b. Nathaniel Charles Gonella, 7 March 1908, Islington, London, England. d. 6 August 1998, Gosport, Hampshire, England. A trumpeter, vocalist, and band leader, Gonella was a major pioneer of British jazz, and one of its best-loved personalities. After learning to play the cornet and read music while at school, Gonella worked in the tailoring trade and as an errand-boy, before buying his own cornet in 1923. A year later he switched to trumpet when joining Archie Pitt’s Busby Boys in the Gracie Fields revue, A Week’s Pleasure. During the four years that he was touring with that show and its successor, Safety First, Gonella began his lifelong love affair with jazz via records such as ‘Wild Man Blues’ and ‘Cushion Foot Stomp’. These featured the musician who was to influence him most, Louis Armstrong. After leaving the Busby Boys, Gonella played in dance bands led by Bob Dryden and Archie Alexander, before being hired by Billy Cotton in 1930. The Cotton band’s broadcasts from the ritzy Ciro’s Club in London provided a wider audience for this sensational up-and-coming young musician who played trumpet and sang in the Armstrong style. In the same year he began recording, and appeared on Cotton sides such as ‘That Rhythm Man’, ‘Bessie Couldn’t Help It’ and ‘The New Tiger Rag’.
In 1931, Cotton was naturally incensed when his complete brass section, Gonella, Sid Buckman and Joe Ferrie, defected overnight to the Monseigneur Band, which was fronted by one of the most successful band leaders of the 30s, Roy Fox. One of the Monseigneur Restaurant’s frequent patrons was the Prince of Wales, and he was especially keen on a Gonella speciality, ‘Georgia On My Mind’. Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s memorable number became the musician’s lifelong theme, and the title of his 1985 biography. Gonella’s recording of the tune with the Fox band was made early in 1932, shortly after his highly individual version of the Negro spiritual, ‘Oh! Monah!’. The latter number was adopted by Fox’s pianist and arranger Lew Stone, who took over the Monseigneur band, still featuring Gonella, when Fox moved to the Café Anglais. Gonella continued to record with various ensembles and cut a few titles such as ‘Rockin’ Chair’ and ‘That’s My Home’ under the pseudonym Eddie Hines. On 14 September 1932, he made ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me’/‘I Heard’, the first record to have ‘Nat Gonella and his Trumpet’ on the label. A few months earlier, Gonella had met his idol for the first time, when Louis Armstrong played two weeks at the London Palladium. In later years, after they had finished their evening work, they often jammed in the early morning at clubs such as The Nest and Bag O’ Nails.
After working in the Netherlands with Ray Noble in 1933, in the summer of 1934, Gonella toured Variety theatres with Stone, and was featured with the Georgians, a five-piece band within a band. He also topped the bill at the Holborn Empire with violinist-singer Brian Lawrence and the Quaglino Quartette. In November 1934, Nat Gonella And His Georgians (Albert Torrence and George Evans (alto saxophones), Don Barrigo (tenor saxophone), Harold Hood (piano), Arthur Baker (guitar), Will Hemmings (string bass), Bob Dryden (drums)) cut several sides for Parlophone Records, including ‘Moon Glow’, ‘Don’t Let Your Love Go Wrong’ and two ‘Fox Trot Medleys’ containing songs such as ‘Dinah’, ‘Troublesome Trumpet’, and ‘Georgia On My Mind’. When Nat Gonella And His Georgians - ‘Britain’s Hottest Quintette’ - finally undertook their first theatre tour in April 1935, they shrewdly mixed jazz with strong elements of comedy and crowd-pleasing numbers such as ‘Tiger Rag’. In the late 30s, Gonella recorded prolifically - on one occasion accompanying George Formby on ‘Doh-De-Oh-Do’ - and packed theatres with shows such as South American Joe, which featured xylophone player Teddy Brown and singer Phyllis Robins. Another triumph came in 1938, with a summer season at Blackpool with King Revel, which co-starred Sandy Powell and Norman Evans. After a brief but successful spell in New York early in 1939, Gonella formed a larger band, the New Georgians, but with the advent of World War II, he was called up in the Army, and served in the Pioneer Corps and Royal Tank Regiment in North Africa.
After the war, with musical tastes changing rapidly, his 13-piece outfit was quickly reduced to a quartet, and Gonella eventually went out on his own, playing holiday camps and Variety theatres. In spite of the late 50s-early 60s trad-jazz boom, bookings slumped, and he was reduced to working in a bookmaker’s office for a time. Encouraged by the response to his Salute To Satchmo album, Gonella formed his Georgia Jazz Band, which, ironically, made its debut at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1960. With an appearance as the subject of television’s This Is Your Life, his comeback gathered pace for a time, and he issued The Nat Gonella Story. However, later in the decade he was working solo once more, and on one of his last recording sessions he played the role of Fagin in the Society label’s version of Lionel Bart’s hit musical, Oliver! In the early 70s he returned to the Netherlands, and while there, he recorded ‘Oh! Monah!’, which reached the Top 5 in the Dutch hit parade. His subsequent retirement to Gosport in Hampshire was interrupted by occasional appearances at the local jazz club, sometimes in company with his long-time friend, supporter and fellow trumpeter, Digby Fairweather, along with ex-Georgians such as Tiny Winters, Jim Shepherd, and Pat Smuts.
In the 80s there was a renewed interest in the man and his music. Fairweather embarked on a concert tour with A Tribute To Nat Gonella, and several collections of his work were re-released on album. In September 1994, the Gosport Borough Council named an area in the town after him: Nat Gonella Square (although one jazz-loving councillor observed that it was illogical to place the two words, ‘Gonella’ and ‘Square’ in the same sentence). Three years later, fans of contemporary music were privileged to hear just a very brief example of vintage Gonella, when computer wizard Jyoti Mishra ‘sampled’ part of his trumpet introduction to the 1932 Lew Stone disc, ‘My Woman’, and used it on his UK chart-topper, ‘Your Woman’, issued under the name of White Town. Just a week before he celebrated his 90th birthday, Gonella joined Digby Fairweather and other friends at the Pizza on the Park in London. Although he had put down the horn a long time ago, the years rolled back as this splendid, innovative musician delighted the audience with ‘Shine’, ‘St. James Infirmary’, ‘When You’re Smiling’, and of course, ‘Georgia On My Mind’.