London, England, March, 1937.
“I still think it’s a mistake, forming your own band, Al. I’m not sure England’s ready for an act with a vocalist out front!”
The speaker was a reporter from Melody Maker, Britain’s prominent music newspaper.
“Nonsense,” retorted Al briskly. “Times are changing. In America vocalists such as Bing Crosby always get star billing.”
“But this is England, Al,” the reporter said, “and you’ve been out of the country for two years. The public is fickle. They have a short memory. Other singers have come to the fore in your absence. I think you’ll have a tough time filling halls and theaters.”
“Well, we’ll see, won’t we,” declared Al Bowlly pugnaciously.
Review in a Birmingham newspaper:
“Al Bowlly’s new band the ‘Radio City Rhythm Makers debuted last night at the Empire Theater. The eight-man ensemble, which featured Bowlly’s brother, Mish, on piano, also included guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, clarinet and trumpet. Songs performed included: ‘Tiger’, ‘Organ Grinders Swing’, ‘Everybody Jam’ and Bowlly’s trademark, ‘Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime’.
Bowlly, who has been absent from this country for two years, was in ebullient form and received an enthusiastic reception from the packed theater. During his stay in the United States he has perfected his vocal style so that he handles upbeat melodies and romantic ballads with equal panache.”
“The theater was half-empty tonight,” said Mish Bowlly to his brother, Al. “What’s going on?”
“Don’t worry!” replied Al calmly. “We’re a new act. They’re getting used to us. Thing’s will pick up after a few more gigs.”
“I hope so!” exclaimed his brother. “And by the way, Al, is there something wrong? You didn’t sound right tonight. Seemed like you were having some trouble projecting your voice.”
“I was having some problems,” admitted Al. “My breathing wasn’t right, and my throat’s a bit sore. Too much singing, I guess.”
“Maybe you should see a doctor, and get it checked,” suggested Mish. If our act is going to be a success, we need you in good shape.”
“Well, Mr. Bowlly, you have a wart on your vocal chords,” said the doctor.
Al breathed an audible sigh of relief.
“At least it’s not cancer,” he remarked.
“It’s certainly not life-threatening,” continued the doctor, “but if it’s not treated your voice is going to deteriorate further.”
“Well, what are we waiting for, Doc,” said Al, “let’s go ahead and schedule an operation as soon as possible.”
“I’m afraid it’s not as easy as that,” replied the doctor. “There isn’t anyone currently in this country able to carry out this kind of operation. If you want treatment, you’re going to have to go over to the United States. There are surgeons over there who can do treat this kind of problem.”
“You’re kidding, Doc!” exclaimed Al. “Nobody over here can do it! I’ll have to cancel all my upcoming engagements.”
“Not only that,” interrupted the doctor, “but even if the surgery is successful, and there’s only a fifty per cent chance of that, you’ll have to rest your voice for several months if you want to avoid further damage.”
“You mean my…my career could be over,” asked Al shakily.
“I mean that it’s possible after surgery that you may never sing again,” warned the doctor.
When he saw the shocked expression on his patient’s face, he added hastily:
“Of course you may recover completely. We simply can’t guarantee the results.”
“Well, thank you, doctor, for your advice,” said Al pensively.
London, England, May, 1937.
“So Al is over in the States right now?” asked Marjie’s friend, Susie.
“Yes,” replied Marjie, “he needed the operation on his vocal chords right away. He was very worried. It was a difficult decision because finances were a bit tight. He hasn’t had much work since the tour ended, and the doctor’s fees were pretty steep. He had to go cap in hand to several of his friends to borrow money. Al made a lot of money in the United States when he went with Ray Noble, but he’s never been much of a saver. You know how he likes a flutter on the horses! Anyway, people were very generous, but there wasn’t enough for me to go too. Frankly it was a bit of a relief.”
“What do you mean, Marjie?” asked Susie curiously.
A worried expression appeared on Marjie’s face.
