Charles Nat Star – A life in Music

Written by Terry Brown

Terry Brown is a very well respected researcher, discographer, author and authority on the history of early dance bands and the performers of the big band era. He has written many articles and discographies for the Discographer.

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Charles Nat Star was an important and highly talented British musician who majored in reed instruments and was one of the first to play sub-tone clarinet on electrically made UK dance band records. He also pioneered the potential of the saxophone as a dance band instrument, and as such, he remained much in demand performing with some of the best dance bands of the day. Nat also led and organized many studio based recording bands and became one of an elite group of studio band musicians constantly in demand for recording work across a number of record labels.

Between 1928 and 1934 he was Dance Music Director for the British Homophone Company and he organized scores of recording sessions, producing not only dance records, but also the backings for vocalists and other artists working for Homophone’s various labels. Despite Nat’s many achievements, he remains conspicuously absent from the contemporary music press of the day, and little has been written about his career to date.

This article is an attempt to document as fully as possible what is known of Nat’s activities and has been produced with the help of Nat’s Grandson, Roy, who has been of considerable assistance in its preparation, for which my heartfelt thanks.

Interestingly, Roy himself worked for a couple of years at EMI in the sixties, and one of his colleagues, who will be known to many readers, was vintage music producer, Chris Ellis.

Roy was also instrumental in ensuring that much of Nat’s paper archive was kept together following the death of Nat’s son Bert, and it was Roy’s mother Sylvia who presented many records and Nat’s recording session diaries to discographer Brian Rust, without which, large sections of Rust’s and co-author, Sandy Forbes’, The British Dance Band Discography, would not be as complete as published.

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Charles Nat Star, (the name he adopted), was born, Naftali Hirsch Starsolla on 24 August 1886, (some documentation shows 1887), in Tarnopol, Galicia, (now Ternopil, Poland).

His father, Chaim Starsolla died at age 34 in 1890, and Nat’s mother, Ruchel, (later Rachel), Grun, (her maiden name), decided to make a better life for herself and children by emigrating to the UK. So not long after the birth of Nat’s sister, Clara, (again in 1890), Rachel, Clara, Nat and his brother Reuben, headed west for the UK. Rachel’s sister, Rebeka, (later Rebecca), had already settled in London and may have been instrumental in encouraging her sister and children to do the same. On arrival, the family headed for Rachel’s sisters home, but with an over-crowded environment and little immediate opportunity to improve their lot, a decision was made to send Nat, (the eldest sibling, at 4 years of age), to the Jewish Hospital and Orphan Asylum, in West Norwood in South London.

From this point in time such a move might be considered somewhat harsh, but in fact, the Orphanage, a charitable institution, was highly respected within the Jewish community and was noted for providing a sound education and training opportunities in a range of professions, in friendly, well run surroundings. As such it was probably the best move Nat could have made at this time. It was whilst at the Orphanage, which ran music classes including an, ‘Operetta Class’, for potential singers, that Nat began to teach himself clarinet and saxophone. However the Orphanage also ensured its pupils, ‘had a trade’, and so in December 1900, Nat signed a five year indenture as an apprentice cabinet maker with M. Chapman, Son & Co., a ‘top of the range’, furniture manufacturer, who operated from premises at, 2 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London, EC1.

The 1901 census shows Nat calling himself, Nathan Starsolla, living at 288, Commercial Road, London, E1, and working as an apprentice cabinet maker.

Following the death of Rachel’s sister, Rebecca in 1901, the household was headed by her husband Max Gold, with Nat’s mother recorded as ‘Aunt’, and Nat, his brother and sister, as ‘cousins’. During his apprenticeship, Nat signed on with the Territorial Army in the Inns of Court Regiment for four years, as Charles Star, serving from 18 April 1904 to 31 March 1908.

The Inns of Court Regiment was frequently called upon to parade for City events and had its own highly trained military band and it was here that Nat honed his skills on saxophone, which made its earliest UK appearance in such bands. Nat returned to cabinet making for a couple of years, and no doubt took the opportunity to play on the semi-pro circuit for weddings, bar mitzvahs and the like, and there would have been plenty of casual pit work in East London’s then thriving Jewish musical theatre.

