On The Sentimental Side: Al Bowlly And His Crooners Choir

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)

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Sunsets: The Strings Of Manolis Hiotis

Born on 21st March 1921 (some sources claim 1920) in Thessaloniki, a port on the Thermaikos Gulf of the Aegean Sea and Greece’s second largest city, the speed at which he mastered the guitar and violin left his parents in no doubt that Manolis Hiotis was a musical prodigy. Wealthy restaurateurs, they encouraged their son’s exceptional talent, and paid for him to leave home at the age of 14, to study music in Athens. In 1936, Hiotis met the folk singer Stratos Pagioumtzis, one of the country’s biggest stars thanks to his fashionable Rembetiko style and remarkable voice. Pagioumtzis hired the teenager to play the bouzouki, an instrument that had been popularized by the influx of immigrants from Turkey during the late nineteenth century. It was the main instrument in Rembetiko, and Hiotis discovered that he was a true virtuoso.

A year later, Hiotis recorded his first song, το χρήμα δεν το λογαριάζω (The Money Does Not Count) and it proved to be a hit. Influenced by Rembetiko, which was often considered a somewhat lowbrow form of entertainment, Hiotis pioneered his own, more refined version of the original genre, which came to be known as Archontorebetiko.

Above: Manolis Hiotis – το χρήμα δεν το λογαριάζω (The Money Does Not Count) (1938)

A string of successes ensued for Hiotis, as a soloist and when working with fellow artists, such as the singer Apostolos Nikolaidis, and composers Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis. Continue reading

More Than A Woman: The Ascension Of Aaliyah

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn on 16th January 1979. Of both Hebrew and Arabic origin, her name literally translated as ‘highest, most exalted one,’ or ‘to ascend’ and its meaning was a source of motivation and inspiration for Aaliyah throughout her life. With a mother who had forfeited her dreams of becoming a singer for her family, and as the niece by marriage, of soul legend Gladys Knight, Aaliyah had a natural proclivity for music as well as important industry connections. Encouraged by her parents, Aaliyah was given singing lessons from an early age, even before the Haughtons moved from Brooklyn to Detroit when she was 5.

Still only 9 years old, Aaliyah and her extraordinary voice were unleashed upon the American public with her appearance on Star Search, where she gave her own unique rendition of the 1937 Rodgers and Hart standard, My Funny Valentine. She failed to win on the show, but it granted Aaliyah national exposure, and further cemented her determination to become an entertainer. Gladys Knight’s then husband, Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson, agreed to manage her and in 1991, she performed a week long stint with her famous aunt in Las Vegas, closing with a duet of Believe in Yourself, originally sung by Diana Ross in the 1978 film The Wiz.

Above: Aaliyah on Star Search (1989)

Hankerson founded Blackground Records in 1993, with Aaliyah as the label’s principal artist. At the same time, Hankerson started managing R. Kelly, a singer and songwriter from Chicago who had won the television talent contest Big Break in 1989. R. Kelly had put out his first album, Born Into The 90s (as R. Kelly & Public Announcement) in 1992, and several hits ensued, including She’s Got That Vibe, Honey Love and Dedicated. Continue reading

Starlight Rendezvous: Calling Dickie Valentine

Though overlooked today, during the 1950s, so great was Dickie Valentine’s popularity that a 1957 meeting of his fan club was so oversubscribed that the Royal Albert Hall was chosen as the venue. Such devotion could he inspire from his admirers, one 1956 report highlighted the case of Suzanne Crowley – a young girl who referred to herself as a ‘raving mad Dickie Valentine fan,’ and was so obsessed with her idol, that she carried a record player around with her so she could listen to his music at all times, and also wore one of his records as a hat.

Born Richard Maxwell in Marylebone on 4th November 1929, his first film role came at the tender age of 3, in the comedy Jack’s the Boy, starring Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge. Finding steady work as a child actor, he developed a routine in which he impersonated many popular singers of the day such as Mario Lanza and Frankie Laine – something he would continue to do for the rest of his career. Possessing an impressive voice of his own however, he was a regular on the London nightclub circuit, and on 14th February 1949, signed as a vocalist for Ted Heath’s band, Ted Heath and His Music; in honour of the date his big break arrived, he adopted the stage name Dickie Valentine. Continue reading