On the night of April 16-17, 1941, the Luftwaffe conducted a raid over London. Several hours after midnight, two bombs fell into Jermyn Street, causing extensive damage and killing 23 people. One of the victims, a well-known professional entertainer named Al Bowlly, had declined the offer of overnight lodgings in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, after having performed there the previous evening, preferring to catch the last train home. He was in bed reading when the parachute bomb went off outside his apartment building. His bedroom door, blown off its hinges by the force of the explosion, was propelled across the room, hitting him in the face and killing him instantly. He was 42 years old.
Though he is still well remembered in Britain, Al Bowlly’s name is not widely known here. Many know it only as a reference in the title and lyrics of Richard Thompson’s song “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven” (from which my title is taken), on his 1986 album Daring Adventures. Yet, for every American who knows his name, there are scores who have heard Al Bowlly’s music. His recording of Noël Coward’s “Twentieth Century Blues” was used over the main titles of the 1968 BBC miniseries (shown here on PBS in 1972) made from Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point. Stanley Kubrick used Bowlly’s “Midnight, the Stars and You” and “It’s All Forgotten Now” in The Shining (1980), and Steven Spielberg featured his “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” in Empire of the Sun (1987). Al Bowlly songs have been used in films as recent as The King’s Speech (2010) and Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight (2014). Everything Is Copy, Jacob Bernstein’s documentary film about his mother, Nora Ephron, which premiered on HBO premiere only four weeks ago, concludes with Bowlly’s “Love Is the Sweetest Thing” playing over the closing credits.
But beyond all doubt, the one person most responsible for keeping the name and music of Al Bowlly alive was the late Dennis Potter, whose enthusiasm for the singer bordered on the obsessive. In fact, Potter’s 1969 teleplay Moonlight on the Highway (the title of a 1938 Bowlly recording) starred Ian Holm as a sexual abuse victim whose own obsession with Bowlly becomes a psychological coping mechanism. Potter made use of Bowlly’s music in several other television dramas and serials, including his last major work, The Singing Detective (1986), but it is Pennies from Heaven (1978), the six-part series that is universally acknowledged to be Potter’s masterpiece, that makes the most prominent use of Al Bowlly’s records, fourteen songs in all. Long before we knew one another, my wife, Vicky, watched it when it was broadcast on PBS and was overwhelmed by both the drama and the music—so much so that she flew from New York to London shortly thereafter, partly to visit her then-favorite city, but principally to find, in those pre-Amazonian days, the otherwise unobtainable soundtrack LP. Years later, it was through her insistence that I watch the series that I discovered Al Bowlly.
A shilling life—there have been several—will give you all the facts, and so, nowadays, will a number of Internet sources. Born to Lebanese and Greek parents in Mozambique, Albert Alick Bowlly grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Though trained as a barber, he spent his middle twenties touring various Asian countries as a singer with several bands. In 1927 he made his way to Germany, of all places, and in Berlin on August 18 of that year he made the first of what would be more than one thousand recordings, a performance of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” (which, like a good deal of his work, is available on YouTube). The start of the 1930s brought his breakthrough, when he began recording with the superb Ray Noble Orchestra and singing live with the band at the Monseigneur Restaurant, led first by Roy Fox, later—and brilliantly—by Lew Stone. The first half of that decade saw more than half of his entire recorded output. At the time, singers tended to be anonymous members of the bands with which they performed, but he became so popular that his name began to be featured on show posters and record labels. His wave crested in mid-decade, and after two years in the United States and recurring vocal problems, he wound up touring throughout Britain and recording when he could with a variety of orchestras. But, complicating the inevitable speculation about what would have happened if he had not been killed, the quality of his work remained undiminished. Among his most striking records are jazz settings of two Shakespeare songs, “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” and “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” which he cut with Ken “Snakehips” Johnson and His West Indian Orchestra a year before his death.
The best treatment of Bowlly’s art that I know of is the long entry in Will Friedwald’s Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (2010), a vast, opinionated, astonishingly informed, and frequently hilarious compendium. Friedwald calls Bowlly “one of the finest swinging jazz singers of any era, and like Django Reinhardt, one of the first Europeans to understand the blues…. He also was, like Armstrong and Crosby, a clear predecessor of Sinatra’s Swingin’ Lover style.” Needless to say, in a catalogue of a thousand recordings, there are many that are not worth listening to a second time—or, in rare instances, even a first time. Bowlly recorded his share of throwaway ditties and banal ballads, and outside of his work with Noble and Stone and the sides he cut with his longtime piano accompanist Monia Liter, many otherwise fine performances are hampered by off-the-rack arrangements. Yet from the beginning to the end of his recording career, Bowlly’s singing is consistently excellent. His clear phrasing, unerring rhythm, and warm yet flinty voice are unmistakable on every number. Friedwald concludes: “Bowlly is simply one of the finest spirits ever captured on record. With his slightly husky timbre that anticipates Tony Bennett as much as it echoes Crosby, he is a genuine, three-dimensional personality that speaks to us across the generations on shellac surfaces that spin at 78 rpm. Journalists at the time tended to use the term ‘crooner’ and ‘jazz singer’ as if they were interchangeable. In later years, this was proven not to be apt, but, in Bowlly’s work, the two roles are one and the same.”
If you don’t know Al Bowlly’s music but your curiosity has now been piqued, I advise you to take this simple test. Go to YouTube and listen to the following: “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Love Is the Sweetest Thing,” “Over the Rainbow,” and the stunning “My Woman.” It will take about ten minutes, and, in all likelihood, one of two things will happen. Either you will decide that you simply don’t carry the gene for Al Bowlly or else you will be instantly hooked, a lifelong fan. My money is on the second one.
 Sid Colin and Tony Staveacre, Al Bowlly (London: Elm Tree Books, 1979); Ray Pallett, Goodnight Sweetheart: Life and Times of Al Bowlly (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount Ltd, 1986); Ray Pallett: They Called Him Al: The Musical Life of Al Bowlly (Duncan, OK: BearManor Media, 2010; this volume contains a complete discography).
 Several two-disc Bowlly sets are available on CD. The one in AVC’s Essential Collection series (2007) is the most comprehensive, and also has the highest proportion of top-drawer material. For those who want more, there is The Al Bowlly Collection (2013; four discs, 100 tracks).