Al Bowlly

I recently rediscovered the singer Al Bowlly. I had vaguely remembered that there had been a favorite crooner in England before WWII, and that he had disappeared into obscurity. That singer was Al Bowlly.
Al was born in Lorenco Marques, now Maputo, in Portuguese Mozambique in Africa in 1899 to a Greek mother and Lebanese father, who had met while en route to Australia. They settled instead in South Africa where Al grew up. After high school he toured with a band through Africa, and then on to India and the far east. He had a dispute with the band, so went off on his own around Asia, singing but often doing menial jobs to earn money. The band was invited to Germany and they asked Al to rejoin them.
In Berlin, in the mid-1920s, Al was a hit, and word spread. He was then invited to join the band at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1929 and made his first recordings. But, the band broke up and Al was reduced to busking, singing for Theater queues. Since Al had no contract he sang with up to as many as 40 bands and in the following 12 years made ca. 1,000 recordings. His beautiful voice soon became the sound of the 1930s in England. I remember my father, who grew up then, singing many years later and trying to sound like him.
In 1934, the Ray Noble band was invited to tour the US and Al joined them with his new wife. For 2 years they toured and he recorded songs in New York, including his famous hit “Buddy, can you spare a dime,” which was so redolent of the times. Al returned to England in 1936, but developed a wart on his vocal cords and returned to New York to have surgery. He had been a modest success in the States, but his voice was never quite the same after the operation and he returned to England, where he found it increasingly difficult to get a job, especially since the start of WWII as people had other priorities. He was killed by a German bomb in his apartment in London in 1941.
Al did not have as pleasant a voice as Bing Crosby, but he had a somewhat plaintive sound that epitomized the times. Through the magic of the web it is possible to hear Al’s angelic voice again, and there are a series of videos on You-Tube. Indulge yourself.


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