Al Bowlly, the “Big Swoon”

As I got into the music of the 1920s and 1930s several years ago, one performer’s name always stood out to me: Al Bowlly. I remembered him mainly because I loved his songs, and because of the unusual last name. But I didn’t actually know anything about him or his interesting life until very recently.

He was born on 7 January 1898 as Albert Allick Bowlly in Mozambique, to Greek and Lebanese parents who had met in Australia and settled in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Al grew up.

Al worked as a barber and a jockey in Johannesburg before getting a job as a singer with Edgar Adeler’s band touring parts of Africa, the Dutch East Indies, and India. In 1927, Al recorded his first record: a cover of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” And until the stock market crash happened, he sang with Fred Elizalde’s orchestra, based in London.

When the Great Depression hit, however, Al lost his job and for months was forced to busk — that is, perform on the street for tips — to live. But in 1930 he got a contract singing with Ray Noble’s band and the following year he was also performing with Roy Fox at Piccadilly’s swanky Monseigneur Restaurant. And over the next four years, he would record 500 songs and divide his time between his two gigs.

In 1937, Bowlly developed what is a pretty common problem with professional singers: a throat polyp, which caused him to sometimes lose his voice and negatively impacted his career. He traveled to the New York City for surgery, and because many of his records with Noble had been released under the Victor label, he was already well-known in the States.

But when he returned to the UK, he found that his absence had diminished his popularity with British audiences. He recorded as much as possible and focused on regional theaters to make a living. His last gig was as part of a duo act with unreliable alcoholic Jimmy Messene, Radio Stars with Two Guitars on the London stage in 1940. He would make what would be his final recording with Messene of Irving Berlin’s song “When That Man is Dead and Gone” , a parody about Hitler.

By now World War II was raging, and Britain was regularly subjected to surprise attacks by German bombers; people would be warned of these air bombings with sirens and would have to stop whatever they were doing to find cover, often in homemade “Anderson shelters” specifically installed for this purpose. On 19 April 1941, Al and Messene did a show at the Rex Theater at High Wycombe, and they were offered overnight accommodations but Al chose to take the train back to his London home.

At about 3 a.m. the next morning, a Luftwaffe parachute mine detonated near Al’s flat, and his bedroom door was torn off his hinges, striking him fatally in the head.

A sad end to such an interesting and talented musician. Imagine if he had opted to stay in High Wycombe that night instead of going home, he might have ended up a superstar like Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra.

In 2013, English Heritage installed a blue plaque (a marker commemorating a famous person in the UK) for Al Bowlly at Charing Cross Mansion.

Al Bowl’s plaque

Here is some footage of Al singing “My Melancholy Baby” in 1934, accompanied by first-rate pianist Monia Liter. Looking at Al, it’s not hard to see why they called him “The Big Swoon.”

I downloaded the original video and tried to fix the shaky parts of the footage in iMovie with their stabilization feature, but all it did was crop the frames… the picture was now just zoomed in and shaky. So this is the original video from YouTube. It is worth watching!

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