, “he’s certainly got the looks, doesn’t he? I think he’s quite as handsome as Cary Grant, don’t you?”
“Actually, I think he’s ‘dishy’,” replied the reporter, blushing to the roots of her hair. “Oh dear, I forgot you just married him! I shouldn’t be saying things like that, should I?”
“Don’t worry!” declared Marjie, smiling. “I’m used to that. I know all the women flirt like crazy with Al, and he flirts right back. It’s his nature, but I’m not worried! I’ve got this!”
She raised her left hand, and pointed to the new wedding ring on her finger.
“He’s promised me he’ll behave himself from now on, and I trust him,” she continued. “Besides,” she added with a wicked gleam in her eye, “I’ll be keeping a sharp eye on him, and woe betide any woman who gets any rash ideas!”
“Could we talk, Ray?” asked Glen Miller.
“Certainly, Glenn,” answered the tall angular Englishman, easing himself into a chair in the empty Rainbow Room. The restaurant was closed for the afternoon. The band had rehearsed, and the musicians had decamped in search of a few hours rest or recreation. Al and Marjie had gone shopping on Fifth Avenue.
“What’s on your mind?” asked Ray Noble.
Glenn Miller hesitated. He seemed uncomfortable, fidgeting in his chair. He ran his fingers through his hair a couple of times, and then began:
“You know, Ray, that I have great admiration for you as a musician. You’ve taught me a great deal about arranging numbers for a band, and some of the songs you’ve written are just great, but I have to tell you that some of the band members are getting a tad restless.”
“Oh, really,” said Ray politely, his eyebrows raised a centimeter. “I had no idea!”
“It’s not like they’re not grateful for the opportunity to play the Rainbow Room,” continued Miller awkwardly. “Christ knows it’s a great gig, but it’s just they get tired of playing the same way every night, six nights a week.”
“Really, old boy, that’s the way we do it in England,” replied Noble mildly. “It’s expected, you know. It’s professional.”
“I just think the boys would be happier if you let them swing a little,” ventured Miller.
“Swing?” said Noble.
“Yeah,” Miller went on. “Just let them play a bit looser. Let them stretch out. Be less rigid.”
Ray Noble leaned back, placing his fingertips together.
“I don’t think that’s what the management of The Rainbow Room want, Glenn,” he said coolly. “They want music the customers can dance to. You know ballroom dancing. And the owners pay our salaries. We have to give them what they want. We can’t just improvise whenever we want. This isn’t some smoky jazz club in Harlem. This audience is sophisticated.”
“Look,” said Miller urgently. “I’m not saying we should throw out your arrangements. I’m just saying that if we loosen things up a bit, give the boys a little more freedom, they’ll be happier. I think the customers will take it right. This is New York after all.”
“Are you implying that we’re too stuffy and conventional in England then, Glenn?” asked Ray Noble, a prickly tone creeping into his voice.
“Hell, no,” answered Miller. “I told you at the get-go I loved your stuff. It’s just that I think if we gave the guys just a little more freedom to put their own stamp on the music, we’d have a lot happier bunch of campers!” he finished awkwardly.
“Alright, Glenn,” said Ray Noble. “I get the picture. Just give me some time to think about it, okay?”
“Sure, Ray,” replied Miller. “Take all the time you want.”
New York, USA, December, 1936.
Interview in ‘Jazz Scene’ magazine:
Reporter: So, Al, we’ve been hearing rumors that you’re heading back to England in the New Year?
Al: That’s true, Bob. I think it’s time.
Reporter: But surely, Al, you’ve had tremendous success over here. You’re very popular.
Al: Yes, but the band is breaking up. We’ve had a great run at the Rainbow Room here in New York, but it’s coming to an end. The boys want to do other things. Ray (Noble) is off to Hollywood. He’s had some exciting offers for work there writing music for the movies. He and I were back over in England in August for a couple of weeks. I recorded a short clip for Pathe, singing ‘Melancholy Baby’. Besides I’m feeling homesick for the old country!
Reporter: What have been the highlights of you time over here, Al?
Al: There’ve been so many, Bob. Of course the opening night at the Rainbow room was one. The out-of-town gigs we did this past summer in Waltham Massachusetts, Atlantic City and Galveston, Texas, were also a lot of fun. A chance to see more of the country, and meet some of our new fans. But there were some disappointments too, such as the movie.
Reporter: Disappointments? How so?
Al: Well, we spent a week out in Long Island, filming our spot for ‘The Big Broadcast of 1936’. We had to be there at seven-thirty in the morning, and sometimes we didn’t get any sleep at all because we didn’t finish playing at the Rainbow Room till three. We were exhausted by the time the filming was over, and after all that, they cut us out of the movie!
Reporter: That must have been a blow! Bing Crosby was in that movie. How do you feel about people comparing the two of you? I’ve heard some folks calling you ‘the British Bing’.
Al: Perhaps they should be calling him ‘the American Al’! Look, Bob, he and I have somewhat similar styles, but every singer’s voice is different. I happen to think that mine is higher and lighter than his. Look, we both started getting famous around the same time, but in different places. I spend a lot of time rehearsing and developing my interpretations of songs to perfect my own unique versions. And frankly, I don’t listen to Bing that much, and I doubt he listens to me.
Reporter: But don’t you think you’re giving up a great opportunity leaving the USA when your career here seems at its peak?
Al: Marjie and I have enjoyed our time here, Bob, but we’re both a bit worn out with all the hustle and bustle. We’ve been here nearly two years now, and frankly we’re both a tad homesick. We’re planning on spending some time in England re-connecting with the fans and re-charging our batteries. I expect we’ll be back over here in the not too distant future.
Reporter: Well, good luck to the both of you, Al, and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
Al: My pleasure, Bob.