I must sincerely apologise to our wonderful author, Stuart Miller-Osborne. I said that the article below,"Sounds From The Past" was written by his wife Caron. In fact, it was written by the great man himself Stuart! I only found out when Caron came into the Arcade and I told her that I had blogged her story when she told me that it was, in fact, Stuart's article. The confusion arose when Caron sent it to me from her computer. I am very sorry Stuart.
Sounds From The Past
It was towards the end of the long hot summer of 1976, just after I had returned from France that I found myself near Hanwell Cemetery. As the day showed no signs of cooling down I thought it would be agreeable to spend a few reflective minutes amongst the Victorian gravestones. I had not been there long before I was approached by an elderly gentleman who enquired whether I knew where the grave of Al Bowlly was located, ( I was aware that he was buried in Hanwell but not where). He explained that during the 1930s he had been with various bands and had met Al Bowlly on various occasions. He was visiting the UK having lived in South Africa for many years and had decided to pay his respects to the singer. Whether or not my acquaintance from South Africa found Al’s grave I did not stay to find out.
Some thirty years passed before Al crossed my path again. It was at a crowded jumble sale in Bath. As normal I was hunting out rare first editions (with no luck) when I noted a box of old 78s under the white elephant stall. Out of curiosity and nothing else ( I do not collect records) I decided to take a look. To my surprise they consisted mostly of Al Bowlly recordings. Songs such as Melancholy Baby, Dark Eyes, Blue Moon were there and many others. I immediately thought of my South African visitor and our meeting on that late summers day thirty or so years before. Although tempted I decided against the purchase as I did not own a record player. The good natured stallholder who resembled Joyce Grenfell to a tee was very keen for me to have them. Although I resisted I did ease my conscience by noting that this appeared to be quite a serious collection and it would be wise to take them to an antiques dealer who would know more. On the train back to Hungerford I regretted not purchasing the collection, but I knew I had made the correct decision.
But who was Al Bowlly ? I recently asked my children had they heard of Al, neither had. My parents had introduced me to his work but obviously I had failed. As we are all aware music is so diverse and easily available these days that the stars from the past can be forgotten or swept aside.
Albert Allick Bowlly was born in Lourenco Marques in Mozambique on the 7th of January 1898 of mixed Greek and Lebanese blood. In his early years he had jobs as diverse as a jockey and a barber. Soon however he was with a dance band which toured various outposts of the empire. He actually worked at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore during this time. His recording debut came in 1927 when he recorded Blue Skies the Irving Berlin number. His big break came in 1930 when he signed a contract with Roy Fox to sing with his band at the Monseigneur Restaurant in London. The following year he signed another contract with Ray Noble’s orchestra. In the next few years Al’s career blossomed, he recorded hundreds of songs and was soon involved in a UK tour. In 1934 he went to the USA with more success where he worked with Glenn Miller.
His success in the USA was startling (although short lived) he had his own radio series with NBC and he starred in the movie The Big Broadcast with Bing Crosby in 1936. The problem was that Al was not really an actor and because of that the Hollywood opportunities waned as did other avenues subsequently. He was also having problems with his voice which affected the recording frequency (this was identified as being a throat wart which was later operated on)
Unfortunately because of Al’s time in the USA his popularity in the UK had waned also. (the medical problems had not helped at all). As with a lot of entertainers who were once very big he was forced to play at regional locations (Strangely enough this happens in this day and age when big stars of a few years ago show up in a regional town sometimes to the surprise of the inhabitants).
He got together with Jimmy Messene (whose star was also in decline) in 1940 and his career took an upturn for a while. However the partnership was uneasy to say the least with Messene having personal problems which of cause did not help.
Al’s last performance with Messsene was at the very regional Rex Cinema in High Wycombe on the evening of the 17th of April 1941. After the performance both men were offered the opportunity to stay in the town. Al declined as High Wycombe was on a direct rail route to London and his flat in Jermyn Street was not over far from Marylebone Station. This was a decision that cost him his life as a Lutwaffe parachute mine exploded outside his flat later that evening and killed him. He was buried in a mass grave in the cemetery in Hanwell ,where many years later I briefly met my visitor from South Africa. As I have already noted people such as Al Bowlly are still pretty unknown to the younger generations. This is in part to their type of music going in and out of fashion and the rise of so called pop music since the 1950s. No longer do you go to the local record shop and stand in the soundproof booth and listen to the latest Billy Fury or Elvis single. Today the media used is various and one can listen to any type of recording in any location at any time.
