With his spectacular Armstrong-inspired trumpet playing, gruff homely vocals and cheery music-hall showmanship, Nat’s star status in the 30s could earn him £700 a week – a staggering £35,000 in today’s money. His roller-coaster life story is told in absorbing detail in the 43-page 12,000-word notes by Digby Fairweather, a great admirer and later friend of Nat, who formed a close professional relationship and later co-wrote an updated biography.
Born in 1908 in the King’s Cross area of London, Nat had a tough working-class childhood that mirrored quite closely that of Louis Armstrong. When his father died Nat was put into a care home for poor children,where in due course he thrived, eventually leading the school’s brass band on cornet following expert formal tuition from William Clark of the Royal Military School Of Music.
After leaving the school, as his expertise developed, his powerful chops, technical command and confident brio soon attracted attention. In 1929, already an Armstrong devotee, he joined Billy Cotton, making his first recordings in 1930.
The opening track features Nat in a youthful energetic tilt at “New Tiger Rag”. With Billy Cotton and Roy Fox he developed a crowd-pleasing, variety-show presentation with plenty of humour and exuberant vocals, again much influenced by Armstrong. “Oh Monah”, recorded in 1931, became a popular standard of his. (Forty years later, a remake reached number five in the Dutch hit parade.)
Joining Lew Stone and enjoying ever-increasing featured exposure, Nat began to record as a solo star. Doubtless inspired by hearing and meeting his idol Armstrong in July 1932 at the London Palladium he recorded several fine jazz sides later in the year, including on CD1 “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” and an impressively close cover of “When You’re Smiling”. “Georgia on My Mind” and “Sweet Sue” from 1934 are also prime examples of just how gifted a jazz musician Nat had become.
Though much influenced by Armstrong’s style of phrasing, with its exuberant upward smears and rhythmic drive, Nat’s stylish ideas are very much his own. His tone is bright and rounded with crisp intonation, and his expressive phrasing, precisely constructed, suggests discipline and control learned in his early military/classical training.
Having formed his own group, The Georgians, in 1935, and with brother Bruts on second trumpet, he embarked on a hectic schedule of touring and recording in the UK and abroad, which was to last until the outbreak of WW2. A selection of these numerous recordings spans CD1 to CD3. High Spots from these peak years include a spirited “Tiger Rag”, striking arrangements (by unknown hand) of “Strange Blues”, “I Want to Be Happy” and “Bugle Call Rag” and strong support throughout from Hood’s lively piano and the often Hawkins-ish tenor of Pat Smuts. Nat sounds particularly fired-up on the rare Swedish recordings.
CD3 includes the four tracks which he recorded in New York with John Kirby’s band, acquitting himself well in such star company as Buster Bailey and Benny Carter. The halcyon years ended when the Georgians broke up in 1939, with some disaffection, after finding themselves stranded in Sweden at the outbreak of war. On return, Nat now formed his New Georgians, adapting to changing public taste and updating to big band 12-piece format for the new swing era. Between August 1940 and August 1941 his orchestra made no less than 70 recordings.
The tracks included here make a rather mixed bag, with Stella Moya’s vocals and a really naff arrangement of “Oh Susannah” among the low spots. However there’s an excellent trio version of “The Sheik of Araby” inspired by talented young pianist Norman Stenfelt, who also wrote and arranged the brightly swinging “Playhouse Party”.
On CD4 we jump forward to 1958 with Nat adapting yet again to a changing scene. Regarded now as something of an elder statesman (though still only 50) he recorded an album in 1958 with a contingent from the Alex Welsh band, and two fine albums for Denis Preston in 1959 and 1961 entitled Salute to Satchmo and The Nat Gonella Story. The latter featured talk-over reminiscences from Nat, outstanding arrangements by Kenny Graham, and excellent backing from truly first-class British jazz musicians, notably Tony Coe, in varying combinations. “I’ve never played better, or in better company”, Nat declared. The whole of the album is included here,together with three lively live recordings by his touring six-piece band.
Nat was to remain active until the late 90s but his golden recording legacy was over by 1962. The well-chosen selection in this boxed set makes a well-deserved and thoroughly planned tribute to a much loved and highly talented pioneer star of British jazz.
