There had been mass unemployment in the 1920s in Britain with most of the decade it hovered between 10% and 12% unemployed. However that was nothing to the early 1930s when the economy was struck by depression. By the start of 1933 Britain’s unemployment was 22.8% but over the following years unemployment fell substantially and by January 1936 it stood at 13.9% and by 1938 it was around 10%. However, although a partial recovery took place in Britain in the mid and late 1930s there were semi-permanent depression areas in the North of England, Scotland and South Wales. Depression and unemployment are one side of the story – but there is another side. During this decade most people with a job found that living standards rose significantly.
From about 1925 to 1946 the most popular form of music in the UK was that produced by dance bands. The British bands never quite adopted the kind of “Swing” music that was generally associated with American “Big Band” jazz. It was quite tame compared to American jazz and was generally more sweet. Billy Cotton had perhaps the longest fame, as he still had a prime-time TV programme until the late 1960s while the fame of Ted Heath lasted until 1964. Fans tended to divide them into “Sweet” such as that of Ambrose; Geraldo and Victor Silvester and the “Hot” of Harry Roy and Nat Gonella. The Jack Hylton’s band was “hot” until 1933 – and then became sweeter as their success grew.
Some of the lead singers enjoyed fame on their own – and two of the most famous of the time were Al Bowlly and Leslie “Hutch” Huchinson. Let’s take ‘Huch’ first:
Leslie Huchinson was born in Grenada in 1900 to George & Marianne Hutchinson. As a child Hutch took piano lessons. In 1916, he moved to New York City with the intent to study for a degree in medicine – he had won a place due to his high aptitude – but instead he began playing the piano and singing in bars. He joined a black band led by Henry “Broadway” Jones, who often played for white millionaires such as the Vanderbilts. This attracted the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan and, in 1924, Hutch left America for Paris. There he had a residency in Joe Zelli’s club and became a friend and lover of Cole Porter. There were regular visitors from England and, in 1927, Huch was encouraged by Edwin Mountbatten to come to England in 1927 to perform in a Rogers and Hart musical. ‘Hutch’ soon became the darling of British society and the population in general. Hutch became a favourite singer of the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and became one of the biggest stars in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s – and was, for a time, the highest paid star in the country.
He was regularly heard on air with the BBC and one of his greatest hits was “These Foolish Things”. However – in spite of his popularity – Hutch could not escape racial prejudice. He bought a Rolls-Royce, a grand house in Hampstead, patronised London’s best tailors, spoke five or six languages and was on friendly terms with the Prince of Wales – but he was still a black man in an era of racial discrimination. When he entertained at lavish Mayfair parties, his fee was large, but he was often obliged to go in by the servants’ entrance. This embittered him. None-the-less Hutch stayed on in England and we’ll come back to him at a later time.
Albert Allick Bowlly was a Mozambican-born South African/British singer/songwriter, composer and band-leader who became a popular jazz crooner during the British dance band era of the 1930s. He later worked in the United States and is recorded as making more than 1,000 records between 1927 & 1941. He was born in Lourenco Marques, in what was then the Portuguese colony of Mozambique to Greek and Lebanese parents who met en route to Australia and moved to South Africa. He was brought up in Johannesburg and, after a series of odd jobs across South Africa in his youth, including being a barber and a jockey! He gained his musical experience singing for a dance band led by Edgar Adeler on a tour of South Africa during the mid-1920s. However, he fell out with Adeler and was fired from the band in Indonesia and, after a spell with a Filipino band in Surabaya he was employed by Jimmy Liquime in India. Bowlly worked his passage back home by busking. Next stop was Berlin where he recorded Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” with Edgar Adeler! Bowlly arrived in London for the first time as part of Fred Elizalde’s orchestra – but he nearly didn’t make it after foolishly frittering away the fare money he had sent to him by Elizalde.
That year, “If I Had You” became one of the first popular songs by an English jazz band to become well known in America as well, and Bowlly had gone out on his own by the beginning of the 1930s. First, however, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 resulted in Bowlly being made redundant and returning to several months of busking to survive. In the 1930s, he signed two contracts—one in May 1931 with Rox Fox, singing in his live band for the Monseigneur Restaurant in London, the other a record contract with Ray Noble’ orchestra in November 1930.
During the next four years, he recorded over 500 songs and by 1933 Lew Stone had ousted Fox as bandleader, and Bowlly was singing Stone’s arrangements with Stone’s band. After much radio exposure and a successful British tour with Stone, Bowlly was inundated with demands for personal appearances and gigs – including undertaking a subsequent solo British tour – but continued to make the bulk of his recordings with Noble.] There was considerable competition between Noble and Stone for Bowlly’s time as, for much of the year, Bowlly would spend all day in the recording studio with Noble’s band, rehearsing and recording, only then to spend the evening playing live at the Monseigneur with Stone’s band. Many of these Noble sides were issued in the United States which meant that by the time Noble and Bowlly came to America, their reputation had preceded them.