Famous and not so famous Brits (part 2)
Al Bowlly, the first British “pop star”
Al Bowlly (1899-1941) was the fi rst British “pop star”. He was born to Greek and Lebanese parents in what is now Mozambique, was brought up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and began his career as a dance band singer in the mid-1920s, touring South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and playing in India, Indonesia and Singapore before arriving in the UK in 1928.
At first he struggled, and sometimes had to earn his living by busking in the streets; but it changed in 1930, when he began to work live and on record with renowned bandleaders Ray Noble and Roy Fox. He made no less than 500 records in four years while performing in the evenings with leading dance bands and playing to large audiences in London night clubs and provincial dance halls. This era later became known as “The Golden Age Of British Dance Bands”, and it was the fi rst time that British performers of popular music had been able to match the professionalism and flair of their American rivals.
Until Al Bowlly’s time, most dance band records were credited to the band and its leader, with the singer’s contribution described as “vocal refrain”, but Bowlly was the first British “personality singer” to win a female fan following with the soft, “crooning” style pioneered by American singers like Bing Crosby. Bowlly’s records were released in the USA and sold well, so in 1934 the singer decided to try his luck in the States. He did well enough to gain his own radio series, but was not as successful as he had been in Britain. A throat problem aff ected his singing and he was forced to dissolve his band.
In 1937 he returned to Britain, and found his popularity had declined during his absence. He continued to tour and record throughout the late 1930s and into the early years of World War Two. But on April 17, 1941, after a performance in High Wycombe, near London, he declined an off er to stay there overnight and returned to his fl at in London. Later that evening, the city suff ered an air raid by the German Luftwaffe and Bowlly was killed by a bomb which went off outside his flat.
Since his death, Al Bowlly’s legend has grown, and his music has fascinated subsequent generations of pop music listeners as a symbol of a bygone (and sometimes romanticised) era. His singing is less dated to modern listeners than most other singers of his era, and his songs are often used to add atmosphere to films and TV serials set in the 1920s and 1930s, or in unexpected contexts such as Stanley Kubrick’s fi lm “The Shining”. Even if most of those who saw Al Bowlly in his heyday are now dead, fan groups campaign for more music of his era to be played on BBC radio – which shows that it still communicates to modern audiences.
NOTE: The name may not mean much to you. But this will change if you listen to the music before you read the text below. Check Al Bowlly on YouTube.
Colin Ellis, NaukaBezGranic