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4 September 2017

Post 544: AL BOWLLY

A slightly unusual topic for today, as some of you may think it has little to do with traditional jazz. I want to say a few words about Al Bowlly.

My attention was first drawn to him a few years ago by my friend Carsten, who enjoys both traditional jazz and the dance band music from the Golden Era. And I have since found that many traditional jazz musicians have great admiration and respect for Al Bowlly.

So what made him special? Listen to a couple of his performances (available on YouTube) and I think the answer will be obvious. You could start with this one (My Melancholy Baby), where he actually appeared on film: CLICK HERE.

Note what he achieves, through sheer quality of voice and expression, without any more support than a very good pianist. And from 2 minutes 04 seconds, when the pair begin to swing the tune, you can't help wishing he were with us today and available to sing with our bands.

Of course, he was what we would call a 'crooner' rather than a jazz singer, but there is such a massive overlap between what the crooners and the jazz singers were doing, and the tunes they were playing in those years. It is easy to see how he must have influenced and inter-acted with the development of traditional jazz. Among the tunes he recorded, for example, were All of Me, Blue Skies, Dark Eyes, Please, Roll Along Prairie Moon, All I Do is Dream of You, Whispering, Isle of Capri, Goodnight Sweetheart, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, South of the BorderGuilty, What a Little Moonlight Can DoThe Very Thought of You, It Had To Be You, Marie, The Old Spinning Wheel, Bei Mir Bist Du SchoenTrue, and Blue Moon. These are tunes being played by traditional jazz bands in Royal Street and in the Frenchmen Street Bars of New Orleans to this day. I doubt whether such tunes would be in our repertoire if the likes of Al Bowlly had not first popularised them.

Try this 1931 recording of Guilty. Isn't it lovely?  

There are plenty more performances for you to enjoy on YouTube. And if you are sufficiently enthused to wish to buy some Al Bowlly recordings, I can assure you there are more than a dozen different CDs available.

Al was born in 1898. He had an unusual and tempestuous life, during which he knew both the highs and lows of show business. There is plenty about him on the internet - for example in Wikipedia - so I will not repeat all that may be easily found elsewhere. Sufficient to say that his parents were Greek and Lebanese, that he grew up in South Africa, that he had various jobs before getting into singing and playing guitar with dance bands, and that between 1929 and the late 1930s, he made hundreds of recordings (mainly with Lew Stone's Band and Ray Noble's Orchestra), and became a big star on the radio both in the United Kingdom and America.

My friend Carsten told me: Both Noble (who composed songs specifically with Bowlly's voice in mind - many of which remain 'standards' to this day) and Stone were excellent arrangers and knew exactly how to blend Bowlly's singing talent and vocal range with that of their bands, and the results were exceptionally good, whether in ballad or 'hot' number mode.

Carsten also told me that Ray Pallett, owner and publisher of the Memory Lane magazine, brought out a 400-page meticulously-researched biography - They Called Him Al - which may be considered the definitive work, if you should wish to explore Mr. Bowlly's life in greater depth.

Sadly, Al Bowlly was killed on 17 April 1941 in his London apartment when it was hit by the blast from a parachute mine dropped by the Luftwaffe. He was only 43 years old. I was also in London that night, surviving the bombing in our family's Anderson shelter. But I was too young to understand what was going on; or to be aware that, a mile or two away from me, the life of one of our finest singers had been cut short.