Obituary: Nat Gonella

"I HAD three wives. I don't know if that helps." The trumpeter Nat Gonella was reflecting on the reasons that he was still alive and entertaining audiences at 90. By then he'd been a star attraction for more than 70 years.

"He was like Louis Armstrong in his personality, as well as in his playing," said Humphrey Lyttelton.

"There was no side about either of them and they were both basically modest people. Nat will be remembered for his close links to Louis's music, but I like to remember his own originality and humour. He had his big hits like 'Tiger Rag' and 'Georgia On My Mind' but I treasure his spirited originals like 'I'd Like to See Samoa of Samoa'.

"Despite his continuous popularity over all those years there was nothing big-time about Nat. When he was 70 one of his recordings, 'Oh Monah' became a very big hit in Holland. He was interviewed on the BBC at the time and the interviewer asked him if this was the re-launch of his career. Nat was horrified. 'No,' he said. 'I'm an old man. The house is paid for, the car's paid for, the wife's paid for. I'm not going back on the road.'"

Gonella was one of seven children. His father originally drove a hansom cab and then became one of the first of London's motorised taxi drivers. He died in 1915 when Gonella was six and his mother, unable to support their children, had to place him and a brother and sister in an orphanage. Gonella and another boy tried to escape but were held in a north London police station. The master who retrieved them made them first remove their braces. They were marched back to the school with their hands in their pockets to keep their trousers up.

Despite Gonella's disapproval of it, it was a good school with its own brass band. He joined the band when he was nine, as a drummer, but soon graduated to playing the cornet. His brother Bruts Gonella also played in the band and was later to join Nat Gonella's Georgians.

Gonella suffered from rheumatic fever and had to spend six months in the school hospital. He was left with a weak heart that frustrated his attempt to join the army when he left the school. He became an errand boy until he saw in the Stage an advertisement calling for young brass players.

A successful audition led to him switching to trumpet and joining Archie Pitt's Busby Boys, a touring band led by the husband of Gracie Fields. Gonella appeared with the group in a musical show A Week's Pleasure. Fields worked as a choreographer for the show.

She and Gonella became friends and when she replaced her gramophone she gave Gonella her old one and with it his first jazz records, including one by the cornettist Bix Beiderbecke. This was Gonella's introduction to jazz, and he soon began to find the Louis Armstrong records that were to change his life.

A Week's Pleasure ran for two and a half years and when it finished Gonella toured for a further 18 months with another of Pitt's shows, Safety First. When the tour finished he joined a show band led by Bob Dryden, playing seasons in Margate, Manchester and Belfast before joining Billy Cotton's band in 1929 for a season at the Streatham Locarno dance hall. He made his first recordings with Cotton and also worked in the bands of Lew Stone, Roy Fox and Ray Noble and then formed his own band, the Georgians. He married his first wife, Betty, in 1930.

Louis Armstrong came to Britain in July 1932 to play for two weeks at the London Palladium. Gonella and his brother managed to hear every one of Armstrong's performances and it was then that Gonella's friendship with Armstrong began. In 1934 a record appeared on Decca described as Jazz Orchestra with Hot Trumpet. It was Gonella's first recording of Hoagy Carmichael's tune "Georgia on My Mind" and it became both an enduring hit and Gonella's signature tune, also providing him with the name for his band.

The Georgians had begun as a small group within Lew Stone's big band, but it soon became a separate unit. As such it made its debut at the Newcastle Empire in 1935. As Gonella's popularity burgeoned, he and the band played to full houses in theatres all over the country, broadcast regularly and made several film appearances, including Pity the Poor Rich (1935) and later, with the Mills Brothers, Sing As You Swing (1937).

His version of "Tiger Rag" was a continuing hit and Parlophone used it on a trumpet tuition record they issued to tie in with Gonella's book Modern Style Trumpet Playing, published in 1935. He became established as the outstanding figure in British jazz and inspired a generation of musicians, including players like Humphrey Lyttelton. The Georgians toured in Holland at the end of the year and Gonella's popularity there was to last for the rest of his life.

