Al Bowlly was born in Lourenço Marques in the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique, to Greek and Lebanese parents who met en route to Australia and moved to South Africa, where he was brought up in Johannesburg. After a series of odd jobs across South Africa in his youth, namely as a barber and jockey, he gained his musical experience singing for a dance band led by Edgar Adeler on a tour of South Africa, Rhodesia, India and Indonesia during the mid-1920s. However, he fell out with Adeler and was fired from the band in Surabaya, Indonesia. After a spell with a Filipino band in Surabaya he was then employed by Jimmy Liquime in India. Bowlly worked his passage back home through busking. Just one year after his 1927 debut recording date in Berlin, where he recorded Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” with Edgar Adeler, Bowlly arrived in London for the first time as part of Fred Elizalde’s orchestra, although he nearly didn’t make it after foolishly frittering away the fare money sent to him by Elizalde. That year, “If I Had You” became one of the first popular songs by an English jazz band to become well known in America as well, and Bowlly had gone out on his own by the beginning of the 1930s. First, however, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 resulted in Al Bowlly being made redundant and returning to several months of busking to survive. In the 1930s, he signed two contracts—one in May 1931 with Roy Fox, singing in his live band for the Monseigneur Restaurant in London, the other a record contract with Ray Noble’s orchestra in November 1930.
During the next four years, he recorded over 500 songs. By 1933 Lew Stone had ousted Fox as bandleader, and Al Bowlly was singing Stone’s arrangements with Stone’s band. After much radio exposure and a successful British tour with Stone, Bowlly was inundated with demands for personal appearances and gigs—including undertaking a subsequent solo British tour—but continued to make the bulk of his recordings with Noble. There was considerable competition between Noble and Stone for Bowlly’s time as, for much of the year, Bowlly would spend all day in the recording studio with Noble’s band, rehearsing and recording, only then to spend the evening playing live at the Monseigneur with Stone’s band. (Many of these Noble sides were issued in the United States by Victor, which meant that by the time Noble and Bowlly came to America, their reputation had preceded them.)
A visit to New York City in 1934 with Noble resulted in more success, and their recordings first achieved popularity in the United States; Al Bowlly appeared at the head of an orchestra hand-picked for him and Noble by Glenn Miller (the band included Claude Thornhill, Charlie Spivak and Bud Freeman, among others). During the mid-1930s, such songs as “Blue Moon”, “Easy to Love”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “My Melancholy Baby” were sizable American successes—so much so that Bowlly gained his own radio series on NBC and traveled to Hollywood to co-star in 1936 with Bing Crosby, one of his biggest competitors, in The Big Broadcast. He had appeared with his own band, the Radio City Rhythm Makers, but they had split by late 1937 when his vocal problems were traced to a wart in his throat, which briefly caused him to lose his voice. With him and Marjie separated and his band dissolved, that year he was once again down on his luck. He was forced to borrow money from friends for a trip to New York for the surgery of which he was so in need. In 1938, he finally returned to the United States to undergo successful major throat surgery for the removal of his vocal wart, but still had difficulties later in his career.
His absence from the UK in the early 1930s damaged his popularity with British audiences, despite his association with the gifted pianist, Monia Liter, as his accompanist. His career began to suffer as a result of problems with his voice from around 1936, which affected the frequency of his recordings. Al Bowlly played a few small parts in films around this time, yet never professed to be an actor. The parts he did play were often cut, and scenes that were shown were brief. Noble was offered a role in Hollywood although the offer did not, unfortunately, include Bowlly, as a singer had already been instated. Bowlly moved back to London with his wife Marjie in January 1937. With his diminished success in Britain, he toured regional theatres and recorded as often as possible to make a living, moving from orchestra to orchestra, including those of Sydney Lipton, Geraldo and Ken Johnson. He underwent a revival from 1940, as part of a double act with Jimmy Messene (whose career had also suffered a recent downturn), with an act called Radio Stars with Two Guitars, performing on the London stage. It was his last venture before his death in April 1941. The partnership was an uneasy one, as Messene suffered from a serious drinking problem by this stage, and was known to turn up incapable on stage, or to not turn up at all, much to Bowlly’s consternation. His last recorded song, made two weeks before his death, was a duet with Messene of Irving Berlin’s satirical song on Hitler, “When That Man is Dead and Gone”.
In December 1931, Al Bowlly married Constance Freda Roberts in St Martin’s District, London, but Bowlly discovered his new wife in bed with another man on their wedding night. The couple separated after a fortnight, and sought a rapid divorce. He remarried in December 1934, this time to Marjie Fairless, the marriage lasting until his death (Freda remarried in 1965, dying in Richmond-upon-Thames in 1967). On 17 April 1941, Bowlly and Messene had just given a performance at the Rex Cinema in Oxford Street, High Wycombe, now demolished. Both were offered the opportunity of an overnight stay in the town, but Bowlly opted to take the last train home to his flat at 32 Duke Street, Duke’s Court, St James, London. His decision proved to be fatal, as he was killed by a Luftwaffe parachute mine that detonated outside his flat later that evening. His body appeared unmarked: although the massive explosion had not disfigured him, it had blown his bedroom door off its hinges and the impact against his head proved fatal. He was buried with other bombing victims in a mass grave at what is today known as Hanwell Cemetery, Uxbridge Road, Hanwell, where his name is given as Albert Alex Bowlly.
- January, 07, 1898
- Maputo, Mozambique
- April, 17, 1941
- United Kingdom
- London, England
Cause of Death
- Hanwell Cemetery
- Ealing, London, England
- United Kingdom