Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nat Gonella: A Real Gone Gonella

Louis Armstrong's influence on music and musicians was immense. He was exceedingly popular in the British Isles as well in Europe and the States. One of his greatest British disciples was the talented trumpeter/vocalist Nat Gonella.

Nat took his own great talents as a trumpeter and vocalist and used Pops as basis for his style. He wasn't an Armstrong imitater, but always had the spirit of Pops in his playing and singing. This post will celebrate his story and talents.

Like Louis, Nat came from poor beginnings, being born in the Bow section of London on March 7, 1908. He learned trumpet in grade school and progressed to lead cornet in the school's brass band. Despite a severe case of glandular fever, by age 15 he had left school and was working as a professional musician. His first band was led by impresario Archie Pitt, the Busby Boys. In 1927 Nat heard Louis' Wild Man Blues and he was hooked-he became a lifelong fan and eventual friend of Pops.

Nat had a pure almost classical type of trumpet sound , however he had a real jazz feel and phrasing to his playing. The Louis influence was evident in his ability to play melodically in the higher register. He also developed his own personal vocal style with a nod to Pops- he had a cute Cockney accent coupled with a slight lisp and was also adept at scatting.

Nat quickly ran the gamut of top English dance bands starting with drummer Bob Dryden in 1928. (Bob would later work in Nat's band) followed by Andy Alexander, Billy Cotton (he made his first records with Cotton) and on to the popular Roy Fox band. Fox, himself a trumpeter was an American who had emmigrated to England. Nat scored a hit in 1931 with Oh. Mo'nah an old folk tune also made popular by Ted Weems. (It would be one of Nat's signature tunes). Pianist/arranger Lew Stone took over the Fox band in 1932 and it became one of England's top bands rivaling Jack Hylton and Ray Noble. Nat became so popular that he was given a band within the band called the Georgians. (Nat had recorded Hoagy Carmichael's Georgia on my Mind with Stone in 1932-it would become his theme song). In 1930 Nat married his first wife Betty, they had one daughter, Natalie.

Nat's first sides as a leader were made for English Decca in Sept. of 1932. Labelled Nat Gonella and his Trumpet, the sides feature Nat's solos and vocals backed by Ray Noble's rhythm section. Noble's popular vocalist Al Bowly plays guitar and is a solid rhythm man. I Heard features nice muted horn byNat, an engaging vocal and some impressive runs on the horn. I Can't Believe that You're in Love with Me is played at a slow tempo with a muted chorus and double time passage before the coda. We also hear a bit of single stringing from Bowlly. A nice maiden voyage for Nat.

The sessions of Nov. 1932 and March 1933 produced more delightful sides with a heavy Louis influence. A trumpet, trombone and 3 saxes were added to get more of a Big band sound. When You're Smiling features the saxes along with Nat's vocal and some high register trumpet.obviously inspired by Louis' recording. Rockin' Chair has a nice muted intro and chorus by Nat, his vocal and another double time passage highlighted by glisses and a classic coda ala Louis. Sing (It's Good for You) has a tangy trumpet solo with tricky runs, a nice scat vocal, a bit of Bowlly's guitar and some nice arranged passages, The coda features some nice glisses and octave jumps. That's my Home, another Louis classic has muted horn, vocal with shades of Pops and a lovely solo going down low and using a No place like Home quote.

In 1934 Nat left Stone to form his own Georgians featuring his trumpet and vocals backed by a small combo of saxophone and rhythm. (Occasionally Nat's trumpet playing brother Bruts was added, along with an extra trumpet or sax) .Standout players in the group were reedmen Pat Smuts and Don Barrigo , pianists Monia Liter and Harold Hood (who joined Nat at the age of 16), basist Charlie Winter , drummer Bob Dryden and guitarist/vocalist Jimmy Mesene. The repertoire of the Georgians featured jazz standards, pop tunesof the day and many covers of Louis classics. They have that infectious 1930s small band feel of the Fats Waller, Wingy Manone and Louis Prima groups. Most of the sides were recorded for Parlophone.

There are many highlights from the 1930s Georgians series-here are a few. The Clarence Williams favorite E Flat Blues and Basin St. Blues both have engaging vocals by Nat along with his stirring horn work. The influence of Louis is apparent , but Nat goes his own way. He met Louis in 1932 when Pops toured the Isles , they became fast friends-Pops always referred to Nat as "My Man". Nagasaki would become a Gonella staple, he and the boys give it a swinging ride. Nat puts his own stamp on Tiger Rag but keeps Louis' dialog and high notes intact. For a lovely change of pace , try Ellington's Delta Serenade. The Georgians get that Dukish sound and vocalist Stella Moya impresses. (she would eventually marry Nat). The instumental Wabash Blues has a lovely solo by Nat , some arranged horn passages, a piano solo and closing spot by Nat. Square Face (previously recorded by Wingy Manone) has a tenor lead with muted backgrounds from Nat. Nat does the talking vocal and takes things home with a pure toned chorus and classic coda. Sweet and Hot has a tricky opening ensemble and on Nat's vocal various horn players make cute quotes. Nat goes up high on the out chorus with a semi- symphonic ending. I Want to be Happy (instrumental) gives a good idea of how the band sounded in person. A fast tempo uses a repeated horn passage to bring in all the solos. Nat eggs the guys on-a la Louis and Fats. All the soloists shine and Nat goes from low register to high in his outchoruses. He sounds a bit like the early Louis Prima here.

