7 January 1898
17 April 1941 (aged 43)
Albert Allick Bowlly (7 January 1898 – 17 April 1941) was a British vocalist who was popular during the 1930s in England. He recorded more than 1,000 records. His most popular songs include "Midnight, the Stars and You", "Goodnight, Sweetheart", "The Very Thought of You", "Guilty", "Love Is the Sweetest Thing" and the English version of "Dark Eyes", the "Russian Gypsy" song by Adalgiso Ferraris as "Black Eyes" with words of Albert Mellor.
Bowlly was born in Lourenço Marques in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. His parents were Greek and Lebanese. They met en route to Australia and moved to South Africa.
Bowlly was brought up in Johannesburg. After a series of odd jobs across South Africa in his youth, including being a barber and a jockey, he sang in a dance band led by Edgar Adeler on a tour of South Africa, Rhodesia, India and Indonesia during the mid-1920s. He was fired from the band in Surabaya, Indonesia.
Jimmy Liquime hired him to sing with the band in India and Singapore. In 1927 Bowlly made his first record, a cover version of "Blue Skies" by Irving Berlin that was recorded with Adeler in Berlin, Germany. During the next year, he worked in London, England, with the orchestra of Fred Elizalde.
The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 resulted in 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 bandleader Ray Noble in November 1930.
During the next four years, he recorded over 500 songs. By 1933 Lew Stone had ousted Fox as bandleader, and 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 appearances and gigs—including undertaking a solo British tour—but continued to make most of his recordings with Noble. There was considerable competition between Noble and Stone for Bowlly's time. For much of the year, Bowlly spent all day in the recording studio with Noble's band rehearsing and recording, then the evening with Stone's band at the Monseigneur. Many of these recordings with Noble 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.
He performed in England with his band, the Radio City Rhythm Makers. But by 1937 the band broke up when vocal problems were traced to a wart in his throat, which briefly caused him to lose his voice. Separated from his wife and with his band dissolved, he borrowed money from friends and traveled to New York City for surgery.
His absence from the UK in the early 1930s damaged his popularity with British audiences, despite his association with pianist Monia Liter as his accompanist. His career began to suffer as a result of problems with his voice, which affected the frequency of his recordings. He played a few small parts in films but 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 include Bowlly, as a singer had already been hired. Bowlly moved back to London with his wife Marjie in January 1937.
With diminished success in Britain, he toured regional theatres and recorded as often as possible to make a living, moving from orchestra to orchestra, working with Sydney Lipton, Gerald Bright and Ken "Snakehips" Johnson. In 1940 there was a revival of interest in his career when he worked in a duo with Jimmy Messene in Radio Stars with Two Guitars on the London stage. It was his last venture before his death in April 1941. The partnership was uneasy. Messene had a drinking problem. When he showed up for work, he was occasionally unable to perform. Bowlly recorded his last song two weeks before his death. It was a duet with Messene on Irving Berlin's satirical song about Hitler, "When That Man is Dead and Gone".
In December 1931, Bowlly married Constance Freda Roberts (died 1967) in St Martin's District, London; the couple separated after a fortnight, and sought a rapid divorce. He remarried in December 1934, to Marjie Fairless; this marriage lasted until his death.
On 16 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 fateful. He was killed by a Luftwaffe parachute mine that detonated outside his flat at ten past three in the morning.
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.
Bowlly is sometimes credited with inventing crooning or "The Modern Singing Style", releasing a book of the same name. He experimented with new methods of amplification, not least with his Melody Maker advert, showing him endorsing a portable vocal megaphone. With the advent of the microphone in 1931, he adapted his singing style, moving away from the Jazz singing style of the 20s, into the softer, more expressive crooning singing style used in popular music of the 1930s and 1940s.
A Blue Plaque commemorating Bowlly was installed, in November 2013, by English Heritage at Charing Cross Mansion, 26 Charing Cross Road, described as "his home at the pinnacle of his career".
The song "Guilty" was used by the BBC soap opera EastEnders in 2000, playing over the end credits instead of the programme's usual title music to signify the final appearance of character Ethel Skinner (Gretchen Franklin) who had persuaded her friend Dot Cotton (June Brown) to help her die.
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