The legendary Albert Alick Bowlly was born on 7 January 1899 in Delagoa Bay, Portuguese East Africa, the fourth of the ten children of Alick Pauli (1867–1927), a general dealer, and his Lebanese wife, Miriam (Mary) Ayoub-NeeJame (1874–1949). The couple married in Australia; Alick Pauli's surname was written as Bowlly when they left there for Africa and, as he spoke and read only his native Greek, the mistake went unnoticed and the name became permanent when they were naturalized in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, on 21 February 1903. In that year the family moved to Johannesburg, where Al Bowlly was baptized a Roman Catholic (his mother's religion). He later adopted his father's Greek Orthodox faith. He left school at fourteen to work in his uncle's barber's shop, but longed to become an entertainer and soon obtained evening work singing and playing the ukulele and banjo. He took singing lessons from the local pianist and singer Letty Campbell.
Bowlly was naturalized on 12 March 1921 and obtained a passport. In the following year he was offered work by the bandleader Edgar Adler and, in 1923, began a tour of east Africa, India, and Java. He did not return home, accepting instead an engagement as banjoist with the Jimmy Lequime Orchestra in Calcutta, India. When Lequime went to Singapore in 1926, he became the band's singer. He travelled next to Berlin, where he performed with bands such as Arthur Brigg and his Savoy Syncopators, Fred Bird's Salon Symphonic Jazz Band, and George Carhart's New Yorkers Jazz Orchestra. He made his first recordings and enhanced his reputation as a singer in Berlin. From there, he went to London in July 1928, invited by Fred Elizalde to join his band at the Savoy Hotel as vocalist and guitarist. His skill as a guitarist is often overlooked, but can be heard to effect on his and Ella Logan's recording of ‘Frankie and Johnnie’ (24 November 1930). After Elizalde disbanded he joined the new band put together by Roy Fox at the Monseigneur restaurant, Piccadilly, London, in 1931. During this decade he became immensely popular as a singer and recording artist: over 200 vocal refrains were recorded by him in 1931 alone. In his lifetime he made over 1000 recordings. Al really believed in the songs which he sang, consequently coming across as being wholly and genuinely sincere, and this was one of the many reasons for his great popularity.
Bowlly married a dance hostess, Freda Roberts, on 18 December 1931 at St Martin register office, London, but they broke up three weeks later and finally divorced in January 1934. On what would have been their third wedding anniversary, he got married again, to another dance hostess, Margaret Fairless (known as Marjie). They separated in 1937 but did not divorce; there were no children from either marriage.
In 1932 Bowlly was singing with Lew Stone's band at the Monseigneur, which was really Fox's band under a different leader. With this band he further refined his vocal technique, recorded, broadcast on BBC radio, appeared in variety theatres, and became a crooner to rival the USA's Bing Crosby. He disliked the term ‘crooning’, and preferred ‘modern style singing’, the title of a book issued under his name (but probably ghosted) in 1934. The book observes that the modern intimate style of singing depends on the microphone, and that the microphone gives a new timbre to the voice, amplifying previously unheard harmonics. The techniques of the dance-band style of singing that are described are characteristic of Bowlly: for example, a slight portamento, an added grace-note, a fresh attack, and a dragging behind the tempo followed by a catching up. His technique is heard to advantage in ‘The Very Thought of You’, recorded with Ray Noble's New Mayfair Orchestra, HMV's house band, in 1934.
Bowlly toured the USA with Noble in 1934, performing at the prestigious Rainbow Room, Fifth Avenue, New York, as well as being given his own NBC radio series. His recording of ‘My Melancholy Baby’ (New York, 15 March 1935) was the big hit of this period of his life. He returned to the USA in 1937 for a throat operation, which proved successful and allowed him to begin doing freelance work again. In the late thirties he sang with bands led by Maurice Winnick, Lew Stone, and Geraldo, and in 1940 recorded with Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson's West Indian Orchestra.
In the early thirties, when dance-band records announced simply ‘with vocal refrain’, the singer remaining anonymous, admirers of Bowlly sought out records for his distinctive voice and thus he helped to elevate the status of the popular vocalist. His art ranged from that of the diseur, as heard on his recording of ‘Is I in Love? I Is’ with Arthur Lally and his orchestra (1932), to the jazz improviser, as on his recording of ‘Dinah’ with Jock McMerdott and his band (1932). He spoke Afrikaans as well as English, and recorded several records in the former language in 1930, under Ray Noble's direction, for the South African market. His dark good looks and silky, sensitive vocal timbre, mellifluous and without breathiness, won him a large following. Surprisingly, perhaps, he smoked heavily, though he drank little. He was warm-hearted, if quick tempered, and physically fit (he took boxing lessons in the mid-1930s).
After the outbreak of the Second World War, session work became scarce and Bowlly teamed up with a fellow guitarist, Jimmy Mesene. His last recordings were made with Mesene two weeks before his death. His last date was at the Rex Theatre in High Wycombe on 16th April, 1941. After the show, Al returned to his flat in Dukes Court, Piccadilly. On this night London was suffering one of its heaviest air raids. Instead of taking cover in the air raid shelter, Al was sitting up in bed reading a cowboy book. In the early hours of 17th April, 1941 a German landmine came silently down and exploded in the street outside Al's window. After the "all-clear" had been signalled, the caretaker made his rounds to see that everyone was all right. When he entered Al's flat, located on the corner of Jermyn Street and Dukes Street, St. James, he found him dead on the floor beside his bed, killed outright by the blast from the bomb. He was buried on 26 April in a communal grave at Westminster city council cemetery, Hanwell, after a funeral service conducted by the dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London. The gross value of his estate was £1163 2s. 8d., although at the time of his death he had only £3 10s. 9d. in his bank account, something of an irony given that his signature tune was ‘Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?’.
work is often heard today. He can be heard singing "Midnight, the Stars and You" and "It's All Forgotten Now" on Stanley Kubrick's classic "The Shining"(1980) and his voice can be heard in the charming French film 'Amalie' singing 'Guilty'. His music is often used as background in British TV series set in the twenties and thirties, such as 'Poirot', 'Miss Marple', 'Goodnight Sweetheart', 'Pennies From Heaven', 'Edward & Mrs. Simpson' and other programs. The building in Dukes Street where he died is still standing today, and there are plans for a blue plaque to be placed there in Al's memory.
Al Bowlly's grave may be found at the following link: Find A Grave
[Video Clip of Al Bowlly singing 'Melancholy Baby'.
Video Clip of Al Bowlly singing 'The Very Thought of You'
Al Bowlly sings 'Blue Moon'
Al Bowlly sings 'Love Is The Sweetest Thing'
Al Bowlly sings 'Walking Thru Mocking Bird Lane'