Bowlly was born in Lourenço Marques, in what was then the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, to Greek and Lebaneseparents who met en route to Australia and moved to South Africa.
Bowlly was brought up in Johannesburg. 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, Rhodesia, India and Indonesiaduring the mid-1920s. However, he fell out with Adeler and was fired from the band in Surabaya, Indonesia. After a spell with a Filipino band in Surabaya he was then employed by Jimmy Liquime in India. Bowlly worked his passage back home by busking.
Just one year after his 1927 debut recording date in Berlin, Germany, 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, although he nearly didn’t make it after foolishly frittering away the fare money 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 Roy Fox, singing in his live band for the Monseigneur Restaurant in London, the other a record contract with Ray Noble’s orchestra in November 1930.
During the next four years, he recorded over 500 songs. 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 by Victor, which meant that by the time Noble and Bowlly came to America, their reputation had preceded them.)