Snapshot in Prose: Al Bowlly

In this week’s Snapshot in Prose, we convene with Ray Noble‘s favorite vocalist (and one of ours, too), Mr. Al Bowlly. We learn that Bowlly had a fledgling career as a barber before he became a professional singer and that he grew up not in England, as we’d always thought, but in Johannesburg, South Africa. Join us for this 1935 tête-à-tête with Mr. Bowlly.

images-Al Bowlly

IF IT IS a romantic song Al Bowlly will sing it!
     “They’re the only kind of songs I like to sing,” said the popular Al when we cornered him in Radio City’s luxurious Rainbow Room. “Of course, I often have to sing other types but I can’t put my heart into anything without a touch of romance.”
     Albert Bowlly, who is currently appearing with Ray Noble at New York’s swanky Rainbow Room, 65 stories above the clatter and clamor of Manhattan, and can be heard over a coast-to-coast hook-up several times a week, was born on a farm near Johannesburg, South Africa, about thirty years ago.
Several years after his birth the family moved to Johannesburg where Al soon started to attend a public school.
“I guess I was a pretty regular kid,” said Ray Noble’s top-notch singer. “I would kiss my mother goodbye every morning but I didn’t always end up in school. I would just as lief meet my friends and spend the day playing, not only hookey, but baseball and football as struggle with the three Rs.”
“When did you first start to sing?” we asked him.
“Oh, I could hum a tune before I could talk. Everybody in my family loves music—and we all sing. I remember the evenings we used to spend gathered in the big living room of our house in Johannesburg. While my mother played her accordion and my father strummed a guitar, the children would sit around on the floor and harmonize. I have six brothers and four sisters and we all love to sing the same songs.”
When Al Bowlly was 17 years old his father bought a six-chair barber shop for him as a birthday present and Al went into the business very seriously. Everybody in Johannesburg liked the good-looking young barber. They called him the “singing barber.”
One day during a lull in business Al went to the back of the store, dug out his trust guitar and sang softly to himself while his able assistant shaved their one customer. Unknowingly Al was singing for one of the biggest band leaders of South Africa.
“His name was Edgar Adeler,” Al continued, “and he offered me 10 pounds a week if I would join his organization. Business wasn’t very good at that time so I agreed.
“The next night I went to the theatre where he was appearing. Nervous? Boy, I was petrified! I stood in the center of the stage and couldn’t utter a sound! After what seemed to me an eternity, but what was really only two or three minutes, the curtain was mercifully lowered.”
Al stood up and walked around as he talked.
“When I met my boss backstage,” he continued, “he said to me, ‘Al, I’m ashamed of you!’ and I knew that I had to go on again to show him that I really had the goods. A few minutes later I walked back on the stage and sang.”

“Have you ever suffered from stage or mike fright since then?”
“No, never,” he responded promptly, “and I’m sure that I never will. That experience was a good lesson—I remain taught!
“A week after I joined the band I sold my barber shop and we left Johannesburg,” Al went on. “We worked through every dorp in South and East Africa. We used to go hunting between rehearsals. Say, that was the life!
“After that we toured the whole of the East—Japan, China, India, the Dutch East Indies, Java and Sumatra, eventually arriving in Singapore where I left the crowd.
“About two years later, I got a letter from my old boss offering me a job in Berlin. I had never been in Germany so, of course, I accepted. We travelled through Germany and from there went to London.
“At that time Fred Elizalde was organizing an orchestra for London’s Savoy Hotel and he asked me to join him. I was with him for a short time, and then the band, which was composed mainly of Americans, broke up.
“I would have been completely stranded in London if it had not been for Peter Maurice, one of England’s biggest music publishers. He thought a lot of my singing and introduced me to Ray Noble, suggesting that I do the vocals on Noble’s records. Noble tried me out and I guess I don’t have to say anything more about that. I’ve been with him ever since.
“While I was recording for Noble I joined Lew Stone’s orchestra at the Monseigneur, which is one of London’s best known night clubs. It was hard work but when you live just to sing, the harder the job, the better you like it!”
Al Bowlly was born under a lucky star. Ever since he can remember, if he wished hard and long for something, he always got it.
When he was in Africa he wished he could go to India. And he did! Then he wanted to visit China, Australia, Japan, Europe, America—and he has been in every one of those countries.
“Do you play any musical instruments,” we asked getting back to the all-important subject of music.
“Ah, yes,” with a caress in his voice. “I love the mandolin, guitar, banjo—in fact all stringed instruments. I never had a music lesson in my life—never had a singing lesson. I play and sing by ear.”
At this point in our interview one of the men in the orchestra came over to remind Al that all talk and no work makes Al a poor boy.
“Just one more question,” we begged. “What do you want to do more than anything else?”
“There is only one thing that I really want to do,” answered Al, “and that is to make enough money that I can buy a 100-foot motor boat, go back to South Africa and go FISHING.”
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2 thoughts on “Snapshot in Prose: Al Bowlly

  1. Hello
    I am a distant relative of Al Bowly. I live in Lebanon where Al’s mother came from. She happens to be my grand father’s sister.
    Should you be in a position to put me in contact with anyone from Al’s family, It is highly appreciated.
    Michel Ayoub noujaim

  2. wow! fantastic to come across a relative of Al Bowlly, ive been a fan of Al for years, wonderful singer, have you a photo of young al as a child or one of his brother Mish> best wishes Steve Lawson , Nottingham UK

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