CD1: (1) New Tiger Rag; (2) Ch Monah; (3) I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me; I Heard; Rockin’ Chair; When You’re Smiling; (4) Sing (It’s Good for Ya); That’s My Home; Stormy Weather; Nobody’s Sweetheart; (5) Georgia on My Mind; Sweet Sue, Just You; Moon Country; Troublesome Trumpet; Carolina; I Can’t Dance; (6) E-Flat Blues; Georgia’s Gorgeous Girl; Basin Street Blues; I’m Gonna Wash My Hands of You; Mr Rhythm Man; Stardust; Down at Uncle Bill’s; Rhythm Is Our Business; Breaking the Ice (73.04)
CD2: Nagasaki; Tiger Rag; Wabash Blues; Jig Time; Black Coffee; Strange Blues; Ghost of Dinah Lee; Chicago; (7) I Want to Be Happy; The Music Goes Round and Round; Singin’ the Blues; Just a Crazy Song; Woe Is Me; Mama Don’t Allow; Bugle Call Rag; Trumpetuous; Crazy Valves; (8) I’ve Got a Wonderful Feeling; Cocktail Swing; Swing Swing Dotter Min; Lady Be Good/Little Old Lady; (9) Georgia on My Mind; He Ain’t Got Rhythm; All God’s Children Got Rhythm (73.42)
CD3: I Can’t Dance; I’d Like to See Samoa Of Samoa; Jubilee; Blue Drag; Somebody’s Thinking of You Tonight; Music Maestro Please; (10) You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby; Jeepers Creepers; Just a Kid Named Joe; I Must See Annie Tonight; (11) Nobody’s Baby; The Man Who Comes Around; Georgia on My Mind; If You Were the Only Girl in the World; Voxpoppin’; Oh Susannah; The Sheik of Araby; Sunrise Serenade; (12) Stompin’ at the Savoy; How Am I to Know; (11) Playhouse Party; (13) Gnat Jump; Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry; (14) Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pie Dowdy (73.53)
CD4: (15) All of Me; (16) You Rascal You; Satchmo Blues; Jeepers Creepers; When It’s Sleepy Time Down South; (17) Running Wild; Slow Boat to China; Struttin’ With Some Barbecue; (18) Georgia on My Mind; Wild Man Blues; Bessie Couldn’t Help It; Miss Otis Regrets; Them There Eyes; Oh Monah; Nagasaki; Honeysuckle Rose; Just a Kid Called Joe; Ain’t Misbehavin’; Stompin’ at the Savoy; It’s a Pair of Wings For Me; Don’t Get Around Much Any More; Five Minutes More; (19) Yip-Addy-Ay! (75.07)
Gonella (t, v) on all tracks with:
(1) Billy Cotton and his Band; Sid Buckman (t, v); Mick Burberry (cl, as, bar); Ronnie Coulbertson (cl, ss, as); Joe Ferrie (tb, v); Jimmy Shankland (cl, ts); Sid Lipton (as, vn); Clem Bernard (p); Les Casey (bj, g); Joe White (b, bb); Donald Whitelaw (d); Billy Cotton (dir). 21 October 1930.
(2) Roy Fox and his Band: Sid Buckman (t); Joe Ferrie (tb); Billy Amstell, Mickey Amstell (cl, as); Harry Berly (cl, ts, v); Lew Stone (p, clo, arr); Al Bowlly (g); Don Stutly (b); Bill Harty (d, vib). 30 December 1931.
(3) Collectively: Alfie Noakes (t); Joe Ferrie (tb); Jim Easton, Ernest Ritte (cl, as); Harry Berly (ts, vn); Harry Jacobson (p, cel); Eddie Carroll (p); Al Bowlly (g); Tiny Winters (b); Bill Harty (d). 14 September and 15 November 1932.
(4) Easton or Ritte (as); Carroll or Garland Wilson (p); Bowlly (g); Winters (b); Harry (d). 3 March and 26 May 1933.