“To tell the truth, Susie,” she said at last. “We haven’t been getting on so well. It started over in the States. He did some touring with the band outside New York, and I decided not to go with him. I was having fun in the ‘Big apple’ at the time, but in retrospect, I think it was a mistake. Al behaves himself more or less when I’m around, but out on the road unaccompanied, there are a lot of temptations. You know, all those adoring young women, hanging around the band! Anyway as soon as we were home, he organized that new band with his brother, and they were out on the road again. So more time away from me! The truth is for the last six months I’ve seen very little of him! We’re like ships passing in the night!”
“I had no idea!” remarked Susie, a wide-eyed expression on her face.
“Yes, I fear the shine has worn off!” said Marjie ruefully.
“But he’ll need you when he gets home,” suggested Susie. “I mean he’ll be recuperating from the surgery. You’ll have to take care of him.”
“Yes,” answered Marjie with a sigh. “I suppose you’re right, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. It’s a terrible thing for me to say, but I almost hope the operation isn’t a success, because then he’d have to give up his crazy, giddy music career, and do something sensible with sensible hours where I’d be able to see him once in a while!”
London, England, October, 1937 – September, 1938.
“Good as new!” crowed Al Bowlly happily. “I’m ready to go! Can’t wait to get back into the studio to record! I do believe my voice is even better after the surgery. It seems a shade deeper, more resonant. Any way I’m raring to work!”
“Okay, Al,” said Lew Stone. “That’s great to hear! I have some songs I’d like you to record for HMV. I’d also like you to sing with my band on some engagements in the next few weeks. There are some other bandleaders interested in using you: Maurice Winnick, Sidney Lipton and Ken Johnson, for example. I think I can find plenty of work for you. How was America by the way?”
“Didn’t have much time for sight-seeing or renewing old acquaintances,” remarked Al wryly. “Most of the time I was in the hospital, but I enjoyed the trip back on the boat. I couldn’t sing or anything, but I got to eat at the captain’s table and dance a little. There were several rather ‘dishy’ young ladies on board!”
He winked at Stone, who rolled his eyes.
“Don’t tell me any more about that, Al,” he warned, “or else I’d feel obliged to rat you out to Marjie. How is she by the way?”
A troubled expression clouded Al’s usually jaunty countenance.
“She’s…alright,” he muttered. “Now Lewis, why don’t you show me the arrangements to these songs you want me to do?”
“You’ve been really busy this month, Al,” said Lewis Stone. “By my reckoning you’ve done about thirty songs here in the studio with Geraldo and his Gaucho Tango Orchestra. Poor Marjie can’t have seen too much of you.”
“As a matter of fact Marjie and I have separated for a while, and I don’t really want to talk about it, Lewis,” snapped Al.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Lewis sadly, “really sorry.”
“Well, things just weren’t working out,” said Al vaguely. “We’ve been drifting apart for a while. I don’t seem to have too much luck with this marriage business. Maybe I’m just not supposed to be a married man. I don’t know!”
He shrugged his shoulders, a morose expression on his face.
“Give it time, Al,” ventured Lewis sympathetically. “Maybe things will work out.”
“Maybe,” responded Al doubtfully.
London England, March 8, 1941.
Al Bowlly sat alongside Jimmy Messene, strumming his guitar as they rehearsed a number for their act, ‘The Radio Stars with Two Guitars’. Al glanced briefly at his partner who was singing harmony to his lead. He detected a faint aroma of alcohol on Jimmy’s breath. He knew that his singing partner liked a drink, but there had been occasions when his habit had got out of hand. They’d had to cancel a couple of engagements because Jimmy had just been too drunk to play. This had irritated Al, who, though far from abstemious himself, was a consummate professional who believed in always giving the paying customer his very best. He had decided that from now on, if Jimmy was unable to perform, he’d fulfill their engagements single-handed.
In spite of his partner’s weakness for alcohol Al Liked Jimmy. They had much in common, both being of Greek descent, both self-taught guitarists and both possessing pleasing tenor voices.
Just at that moment the door burst open, and the theater doorman burst in, an expression of shock on his face.
“A bomb just fell on the Café de Paris!” he exclaimed. “The place was packed with people! A lot of people got killed or hurt!”
“Nazi bastards!” growled Messene, rising from his chair.
Al’s face had turned white.
