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Albert Allick "Al" Bowlly (7 January 1899 – 17 April 1941) was a popular Britishmarker Jazz singer and crooner in the United Kingdommarker during the 1930s, making more than 1,000 recordings between 1927 and 1941. Bowlly showcased a diverse range of material unsurpassed by any contemporary other than perhaps Bing Crosby. He was also a truly international recording artist.He was killed by the explosion of a parachute mine outside his flat in Jermyn Streetmarker, Londonmarker during the Blitz.

Early life and career

Bowlly was born in Laurenco Marquesmarker, Mozambiquemarker, to Greek and Lebanesemarker parents who met en route to Australia and moved to South Africa. He was brought up in Johannesburgmarker, South Africa. After a series of odd jobs across South Africa in his youth, namely as a barber and jockey, he gained his musical experience singing for a dance band led by Edgar Adeler on a tour of South Africa, Rhodesia, Indiamarker and Indonesiamarker during the mid-1920s. However, he fell out with Adeler, throwing a cushion at his head as he played piano on stage and was fired whilst the band was in Surabayamarker, Indonesiamarker. After a spell with a Filipino band in Surabayo he was then employed by Jimmy Liquime in Indiamarker (Calcuttamarker) and Singaporemarker (Raffles Hotelmarker). Bowlly had to work his passage back home, through busking. Just one year after his 1927 debut recording date in Berlinmarker, where he recorded Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" with Edgar Adeler, Bowlly arrived in London for the first time as part of Fred Elizalde's orchestra, though nearly didn't make it after foolishly frittering away the fare which was sent to him by Elizalde. That year, "If I Had You" became one of the first popular songs by an English jazz band to become well known in America as well, and Bowlly had gone out on his own by the beginning of the 1930s. First, however, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 resulted in Bowlly being made redundant and returning to several months of busking to survive.

Early stardom

In the 1930s, he was to sign two contracts which were to change his fortunes — one in May 1931 with Roy Fox, singing in his live band for the Monseigneur Restaurant in London, the other a record contract with Ray Noble's orchestra in November 1930.

During the next four years, he recorded over 500 songs. By 1933 Lew Stone had ousted Fox as bandleader, and Bowlly was singing Stone's arrangements with Stone's band. After much radio exposure and a successful UK tour with Stone, Bowlly was inundated with demands for personal appearances and gigs—including undertaking a subsequent solo UK tour - but continued to make the bulk of his recordings with Noble. There was considerable competition between Noble and Stone for Bowlly's time, as for much of the year, Bowlly would spend all day in the recording studio with Noble's band, rehearsing and recording, only to then spend the evening playing live at the Monseigneur with Stone's band.

In December 1931, Bowlly had married Freda Roberts, but the marriage proved a disaster, with Bowlly discovering his new wife in bed with another man on their wedding night. The couple separated after two weeks, and sought a rapid divorce. He remarried in December 1934, this time to Marjie Fairless, the marriage lasting until his death.

Move to the United States and return to Britain

A visit to New Yorkmarker in 1934 with Noble resulted in more success and their recordings first achieved popularity in the USA; he appeared at the head of an orchestra hand-picked for him and Noble by Glenn Miller (the band included Claude Thornhill, Charlie Spivak, and Bud Freeman, among others).

During the early-mid 1930s, such songs as "Blue Moon", "Easy to Love", "I've Got You Under My Skin", and "My Melancholy Baby" were sizable American successes — so much so that Bowlly gained his own radio series on NBC and travelled to Hollywoodmarker to co-star in The Big Broadcast in 1936, which also starred one of his biggest competitors, Bing Crosby.

Despite Bowlly's stellar success in Britain through the early 1930s, he never achieved the same measure of fame in the United States, and his absence from the UK when he moved to the States in 1934 damaged his popularity with UK audiences. His career also began to suffer as a result of problems with his voice from around 1936, which affected the frequency of his recordings. Bowlly also played a few bit parts in films around this time, yet Bowlly had never professed to be an actor and his parts were, predictably, often cut and scenes that were shown were brief. Noble was offered a role in Hollywood though the offer did not, unfortunately, include Bowlly, as a singer had already been instated. Consequently Bowlly and his wife Marjie moved back to London in January 1937. Bowlly never really explained why he had returned, with contemporaries and fans being treated to a variety of stories ranging from the fact that he missed London to claims that he got mixed up with a gangster's moll, so was run out of America. Bowlly was always one for exaggeration and story telling.

Bowlly had appeared with his own band, the Radio City Rhythm Makers, but they had split by late 1937 when his vocal problems were traced to a wart in his throat, which briefly caused him to lose his voice entirely. With he and Marjie separated and his band dissolved, that year Bowlly was once again down on his luck. Al was forced to borrow money from reluctant friends for a trip to New York for the surgery of which he was so in need. In 1938, he finally returned to the USA to successfully undergo major throat surgery for the removal of his vocal wart, but had further difficulties with his voice late in his career.