(5) Collectively: Moria Liter (p, acc); Carroll (p); Brian Lawrance (vn); Harry Wilson or Will Hemmings (b); Bob Dryden (d); Frank Gregori (acc); Don Barrigo (ts); Harold Hood (p); Mark Sheridan (g); Albert Torrance, George Evans (as); Arthur Baker (g). 15 and 25 May, 2 July and 26 October 1934.
(6) The Georgians, collective personnel: Bruts Gonella (t, v); Johnny Morrison (t); Ernest Ritte, Albert Torrance (cl, as); Pat Smuts, Don Barrigo (ts); Monia Luter or Harold Hood (p); Jimmy Messini (Mesene ?) (g); Tiny Winters or Charlie Winter (b); Rob Dryden (d). Various dates, January-October 1935.
(7) The Georgians, collective personnel as (6). Add Cecil Norman (p); Albert Harris (g); and Jack Jackobson (d); Various dates January, February and October 1936.
(8) The Georgians: Bruts Gonella (t); Erik Lundquist (t, v); Smuts (ts); Hood (p); Messini (g); Winter (b); Dryden (d); Buddy Langdon (v). Sweden, June 1937.
(9) The Georgians as (6). Add Stella Moya (v). Various dates July, September and November 1937, and January, April, May and October 1938.
(10) John Kirby Band: Buster Bailey (cl); Benny Carter (as); Billy Kyle (p); Brick Fleagle (g); John Kirby (b); Jack Maisel (d). NY, 20 January 1939.
(11) The New Georgians: Jack Wallace, C. Oughton (t); Miff King (tb); Jock Middleton, Jack Bonser, Joe Moore, Mickey Seidman (cl, as, ts, bar); Norman Stenfalt (p); Roy Dexter (d, v); Will Hemmings (b); Johnny Rowland (d); Stella Moya (v). Various dates, October 1940-May 1941.
(12) Johnny Claes and his Clay Pigeons. Claes (t); Harry Hayes (as, arr); George Harrison (as); Aubrey Frank, Gerry Alvarez (ts); Tommy Pollard (p); Ivor Mairants (g); Charlie Short (b); Carlo Krahmer (d); Benny Lee (v); Gerry Wilmot (comp). 12 July 1941.
(13) The New Georgians. Monty Montgomery, Leon Steinberg (t); Tony ; Frank Oborne (tb); Jack Forbes, Ken Lumb (cl,as); Dennis Cracknell, Chris Curtis (ts); Jack Penn (p); Bert Howard (b); Dave Fullerton (d); 20 July 1945.
(14) The New Georgians: Montgomery, Bruts Gonella, Fred Dinning (t); Osborne (tb); Bertie King, Sandy Herd (as); Ronnie West, Kenny Graham (as, ts); Al Dallaway (p, arr); Lennie Bush (b); Roy Pummer (g); Phil Seamen (d); Helen Mack (v). 22 July 1946.
(15) The Georgia Jazz Band: Colin Smith (t); Roy Crimmins (tb); Archie Semple (cl); Fred Hunt (p); Bill Reid (b); Johnny Richardson (d). 10 May 1958.
(16) His Strong Arm Men [from Salute to Satchmo LP]: Tony Coe (as, cl); Lennie Felix (p); Jack Fallon (b); Lennie Hastings (d). 3 and 3 June 1959.
(17) The Georgia Jazz Band: Bobby Mickleburgh (tb); Teddy Layton (cl); Lennie Felix (p); Alan Duddington (b); Lennie Hastings (d). Live recordings, January-April 1960.
(18) (From The Nat Gonella Story LP) Collectively: Stan Roderick (t); Jock Bain, Don Lusher, Wally Smith, Ken Goldie (tb); Tony Coe (cl); Jimmy Skidmore (ts); Joe Temperley (bar); Stan Tracey (p, vib);Harry Smith (p); Ernie Shear, Roy Plummer (g); Sammy Stokes, Lennie Bush (b); Phil Seamen (d). 1, 6 and 7 February 1961.
(19) Doug Richford’s London Jazzmen. Richford (cl, v); Bill Hales (tb); Pete Deucher (b); Tony Goffe (b); Ken Harrison (d). January 1962.