Hollywood,Mayfair And All That Jazz – The Roy Fox Story (1975)

………. IMG_1937Back in London I started immediately to form my new recording band. First of all I had to find someone who knew the best musicians and could help me by suggesting the kind of boys I needed. I’d heard of a very fine arranger who was a pianist named Lew Stone, and a top drummer called Bill Harty. I got together with them and, after they had agreed to join me, they told me of a vocalist who had been out of work for quite some considerable time and was finding it pretty difficult to make both ends meet. I thought that if this singer was all that good why wasn’t he working. But Lew and Bill pressed the point and, at last, I asked this man to come along and give me an audition. When he arrived, I noticed he made a good appearance – most necessary, of course – and he had a pleasing personality. Lew Stone accompanied him at the piano and when he started to sing I was sure he was the person I was looking for. His name was Al Bowlly. I soon made up the band with the best musicians I could find and we started turning out records for Decca by the dozen.

We recorded at least twice a week, making four titles at each  session and that was the very beginning of the hundreds and hundreds of discs I made during my career. The new band was an instant hit on records and, sure enough, I have never seen such publicity as Decca gave me. My photographs and records were in the windows of nearly every record shop, we had the full front page of the Daily Mail, and our records were played by the BBC almost every time you listened and also on the Continent. Yes, we were on our way. One of the very first things we did was a recording of The Peanut Vendor. It was just one of the many sides Al Bowlly did with that first band, which started him on the road to being one of the most famous of all British vocalists.

The Peanut Vendor was recorded in February 1931. So popular were our records becoming that one day I was asked by a man who was building a new club in the West End to come to see him. His name was Mr Upson and he owned the Dolcis Shoe Company. He told me the new club was going to be the smartest thing in London and would be exclusive. He said he had found when he went to other clubs they were generally too crowded to dance and that was why he was opening his own club so that he could provide a bit more comfort. He was going to call this new night spot The Monseigneur. It was right in the heart of Piccadilly. Would I be interested in opening with my band? He made it sound so worthwhile with the amount of money he offered and the fact that I wanted some place to be seen by the public apart from just making records, I had no hesitation in accepting. There would be only a few short weeks before the opening and there were one or two changes I intended making in the band. I engaged the brass section from the Billy Cotton Band and when it was time for the opening, the personnel in the band were Al Bowlly (vocalist), Lew Stone (piano), Bill Harty (drums), Don Stuteley (bass), Syd Buckman, Nat Gonella (trumpets), Joe Ferri (trombone), Ernest Rine, Jim Easton, Harry Berly (saxophones).

Opening night was really something! The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Kent, King Alfonso (of Spain), they were all there and the room was decorated so beautifully. All the walls were dark blue and draped with red silk and a large painting of Monseigneur hung near the cocktail bar – very French and in the most excellent taste.

When thinking of Al, I can’t help recalling that when we finished our first week and he received his first cheque , he was so happy to have had the chance of working again after so many ups and downs that to  show his gratitude, he invited Dorothea and  me to a little Italian restaurant in Soho  . We went along with him and he ordered a very special dish he thought we would both like and during the course of this delicious chicken entrée, I thought I heard a most peculiar kind of sound. After much detective work I discovered Al was chewing on a chicken bone. I queried this and he said: ‘Boss’ (he always called me Boss), `haven’t you ever tried chewing chicken bones? They’re the best part and very good for the teeth.’ Well, I knew Al had beautiful white teeth but I never realized how he kept them looking that way.

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The Nat Gonella Story – 1985

Things were swinging along nicely for the Fox band, then fate took a hand yet again,IMG_1890
when Roy was taken ill with pleurisy in November 1931. He tried to struggle on but he was forced to take his doctor’s advice to go to Switzerland in order to recuperate, living in a small village high in the mountains. With the Billy Cotton affair no doubt still fresh in his mind, Roy was well aware of what could happen when the leader of a band went absent so he kept the band running at the Monseigneur by handing the baton over to Lew Stone as a temporary measure. This was fine with the rest of the band , for as well as being a most proficient musician, Lew was a very popular chap on and off the bandstand. Although Roy Fox took all the limelight through fronting the band, it is generally acknowledged that Lew Stone was really the musical brains behind the success of the outfit with his arranging skills.

       It would seem that apart from musical prowess, to possess a strong constitution could be a good asset to a dance band musician in the 1930s. Akin to many of his colleagues, when the band at the Monseigneur had played the last waltz, usually around 2A.M , Nat would pop into a late club and sit in on an impromptu jazz session, all for free.

     The Bag O’Nails Club off Regent Street was one of his favourite haunts and on occasion the sessions could go on until five in the morning. When he had blown all the jazz out of his system Nat would stagger bleary-eyed out of the club just in time to see another day dawning. He would then nip into one of  Joe Lyons’ establishments for a breakfast of bacon, eggs and a cup of tea.

    Rather similar to the coffee stall in Brighton, Lyons also served as a meeting place for the “night people”, that is folk such as nightclub staff and entertainers, musicians, and ladies of doubtful virtue.

      IMG_1891 It was during one of his early morning breakfasts that Nat dropped his knife and fork for a few moments to take on the role of Cupid. Unfortunately, the arrow in this particular case went way off target. It happened when one of Nat’s great pals in the band, Al Bowlly, joined him for a cup of coffee. As they were sipping and chatting, a good looking girl in the shape of Freda Roberts came into the restaurant, and just one look at her immediately bowled Al over, he could not take his eyes off of her.

      As it happened, Nat knew Freda from the Bag O’Nails where she worked as a hostess. After prompting from Al, he introduced him to Freda, whereupon the sexual chemistry began flowing like water from a tap. At that time, Al Bowlly had the world at his feet and could have had his pick from any member of the opposite sex that he so desired. Knowing Al’s reputation with the ladies, Nat put it down as just another of the handsome singer’s casual affairs. To his amazement, and horror, the couple were married within a week. “Oh my gawd!” thought Nat. “What have I done?” His worst fears were realized, the marriage lasted only a few weeks. It appeared that as far as Freda was concerned, old habits were hard to break, and when she said that she would like to keep her friends after she was married, she meant men friends.