On 22 April 1910, Nat enlisted for a further four years with the Territorial’s, this time joining the 19th (County of London) Batt., The London Regiment. On his sign up papers, Nat gives his occupation as cabinet maker again for, Chapman & Co., and his home address is now given as, 34, Myrdle Street, New Road, London E1. Interestingly on the day he joined, Nat is shown as a Private, but on day two he is re-assigned as a Bandsman, clearly indicating that Nat was identified as a trained musician ready to join the command’s military band.

During this second period with the Territorial’s, Nat was promoted to Corporal on 24 July 1910, and to Staff Sergeant on 1 January 1911, a rank he held until he was discharged on 21 April 1914. Nat did a fair amount of training and parade’s at Aldershot and Bourley Camps, (army training centres), and a number of photos survive showing Nat in uniform. Nat met his wife Annie Warman during this period and they married on 27 February 1912, with Nat’s son, Herbert born on 7 June 1914.

As the world plunged into WW1, Nat the cabinet maker, was in a reserved occupation with his carpentry skills much in demand, and was not subject to call-up, neither did he re-enlist. During and after the war, Nat continued working as a ‘jobbing’, musician, alongside the day job.

Interestingly Nat had to have his saxophones made especially for him because of his small hands. As to performing at this time, much of Nat’s, ‘gigging’ activities, would have been by word of mouth and in the form of verbal contracts, and although later on, Nat kept note books in which he recorded his appearances and recording activities, if there were any covering this earlier period, they seem to have been lost. That said, Nat’s son, Bert, recalled in some written notes put together just after Nat died, that Nat had told him that he played sax/clarinet with a Black American Jazz group, who appeared at the Hammersmith Palais, (and elsewhere), in around 1920. This has proved impossible to verify.

 The problem is, Britain in 1920 was in a Jazz and Ragtime frenzy, following the arrival of, ‘The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’ in April 1919, and a number of Black groups had arrived in the UK subsequently and Nat, a good sight reader and by then capable improviser, would have fitted comfortably into most of them.

It is known that a number of white musicians, including trombonist Ted Heath, and trumpeter, Tommy Smith, played, (in blackface), were recruited to play with the remnants of, ‘The Southern Syncopated Orchestra’, a Black US Band, around 1920/21, which presents one possibility.

Another arises from notes made by Nat’s son Bert, who recorded that Nat was a regular musician at Ciro’s Club at the start of 20’s, and its possible that Nat might well have played with Black American, ‘Dan Kildare’s Ciro’s Orchestra’, who appeared there when the club re-opened in 1920. But this is pure speculation. Nat did eventually play with Black American jazz musicians later in 1922, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Nat’s presence at Ciro’s is evidenced by two surviving contracts from the period. Both are to play with the ‘Ciro Orchestra’, at Ciro’s Club, 18, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2. The first contract, shows Nat, booked from 20 February 1922, for four weeks, and required to perform from 7.30 to 9.30, (including Sundays), at £20.00 per week, (based on average earnings converter, the equivalent of £3,370.00 today).

Nat has noted the reverse of the contract that in fact he worked to 12.30 every night, (the exploitation of musicians was ever thus!). Because of the period involved, this looks like a ‘dep’, contract. The second surviving Ciro’s contract is for a further engagement from 16 September 1922, (this time at £25.00 per week). With the money on offer, both contracts clearly identify Nat as a ‘rated’, top class musician and one who was known at the club.

Nat by now was certainly beginning to earn a living as a competent and, ‘in demand’, reed man and presumably with a rising income, the 1921 electoral register shows Nat and Annie, based in a new home at, 8, Trellis Street, Poplar, London, E1, which he shared with his brother Reuben and his wife, Bessie.

A regular at Ciro’s, (one of the top, ‘hideaways’, for the rich and famous), was the then, Prince of Wales, who got to know Nat quite well. He once asked Nat to teach him to play the saxophone, and Nat related how the Prince had a habit of throwing the drummer off the stage so that he could get to play. The Prince gave Nat one of his, ‘trademark’, green berets to keep, but sadly this went missing over the years. But, Ciro’s in some ways was just a sideline, as one of Nat’s more important early engagements was with Jack Hylton’s, ‘Queen’s Dance Orchestra’, which played on the roof garden of the Queens Hall in London’s Langham Place.