Unless in a retro aspect people no longer buy records unless they are deliberately produced. As with most things the media is smaller, more convenient and virtually indestructible. I have a small electronic device (given to me by my son) on which he has placed the works of Beethoven and Elgar as well as Al Bowlly. The item is the size of a plum and I believe is called a zen for short. If I had all those recordings on 78 rpm records then they would take a good deal of room. I can take my zen anywhere and apart from the occasional charging up required it needs no maintenance and the sound is first class.
However not so long ago if you had recordings of your favourite artists on either 33,45 or 78 rpm records you felt privileged. I can remember as a child a friend’s father travelling all the way to the Isle of Wight as he had discovered a rare Caruso recording on a 78. We did not all own record players or gramophones so often it was a trip around a friends house to listen to the latest sounds.
My mother has still has a large collection of 78s most still in their paper sleeves, a lot of these with the His Master’s Voice trademark record label with Nipper the dog listening to a wind up gramophone. I found out in later years that this was taken from a painting by Francis Barraud. The story is that Nipper was a fox terrier and had belonged to his brother Mark. When Mark died Nipper came to live with Francis who noted the dog took an interest in recordings of Mark’s voice coming from a phonograph. Francis painted the scene and although it was later modified to show a gramophone the image was born, although my main worry aged five I am told was that Nipper would get dizzy going around at such a pace.
My parents and grandparents both seemed to have large collections of these records and I wondered how long they had been around. I knew that Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph amongst other things and that the record player in my bedroom was a distant grandchild of the original invention. What I did not discover until later was that a chap named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville had in 1857 invented a vibrating pen that represented graphically on discs of paper. No sound came from this as the intention was to display the visual characteristics of sound. The whole idea was for the scientific investigation of sound waves.What is fascinating is that with modern technology the visual recording was made playable. On the internet can be found the earliest recognizable recording of a human voice recorded on the 9th April 1860. To listen to this very short piece is very haunting. Very much like looking at the Lacock Abbey photographs of a few years earlier.
Over the years the media used for the production of records has changed considerably. I can remember breaking 78s by accident and being told to treat them like egg shells. Whilst researching this subject I have noted that the records I own or am familiar with were supposed to be made of a stronger material to combat damage. Taking this into account the earlier records must have been very fragile as it did not take a lot to damage a 78 in those days.
It appears that the early recordings had had a variety of speeds ranging from 60 to 130 rpm. Bt the mid 1920s it was standardised at 78rpm. Later the 33 and 45s made their debut. Happily one finds 78s very frequently with all manner of recordings. Whether you are perusing in an antiques shop or an arcade or just searching for bargains at a jumble sale or a church fete you come across all kinds of records. From the classical to the then modern they are all there. A lot of the time it is not the purchase of the recordings that is the problem it is the ownership of a gramophone or a record player. Everything has become so minimal with the onset of compact discs that to own a record player or a gramophone is not really the norm these days.
We now have e books or Kindles where one had read books electronically. If one travels on a commuter train to London it is quite startling the numbers of people who are reading electronically. But to me this is to miss the point of reading a book. It is that feeling (especially if you are reading an early edition) of holding the book in your hands and feeling its age and eccentricities. The same applies to music, no matter how nice it is to listen to an improved recording of Al Bowlly on my zen nothing beats listening to an early recording of lets say ’ Dark Eyes’ on my mothers aged record player. His voice sounds somewhat muffled and far away a product of its time and this adds to the charm and the experience of the recording. And just like old books you have that feeling which you can touch but cannot really describe. This is all but lost when one listens to old recordings on modern media.
Although the digital media gained the lager market share by the early 1990s there are still a large number of records being produced. According to the internet there were some 2.9 million shipped in 2008. So the old horse is by no means dead, just more selective. It is thanks to the internet that singers such as Al Bowlly can still be enjoyed. There are some fabulous recordings of some of his greatest hits on You Tube and other sites. My daughter recently gave me a copy of the charming French film Amelie which on its soundtrack features Al’s song Guilty.
If you are ever in Hanwell in West London and have some time to spare, pop in and pay your respects to Al and thank him for his wonderful recordings as I should have done all those years ago.
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