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.
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.”