There is a man, an entertainer, a singer, who in his heyday was as popular in the Uk as the Beatles were in theirs. Some people will have heard some of his songs without knowing who sung them, but most I suspect will have never heard of him, his name was Al Bowlly.
I’d spend some of my school holidays with my Grandparents and would listen to recordings of Bowlly singing at a time when my own personal taste were more attuned to T. Rex, Bowie and Cream, for Bowlly inhabited the world of my twentysomething Grandparents.
Bowlly found himself in the public spotlight after years of working with the dance orchestras of the 1920s and 30s. He perfected a singing style that went on to be known as “Crooning” and he was the architect of the style later adopted by Bing Crosby. There are a few articles and web sites about him, his lifestyle and his triumphs and failures which make good reading, but I want to concentrate on Bowlly’s London connections.
He arrived in the city around 1929, but little is known about his early years. In 1931 he signed a contract as the singer with Roy Fox and his orchestra who had a residency at the Monseigneur Restaurant in Jermyn Street.
His popularity increased during the 1930s and he rented a very comfortable flat in Charing Cross Mansions, 26 Charing Cross Road.
At the height of his fame in the UK he made the (in hindsight) disastrous decision to try and crack America. Three things went against him, firstly Crosby had already established himself as the States best Crooner. Secondly, Bowlly arrived in America just as a musician union strike had started, so his opportunity to sing on the radio and in person was all but curtailed and thirdly and probably the most disastrous he developed a problem with his vocal chords which resulted in an operation. His return to the UK in 1937 offered little comfort as he’d been away for almost three years and audiences had moved on and new singers had taken his place in the public affection.
With his diminished success in Britain, he toured regional theatres and recorded as often as possible to make a living. At the outbreak of the Second World War his career took an upturn and he found himself as the singer with the American band leader Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, who had a residency at the Café de Paris nightclub just off Leicester Square. On the 8th March 1941, the Café was bombed during an air raid soon after the start of a performance and 34 people were killed and around 80 injured.Two bombs fell into the basement ballroom down a ventilation shaft and exploded in front of the stage.The victims included 26-year-old bandleader Johnson, his saxophonist Dave “Baba” Williams, other band members, staff and diners. Bowlly who was meant to have been on stage that night was at home in bed suffering from a cold.
At the time, Bowlly was living at Duke’s Court, 32 Duke Street, St James, which has just been redeveloped (a great improvement….not)
On the 16th April 1941, Bowlly had been performing at the Rex cinema in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and caught the last train back to London to spend the night at Dukes Court. When the all-clear sounded around dawn on the 17th April the caretaker of Dukes Court went round to check on the safety of his tenants. It had been one of the worst bombing raids on London of the Blitz. The night would be forever known as ‘The Wednesday’. The caretaker found Al Bowlly on the floor by the side of his bed killed outright by the door of his room smashing on his head from the blast of the parachute bomb that had exploded in Jermyn Street at around 3.00 am.
He was buried in a mass grave on Saturday 26th April at 10.30am at the Westminster City Council Cemetery on the Uxbridge Road in Hanwell. His friend and fellow performer Jimmy Mesene tried to make arrangements for a proper tombstone for Bowlly to be erected. The required licence was refused by Westminster City Council on the grounds that it would set a precedent, as the section of the cemetery was designated as a war grave and private memorials were not allowed.
Today the only memorial to Bowlly is the Blue Plaque on Charing Cross Road. There is still no memorial in the cemetery and nothing to show where he died in Duke Street. On first sight this may sound harsh, but taken in context with the 20,000 people that died in London during the war its probably the right decision, each one of those people was special to someone and they don’t command a plaque or memorial. So the best way to remember Al Bowlly is to continue to listen to his lilting tones which are so evocative of the 1930s