Very few artists allow you to travel back in time, but the warm charm of Al Bowlly instantly drags you back to the optimistic sepia blur of the 1920s.
There’s no doubt that great artists are able to evoke deep emotions in their audiences. A story well told, a film sensitively shot, a painting capturing a moment in time, a symphony enthusiastically performed. Song has a particular power, and in the hands of a skilled singer a good song can make us stamp our feet in joy, rouse us to action, or leave us weeping bitter tears. Songwriters like nothing better than to have their songs performed with sincerity and passion, and appreciative audiences are simultaneously moved and entertained.
It was said of Al Bowlly that not only could he make his listeners cry, he could even make himself cry. Bowlly is also said to be the first crooner and, some say, the best there ever was.
Who, you ask, is Al Bowlly? Sadly, his name doesn’t enjoy the popularity it did in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, but many of you will recognise his music from iconic films such as The Shining (1980), Withnail & I (1987) and Amélie (2001).
Listen to Guilty:
“If it’s a crime, then I’m guilty, guilty of loving you.” Sigh.
Now have a listen to this dreamy little gem:
Bowlly’s gift was that he made people feel as if he were singing just to them. Recorded in the 1930s and static notwithstanding, you can hear the warmth in his voice. He had style, personality, elegance, beautiful phrasing and yes, that word again – sincerity.
Al Bowlly was an “international” man. Born in 1898 in Mozambique to Lebanese and Greek parents, he grew up in South Africa. As a young man, he got a job with a dance band that travelled to India, Singapore and Indonesia, making his way back towards London via Europe where he earned money by busking. Eventually, Bowlly landed in London, played with various bandleaders and soon signed with the Ray Noble Orchestra in 1930. Over the next few years, his popularity soared and he recorded frequently. By the time of his death, he’d recorded over 1,000 songs (so there’s plenty to YouTube!).
In 1931, Bowlly married nightclub hostess Freda Roberts. They made a handsome couple, he with his quiet good looks, she with her flaming red hair and vibrant nature…but it was a complete disaster. On the very night of their wedding, Freda hopped into bed with another man. Hardly the blushing bride brimming with loving devotion to her brand-new husband. Their marriage lasted a whole fortnight and was clearly two weeks too long. Bowlly married Marjie Fairless in 1934. That union lasted until his death.
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Bowlly travelled to the United States with Noble’s orchestra in the early 1930s and took New York by storm. His sense of rhythm, his wide vocal range, his personal charm – this was manna from heaven. Audiences loved him and he had a happy time in America, even appearing in a movie with America’s favourite singer Bing Crosby.
Unfortunately, by the late 1930s, he was having problems with his vocal cords. He moved back to London, where in the fickle world of showbiz, he’d been largely forgotten, so he freelanced for a time with various bands. In 1940, Bowlly paired professionally with Jimmy Messene. Their act, Radio Stars with Two Guitars, would have gone gangbusters but for Messene’s drinking. And the war. This is the last recording Bowlly ever made – a satirical dig at Hitler.
Only two weeks later, on April 17, 1941, Bowlly returned home late from a gig and was asleep in his bed in London when a German bomb exploded outside his flat, killing him and six others instantly. It was one of the worst bombings of the Blitz. Bowlly was only 43 years old.
I mentioned The Shining earlier. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick who used Midnight, the Stars and You to enormous effect in the final scene of that film, Bowlly was reintroduced to modern audiences. That song was also used in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986).
Other songs associated with Bowlly have also experienced a renaissance in recent times. There’s something timeless about Bowlly’s crooning. Sure, it’s from yesteryear, but so what? Blue Moon is a great song whatever your age, whatever your musical preference. Here it is given the Bowlly treatment.
Music speaks to all of us in our own ways, but I reckon there’s something about Bowlly that has appeal for everyone. His voice has charm, warmth and clarity. His sheer musicality makes him one of the greats. Crooning may be considered old-fashioned, but it has a lot to offer music lovers. How else do you explain Michael Bublé?
Al Bowlly, the man with the golden voice. Maybe we should all get together and stage a Bowlly revival. Appropriating Kubrick’s sentiment from The Shining, perhaps like Jack, he’ll always be here. Who’s in?