Here is our final installment on the life and times of Al Bowlly...
Jimmy Mesene and Al Bowlly had formed a singing and guitar playing duo to work the music halls in 1940 at a time when both of their careers seemed stalled. They worked as 'The Radio Stars with Two Guitars' or 'The Anglo-Greek Ambassadors of Song'. Al Bowlly's untimely death may have been the last straw for Jimmy Mesene who would have seen his living disappear and had lost a friend as well as a partner.
Al and his partner of the day Jimmy Mesene were booked for one week to do "Cine Variety" at the Rex Theatre at High Wycombe starting Monday April 14th, 1941. The engagement at the Rex, which was in Oxford Street, High Wycombe, and which was closed some time after the war, turned out to be Al’s last theatre date. The Rex Theatre was running Cine-variety that week, and the top-of-the-bill was Al Bowlly and Jimmy Mesene billed as "the Anglo-Greek Ambassadors of Song – Two voices and Guitars in Harmony".
John Watsham, manager of the theatre recalled:
"Little did we guess what the week would have in store for us! After the second house on Wednesday night, 16th April, we were having a little private party in a nearby hostelry – Al, Jimmy, my manager Captain Talbot Bullock, my wife and myself. The night wore on, and it was a good party, Al ..... suddenly told us that he was leaving to catch the last train to London. He was adamant, despite all our efforts to make him change his mind. Little did we realize then that we should never see him again."
Geoff Nash who was the projectionist at the Rex Theatre has his own memories of Al Bowlly:
"I must have been one of the last to talk to Al, which I remember clearly. Most artistes took the advantage of staying in High Wycombe for the week, in which way they could get a reasonable night’s sleep; things were not too hectic here. Al was the exception, as far as my memory allows, deciding to travel back to London on the last train, 10.34pm from High Wycombe station for Marylebone."
So Bowlly returned to his flat in Dukes Court in the West End at a time when London was being bombed nightly, and fatally decided not to bother to go to the safety of an air raid shelter. 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, Dukes Court, St James, London. His decision proved to be fatal, as he was killed by a Luftwaffe parachute mine that detonated outside his flat later that evening. 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 the Hanwell Cemetery (originally City of Westminster Cemetery), Uxbridge Road, Hanwell, London, where his name is spelled Albert Alex Bowlly.
Jimmy Mesene telephoned John Watsham at the Rex Theatre to break the news of Al Bowlly’s death. John’s instinct was the cancel the remainder of the show. However, Jimmy persuaded him to open again on the Friday with "A Tribute To Al Bowlly".
Bowlly died in the early hours of April 17, 1941 and a tribute did not appear in the "Melody Maker" until the 25th which announced that his funeral would be on Saturday 26th at Westminster City Council Cemetery, Uxbridge Road, Hanwell. No special memorial for Bowlly exists, there was just one tombstone for the communal grave erected on what was then a barren piece of land. Although Jimmy Mesene had intended to erect a memorial he could not do it because he was unrelated to Bowlly and could not get the necessary permission.
Al Bowlly is invariably credited with inventing crooning, or "The Modern Singing Style", releasing a book of the same name. Bowlly 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, Al 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 30s and 40s. It was Al's technique, sincerity, diction and his personality that distinguish him from many other singers of the 30s era.
Al is also credited with being the first "pop star". Prior to the advent of Bowlly, the bandleaders were the stars and the main attractions, with the records being sold as "Ray Noble and his orchestra (with vocal refrain)", a phenomenon that can be seen on 78s of the period. Most singers were all but anonymous; however, Al's popularity changed this, with him being the first singer to be given a solo spot on BBC radio due to popular demand, and records appearing featuring his own name. Bowlly's personality, good looks, charisma, and above all his voice, earned him the nickname "The Big Swoon", with Al finding himself being mobbed by female fans for autographs and photos after his performances. One of the first places I remember hearing Bowlly's voice was in the 1980 movie The Shining - his recording of "Midnight, The Stars, And You" was featured prominently in the movie background.
Al Bowlly died tragically young, and like other stars such as Carole Lombard, Leslie Howard, Glenn Miller, and Chick Henderson - he became a casuality of war. His voice was silenced that day in 1941, but his hundreds of recordings live on in the records and now compact discs that still remind us that Al's was the sweetest thing - just like the Ray Noble song said...