The best singer you never heard of: a star. To navigate by.
Like many, I first came across Al’s music through Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, watching it on telly as a kid in the late 1970’s, wondering what the heck was going on, but loving it just the same as the actor Bob Hoskins ‘burst into song’, voicing You Couldn’t be Cuter. That voice belonged to Al Bowlly.
With Lew Stone’s dance orchestra swinging along through the crackle behind Bowlly’s voice, I heard how funky (well, kind of) these tunes could be. There’s no mistaking the sonic patina of these old recordings, even when restored, the sound is thin but clear. Silvery. Hearing these tunes and leafing through the handmedown sheet music stored in the piano stool gave me an early appreciation for old-fashioned song-craft unsullied by the schmaltz of the Musical.
Then I bought a cassette that compiled Al Bowlly’s work with bandleader/composer Ray Noble. There sat Al, in a colorized picture on the front, playing a little guitar. I loved these songs: the sentimental ballads such as ‘Love is the Sweetest Thing’ and the optimism and humour of the dance tunes like ‘My Hat’s on the Side of My Head’. Songs like this would be rewound until the tape was pocked with its own pops and clicks between tracks. Only people who’ve listened to music on cassette will understand how you could instinctively time how long it would take to press ‘rewind’ to repeat a track you loved. Until youtube Al Bowlly was was all still pictures. Then this. Go on, take 3 minutes out to watch this and let Albert Alick Bowlly charm you. He’s not called a song stylist without reason…
This is just piano and vocal, obviously, but most of his recordings are done with dance bands. These arrangements make each song a journey, beginning with introductory verses that are often cut off and forgotten as years pass. The ensemble can blast into a key change, then cut back to piano, bass and drums on a sixpence. And it’s all done live, as well. One or two mics in a studio somewhere in London in the 1930’s. The ‘sound mix’ is done by arranging the musicians into sections: finely tuned seating arrangements, closer or further from the mic. There’s a joy and bounce to the tunes that’s sustained over the three minutes they last. You are listening to performances. There’s a thrill in discovering music like this. It comes to belong to you.
In Al’s early recordings, his work is anonymously listed as ‘with vocal refrain’, identifying the work of the vocalist as only part of the ensemble. (where he also played banjo, ukulele and later guitar) The real star was the dance-band leader (most famously Ray Noble), who would select, arrange and conduct the material.
You can see Ray Noble in action below, live in Holland for some old newsreel.You can see that in a band like this you’d have to have worked very hard to make yourself heard as a vocalist.
Prior to microphones, the singer would occasionally use a megaphone. Indeed at the height of his fame Al endorsed the ‘Ultra-Compact Al Bowlly Megaphone’. This device, however, impacted on the singer’s ability to perform a song, especially someone like Al who put so much of himself into the music:
“ I am not over-fond of the megaphone, although I have had to use it from time to time. In the first place, it is apt to distort the voice; secondly it is very directional, and thirdly, it hides the face and, whatever one might be tempted to say about this being an advantage, it is not, because it is impossible to express any sort of personality if one’s face is replaced by a gaping black hole!” Al Bowlly
Al had honed his vocal instrument over years of work in various ensembles from Johannesburg to Java, but that’s another story, containing the kind of detail that would take up too much space and either scare or bore someone who’s not a total nerd for Al Bowlly. Though there are a lot of us out there.
Al Bowlly is a crooner. This means that he’s a purveyor of (some say inventor of) a vocal style that emerged with development in microphone design between the wars. Rather than competing with an orchestra, the singer is close to the microphone, and is able to sing in a quieter, more intimate mode than if he or she was competing with the other instruments for volume. The microphone becomes an instrument in itself, rather than just a machine for capturing sound. You can see Al Bowlly leaning in and out of proximity to the mic in the few youtube clips that exist of him.
The lyrics of these tunes (at their best) are gorgeous, explorations of a single idea, word or feeling, as compressed and yet as open as a haiku. Completely confined by rhythm and rhyme, yet they can launch you into a very special place.
Bowlly’s voice is soft and burnished, yet at other moments ‘cuts through’. There’s a clarity to his delivery that’s perhaps aided by English being a second, or other language, a bit like ABBA, maybe. (He was born and raised in South Africa)
You can hear Al living in the songs. To me it never sounds like he’s singing the song. It’s never affected. It’s all or nothing. For the moment he’s singing, whatever the song, he is the song. The song is him. Yes, there’s showmanship, but the guy’s a musician, first and foremost. Indeed his late-career slide into variety where ‘selling the song’ with dance and gimmicks was seen as a step down.
I’ve never had a singing lesson in my life so I couldn’t tell you what he does technically, and I can barely describe what his voice can do to me emotionally. I wish I could sing like him, but if I could, where would I do so?
There are a number of anecdotes about Al’s commitment to a song as a performance this from Ray Noble: ‘This simple sincerity, was, to me the most valuable quality of his singing. He believed what he sang. Sometimes when he’d turned in a good performance on a song like ‘The Very Thought of you’ which had a lyric as sincere as I could make it. I’ve seen him turn away from the microphone with tears in his eyes.”
I keep coming back to this idea. In 2012 I entered a concept document for a play about Al (or someone like him) into The Edward Albee Scholarship and ended up a finalist. I’m still working on it.
Some of us know what it’s like to be so familiar with particular music recordings that you still expect them to ‘skip’ or click where the old LP or cassette did, even though you’re listening on an ipod. However, story of how you find music, or how it finds you, the context your life gives it, becomes as much a part of the music as any of its actual sounds. It’s the you in the music.
“Even after all these dangerous years I still get many enquiries about Al Bowlly. And Sometimes when a middle-aged father says to me ‘You know I first met my wife the night we danced to your band and heard Al Bowlly sing Goodnight Sweetheart and we’ve never forgotten’, then I feel that both Al and I have contributed, in our small way to other people’s happiness, and how I wish he were here now to share that feeling.” (Ray Noble)
On the night of April 17, 1942, instead of heading to the air-raid shelter Al Bowlly went to bed with a cowboy book, and his life was ended by a German bomb.