Sitting here in the dark listening to Loose Ends on Radio Four I was thinking of the pre-war British crooner Al Bowlly as earlier I walked past the Duke Street corner in St James where he met his peculiar and untimely end. I’ve long been a fan and in the late nineties I had a very strong dream about him which, along with another about a certain American actress, kick-started The Real Tuesday Weld.
Al was in a way the first British pop star – although of course he was actually Mozambique born and discovered singing in a South Africam barbershop by an impressario whose hair he was cutting . His extraordinary voice and swarthy good looks set him above the bandleaders who were usually the stars at the time. He made a mind boggling number recordings and played countless show before his final appearance in HIgh Wycombe on the 17 April 1941.
He died later that night when his apartment building was bombed and he ignored the Blitz warning. In a surreal twist, it appears he was actually killed by his bedroom door which was blown off in the blast and knocked him over.
I was talking about all this with Ned Sherrin who used to present Loose Ends one time we played it. After the show Ned would take his guests to the nice pub round the corner from the BBC where he would have a lunch set up behind a roped off area. It was always the same. Ned wouldn’t eat anything but he would have a bottle of champagne. The guests could eat and drink whatever they wanted – apart from his champagne. When he finished the bottle he would leave you to it and get a cab back to his home in Chelsea.
Before he left he told me that he knew a secret about Al Bowlly. He didn’t actually say I couldn’t tell anybody and sadly he is dead now too so I don’t suppose he, Al or anyone else would mind after all this time. You see apparently in his youth Ned had a romantic liason with an older man (Johnny?) who told him he had been Al Bowlly’s lover. Apart from the fact that it would have been impossible to be publicly homosexual at the time, Al’s career and reputation was based on him being a romantic ladies’ man so this would have been a very private affair. And of course he was married – and twice – although the first attempt only lasted two weeks after his bride was allegedly found in bed with another man on their wedding night. Wow.
Anyway, Ned told me that the older gentlemen had told him that the reason Al had not heeded the siren call to the shelter which would have saved him was that they were together that night and did not want to risk being exposed.
I always found something haunting about the image of the doorway as a metaphor for death and particularly in this case which influenced the writing of The Real Tuesday Weld song “Bringing the Body Back Home’ – for in a final poignant twist Ned told me that Al’s lover had always kept the very door that killed him. I suppose it may still be out there somewhere – like Al.