Originally a six piece unit, with Hylton as pianist, the band, at the beginning included Black American reed man, Edmund Jenkins. Nat joined in late 1921, early 1922, and by then Jenkins had left.

It was with Hylton that Nat made his first recordings, three titles made on 13 February 1922 for the HMV Company, Drifting Along With the Tide, J’en ai Marre and The Lady of the Rose.

Nat’s grandson Roy has an astonishing photo of the Hylton band probably dating from this period, in which Nat is clearly seen, with Hylton at the piano. Hylton’s Band proved extremely popular and as well as the HMV output, they also began to record for HMV’s budget label, Zonophone, as ‘Jack Hylton’s Jazz Band’.

Nat played with Hylton through to late November and over his tenure recorded on average two or three times a month, appearing on 60 or so sides.

‘The Queen’s Dance Orchestra’, did get out and about on the variety circuit; reed man, Edward ‘Poggy’ Pogson, who joined the Hylton Band in the mid-twenties, recalled, ‘I was a small boy when I first saw Charlie Star, and he was famous then. He was appearing with Jack Hylton’s Band at the old Rivoli Theatre in the Mile End Road, and Jack Hylton himself was playing piano’.

The Band was also a highlight at the Daily Express Woman’s Exhibition at Olympia, which ran from 12 July to 29th July 1922. Brief glimpses of the band, (augmented with strings amongst other additional instruments), can be seen in a silent Pathe short, filmed at the Exhibition, accompanying a demonstration ‘One Step’. Unfortunately only drummer Harry Robbins, and trombonist, Bernard Tipping can be readily identified.

Nat left Hylton in the late summer of 1922 to become a member of The Hurlingham Club Orchestra [1] led by Bernard Filer.

The Hurlingham Club, based in a huge Georgian mansion on the River Thames, was an exclusive West London club which became the UK base for the game of Polo. The unit, comprised of Bernard Filer (violin/cello/saxes), Jesse Starr (trumpet/trombone), Wilfred Morley (trombone), Nat Star, (reeds), Howard Clark (piano), Stan Greening (banjo), ? Carlos (Brass Bass) and Bert Wilson (drums), recorded almost monthly for the Edison Bell Winner label, from August 1922 to September 1924, issuing 64 sides. Little is known of cellist Bernard Filer, but many of his recordings have a ragtime quality about them and are well worth seeking out.

Whilst working at the Hurlingham Club, Nat began recording with, ‘Victor Vorzanger and his Broadway Band’ or, ‘The (Famous) Broadway Band’, as it was later known, which played at the East Ham Palais de Dance, London throughout the 1920’s. The band, (augmented with Nat purely for recordings), consisted of three expatriate African-American Jazz musicians, Al Young, (drums), Ellis Jackson, (trombone), and Milford Warren, (cornet), with Nat joining the European contingent, Mark Sheridan, (banjo), Horace Ainsley, (piano) and ? Richardson, (alto sax).

Vortzanger, a Dutch Jew, took over his father Adolph’s, ‘Original Blue Austrian Band’ around 1903, but by 1922 he had embraced ragtime and jazz and his Broadway Band were already recording for a couple of labels linked to the Vocalion Company – Scala and Grafton.

At the time Nat joined Vorzanger’s recording sessions, Vocalion’s budget label ACO, had become their main outlet, although all sides were again issued on linked labels, including Coliseum, Scala and Meloto.

These sides were the first to be issued by a racially mixed jazz band and although discographer, Brian Rust described the band’s style as, ‘crude’, a number of their sides appear in his, Jazz and Ragtime Records discography.

Nat’s first recordings with Vorzanger, Caravan/My Sweet Hortense, were made in December 1922, with further sessions in January, March, June, October, November and December 1923 and January, February and October 1924, producing a total of 50 or so sides.

This pattern of mixing ‘the evening job’ as a contracted band musician with daytime session work was one that Nat followed on and off for much of his career as a musician.

On 28 March 1924, Nat took another step up the ladder, when he was contracted by Ralph Hawkes, of Boosey and Hawkes at £25.00 per week, for an initial 12 weeks to join, violinist Emlyn Thomas’s, ‘London Band’, which took over from Paul Whiteman’s visiting American Orchestra in the review, ‘Brighter London’, starring Billy Merson, Annie Croft and Lupino Lane. There is a little confusion here, as according to Nat’s son Bert, it was Nat who actually organised the Band, although Emlyn Thomas in a later unrelated court case stated that it was he who had formed it. Whatever the truth, ‘The London Band’, opened in the review, at the Hippodrome in London, on 30 July 1923, with a run, to 15 March 1924.

