The Crooners & Radio

The Microphone


Interlude - the crooners & the girls.

Louis was an incredible innovator. Louis started popular singing, with 'Heebie Jeebies' and 'Stardust'. Al Jolson was a shouty minstrel, until he picked it up in the theatre and Bing Crosby led the radio wave, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday interpreted it, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald perfected it.

In the mid 1920s the radio microphone was perfected, sensitive to soft sounds and popular singing changed. Instead of having to project their voices to the back of theatres singers developed subtleties of emotion and sentimentality only made possible by the new mics. As radio went coast to coast in 1928 Eddie Cantor et al and then Bing Crosby murmured and got real close to the listener and caressed them. A blend of romantic schmaltz, novelty song and Louis jazz phrasing made the technology seem innovative. Jazz singing transmogrified into Crooning ...

CrooningAl Bowlly wrote about it all in 193? 'The Modern Singing Style' ... a 'classic' ... unavailable?

Al Jolson (1886-1950) the first 'jazz' singer?

Eddie Cantor (1892-1964) 'Banjo Eyes' the song & dance man on the radio and 'Makin' Whoopee', 'Ida', 'If You Knew Susie', 'Ma! He's Makin' Eyes at Me', 'Margie' ... another successful Russian Jew who made it out of Vaudeville ...  Ziegfeld Follies of 1917 ... he continued in the Follies until 1927 ...

Gene Austin (1900-72) a Texan boy who learned to play the guitar and sing in Vaudeville ... and he adjusted to the close to mic murmur for radio ... and he wrote songs, 'When My Sugar Walks Down the Street', 'How Come You Do Me Like You Do' and 'The Lonesome Road' became big in pop and jazz ... he recorded 'Bye Bye Blackbird' 1926, 'My Blue Heaven' 1928, 'Ramona' 1927, 'Carolina Moon' 1928 ... both Crosby and Sinatra credited Austin with a lasting influence ...

Rudy Valée (1901-86) a band leader and saxophonist who started singing into a microphone with his wavering tenor voice, the first of the crooners and a pop idol. A sweet man with jazz phrasing. A handsome singer turned movie star. Recorded 'As Time Goes By' in 1943. Started recording in 1929. The Flappers mobbed him, was he the first pop idol?

Bing Crosby (1903-77) records, radio and movies ... he arrived via The Big Band ...

Then the 2nd generation theatre songs, the standards, dried up and the crooners fell into an abyss, Bing and Sinatra dusted themselves down and then came Elvis Presley and the resurgent energy of black Blues.

There were girls also - in the early 20th century, female Vaudeville singers & comediennes were the richest independent women in the country. Without political power during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, they were revered as angels and a splendid antidote to the macho men who caused all the trouble as they erroneously assumed they were making all the decisions. The girls sang, danced & they were funny. Women in the audience understood them and the men could look at them.

Ruth EttingRuth Etting (1897-1978) was a blue eyed blonde with a stunning voice; America's Sweetheart of Song ... Ziegfeld Follies 1927, 'Shine On, Harvest Moon', 'Ten Cents a Dance' and 'Love Me or Leave Me', 'Button Up Your Overcoat', 'Mean to Me', 'Exactly Like You' and 'Shaking the Blues Away' ... over sixty hit recordings ...

Ruth was a chorus girl who made her own style and married 'Moe the Gimp' Snyder a gangster who managed her career successfully ... but it all ended in acrimony and the law courts ...

 In 1933 in Hollywood she starred with Eddie Cantor in 'Roman Scandals'.

There were many other Vaudevillians who tried their hand at song, but were largely theatre singers and not crooners including - Maggie Cline (1857-1934), Lillian Russell (1860-1922), May Irwin (1863-1938), Marie Cahill (1866-1933), Trixie Friganza (1870-1955),  Alice Lloyd (1873-1949), Irene Franklin (1876-1941), Eva Tanguay (1879–1947), Louise Dresser (1879-1965), Fritzi Scheff (1879-1954), Nora Bayes (1880-1928), Irene Bordoni (1885-1953), Florence Moore (1886-1935), Fanny Brice (1891-1951), Blossom Seeley (1891-1974), Mae West (1893-1980), Helen Morgan (1900-41), Kate Smith (1907-86), Ethel Merman (1908-84) ... lots were daughters of immigrant Jews making their mark in entertainment and learning the rhythms of the blacks ...