The 1935-8 period was a golden one for Nat and the Georgians. Along with Nat's standout horn and vocal work, the solos of Pat Smuts and Don Barrigo on sax and clarinet. pianists Monia Liter and Harold Hood and the solid contributions of brother Bruts made these sides so enjoyable.

We'd also like to mention Mr. Rhythm Man from Jan.1935 , an exellent side with some stoptime trumpet, piano, scatting by Nat and a high register finalw with a scat tag. Besides the Louis covers, Nat also recorded many current pop and swing favorites. I'm Gonna Wash my Hands of You (Jan.1935) is a nice minor theme in the style of You Rascal,You with Nat trading his vocal and horn spots with the other soloists. The Larry Clinton hit, The Dipsy Doodle (Jan.1938) fea tures Nat singing with a trio known as the Jackdaws and has a nice piano spot by Hood. Me, Myself and I (Feb.1938) a Billie Holiday favorite has some Harlem-like brass figures, a nice Nat vocal backed by Bruts and a short but sweet spot by Smuts. Now they call it Swing (April 1938), also waxed by Louis Prima highlights Nat's horn trading with piano and tenor and a standout vocal. Someone Stole Gabriel's Horn (Jan.1936) has Nat and the boys singing and some very inspired Louislike horn work, especially in the upper register.(Jack Teagarden and the Dorsey Bros. had previously recorded this title). An interesting session of Feb. 1936 had Nat recording a pre-cursor to Music Minus One. His versions of Tiger Rag and When You're Smiling. accompanied by rhythm section have the flip side open for a soloist to play on. Nat states the melody on each side and takes an exellent jazz solo split up by a piano solo.

In January of 1939, Nat visited the United States. He was a hit visiting and sitting in at Harlem nightspots, including a memorable jam session with Fats Waller. On Jan. 20 he recorded 4 sides for Parlophone with 6 excellent American pros including Benny Carter,alto, Buster Bailey,clarinet and Billy Kyle,piano. On Jeepers Creepers(introduced by Louis), Nat leads the ensembles,takes an engaging vocal complete with Pops-isms and takes the side out up high. The solos by Carter, Bailey and Kyle are first class. A pop tune of the day, Just a Kid named Joe became a regular part of Nat's repertoire. He sings it with great feeling and plays nice trumpet complete with a Loui-ish coda.

Back in England, the Georgians sides continued. The band was getting bigger and the sounds of the swing era were becoming more prevelent. A standout side is Tain't what cha Do(June 1939), made so popular by Trummy Young with the Jimmy Lunceford band. Nat sings it with help from the boys and the horn sections are real solid. Hood's piano and Nat's closing trumpet ride are highlights. Most of the post 1939 sides would be titled The New Georgians, as the band now was at full 12-14 piece size. There were new faces in the band, but Stella Moya continued as female vocalist. In Sept. of 1939, Nat, brother Bruts and pianist Hood were on tour in Holland. The oncoming war resulted in their making a quick trip to Stockholm where they recorded two sides for Odeon backed by Swedish players. Along with Frankie Carle's Sunrise Serenade, Nat cut another of his standbys, It's a Pair of Wings for Me.

The Big Band sound of the New Georgians features a very solid band with capable soloists and Nat's ever-dazzling solos and vocals. Like Louis, Nat was a natural in front of a Big Band. His personality and showmanship add to these sides. Also like Pops, Nat was the "real thing" off stage-a very warm and humorous man. Here are some highlights of their many English Columbia sides of 1939-42.

Along with re-recording staples such as Georgia, It's a Pair of Wings, Oh Mo'nah and Louis' That's my Home, Nat covered many of the current Big Band hits from the States. Tuxedo Junction(Sept.1940) features many of the original Erskine Hawkins' parts. Nat handles the familiar muted passage and adds a nice open chorus along with exellent tenor, alto and a swinging band sound. I Understand (May 1941) a Jimmy Dorsey hit shows the sweet side of the band. Guitarist Roy Dexter handles the vocal and Nat has a nice muted spot. His version of Sunrise Serenade (same date)also impresses with pretty band voicings and muted Gonella. Woodchopper's Ball (Oct. 1940)follows Woody Herman's chart quite faithfully with spots for tenor, clarinet and Nat himself. The Will Bradley Boogie Woogie hit, Beat me Daddy, Eight to the Bar (May 1941) features pianist Norm Stenfalt and some nice scat by Nat. Nat's version of In the Mood (Oct. 1940) is a good one. Besides the familiar Miller riffs, Nat opens and closes with a neat scat passage and lends a solid horn solo. Drummer Johnny Roland also gets some nice fills. Nat and wife/vocalist Stella Moyer also teamed up on some vocals, predating the Louis Prima/Keely Smith routines. If you Were the Only Girl (Feb. 1941) and Yes, my Darling Daughter (May 1941) are standouts. The last title is one of those popular minor/major Jewish melodies that were so popular in the 40s-Nat adds a bit of fralich horn. Other popular swing favorites covered by the New Georgians included Big Noise from Winnetka, Hot Mallets, Sent for you Yesterday, Jumpin' Jive and Johnson Rag.