The London Band circa. April 1924 – Nat is seated second from the right – Leader Emlyn Thomas is standing with violin; others identified are; Billy Bell seated far left (banjo); Fred North behind Bell standing (trombone) and Jay Wilbur standing at back third from the right (piano)

The Band then went into the Ritz Hotel from 28 April for three months, and from 8 September to 1 November 1924 it appeared at The Grafton Galleries. The band did a session for HMV on 17 September 1923, but the sides were rejected. Vocalion then took them on, with sessions in July 1924 and then monthly from October 1924 to April 1925, releasing around 40 sides.

At about this time, Nat had an offer from Jack Hylton to join his, ‘Florida Band’, put together by Hylton under the leadership of violinist (Al)Bert Zeumer in the Spring of 1924. This band had been resident at the New Princes Restaurant in Piccadilly in November 1924, but at the time Nat joined it in mid-1925, it was playing on the Queen’s Hall Roof and was later expanded into a fourteen piece outfit and toured in variety both in the UK and abroad, including a season at the Carlton Dance Hall in Belfast.

It’s unclear exactly how long Nat played with this outfit, as across the whole of this period, Nat’s studio based recording activities began to burgeon, to say the least. Presumably Nat, as per usual, fitted in his, ‘live’ work with his recording sessions as and when he could.

Nat’s recording work at the time included, sessions with violinist (Leslie) ‘Jefferies Rialto Orchestra’, for Vocalion’s budget ACO label in February, March and April 1924; with banjoist Stan Greening, (who organised scores of studio group sessions for the Columbia, Regal and Imperial labels), with Nat playing in sessions from May to December 1924, January to December 1925, January to December 1926, with many more later.

As an aside, Nat mentioned to his son Bert that he had worked briefly with visiting US reedman (and later crooner), Rudy Vallee, and this most likely would have been on one of Greening’s sessions around October 1924. Nat recalled that Vallee had been, ‘sent off’, as not being a good enough musician.

Up to this point in time, Nat had been principally playing as a session man and musician for hire, but this changed when he caught the eye of the British Homophone Company.

The company, which had a recording studio in Kilburn High Road and usually relied at that time, on the Pathe Company to do its record pressings, out in Hayes in Middlesex, were looking to expand its studio led output and hired Nat as the ideal candidate to put together a studio based unit for the company. Nat organised sessions for their Homochord label in July/December 1923, February/May 1924 and February 1925, as by, ‘The Homochord (Star) Dance Orchestra’, the inclusion of ‘Star’ clearly identifying Nat as leader.

Nat would return to Homochord later in 1927 but in the interim had other fish to fry. In May and October 1924, Nat began playing in a studio group organised nominally by xylophonist/timpanist, Charles ‘Wag’ Abbey, for the Pathe Actuelle label. Again, the labelling, as by ‘The ‘Star’ Syncopators’, highlights, Nat’s presence. More sessions under this name were made monthly for most of 1925 and the first three months of 1926.

On the 18 December 1925, away from the recording studios, Nat appeared on BBC radio at 9.00pm, as Charles Star and played Il Bacio, as a saxophone solo. Nat’s son Bert reported that Nat had made earlier broadcasts for the BBC in 1922, but I’ve not been able to trace them.

The only other BBC appearance I have managed to track down was on 29 January 1926, when again, Nat as Charles Star played sax, this time with piano from Stanley Holt, who later became a band leader.

But to return to Nat’s recording output, as if the preceding workload already outlined wasn’t enough, from September 1925, Nat additionally became a regular sideman for pianist Harry Bidgood who directed the Vocalion Company’s main studio band under his own name on their ACO label.

Usually appearing as Harry Bidgood’s Orchestra, later he became Harry Bidgood & his Broadcasters [2] on the Broadcast 8” label, (which replaced ACO). Bidgood’s ACO releases were also issued under pseudonyms for the companies linked labels which included, Coliseum, Beltona and Guardsman.