The Boswell Sisters - Connee (1907-1976), Martha (1908-1958) and Helvetia ("Vet") (1909-1988) constituted the most popular female vocal group before The Andrews Sisters, and created some of the most exciting recordings of the early 30s - still sounding amazing today. They enjoyed 20 hits before breaking up, when the remarkable, wheelchair-bound Connee continued a great solo career, influencing a generation of singers such as Ella Fitzgerald. But as a trio, the Sisters were never matched. Shout, Sister, Shout! was their signature tune. Major hits, including their first success, the incredible 'When I Take My Sugar To Tea', and 'Dinah', 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter', 'Roll On Mississippi Roll On', 'Rock And Roll', 'It's The Girl' and the chart-topping 'The Object Of My Affection' - each one a tour de force. The Sisters' jazz flair was invariably enhanced by the accompaniment of some of the top musicians in jazz, and fine solos by such as Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Bunny Berigan, Benny Goodman, Manny Klein, Artie Shaw and Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang all add to the enjoyment.

One of the all-time greatest jazz vocal groups, the Boswell Sisters (Martha, Vet and Connee) began their career in the vaudeville houses of New Orleans. Connee, paralyzed from the waist down by a childhood accident (though her disability was often attributed to polio), always performed sitting down. Gifted musicians as well as singers, the sisters also worked at a local radio station, performing classical and semi-classical instrumentals. (Martha played piano, Vet played violin, banjo and guitar, and Connee played cello, saxophone and guitar.) Their careers took off when the radio station gave them a daily singing program.
The sisters' harmonic vocals, dotted with scatting and numerous tempo and key changes, quickly made them popular in New Orleans and beyond. They recorded several songs during the twenties, but it wasn't until 1930, when they recorded four songs for the Okeh label, that they finally achieved popular recognition. They later signed with Brunswick, and between 1930 and 1936 they were the hottest vocal group in the country. They appeared in several movies and were regulars on Bing Crosby's radio program. Many of their hit recordings were made with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Both Vet and Martha retired from show business in 1936. Connee went on enjoy a mildly successful solo career.

The Andrew Sisters, followed the Boswells ...

Annette HanshawAnnette Hanshaw (1911-85) was born in New York City and died there. As a teenager she was discovered as a singer at a party and she became a personality girl recording with top bands like Harry Reser's Clicquot Club Eskimos and Glen Gray's Casa Loma Orchestra and was accompanied by musicians like Jimmy Dorsey and Jimmy Lytell. She made a lot of recordings in the 1920s and early 1930s (she stopped singing in 1936) with bands like the Original Memphis Five, Sam Lanin's Orchestras and Frank Ferera's Hawaiian Trio. She was also known as Gay Ellis, Dot Dare and Patsy Young on other labels.
Her 'signature' was her 'That's All' at the end of each recording. I guess she must have said that at one of her first recordings when she was only 15 years old ... may be her relief that the recording had finished!

These were the players ... Frank Sinatra commanded the heights.

With radio the Crooners could be heard in Hi Fi ... in Hollywood they were a spectacle ... when TV arrived they were invited into your living room ...

... and then on the other side of the pond ... there was another guy ... and things developed very differently ... British Dance Bands were interesting ...

Alice FayeAlice Faye (1912-95) started as a chorus girl in Vaudeville, through the George White Scandals in 1931 and made it big in movies; 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' in 1938 ... 'Tin Pan Alley' 1940,    


They Called him AlAl Bowlly (1898-1941) bagged over 600 78 rpm records from 1927 ... phenomenal !!

