OBITUARY : Tiny Winters
Tuesday 13 February 1996
During the late Twenties and throughout the Thirties, Winters was the only British rhythm player who could play on a level with American visitors and with his only European peer, Django Reinhardt. He was among the very few British players - his trumpeter pal Nat Gonella was another - to be respected wherever he was heard, and such was the potency of his playing that the records he made in 1934 with the American giant Coleman Hawkins still sound fresh and vital.
Taught the violin as a child, Winters changed to the double bass because of his fondness for rhythm. He developed a pizzicato style based on that of one of the greatest bass players from New Orleans, Pops Foster. This meant eschewing the orthodox way of plucking the bass and instead mastering Foster's technique of pulling the strings outwards from the fingerboard and releasing them so that they slapped back against the fingerboard, virtually doubling the volume of the note that resulted. The method became known as "slapping the bass".
In the Twenties he worked in the band of Roy Fox and stayed with it when in 1932 Fox retired because of ill-health and the great arranger and pianist Lew Stone took it over. Stone realised that Winters had considerable talent as a jazz vocalist and, because Winters had an abnormally high voice for a man, had him singing cover versions of Ella Fitzgerald's latest hits. When Winters recorded his vocals there was much confusion among record buyers and he began getting fan mail addressed to "Miss Tiny Winters". A French songwriter even submitted a new song to him as "Mademoiselle Tiny Winters". Winters was a gruff and resilient character and these gender confusions bothered him not one jot: "Lew let everybody let their hair down and gave the soloists every chance, which is why I thought that his band was the best I ever played in."
Winters and Nat Gonella had formed a small band within the band called "Nat Gonella and His Georgians", but when Gonella became such a hit he had to go out on his own, Winters stayed with Lew Stone. In 1937 he left to work for another of the great British bands, that led by Bert Ambrose, and also recorded for Ray Noble.
Tiny Winters served in the RAF in the Second World War and afterwards was in constant demand as a session man in the London studios. He was also the first choice of many recording band leaders and was in at the early days of television, later working throughout the series of The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958-78) as well as continuing his radio career.
He played in a series of West End stage productions, including Annie Get Your Gun (1947) and West Side Story (1958), and worked as bassist and featured comedian with George Chisholm, another of the stars of The Black and White Minstrel Show, when the trombonist formed George Chisholm's Jazzers. In 1982 he toured the country with a tribute to Nat Gonella and later fronted Kettner's Five, so called in the hope of getting work in the London restaurant of that name; in fact they played in Pizza Express, like Kettner's owned by Peter Boizot.
Winters continued to play into the late Eighties, leading a Cafe Society Orchestra and his own Palm Court Trio, which performed in the foyer of the National Theatre - two unlikely settings for an unreconstructed cockney. He also wrote his autobiography, It Took a Lot of Pluck, which, unpublished, resides in the National Sound Archive. He retired in the early Nineties, when he was awarded the Freedom of the City of London.
Frederick Gittens (Tiny Winters), bassist, vocalist and bandleader: born London 24 January 1909; twice married (one daughter); died London 7 February 1996.
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