“I was there just two nights ago,” he murmured. “‘Snakelips’ Johnson was performing with his West Indian Orchestra, and he invited me up on stage to join them. I sang a couple of numbers. He was in rare form!”
The doorman shuffled his feet nervously.
“Sorry to tell you this, Mr. Bowlly,” he said, “but your pal, Mt. Johnson, bought it.”
“Oh no!” exclaimed Al. “Not ‘Snakelips’! I loved that man! He and his boys made such a joyous sound. Damn this war! Who’s going to get it next?”
“Maybe we will, Al,” said Jimmy glumly. “It’d be just our luck to be playing some crummy joint one night, and have one of those kraut planes drop his load on our heads!”
“Not me!” insisted Al, shaking his head vigorously. “They already tried to get me and failed! About six months ago I was walking sown Brewer Street over in Soho when a German bomb fell right in front of me in the road. There was a hell of a bang. I thought I was a goner for sure, but the blast traveled away from me, blew out some windows, knocked a few folks over, but left me without a scratch. I believe that was a sign that they’re not going to nail old Al Bowlly!”
“That’ll do it, boys,” said the recording engineer. “I believe we’ve got it.”
“That’s one of the strangest songs I ever recorded,” declared Jimmy Messene as he and Al left the studio. “Gotta be the oddest title too! I mean, “When That Man is Dead and Gone”, what kind of a title is that?”
“You’re right,” agreed Al. “It is a strange song, but I think people will relate to it. I mean everybody’s sick to the back teeth with this war. They’re all longing for it to be over even if it seems there’s no end in sight. Everybody wants to see an End to Adolf Hitler. Anyway it’s an Irving Berlin composition! When did he ever write a bad song?”
“I dunno,” continued Messene. “Some of these lyrics are a bit over the top. ‘When that man is dead and gone, we’ll go dancing down the street, kissing everyone we meet!”
“I believe that would be peoples’ reaction,” insisted Al. “All the suffering he’s inflicted! All the good people we’ve lost! Everyone has lost a friend or a family member. I think Irving Berlin’s right: ‘On that morning when we read that that man is dead and gone, we’ve got a date to celebrate!’”
“I sure hope we live to see the day when Hitler’s dead and gone,” said Messene fervently.
“Oh, we will, Jimmy,” replied Al, “we will!”
High Wycombe and London, England, April 16 and 17, 1941.
“You really should stay the night here with us,” said the landlord. “Your friend, Mr. Messene has already booked a room.”
Al Bowlly shook his head.
“No, thanks,” he replied. “I’d like to get home and sleep in my own bed.”
The landlord shrugged.
“Suit yourself,” he said amiably. “By the way, how did the concert at the Roxy go tonight?”
“Very nicely, thanks,” said Al smiling. “They gave us nice hearty welcome.”
He looked at his watch, and then drained the last dregs of his whisky.
“I’d better push off,” he declared. “Wouldn’t do to miss the last train back to town.”
Al sat in the shadows of the railway carriage. The window shades were drawn down according to the blackout regulations, and it was difficult to make out anything in the dim light.
A serviceman was dozing in a corner, and opposite Al an elderly lady was perched on the edge of her seat, nervously fingering the handle of her umbrella.
When the train from High Wycombe pulled into Marylebone Station, Al hurried down the platform towards the exit. He was anxious to get back to the comfortable confines of his flat in Duke Street, St. James.
“The West End’s taking quite a pummeling tonight,” observed the ticket collector as Al handed over his stub. “You go careful now!”
Al strode out of the station into the darkened street. An eerie glow suffused the sky above the darkened buildings, and the distant thump of falling bombs could be heard. Al walked on unperturbed. He had convinced himself that his prior narrow escape had rendered him immune to the threat of the Luftwaffe. As he neared Duke Street an air raid warden stepped out from the shadows and said:
“You shouldn’t oughta be out in this, sir!”
“I’m just heading back to my flat,” replied Al calmly. “I’m almost thee.”
“I’d strongly advise you to find the nearest shelter and take cover,” continued the warden. “Jerry’s really busy tonight! You don’t know where the next one’s goin’ to fall.”