Al Bowlly's childhood was in South Africa where he started to strum his guitar and sing with the dance bands. He trained as a barber but was music mad; playing banjo, ukulele and singing ... 'the Singing Barber'. In 1921 in Jo'burg he acquired some music lessons and a British Passport. In 1922 he joined a local Hawaiian Band run by pianist Edgar Adeler as a ukulele vocalist. Adeler, originally from Birmingham, hatched a plan for the band to 'play' their way to England, but on route in East Africa they were offered a lucrative contract in the Far East. They had become a polished act with the talented Bowlly idolised; they called themselves The London Syncopating Orchestra. They made money in Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Agra, Hyderabad, Madras, Penang, Singapore, Jakarta ... then in 1924 Al Bowlly, the king pin, was sacked. He had proved to be an inveterate gambler with a quick temper. He was soon re-employed with a good job in Calcutta with the Jimmy Lequime Orchestra; 'a jazz sensation'. In 1926 the band was resident at Raffles hotel, Singapore with Al as banjoist/singer. Al was eager to reunite with Edgar Adeler and did so in Germany with the Robert Gaden Band ... he went down well ... he had a good ear, harmonies in his head and sax lines gave him ideas. In Berlin The Edgar Adeler Hawaiian Quartet was formed and in August 1927 Al made his first recording, 'Blue Skies', issued as an Al Bowlly vocal with Edgar Adeler on piano; 'a singing discovery'. Al also recorded with Arthur Briggs, an Afro American jazz trumpeter and became something of a jazz celebrity in Berlin. Billy Bartholomew's Delphians Jazz Band also starred Al ... Billy was a Britsh sax player ... Al was playing with good jazz bands in Berlin. Fred Bird's Rhythmicians recorded 'You were Meant for Me' in Berlin issued in 1929.

In 1928 Len Fillis, an old mate from the Edgar Adeler days in Jo'burg, was in London with Fred Elizalde at The Savoy ... and they had heard Al's recording of 'Muddy Water' ... he was offered a job with the band.

Fred Elizalde Orchestra

Minstrelsy, Ragtime, Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley were entertainment ... but dance halls were where you found a lover. Vocals changed from Jazzin' to intimate crooning with the help of a mic. Al started playing the banjo and guitar but for the songs written in the 1930s the lyrics were just as important as the music ... so he sang.

Bowlly arrived in London in 1928 to sing with The Elizalde Orchestra. Fred Elizalde was born in Manila in 1907 and started piano early and studied music before Stanford in 1925 ... and jazz. He came to London in 1926. He moved to Cambridge University and led a band which recorded in 1927 ... he was 'noticed' by Bert Ambrose, recorded for Brunswick and won a contract at The Savoy. Elizalde was a genius, he recruited Adrian Rollini into the band and orchestrated hot jazz phrasing and swing into British Dance Bands. Al's legato rhythms and hot phrasing were magical at The Savoy; jazz came to British Dance Bands. In 1929 the BBC finally got an act together and broadcast music from The Savoy every night, the dance critics were unconvinced but the Melody Maker reported favourably. The Savoy wanted sweet music for the dancers and the Ministry of Labour withdrew work permits for the Americans and Elizalde was squeezed out. Every man for himself, Al busked in the streets but nobody knew him. Len Fillis helped as Al gigged around and sounded good as he 'barber shopped' with Les Allen, a Canadian vocalist & saxophonist. Around 1930 Len Fillis (guitar), Edgar Adeler (piano), Al Starita (sax) & Al formed a vocal group, 'The Blue Boys' but things didn't look up. The most successful gigs in 1930 were vocal duets with Len Allen. During HMVs recording of some Afrikaans sides, Ray Noble with the HMV House Band paid attention. In November 1930 Al sang with Ray Nobel's New Mayfair Dance Orchestra.

 In the 1930s the BBC broadcast dance band music from The Savoy and singing moved away from Jazz/Minstrel to 'sweeter' crooning ... as the BBC and Al Bowlly 'went polite'. And Al Bowlly signed two contracts -  a recording contract with The Ray Noble Orchestra in November 1930 and in May 1931 a singing contract with Roy Fox at the Monseigneur Restaurant in London.

Ray Noble

Born in Hove in 1903, son of a neurologist, educated at Dulwich College and taught piano at The Royal Academy of Music, he won Melody Maker contests, and became Staff Arranger with Jack Payne & The BBC Dance Orchestra ... and then Musical Director at HMV. By 1932 Al was being paid 'star' rates. And joined The New Mayfair Orchestra. Al recorded 200 sides with Noble. Al also free lanced with Roy Fox.