In 1942, Nat was called into the service. He served with the Pioneers Corps and saw action in Africa. Following the war, he re-formed the New Georgians, but like in the states the Big Band era was coming to a close. He made a brief stab at be-bop then went back to leading a smaller band. By the start of the 50s he was doing a lot of music hall work, teamed with Leon Cortez then later Max Miller. By the end of the war, Nat and Stella had divorced. He met his third wife Dorothy in 1946, they had a very happy marriage until Dorothy's passing in 1996.

With the trad jazz boom of the 50s/60s in England, Nat got back to small group jazz with his Georgia Jazz Band, styled after the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. A 1958 session with clarinetist Archie Semple's group shows him in great form on trumpet and vocals. Semple was a devotee of Edmond Hall and his band gives Nat great support. He takes some fine vocals including a duet with Beryl Bryden on Ma,He's Makin' Eyes at Me. Nat's horn work is solid as ever on such standbys as Confessin' , Dinah, All ofMe, Ain't Misbehavin', Who's Sorry Now, I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles and The Blues. He also made a session with his own band in 1960.(not available for review). Nat also appeared on the British version of This is Your Life. He didn't seem to reep the rewards of the trad boom like Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber et al., perhaps the audience was more into the aforementioned youthful bands. Nevertheless, Nat was back playing his kind of jazz and sounding as great as ever.

In 1961 Nat made an excellent lp for EMI titled The Nat Gonella Story. The album was similar to Louis' Musical Autobiography on Decca. Nat took 14 of his landmark tunes and like Pops added his own colorful narration before each selection. (that's where we got the Gone Gonella line from). Nat was backed by a sextet for the Georgians-type tunes and a great studio big band including some of the top British players such as Tony Coe, Don Lusher, Phil Seaman , Jim Skidmore, Joe Temperly and Lennie Bush. The staples such as Georgia, Oh Mo'nah, Pair of Wings, Nagasaki and Kid named Joe are all there. Nat includes a great sextet version of Wild Man Blues to honor his introduction to Louis. Other favorites such as Bessie Couldn't Help It and Miss Otis Regrets from his early dance band days get nice up to date big band backup. Other favorites such as Honeysuckle, Them There Eyes and Stompin' at the Savoy are included. Nat's horn and voice are as stellar as always. This one is well worth searching for.

Nat continued to perform and record thru the 60s. The Beatles had usurped the Trad Boom, but there was still an enthuisiastic audience for jazz in England. Just when Nat was planning a semi-retirement from music he did some appearances and recordings with the Dutch trad band of drummer Ted Easton. Ted featured many visiting American stars such as Bud Freeman, Billy Butterfield, Peanuts Hucko and Ralph Sutton. He made several live recordings with Nat in the early to mid 70s along with a 1975 Christmas album. In 1977 Nat re-recorded his old standby Oh Mo'nah with Easton and it became a surprise hit on the Dutch music charts. This gave Nat a well-deserved career boost. Youtube has an exellent clip from this period of Nat doing Oh Mo'nah with the Easton band. He looks great and sings up a storm along with some nice trumpet fours with Easton's trumpeter Bob Wulffers. (we hope some more clips will surface).

By the 80s Nat and Dorothy had retired to the Gosport section of Hampshire. He stopped playing trumpet but continued to sing with local bands. 1985 saw a biography, Georgia on my Mind by Ron Brown published and a BBC tribute hosted by trumpeters Humphrey Lyttleton and Digby Fairweather with Nat himself contributing. Digby put together a New Georgians tribute band and Nat made many singing appearances with them. Nat lived a happy, comfortable life until his passing on August 6, 1998 at the age of 90.

Nat was a consumate musician who used Louis Armstrong as his model but also put his own talented take on the Satchmo style of trumpeting and singing.Like Louis, he was an inspiration to countless British jazz players. Here's hoping this post will help to keep his spirit alive.

Hip Hip to Brother Nat!

There are many European Gonella CDs available. Amazon and Worlds Records are a good starting point.

Highly recomended are Pavilion/Flapper 9750 by the Georgians of 1935-8 and Empress 804 "Naturally", a collection of the New Georgians Big Band sides.

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