At this time, Nat was probably one of the busiest musicians in the recording industry and it didn’t stop there. Nat himself organised yet another studio group for the Pathe Company on their Pathe Actuelle label from May 1926 issued as by Victor Sterling & his Band. This is a name used by Charles ‘Wag’ Abbey on other labels, and the sides roughly follow on from, ‘The ‘Star’ Syncopators sides referred to earlier, so Abbey may have been involved. Other studio groups that Nat organised were two for pianist Ronnie Munro, Dance Music Director at Parlophone. The Parlophone (Dance) Orchestra recorded in October and November 1924, and the Marlborough Dance Orchestra, recorded in March, August, October, November, December 1925, and January, February 1926.

A similar pattern of frenzied activity continued across 1927/8, with Nat constantly in demand as a top reed player and he recorded with a number of studio groups and ‘real’, dance bands, including Billy Mayerl & his Vocalion Orchestra for Vocalion on 21/1/1927, the Edison Bell Dance Orchestra in January, February, March, April, and May 1927, the Claremont Dance Band, for Duophone on 22/2/1927, Ronnie Munro & his Dance Orchestra for Parlophone in March 1927, Debroy Somers for Columbia on 6/4/1927, The Savile (All Masters) Dance Orchestra for Duophone on 1/7/1927, and 14/11/1927, (a group which included Jack Jackson), the Piccadilly Revels Band, (led by Ray Starita), in March, May, and October 1927, Al Starita’s Kit Cat Band for Columbia on 29/9/1927, and 5/1/1928, and Tommy Kinsman & his London Frivolities Band for Homochord in March and May 1928. Alongside all this Nat continued working with Stan Greening and Harry Bidgood, with whom Nat recorded at least once a month over 1927 and 1928.

Special mention should be made of Nat’s session on 10 May 1927, with Columbia’s small group studio band the, ‘Gilt Edged Four’. On that date they were accompanying US singer, Ed Lowry, and Nat joined, Max Goldberg, (trumpet), Eric Siday (violin), Len Fillis (banjo), Ray Starita (clarinet/tenor sax), Sid Bright (piano) and Rudy Starita (drums), some of the greatest musicians of the period. Needless to say the sides appear in Rust’s, ‘Jazz and Ragtime Records’.

In late summer, 1927, Nat was delighted to accept an offer from The British Homophone Company to form a new recording band for the Homochord label under his own name, and from 26 September 1927, Nat, on top of his already exhausting work load, began recording for Homochord again.

Although usually billed as Nat Star & his Dance Orchestra, Nat continued the use of such pseudonyms, which included, Norman Mede’s Dance Orchestra and Selwyn’s Dance Orchestra.

By the time Nat returned to Homochord, the company had entered into an arrangement with HMV to use its recording and pressing facilities at Hayes, Middlesex, which were of superior quality to its earlier output. Homochord were keen to promote Nat as one of its top artists and a set of publicity shots of Nat and his studio group were taken at HMV’s, Zonophone studios.

Nat and his musicians, including a youthful Ted Heath look splendid in new suits, and Nat organised sessions on average twice monthly through to late 1928, (and beyond). The music critic of, ‘Gramophone’ magazine, reviewing an early batch of Nat’s sides from December 1927, wrote, ‘Why haven’t we all heard more of Homochord records? Here we have as magnificent a set of records as any company has produced for a long time, all played by one excellent band. No one should buy another record without first hearing these. They nearly all have vocal choruses, but not of the pernicious type one often hears’. The critic made special mention of some sides, Baltimore, (1205), was described as, ‘The best version of this tune’, Cheerie-beerie-be, (1206), as, ‘A poor tune, well played’, and, I Left My Sugar Standing in the Rain, (1207), as, ‘Much better than the Columbia version’.

I mentioned earlier, Nat’s involvement with the studio groups led by Harry Bidgood at Vocalion, and Stan Greening at Columbia/Regal, and its worth pointing out that although employed by different record companies, the three maintained a close working relationship over the late twenties, and frequently played on each others sessions over this period. This triumvirate collectively drew on a core of the best available sidemen, who when not playing evenings in Theatres, Clubs, Hotels and Restaurants under contract with the likes of Ambrose, Debroy Somers and Jack Hylton, spent the daylight hours going from studio to studio to record. Some of the best known include, brass men, brothers Bert and Ted Heath, Jimmy Wornell, and Paul Fenoulet, reed men, Jim Kelleher, George Gibson, and Charles Swinnerton, just to mention a few.