Roy Fox

Roy Fox was an American from Denver, born into The Salvation Army ... he took to the cornet like a duck to water. Roy shortly joined the legendary Art Hickman and then Musical Director at Fox Film Studios. In July 1930 he was in London with an American 'pick up' band and when the tour finished he obtained a permanent work permit and a Decca recording contract with British musicians. Al got the job and his first recordings with Fox were on Jan 5th 1931 - 'You're Lucky to Me'. During the next 20 months Fox recorded 150 titles, all but a handful featured Al Bowlly. In Spring 1931 Fox signed a contract as the House Band at The Monseigneur Restaurant in Piccadilly. Continuous music for dancing until 3am. Roy Fox also had a contract with Al Bowlly! Superb band included Lew Stone, Spike Hughes and Nat Gonella. The Dance Bands were the main attractions at the venues but Al upstaged them all, especially with the ladies. The Patrons began to listen as well as dance. The band started broadcasting in the BBCs dance music slot; 10.30pm to midnight. Fame spread. Al recorded with Billy Cotton, Howard Godfrey, Harry Hudson, Arthur Lally, Sid Philips, Maurice Winnick, Marius B Winter, Carroll Gibbons ...  

In November 1931 Fox was afflicted by pleurisy and he handed over the band to his pianist/arranger Lew Stone who was Musical Director for British and Dominions films.

Lew Stone

By 1933 Lew Stone had ousted Fox as bandleader, and Bowlly was singing Stone's arrangements. Stone and Noble competed for Al's precious time. It was Nat Gonella who introduced Al to Freda, 'the hostess with the mostest, she had a reputation'. They were married and broke up within weeks. Meanwhile the Fox band went from strength to strength under Lew Stone. It was a fun band.

Lew Stone was born in the East End in 1898, of Jewish refugees. He enjoyed piano lessons but enjoyed cricket and football more. Music was rekindled after he saw 'Hello Ragtime' and introduced to jazz. He gained a reputation as an arranger and supplied scores to Bert Ambrose before being recruited by Roy Fox.

Al continued to record solo side for Decca and with Ray Noble but not under the name Al Bowlly. When Fox returned in 1932 there was a London Palladium stage show which upstaged The Monseigneur and the regular restaurant gig was terminated and Lew Stone invited to organise a replacement. Lew Stone was popular and the musicians went with him ... Fox took Al to court but lost. Al sang with Lew Stone from Oct 25th 1932 and Lew became Al's mentor & guide, he 'made' Al Bowlly.

Al recorded 100 titles with Lew Stone from 1932-8. The peak of his career - a feeling for rhythm, his own way and his own lines, often better than the original composer, always practisin', always fun. Jack Jackson tried to recruit Al Bowlly in 1933.

In 1933 Val Parnell set Al up as a solo variety artist with his old mate Monia Liter from Calcutta & Singapore, as piano accompanist. A personal triumph and a brilliant accompanist; Al was 'a croon prince'. In November 1933 Lew Stone, with Al, moved from The Monseigneur to the Café Anglais; band and vocalist were still on the way up. Who was Anona Wynn?

There was competition, of course, Nat Gonella from within the band and Joe Loss & Jimmy Mesene. But Lew Stone, Nat Gonella and Al Bowlly wrote books! Back to London in 1937 after failing to make Hollywood. But by 1938 his luck ran out and he needed throat surgery in the States.

Ray Noble in America

Al left for America in 1934 with Ray Noble. In America there was 'commercial radio' and popular songs. The BBC banned the singing of pop songs as free advertising! So, thanks to the BBC, Al was not really famous.

Al continued his association with Ray Noble's recording band and with HMV at Abbey Road from 1930-4. After a tour of Holland Ray Noble was invited to America where his records sold well. Al Bowlly 'the voice of the Noble Orchestra' went with him. Lew Stone took it on the chin. In August 1934 Al recorded his last sides for Stone and bid farewell on Henry Hall's Guest Night.

Noble's song 'The Very Thought of You' was popular in America and Al immediately enjoyed radio gigs with RCA and started recording for American Decca. When Decca signed up Bing Crosby Al switched to Victor. His girl friend Marjie Fairless joined him in America and they married in December 1934, Ray Noble was a witness. After setbacks from unfriendly Unions, Glen Miller, fresh from Jimmy & Tommy Dorsey battles, organised an American band for Noble ... Ray Bradley, Bud Freeman, Claude Thornhill, Charlie Spivac, Pee Wee Irwin and Glen himself on trombone ... an outstanding unit. In January 1935 Al and the new Ray Noble Band recorded 'Blue Moon' ... perhaps their finest. NBC and RCA Victor were pleased ... but Al's solo recordings were not selling well ... in contrast the gigs with Noble in 'The Rainbow Room', 9.30 to 3am 6 days a week, at The Stratosphere Club were instantly successful.

