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Al Bowlly : Love Is The Sweetest Thing


"This is, by far and away, the finest Al Bowlly album now available." BBC Radio North

Sweet And Lovely
Love Is The Sweetest Thing << long sound clip
Lying In The Hay
Stay On The Right Side Of The Road
You Ought To See Sally On Sunday
It's Psychological << sound clip
Say When
When Love Comes Swingin' Along
Easy To Love
Little Old Lady
Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen
You're A Sweetheart
You Couldn't Be Cuter
Just Let Me Look At You
Music, Maestro, Please << sound clip
On The Sentimental Side
Penny Serenade
Heart And Soul
Two Sleepy People
Any Broken Hearts To Mend?
It Was A Lover And His Lass
Torn Sails
Dreamy Serenade

When I was seventeen, a girl with whom I was friendly took me to see her sister who was setting up her first matrimonial home. "You collect records", the sister said, "here’s a box of old 78s I found in the attic". They were old indeed! A quick glance showed they were Decca records from the early 1930s, and were all by Roy Fox and his Band ‘At the Monseigneur Restaurant’. Unfortunately I didn’t like old Decca records. They had loud surface noise and the recording quality was often dreadful. However, politely, I took them. Once I got home I tried them out, and the surface noise was just as bad as I’d feared, and the band was thin-sounding and distant; but the anonymous vocalist on most of the records had an appealing voice. He sounded quite a ‘character’ on the up-tempo numbers, and the romantic titles were sung with genuine feeling. It took a year for someone to identify the singer for me. It was Al Bowlly, and by then I was an addict.

Al Bowlly was born in Mozambique, though quite when no-one seems sure. As he got older he was inclined to knock a few years off his age, creating much confusion for his subsequent biographers. On his death certificate, his age is given as forty-three, which would give his year of birth as 1898, although it is very likely he was born several years before this. A few years after his birth, the family moved to Johannesburg. As a child, he would work in his uncle’s barber shop after school. Once he’d left school, at the age of fourteen, he worked there full time, and became known as ‘the singing barber’, for his entertainment of the customers!

Al’s first records were made in Berlin in 1927, the beginning of a varied and prolific output of wonderful recordings. In 1928 he arrived in London, after accepting an invitation from Fred Elizalde to join his band at the Savoy Hotel. Soon he was appearing with the bands of Roy Fox and Lew Stone, and became the favourite vocalist with Ray Noble, whom he followed to America in 1934, by which time he’d recorded 790 sides. In 1937 he returned to England to continue his career.

On the evening of 16th April 1941, during World War II, Al arrived back in London, and entertained a friend at his apartment in Jermyn Street, in the city centre. After his friend had left, Al retired to bed to read, and fell asleep. Hours later, during one of the heaviest German air raids of the war, a landmine fell and exploded, blowing in all the windows of the apartments in the area. Al was found dead, lying next to his bed.

I am lucky enough to have one of Bowlly’s original hard-backed music folders with his name embossed in gold, rescued from the rubble of the bombed Café de Paris. I paid for the only memorial to his memory, a 4ft by 2ft satin aluminium plaque which was placed in the North Tyneside Memorial Church. The rest of this story is about this compact disc.

Al recorded Sweet And Lovely twice: first with Roy fox and his Band, on Decca and the quality of recording, balance and arrangements is far from great. The superior Columbia version, with the Savoy Hotel Orpheans is included here. Love Is The Sweetest Thing, Lying In The Hay, Stay On The Right Side Of The Road, and You Ought To See Sally On Sunday are all with Ray Noble, and were recorded between 1932-33. As was often the case with dance band vocalists, Al was not credited on the record labels. The tracks were all recorded in London, and of particular note is Stay on the right Side of the Road. It show the musicians at their happiest and most productive, because they are playing in their favourite mode — hot! You Ought To See Sally On Sunday is just as hot, and features Freddy Gardner on saxophone. Al encourages him by shouting "Come on there Freddy boy!"

It’s Psychological as recorded here by Lew Stone and The Monseigneur Band with vocals by Al, was rejected after the recording session. It was withdrawn as the A & R (Artist & Repertoire) man at Decca not only thought the lyrics were too risque, but knew that the BBC would ban it. Without airplay, it would obviously suffer from lost sales. However, there is nothing at all bannable about the very clever lyrics.

Say When and When Love Comes Swingin’ Along were recorded on the same day in the studios of American Decca in New York in 1934, with Victor Young as the accompanying Bandleader. The same set-up was used for Bing Crosby who met Al at that time, and subsequently told me how much he liked him and admired his voice. During this period in America, Al recorded Easy To Love and Little Old Lady in New York with Ray Noble and His Orchestra. Noble also scored the arrangements.

Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen, Marie, and You’re A Sweetheart were recorded back in London after Al’s return home. Ronnie Munro provided and conducted the instrumental accompaniment, which apparently Al never really liked; however, Al’s vocal is on top imaginative form.

On You Couldn’t Be Cuter, Just Let Me Look At You, and Music, Maestro, Please Al is the featured vocalist with Lew Stone and his Band. They show Lew at his most creative and the Band at their best. Once, I told Lew that those recordings were the Rolls-Royce of British Dance Music of the 1930s. I was not being patronising — Lew could spot a phoney ten miles away! He listened to one of the titles and agreed. He was not being immodest. He had the finest musicians in the Band and the wonderful arrangements were scored for that class of player.

On The Sentimental Side, Penny Serenade, Heart And Soul, Two Sleepy People and Any Broken Hearts To Mend? feature Geraldo and his Orchestra with Al as the vocalist. This was a commercial band with a string section which rarely recorded anything other than foxtrots and waltzes. It was a brilliant showcase for Bowlly’s romantic style of the period and shows him at his relaxed best. It was a bad period for sales for numbers such as these. Britain was in the grip of novelty songs, so sadly record collectors missed out on these beautiful examples.

It Was A Lover And His Lass was made at a prestigious session involving Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra, at the No 1 Studio of EMI in Abbey Road, London. Bowlly was to sing two Shakespearean numbers in up-tempo arrangements with the Henderson Twins. BBC top producers, senior executives of EMI, Musicians’ Union officials, and an assortment of theatricals were present in the gallery to witness the innovation. It was considered by the superstitious, to be unlucky to record Shakespeare in this manner. Strangely this was Al’s last recording session issued with a dance band and the last record of his played by the BBC before his death.

The final two tracks on this CD, Torn Sails and Dreamy Serenade, are from my own copies — the only ones in the world. They are private, non-commercial recordings made in July 1939, as a result of a ‘Melody Maker’ contest for songwriters. The prize was a private recording of Al singing the winning entries, accompanied by Claude Bampton at the piano. Sadly, they are so badly worn that they are beyond complete audio restoration, but they still give a marvellous indication of how great his voice was then. This is the first time the two tracks have been issued together, and due to their extreme rarity, they alone are worth the purchase price of this album. The remainder of these remastered originals show Al at his very best with a clarity unheard of at the time of the recordings — the quality surpasses anything previously reissued.

I joined the BBC in 1971, and I still play records of the man through whom I was introduced to the airwaves. Today, he is a world cult figure with dozens of LPs and CDs to his posthumous credit, the greatest dance band singer of them all.


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