Nat’s status at British Homophone was fully recognised in November 1928, when he was appointed Music Director for its newly introduced, Sterno label, a budget record at 1/6d each as compared with the main Homochord label which remained at 2/6d.

Nat’s studio dance orchestra appeared on the first three Sterno issues, (101 to103) as Lester Conn’s Dance Band, and the next three, (104 to 106), as Bert Maddison & his Dance Band.

In fact for whatever reason, for both his Homochord and particularly his Sterno sides, the vast majority made by Nat from this time onwards were issued under pseudonyms. Apart from the two already mentioned, others include, Bernie Blake, Vincent Howard, Kemble Howard, Louis Ramel, and a score of others.

As Music Director for Sterno, Nat was also responsible for organising backing music for the various singers and performers who recorded with the company, and this role occupied him for the next six years.

The Sterno label originally had a brief existence in 1926, but was re- introduced at this time during a period of reorganisation at the British Homophone Company. As noted earlier the company had relied on the studios and pressing facilities of HMV over the previous two years, but with the acquisition of Pathe’s pressing plant at Barry Road, Stonebridge Park, London, it decided to upgrade its own recording studio in Kilburn High Road and go its own way. But there were initial problems with the quality of Sterno records. One problem arose with the purchase of Gramophone Records Ltd., who supposedly had up to date recording equipment and didn’t, although they did have patents for, ‘long playing’, records, which Homophone would take advantage of later.

Another problem was the use of poor composition material for manufacturing the records, which tended to vary in quality from disc to disc. Once these issues were resolved, Sterno soon enjoyed the reputation of a good quality budget record, which sold well, at least to begin with.

That said, Nat’s working conditions in Kilburn High Road, even after the upgrade of its recording equipment, were not exactly lavish, as reported by broadcaster, Roy Plomley.

Recalling 1934, after the studio had been taken over by the International Broadcasting Company, (IBC), which made discs for broadcast on Radio Luxembourg/Normandy, Plomley, (who worked for IBC), noted, ‘It had been an Irish dance hall originally. It was shabby and ramshackle, with a frayed grey carpet and hanging drapes around the walls which attracted every particle of dust. The control cubicle, which had no visual contact with the studio, was in an exterior lean-to’.

Singer, Paula Green who also worked there in the mid 30’s, described the place as a, ‘dump’, she particularly remembered the remains of a chandelier, still hanging precariously in the middle of the ceiling, the mice running everywhere and empty beer bottles, on the window sills. Despite this, Nat began turning out scores of dance records, with recording sessions on average three to four times a month, right through to the start of 1935.

Before taking a more detailed look at Nat’s activities at Sterno, mention should be made of some of Nat’s continuing work as a session musician, especially with Stan Greening, for Columbia’s Regal label. Nat recorded in May, August and November 1929, January, February, May, September and December 1930, and January, April, May, June, and August of 1931.

According to Nat’s diaries he also did a lot of live work with Greening over this period, with references to, ‘Greenings Frascati’s (Band)’, seemingly a Greening band put together for Frascati’s Restaurant, in Oxford Street, theatre pit work with Greening for Theatre M.D., Leonard Hornsey and ‘gig’ work with George Newman’s Band in 1930.

Nat’s other session work over the late twenties included performing with The Piccadilly Players for Columbia on 10 May and 28 August 1928, with one more on 11 January 1929. The August date was particularly memorable as the band also provided backing for none other than, ‘The last of the Red Hot Mamas’, Sophie Tucker, who was in cabaret in the UK at the time. Nat also did sessions with the Savoy Havana Band for the Broadcast label on 19 March and 8 April 1929, and with the Modern Dance Players conducted by Charles Renard, for the Regal label in June and October 1929.

But to return to Sterno; during the early 30’s, the label recruited a number of name bands for its output including, Tommy Kinsman, Arthur Roseberry, Jan Ralfini, Mantovani, Bertini, Syd Lipton, George Glover, Oscar Rabin, Charlie Kunz, Billy Merrin, Teddy Joyce and Ray Starita.