“That’s sound advice,” agreed Al, anxious to get on.
“There’s a tube station not too far from here,” said the warden. “That’s your best bet.”
“Okay,” called Al, walking on down the street.
“But it’s the other way,” shouted the warden urgently.
Al ignored him, and hurried around the corner. At last he arrived at his building, Duke’s Court. Breathing a sigh of relief, he hurried up to his flat, and let himself in.
“Home at last!” he murmured as he sank down into a chair.
Twenty minutes later, wearing his pajamas, he slipped between the sheets of his comfortable bed, and reached for a volume of ‘cowboy stories’ he was reading. He turned the pages for a few minutes, but his eyes were heavy and his head was nodding. He laid the book aside, and settled down to sleep.
The distant crump of the bombs was still audible, but the exertions and excitement of the day had worn him out. Just as he was drifting off, a last vague thought occurred to him. We really should include that crazy Hitler song in our act, he thought, as he finally fell asleep.
It was just after midnight.
“What on earth happened here?” asked the police officer.
“Parachute bomb!” replied the warden tersely. “The Jerries float ‘em dahn. Explodes just above a building. This one went off over Duke’s Court. Flattened ‘alf the street!”
“Terrible!” said the policeman. “Many people hurt?”
The warden nodded grimly.
“Been bringin’ bodies art o’ the rubble for ‘ours,” he replied with relish. “’orribly mangled they were. Not a pretty sight!”
“Monia!” exclaimed comedienne Beatrice Lillie. “Thank God you’re here! This is awful! We’ve had a terrible night here! I was just in the hallway. They’ve been putting people’s remains in sacks, and labelling them the best they can. It’s just gruesome!”
The dapper Russian pianist’s face was already forming into a mask of grief as he asked the question:
“And Al? What about Al?”
A tear ran down Beatrice’s face, and she shook her head in sorrow.
“The caretaker found him,” she answered through sobs. The bomb blew off the bedroom door. That’s what killed him, they say.”
“Well…at least it was…quick,” said Monia awkwardly. He felt the grief well up inside him as he thought of the vital and charming friend he had accompanied so many times. “I remember on the Pathe film when he threw away my hat,” he continued, but he had to stop as he felt his sorrow overcome him.
He put his arm around Bea, and they stood together for a moment in shared anguish at the death of their dear friend.
At last Monia, bringing his grief under control, said gently:
“Come with me, Bea. We’ll take a walk, and try to find someplace that’s open, and get ourselves a stiff drink. And if we can’t get a drink, we’ll get some hot sweet tea. I’ve a little brandy here in my flask that we could add to the tea. Then we’ll drink a toast to our fallen friend, Al Bowlly, the man they knew as ‘The Big Swoon’.”
Then the two friends set off slowly down Duke Street, picking their way gingerly through the debris of fallen bricks and shattered glass. In a moment they had turned the corner and disappeared.
Al Bowlly was killed on the single most devastating night of the London Blitz, known thereafter by the simple grim moniker: “The Wednesday”. Over a seven and a half hour period 1,000 tons of incendiaries and high explosives fell on Central London and the West End. 1,180 civilians were killed and 2,230 seriously injured. The 1,000 kg bomb which killed Bowlly caused a total of 23 fatalities in his building alone, and severely damaged Hamman’s Turkish Bath, Fortnum and Mason,The Cavendish Hotel, Dunhills and the southern end of Picadilly. Windows were broken up to a mile away.
Bowlly was buried in a mass communal grave at the Westminster City Council Cemetery on Uxbridge Road, Hamwell. He was 42 years old. His musical partner, Jimmy Messene, tried to get a proper tombstone for his friend, but the City Council refused permission, saying that it would set an awkward precedent as this section of the cemetery had been designated for communal war graves and no private memorials could be allowed.
Messene fulfilled a previously scheduled engagement for ‘The Two Radio Stars with Guitars’ at the Empire Theater, Glasgow, the following week as a tribute to his friend.
That the voice of Al Bowlly, England’s first true ‘singing star’, has remained alive and popular to this day on CD collections, on the internet and in the hearts of thousands of fans young and old is clear evidence of his outstanding and unique talent.