Albert Allick ‘Al’ Bowlly was born in Lourenço Marques, Mozambique on 7th January 1898 (some sources claim 1899 and others 1890), to a Greek father and Lebanese mother who met on a ship sailing to Australia, married in Perth, and then emigrated to Johannesburg where their son spent his formative years. After leaving school to become a barber, in his spare time Bowlly developed an interest in singing and playing the ukulele, banjo and guitar, and began performing in nightclubs across the South African capital. It was in one of these nightclubs that the bandleader Edgar Adeler, who was on a nationwide tour of the country, first met the budding young musician and invited him on tour as his ukulele player. Adeler would soon discover that Bowlly’s magnificent voice surpassed his ukulele playing abilities, describing it as ‘out of this world.’
A disagreement with Adeler saw Bowlly quit the tour, before travelling to Indonesia. Funding his journey to Europe by busking, in 1927 Bowlly arrived in Berlin where he was re-united with Adeler, and provided the vocals for his recording of Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies. The following year, Bowlly joined the Filipino bandleader Fred Elizalde as his singer, during Elizalde’s stint at the Savoy Hotel. Bowlly’s big break arrived in 1930, when he became the vocalist for Ray Noble’s New Mayfair Dance Orchestra. Pouring his heart into every lyric, Noble observed how Bowlly allowed himself to wallow in the emotion of every song, his eyes brimming with tears when he sung the more sentimental ballads so powerfully that, ‘never mind him making you cry, he could make himself cry!’
Collaborating with Noble, as well as other popular bandleaders, like Roy Fox and Lew Stone, Bowlly churned out hit after hit, such as Goodnight Sweetheart (1931) Love Is The Sweetest Thing (1932) and Midnight, The Stars and You (1934). His smooth style of singing, known as crooning, later adopted by countless male singers from Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole to Mel Tormé and Andy Williams, coupled with his leading man looks, earned him the nickname ‘The Big Swoon’ from his army of admirers.
Above: Ray Noble’s New Mayfair Dance Orchestra and Al Bowlly – Midnight, The Stars and You (1934)
In 1934, Bowlly and Noble left London for New York with the intention of raising the their profile across the pond, and in December that year, Bowlly married his second wife Marjie Fairless in New Jersey; his first marriage to Constance Freda Roberts in 1931 had been dissolved after a matter of weeks due to her infidelity.
Although Bowlly was initially a huge success in America, with his own NBC radio show, his voice started to suffer after a developed ‘singer’s nodules,’ – growths that affected his vocal chords. Noble found work in Hollywood, but struggling to get anyone to hire him, Bowlly returned to England in January 1937. Though, he continued to record, often with the support of his backing singers, his ‘crooners choir,’ Bowlly’s time abroad had come at the expense of his British fans who had found new idols in his absence.
Above: Al Bowlly and His Crooners Choir – Sweet Someone (1938)
Joining forces with the singer and guitar player Jimmy Mesene, who was also of Greek decent, and who had lost his position as the vocalist with the Nat Gonella Georgians in 1939, in 1940 Bowlly and Mesene toured theatres across Britain with their act Radio Stars With Two Guitars. In early April 1941, Bowlly made his last recording, a rendition of Irving Berlin’s musical mockery of Hitler, When That Man Is Dead and Gone.
Above: Al Bowlly and Jimmy Mesene – When That Man Is Dead and Gone (1941)
On 16th April 1941, Bowlly and Mesene gave a performance at the Rex Cinema in High Wycombe. Declining the offer of a place to stay for the night, Bowlly instead caught the last train back to London. After returning to his flat at 32 Duke Street, Dukes’s Court, St James during the early hours of 17th April, Bowlly was reading in bed when a Luftwaffe parachute mine exploded in the street outside. So great was the impact of the explosion, Bowlly’s bedroom door blew away from the frame, fatally striking him on the head.
Ten days later, Bowlly’s funeral was held at St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Bayswater; he was laid to rest beside other victims of the bombing raid that killed him in a communal grave in Hanwell Cemetery, West London.
Since his death, Bowlly’s recordings have inspired other musicians, writers and film-makers alike. In Dennis Potter’s 1969 screenplay, Moonlight on the Highway, the central character David Peters, develops a fixation with Bowlly as means of ridding himself of the painful memories wrought by his childhood sexual abuse. As Potter’s biographer John R. Cook has suggested, for Bates, Bowlly and his music symbolise the more wholesome past he wishes had been his. Bowlly’s tracks also featured in Potter’s 1978 musical drama, Pennies From Heaven.
Perhaps the most famous use of Bowlly’s recordings is in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining, with Bowlly’s dulcet tones and the gentle refrains of Midnight The Stars and You and It’s All Forgotten Now providing a delightfully eerie contrast to the film’s macabre events. Bowlly’s Hang Out The Stars In Indiana was also included on the soundtrack for the 1987 cult classic Withnail and I.
Above: Scene from The Shining featuring Midnight, The Stars and You (1980)
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has frequently spoken of his love for Bowlly’s music, claiming that it gives him ‘a sense of nostalgia and a romantic connection to the past.’ On his 1986 album, Daring Adventures, the folk rock singer Richard Thompson also paid homage to Bowlly with the song Al Bowlly’s In Heaven, an anthem for the young soldiers who survived the conflict that claimed Bowlly’s life, only to find the world irrevocably changed and themselves in ‘limbo,’ pining for a time when there was ‘spit’ on their shoes, ‘shine’ in their hair, and the sound of Al Bowlly singing ‘up on a stand.’
Above: Richard Thompson – Al Bowlly’s In Heaven (1986)
Dennis Potter: A Life On Screen – John R. Cook (1998)
Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats – Frederick J. Spencer (2002)
They Called Him Al: The Musical Life of Al Bowlly – Ray Pallet (2015)