In 1936 the Nobles and Bowllys had a summer holiday in England ... Al was disappointed. Back in the USA Coca Cola did not renew their sponsorship of the radio show and The Rainbow Room contract came to an end. Costs had to be cut and Glen Miller was 'undervalued' ... the band disintegrated. Al left America - he didn't like the American way, he was in trouble wit a gangster's moll, he was a flop, he couldn't solo away from Noble, homesick for London and Lew Stone ... but a major reason was a failure to make it in films. 

Radio City Rhythm Makers

In January 1937 Al was back in London. Although Sam Brown was doing well, Al had not been forgotten but tragically his voice was beginning to cause him trouble. He guested with Henry Hall on the BBC but wanted his own show with brother Mish who had developed into a competent jazz pianist. Al Bowlly's Radio City Rhythm Makers made an auspicious start but plans came to naught. Al lost his voice and the band had been relegated to a mere accompaniment unit. Al was a band singer not a soloist, he needed a Lew Stone or a Ray Noble ... business acumen.

In 1937 Al and Marjie broke up and Al tried again with Helen Bevan but they never married. He did some recording for HMV at Abbey Road and gigged around but never prospered ... he worried about his throat and took to drink. A wart on his throat required surgery in the USA ... a real low ebb ... and financial pressure. The operation was completely successful and Al stayed on in America with his richer and deep new voice ... he needed the money and recorded six excellent sides at the end of 1937. But a solo career in London was his passion. Sidney Lipton offered him some work and he re-forged his relationship with Lew Stone and made great records. Also in 1938 he changed agents Leonard Urry to Leslie MacDonald, and Al made good money ... but was he outselling Mantovani, The Five Herons, Vic Oliver, Gracie Fields, Geraldo ... and who was Violet Carson ... and Nosmo King? He did not appear on sheet music covers but recorded with Geraldo and broadcast on Radio Luxembourg ... it was all a bit hit and miss. He did manage a new recording contract with HMV in 1939 ... and renewed in 1940.

But the mood was changing from 'polished society dance bands' to novelty songs? Things were getting tougher. Band men were being called up ... Al was too old ... his voice was troubling again.

The Radio Stars with Two Guitars

Nat Gonella and Jimmy Mesene had done well with The Georgians but Nat was called up ... Jimmy and Al got together and a duet act took shape; The Radio Stars with Two Guitars. In 1940 they signed a joint recording contract with HMV. But it was up and down, Al was hanging on not scaling the heights.

On April 17th 1941 Al Bowlly was killed in the blitz in Jermyn Street ...


Al Bowlly was a jazz giant ... the sounds and the songs were musical magic ... far too good to be neglected and forgotten ... why?


 From the 1930s 'Blue Moon', 'Easy to Love', 'I've Got You Under My Skin', 'It Had to be You' and 'My Melancholy Baby' were sizable American successes. 'Midnight, the Stars and You', 'Goodnight, Sweetheart', 'The Very Thought of You', 'Guilty', 'Love is the Sweetest Thing' ... sounds and songs to be treasured and recreated ... a renaissance. 

Al Bowlly's book 'The Modern Singing Style', helped to define crooning. New methods of amplification with the advent of the microphone in 1931 led to an adjusted singing style, moving away from the Jazz style of the 20s, and Al Jolson's hand music, into the softer, more expressive crooning style used in popular dance music of the 1930s. Technique, range, pitch & rhythm, sincerity, diction and personality made Al Bowlly himself cry.

Dennis Potter was smitten - 'Moonlight on the Highway' 1969. The tale of a young Al Bowlly obsessive who attempted to blot out memories of sexual abuse with music. The work used popular music as a dramatic device as 'Pennies from Heaven' 1978, 'The Singing Detective' 1986 and 'Lipstick on Your Collar' 1993. Themes of a return to innocence expressed through Bowlly's lyrics and emotions which couldn't be explained using 'own words'.
'Moonlight on the Highway' 1938.
'Lover, Come Back to Me' 1933.
'Just Let Me Look at You' 1938.
'Easy Come, Easy Go' 1934.
'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' 1933.
'Oh! Mr Moon' 1933.


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