Nathaniel Charles (Nat) Gonella (7 March 1908 - 6 August 1998) was an English jazz trumpeter, bandleader, vocalist and mellophonist born in London, perhaps most notable for his work with the big band he founded, The Georgians, during the British dance band era.
His vocal style was reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, though the voice was often eclipsed by his achievements as a band leader and trumpeter. Gonella has been a major influence on other British jazz trumpeters, including Humphrey Lyttelton and Digby Fairweather.
1 Early life and career,
2 The 1930s,
3 The 1940s & 1950s,
4 The 1960s & 1970s,
6 Further reading,
8 External links,
Early life and career:
Gonella was born in a deprived area of east London, and took up cornet while attending an institution for underprivileged children, St Mary's Guardian School in Islington.
His first professional job arrived when, after a short spell as a furrier's apprentice, he joined Archie Pitt's Busby Boy's Band in 1924, a small junior pit orchestra and touring review band. He remained with the band until 1928, and it was during this period that he became acquainted with the early recordings of Louis Armstrong, and the New Orleans jazz style in general. He transcribed Armstrong's solos and learned them by heart.
He worked with Bob Bryden's Louisville Band for a time in 1928-9, and with pianist Archie Alexander in Brighton, then joined the Billy Cotton band at the end of 1929, a move which provided him with a more prominent platform, both on the concert stage and also on radio, and allowed him to record his first jazz solos and vocal features (which included scat singing).
He played briefly with Roy Fox in 1931, and then stayed in that band when Lew Stone, Fox's former pianist, took over leadership the following year. It was with Stone's band that he firmly established his reputation.
When Louis Armstrong visited London in 1932, Gonella met his idol by begging the staff at Boosey and Hawkes's music shop to allow him to deliver Armstrong's trumpet, left at the shop for cleaning, to his hotel room. Armstrong was apparently initially amused to find such an ardent devotee, but appreciated his willingness to help, and the two men became good friends.
In 1933 Gonella published a book called Modern Style Trumpet Playing - A Comprehensive Course. In the same year he made uncredited appearances (alongside Lew Stone and Al Bowlly) in the films Bitter Sweet and The King's Cup.
Gonella's standing grew even more quickly after the formation of his own band, The Georgians, in 1935. The band took its name from a highly-popular version of the song "Georgia On My Mind" that he recorded for Lew Stone in 1932, and which became the trumpeter's signature tune. The Georgians began as a featured band within Stone's shows, before setting up as an independent unit.
Gonella formed his own big band, and quickly became a headline artist on the still-thriving variety circuit, and they continued to top bills around the country until the outbreak of World War II.
The 1940s & 1950s:
He joined the army in 1941, and was recruited into the Stars in Battledress campaign, touring allied camps in Europe and North Africa. Whilst in Europe and North Africa Gonella served as the personal servant or "batman" to Major Alexander Karet and once the war had ended was offered the position as personal Butler to the Major, but he politely refused in order to pursue his music career.
He reformed his band after the war, but the economic and musical climate was changing rapidly at that time. He flirted briefly with bebop, acknowledged that it was not for him, and returned to the variety stage during the 1950s, touring with the likes of the comedian Max Miller.
The 1960s & 1970s:
The revival in traditional jazz in the late Fifties allowed him to reform his Georgians in 1960. In February 1960 he featured on the UK television show This Is Your Life, an appearance which later inspired an album The Nat Gonella Story, modelled on Louis Armstrong's A Musical Autobiography. He also appeared on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs in August 1966.
All of this attention re-established Gonella, at least until the advent of The Beatles brought the trad jazz boom to a halt. He moved to Lancashire in 1962, and toured regularly on the Northern club circuit until his alleged retirement on his 65th birthday, on 7 March 1973.
That retirement did not last long. Drummer Ted Easton persuaded him to come to play to his (Easton's) club in Holland during the mid-1970s, and a new recording of a song he had first cut with Roy Fox in 1931, "Oh, Monah", became a big hit in Holland.
It was to be his final flourish on trumpet, but he continued to sing after moving to Gosport, Hampshire, in 1977 - where a square was renamed in his honour in 1994, and was always happy to stand up and do so in a local pubs or at the Gosport Jazz Club.
Digby Fairweather's New Georgians paid tribute to Gonella's musical heritage in 1984, and Fairweather and fellow trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton co-hosted a television tribute, Fifty Years of Nat Gonella, the following year, in which Gonella himself was an enthusiastic participant.
He continued to sing occasionally with various bands, and made the headlines again in 1997 when a sampled excerpt of his trumpet playing from a recording he made in 1932 was used in White Town's number one pop hit, "Your Woman".
Nat Gonella died at his home in Gosport on 6 August 1998, aged 90.
Gonella was a down-to-earth and unassuming character, and remained so throughout his life. On BBC Radio 4, Barry Humphries said that "Oh Mona" was one of two tracks that had most appealed to him in his life. Humphrey Lyttelton is among those who have testified to the fact that fame and success sat easily on his shoulders, and reports that he would show genuinely astonishment when Lyttelton would confess, as well as other prominent musicians, to Gonella having been his first jazz hero.
Brown, Ron and Fairweather, Digby (2005). Nat Gonella: A Life in Jazz. Northway Publications. ISBN 978-0-9537040-7-1.