Nat was responsible for organising the recording sessions involving these bands, and sometimes joined them on clarinet and sax. Indeed Nat became a regular with Ray Starita & his Ambassodors, who joined Sterno in December 1931, with Nat playing on sessions in, January, February, March, April, June, August, September, October and November 1932. (Nat Gonella was Starita’s trumpeter on all these sessions).

For his own studio based band, Nat drew on that same pool of top sidemen referred to earlier, plus a few new faces, with as usual the frequent presence of Harry Bidgood and Stan Greening. Nat also had the pick of top singers to do his bands vocals, amongst whom were, Sam Browne, Tom Barratt, Val Rosing, Billie Lockwood, Harry Bentley, Les Allen, Leslie Holmes, Jack Plant, and Dan Donovan, who also had an early solo outing on the label, In the Hills of Colorado/Do They Remember me in Erin, (1380).

Nat also arranged the accompaniments for the wealth of other performers, mostly vocalists and comedians, who also populated Sterno’s catalogue. Performances could involve his full band, or smaller groups, sometimes just a pianist, all of which Nat had to organise and oversee. Some of the artists handled by Nat included, concert party and former blackface minstrel, veteran Fred Douglas, most famous for his fruity comic vocals. Douglas also duetted with his son Leslie for the label, he went on to join Henry Hall and later become, a top bandleader.

Needless to say, Fred Douglas also recorded at Sterno under the pseudonym, George Foster. Popular Irish singer, Cavan O’Connor was another regular for Nat, although always under a pseudonym, this time, Pat O’Brien. O’Connor, also duetted with Maurice Elwin as Mick Tabor and Mack Taylor, or just Mick and Mack on some issues.

 Other vocalist’s whom Nat recorded as soloists, include, the glamorous former show girl, Eve Becke, (her first solos), crooner Les Allen, (hiding as Eddy King), the great US black bass singer, George Dosher, Sam Browne & Elsie Carlisle, (billed as Billy Clerq & Lallie Lack), and Kitty Masters, who was brought to Sterno by band leader Teddy Joyce. He saw her performing in Manchester, and suggested her to Nat who organised her first solo record, recorded in January 1934, Just a Year Ago Tonight/That’s Me Without You, (1359), one of the few Sterno’s that year which sold very well. Later she joined Henry Hall and became a radio and variety stage favourite. Comedy was also a basic staple of the label, and Jack Hodges (The Raspberry King), radio comedian Leonard Henry, comic duo, Collinson & Dean, (their first recordings), laughing comic, Charles Penrose and his wife, Kay Connor, (billed as, B. Gay & O. Joy), Jack Morrison, and others all recorded with Nat. Special mention should be made of Flanagan & Allen, who made their first records with Nat, Underneath the Arches/When its Milking Time in Switzerland, (763) and At the Races/A Little bit of Chinese Music (800), on 22 June 1931. It was these records that got them snapped up by big boy Columbia. Nat especially remembered another music hall veteran, coster comedian, Gus Elen, who recorded 4 of his best known titles, including, If it Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses In Between (789), with Nat on 22 September 1931; Elen’s first electric recordings. Indeed his previous session had been in December 1911! Nat remembered that he had to loan Elen his fare money after the session, and that he asked for a car to be sent the following week, so he could return to the studio to, ‘sign off’, the recordings.

Nat also backed a score or so of more serious singers, including Robert Carr, Parry Jones, and Foster Richardson, (although most sung under pseudonyms). Then there were yodellers, George Van Dusen and Harry Wulson, accordion bands, and Nat produced numerous two part medley selections, such as, Songs from the Western Front, (561), (one of Sterno’s biggest sellers of 1929), Old Music-Hall Memories, (886), The Gay Nineties Waltz Medley, (931), etc.etc. Another memorable session for Nat involved, Edgar Adeler’s Hawaiian Players, who made four sides under Nat in March 1930, three of which feature the vocals of Al Bowlly, who Nat especially remembered.

Interestingly Nat played clarinet on a number of other Hawaiian sides in 1930/31 with a couple of guitarist Len Fillis’s various groups, The Waikiki Serenaders, (Ferrachini’s Hawaiian Band on some issues), for the Broadcast label and The Phantom Players on Decca.