Most of the fan mail that he received was from female admirers, although a magazine feature on him called "The Girls Who Want To Marry Me" had nothing to do with the collapse of his marriage in 1936. Such was the demand for his music that he made 57 recordings in that year alone. In 1937 he made 64 "platters", as they were then known, and in one of them was joined by George Formby, who also appeared for a short time in one of Gonella's shows. The vocalist with the band was a film starlet, Stella Moya, whom Gonella later married.

When the band was playing at Sherry's Ballroom in Brighton in 1938, Fats Waller was appearing at the local Hippodrome. The American sat in with Gonella's band at the ballroom and they played his "Honeysuckle Rose" for an hour. The management of the Hippodrome was not amused and fined Waller pounds 50 for breaking his contract.

In December 1938 Gonella and Stella Moya went to New York where he heard many of the legendary jazz players and met many of his heroes including Armstrong again, Billie Holiday and the rising trumpet star Harry James. Gonella played with John Kirby's band at the famous club, the Hickory House.

In August 1939 the Georgians toured in Sweden and Holland. War broke out and the band had to break up to try to get back to Britain. Gonella and his wife managed to get to Cannes and were there when the Italians bombed the town. They left eventually on a small collier jammed with refugees. The ship had two torpedoes fired at it by an enemy submarine before it arrived in Liverpool seven days later. In 1940, despite the shortage of musicians caused by the call-up into the services, Gonella formed a bigger band called the New Georgians. He and Stella Moya married that summer.

Despite his heart problems Gonella was called into the Pioneer Corps in July 1941 and his income immediately dropped from pounds 150 a week to 10 shillings. Towards the end of the year the Army formed "Stars In Battledress" and Gonella was enrolled in this along with Charlie Chester, George Melachrino and other entertainers. But it didn't last and Gonella was returned to the Pioneer Corps and sent to Africa. When the band of the Royal Tank Regiment played nearby, they co-opted Gonella as a guest and then arranged for his transfer to the Tank Corps. He travelled with the band through North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

At the end of the war he formed a 13-piece band in which he emulated the style of Harry James. His second marriage had broken up and in 1946 he met his third wife, Dorothy, although they did not marry until many years later. The demand for Gonella's music had subsided after the war and his big band declined until eventually it became a quartet. Gonella then tried to play in the newly developed Bebop style, but his band was a complete failure.

"I had the first modern jazz band in the country, two years before anyone else. I used to drive myself mad trying to blow that stuff. My missus calls its gas oven music. I used to listen to those old Bebop records and we used to churn it out, but it wasn't any use. I got so nervy I used to go to bed every night with a headache. Terrible, man - I cut it out."

He toured for some time with the comedian Max Miller and made occasional radio and television appearances. His career declined to the point that, in the late Fifties, when a friend offered him a part-time job in a bookmaker's office, he took it.

In 1959 the agent Lyn Dutton persuaded him to put together a six-piece group in the Louis Armstrong style. He appeared as the subject of This Is Your Life and the same year made an Armstrong-inspired album called Salute To Satchmo. But once again he was usurped, this time by the Trad Boom, a less sophisticated form of jazz, and by the eminence of the Beatles.

He moved to Lancashire in retirement and finally settled in Gosport, Hampshire. A biography, The Nat Gonella Story, was published in 1985. When he could no longer play the trumpet, he continued to sing regularly at the Gosport Jazz Club: "I'm the sleeping president. I get in for nothing." In 1994 Humphrey Lyttelton, who had long been a friend and had played with Gonella on the This Is Your Life broadcast, played again at a Gosport ceremony to rename the square in front of the town hall "Nat Gonella Square".

There was a peculiar quirk in his career in January 1997 when a trumpet sequence Gonella had recorded 65 years earlier was used in a computer- generated hit record called "Your Woman". The title reached the top of the charts. "I never got any money for it," said a bemused Gonella.

Steve Voce

Nathaniel Charles Gonella, trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader: born London 7 March 1908; married first 1930 Betty Godecharle (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1936), second 1940 Stella Moya (marriage dissolved), third Dorothy Collins (died 1996); died Gosport, Hampshire 6 August 1998.

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