As Greeks we have become used to many of our compatriots becoming ‘stars’ of music on the world stage. There are the obvious ones like Maria Callas, Mikis Theodorakis, Demis Roussos, Nana Mouskouri, Yianni. Then there are the less obvious ones due to name changes or being half Greek, like George Michael, Cat Stevens, The Andrews Sisters, Tony Orlando, to mention just a few. All of these followed in the footsteps of the man who is referred to as the first pop star in the world – Al Bowlly.
Albert Alick Bowlly was the most famous singer of the 1920s and ’30s. He was famous in India, the Far East, Germany, Britain and in the USA before Bing Crosby, with whom he competed for a time in the ’30s. During his career he made over 1,000 records, which given the primitive recording techniques in those years was an astonishing accomplishment. He was called Europe’s Most Popular Crooner, or the Ambassador of Song. Al Bowlly was the first singer to use the microphone and amplification to project his own personality and was hailed by the press as The All Conquering Al Bowlly. He was the first British popular singer to form a solo variety act, the first to be invited to have a solo spot on the BBC, and the first to be invited to work in America.
His original name was not Bowlly and his father hailed from the historic island of Rhodes.
His story begins with his father, Alick Pauli, on Rhodes. From the little information that is available we can safely assume that his Greek name was Alexandros (Alex) Pavlis or Pavlou. His name was most probably shortened and anglicised by some government official when he applied for a passport, as were names of migrants in similar circumstances, often without their permission. In 1892, Alick left Rhodes and migrated to Australia. He arrived in Perth in the same year. The trip to Australia was very long in 1892, which allowed serious friendships to develop amongst the passengers. On the ship Alick met and fell in love with another passenger, a Lebanese Christian woman, Miriam Ayoub, who was also migrating to Australia.
The Australian Marriage Index (1788-1950) Registration number 103 shows that Alick Pauli married Miriam Ayoub in Perth in 1892. Perth then was a strange place for newlyweds Alick and Miriam Pauli to decide to live. In 1892 Perth was a very small, having been founded by the British Government 63 years earlier because they feared the French might establish a colony there. Its population was 38,000, business opportunities were limited and work was scarce. 1892 was a turning point for Perth because gold was discovered and its population grew.
Alick and Miriam were not interested in mining for gold so they left Perth and headed for Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), the capital of the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique. When they applied for travel documents in Perth an uncaring official misspelt the name Pauli as Bowlly. All the documents were in English and since Alick was only able to speak and read Greek, the mistake went unnoticed and the name became permanent when they arrived in Mozambique. While here Alick began a business as an importer/exporter. He also began his family and on January 7, 1899 their fourth child Albert was born. At the beginning of 1900 the family moved to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. In 1903 they became naturalized citizens of South Africa and immediately moved to Johannesburg.
As Albert grew up he showed no interest in school and left at fourteen to begin training as a barber in his uncle’s barber shop. This was also a temporary job, as his dream was to become an entertainer. He took singing and guitar lessons and soon was able to get work playing guitar, banjo and ukulele. At the age of 22 he was offered work by the bandleader Edgar Adler. In those days singers were normally a part of a big band and the bandleader was the ‘star’. Often the singer did not get a mention at all. Albert was destined to change all that.
In 1923 The Edgar Adler band began a tour of Rhodesia, East Africa, India and the exotic Surabaya, East Java. When Edgar Adler returned home Albert did not. In fact he never returned to South Africa again. Instead he accepted a job with the Jimmy Lequine Orchestra in Calcutta and again toured the Far East as the band’s singer. He eventually made his way to Berlin where he performed with a number of famous bands. Here he began making records which enhanced his reputation as a singer.
In July 1928 he went to London and joined the band at the Savoy Hotel as a singer and guitarist. During this time he was so popular that people began attending just to hear his singing. His recording output increased as his popularity grew. During the 1930s he was incredibly popular as a recording artist and people began searching for records that had his voice on them. In these years singers did not always get a credit on recordings. If there was any credit at all it would be referred to as ‘Vocal refrain by Al Bowlly’. In 1931 he recorded over 200 refrains. Al Bowlly became the ‘star’ of the band.
His popularity was such that the film company British Pathe asked to make short films of him singing alone accompanied only by a piano. These were the earliest form of what we now call ‘video clips’. These can be seen at www.uhfcom.com/albowlly.htm
The main reason he became so popular is that he developed a new intimate and soft style of singing that was enhanced by the newly developed microphone. Before the microphone became available, in 1930, singers had to project, so intimate style was impossible. It was said by many that Al Bowlly sang so intimately, sincerely and with perfect diction that not only could he bring his audience to tears, but at times he would bring himself to tears.
He was the first singer to be given a solo spot on BBC radio due to popular demand, and records began to appear with his name only. Al’s personality, charisma, good looks, and above all his smooth voice, earned him the nickname ‘The Big Swoon’. He was the first singer to be mobbed by female fans for autographs and photos after his performances.
In 1934 he toured America with the Ray Noble Orchestra and played many dates at the prestigious Rainbow Room, Fifth Avenue in New York. He was given his own radio show on NBC and also made a number of recordings, with My Melancholy Baby being his big hit at the time. He then returned to Britain, where he continued to work in all the prestigious hotels as well as making many recordings to satisfy the demand from his many fans.
He is credited with having invented ‘crooning’ or as he preferred to call it ‘The Modern Singing Style’, a style that became even more famous when it was adopted by Bing Crosby. To prove that he invented and developed the style Al Bowlly wrote and published a book in 1935 by the title The Modern Singing Style.
Unfortunately, WW2 began on September 1 1939 and work began to diminish. But Al was one of the few that kept on working. On the 16 April, 1941 he performed at the Rex Theatre in High Wycombe just out of London. After the performance he retuned to his apartment in Piccadilly, central London. That night London suffered one of the worst German air raids. Al was killed in his flat in the early hours of the 17 April, 1941. He was buried on the 26 April after a service by the Dean of Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London.
Al Bowlly’s music has not died with him. His voice is often heard today in many movies and British TV series, the most famous of them being the Dennis Potter 1981 TV series Pennies from Heaven. His music is still used in many British TV series set in the twenties and thirties, such as Goodnight Sweetheart, Poirot, Miss Marple, and Edward & Mrs Simpson.
Last year an English Heritage Blue Plaque was placed at Charing Cross Mansions, 26 Charing Cross Road, London where he lived for most of his career.
*In researching this article we acknowledge memorylane.org.uk and tvrage.com