Max Gelbray

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One of Europe's top harmonica players; he played with numerous pop and jazz bands from the 1930s into the early 1970s.
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b. Max Leon van Gelder, 12 February 1916, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, d. 2 October 2004, Palm Springs, California, USA. Geldray was born into a musical family and reputed to be one of the first jazz harmonica players in Europe. His mother was a classically trained pianist, and the young Geldray inherited his father’s ability to play an instrument by ear. He bought his first harmonica when he was aged 16, and taught himself to play it. Influenced by hearing jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong on the radio, Geldray formed his own eight-piece group, which soon evolved into a quartet, the Hollander Boys. They were spotted by the English comedian and impresario Tom Moss, and travelled to the UK where they toured the variety theatres. On his return to Holland Geldray went solo, and played at the Boeuf sur la Toit Club in Brussels, and with the Johnny Fresco Band in Ostend. It was there that he met the French band leader Ray Ventura, who took him to Paris in the late 30s. Geldray was billed as the ‘special attraction’ with Ventura’s orchestra, which was considered to be one of the top bands in Europe, and he became something of a celebrity, often jamming with the legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Just after the outbreak of World War II, Geldray fled to Britain and joined the Princess Irene Brigade. He also did numerous broadcasts for the BBC, and appeared in a special Royal Command Performance at Windsor Castle to celebrate Princess Elizabeth’s 16th birthday. In 1945 he rejoined Ray Ventura in Paris for a time, and then returned to Britain and subsequently provided the musical interludes (and, as ‘the world’s worst actor’, spoke a few lines) in the radio series that started out as Crazy People, but was soon retitled The Goon Show, starring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and (initially) Michael Bentine. Geldray (nicknamed ‘Conk’) and his harmonica were ever-present in more than 200 episodes of the series from 1951 until the series ended in 1960.

In the early 60s, after working in Australia and on cruise ships, Geldray moved to the USA and put his music career on the backburner to work as a clothing salesman, but was reunited with his former colleagues in The Last Goon Show Of All in 1972. On returning to America, he again took work outside the music business before eventually retiring to Palm Springs, California, emerging only to play the occasional gig. In later years Geldray did extensive voluntary work for the local Stroke Centre and the Betty Ford Centre for drugs and alcohol rehabilitation.