With his success in Britain a shadow of its former self, he toured regional theatres and recorded as often as possible to make a living, moving from orchestra to orchestra, including those of Sydney Lipton, Geraldo, and Ken Johnson. He underwent a revival from 1940, as part of a double act with Jimmy Messene (whose career had also suffered a recent downturn), with an act called Radio Stars with Two Guitars, performing on the London stage. It was his last venture before his death in April 1941. The partnership was an uneasy one, as Messene suffered from a serious drinking problem by this stage, and was known to turn up incapable on stage, or not to turn up at all, much to Bowlly's consternation. Bowlly's last recorded song, made two weeks before his death, was a duet with Messene of Irving Berlin's satirical song on Hitler, "When That Man is Dead and Gone".


The evening of his death on 17 April 1941, Bowlly and Messene had just given a performance at the Rex Cinema in High Wycombemarker. Both were offered the opportunity of an overnight stay in the town, but Bowlly opted to take the last train home to his flat in Jermyn Streetmarker, London instead. Bowlly's decision proved to be fatal; he was killed by a Luftwaffe parachute mine which detonated outside his flat later that evening. Bowlly's body appeared unmarked: although the massive explosion had not disfigured him, it had blown his bedroom door off its hinges and the impact against his head proved fatal. Bowlly was buried with other bombing victims in a mass grave at the Westminstermarker Cemetery, Uxbridge Road, Hanwellmarker, London, where his name is spelled Albert Alex Bowlly.

Year of birth discrepancies

Some speculation surrounds his age at the time of his death. Bowlly claimed that he was born in 1899, making him 42 at the time of his death. However, his death certificate gives his age as 43, which would indicate that he was born in 1898. Several contemporaries claimed that the perpetually boyish-faced singer was born as early as 1890. As no birth certificate exists, and much of his early years in South Africa remain shrouded in mystery, his actual age remains unknown.


Al Bowlly is invariably credited with inventing crooning, or "The Modern Singing Style", releasing a book of the same name. Bowlly experimented with new methods of amplification, not least with his Melody Maker advert, showing him endorsing a portable vocal megaphone. With the advent of the microphone in 1931, Al adapted his singing style, moving away from the Jazz singing style of the 20s, into the softer, more expressive crooning singing style used in popular music of the 30s and 40s. It was Al's technique, sincerity, diction and his personality that distinguish him from many other singers of the 30s era.

Al is also credited with being the first "Pop Star". Prior to the advent of Bowlly, the bandleaders were the stars and the main attractions, with the records being sold as "Ray Noble and his orchestra (with vocal refrain)" a phenomenon that can be seen on 78s of the period. Most singers were all but anonymous, but Al's popularity changed this, with him being the first singer to be given a solo spot on BBC radio due to popular demand, and records appearing featuring his own name. Bowlly's personality, good looks, charisma, and above all his voice, earned him the nickname "The Big Swoon", with Al finding himself being mobbed by female fans for autographs and photos after his performances.

As well as singing, Bowlly played both the guitar and the ukelele, with Joyce Stone, widow of Lew Stone saying "You only had to play anything once to Al and he'd got it." Bowlly remains one of the most highly regarded singers of his era because of his extraordinary range, his command of pitch and rhythm, and, above all, the sincerity with which he could deliver a lyric. Ray Noble is often quoted as saying that Al often stepped away from the microphone with tears in his eyes; "never mind him making you cry, he could make himself cry!"

References in popular culture

  • Bowlly's music is an integral part of many Dennis Potter dramas like The Singing Detective (1986), Pennies from Heaven (1978) and in particular Moonlight on the Highway (1969). Potter also used Bowlly's song titles as titles for his plays, e.g. Rain on the Roof and Cream in my Coffee.

  • "Midnight, the Stars and You" has been the signature piece and the final music cut since 2001 on the John Batchelor Show, an American national radio program.

  • Bowlly is portrayed by Graham McPherson in the 2008 film The Edge of Love. Also, Bowlly's version of "My Hat's on the Side of My Head" is heard later in the film.

  • Al Bowlly's "Guilty" was featured in the soundtrack for the French film Amelie.

  • In 1997, Bowlly's "My Woman" was sampled by British one-man band White Town, appearing in the song Your Woman.

  • The song "Hang Out The Stars In Indiana" was featured in the cult comedy film Withnail and I.

Partial discography

"Time on My Hands" 19 February 1931
"Goodnight, Sweetheart" Lyrics 19 February 1931
"Guilty" 2 December 1931
"Lullaby of the Leaves" 10 June 1932
"Looking on the Bright Side of Life" 1 September 1932
"Love Is the Sweetest Thing" 8 September 1932
"What More Can I Ask?" 23 December 1932
"Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby" 16 March 1933
"Midnight, the Stars and You" 16 February 1934
"The Very Thought of You" 21 April 1934
"Isle of Capri" 30 August 1934
"Dinner for One Please, James" 14 November 1935
"It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow" 15 February 1940


  • Sid Colin and Tony Staveacre, Al Bowlly (H. Hamilton, 1979)
  • Ray Pallett, Good-Night, Sweetheart: Life and Times of Al Bowlly (Spellmount, 1986)

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