The Serenaders earliest sides featured, Nat, (cl), Fillis, (stg), Ted Edbrook, (v), Sid Bright, (p), Al Bowlly, (g.v.), with vocalist Les Allen. As can be seen, with his own dance band sides, occasional jobs with other companies as well as dozens of other Sterno sessions to deal with, Nat was a very busy bee indeed, and in some respects the demands on Nat were exacerbated by the depression, which by 1930 was really beginning to bite.

British Homophone’s reaction to tumbling record sales was to maximise its income in any way it could. From around February 1930, it reduced the issue of its main Homochord label to a trickle, which at 2/6d, was simply not selling. Then having seen the success of 8”, ‘long play’, labels, (which involved a tighter groove pitch to play an equivalent time to a 10” disc), such as Broadcast and Edison Bell Radio, it introduced the 8” Solex label at 1/3d.

The first issue, Solex 1 recorded on 3 March 1930, has Nat as Roy Deller’s Orchestra, playing a two sided selection from the film, ‘The Love Parade’. Then, in the hope of creating a continental demand for its records, on 10 June 1931, Homophone introduced an FR series of Sterno for the French market, again Nat plays on the first issue, Fiesta/You’re Twice as Nice as the Girl in my Dreams (FR100). Homophone’s next move to boost sales was to introduce another long player, the Four in One disc, which had the equivalent of four 10” sides on one disc. On the first issue recorded on 6 August 1932, Nat appears as Andre Astan and Lou Selwyn playing, Humming to Myself/A Bungalow, A Piccolo and You, with Carson Robinson’s Pioneers and Mantovani on the other side.

Not long after this, Nat organised another attempt by the company to increase its market, the issue of the 8” Kid-Kord label, a set of 33 Nursery Rhymes on 6 records issued in a special card binding. Nat’s son, Bert was one of the singing children on the set and Nat himself is heard on some of these discs. They at least seem to have sold reasonably well as they can still be fairly easily found.

Then in early 1933, with record sales generally at an all time low, the Solex 8” was replaced by the 8” Plaza label.

Plaza was priced at 6d, and was a direct challenge to the Eclipse label, which also sold for 6d, in Woolworth’s Stores. (Eclipse was the winner, indeed Eclipse was one of the few budget labels to succeed in the early thirties). Homophone then began producing labels for specific Department stores, Peacock’s and Lewis’s, were two, others included, the Silvertone label for Selfridges and Redwing, which appears to have the Panther ‘Redwing’ motorcycle logo, and was presumably for showroom promotional purposes.

All this activity put an enormous burden on Nat. As 1933 turned to 1934, he had to organise marathon sessions with as many as 20+ sides to be made in a day for four or five different labels for the company. But the writing was on the wall and with so much uncertainty about the future of British Homophone, during 1933, Nat managed to secure regular work with Harry Bidgood who had formed a band for the BBC, to accompany/perform in a number of radio series.

Harry Bidgood’s Band performed in various shows, including the series, ‘Variety’, the 11.00 pm dance band slot, ‘Sandy Powell’s Road Show’, ‘Music Hall’, and ‘One Band to Another’, amongst others. Meanwhile, in June 1934, Homophone dropped Nat’s studio led group(s), (to save money), and till the inevitable demise of the company, Nat continued organising backing accompaniments for vocalists and comedians, using pick up musicians, whilst the dance band output was covered by the existing contracted name bands.

By the summer of 1935, British Homophone had withdrawn from the record market completely, with the remnants of its operation sold in a split deal between HMV and Decca. Over the last few years of British Homophone, Nat still took the opportunity to play as a session man for other companies when he had the time, and although Nat’s diaries for this period are lost, one session of rather more interest than others is known about, Nat’s appearance as one of ‘The Four Aces’ performing, Body & Soul/The Wind in the Willows, recorded 11 April 1930, (Imperial 2268). (With just guitar, piano and violin behind him, Nat gets to really shine as a soloist on these sides). In addition to session work, Nat still did a fair amount of pick-up ‘gigs’ on the society circuit including some Royal Hunt Balls.

Nat’s grandson Roy, still has some invitations and menus to some of these events, including one with, ‘The Star Orchestra’, (probably a pick up group), ‘Directed by Charles N. Star’, playing for the Excelsior Philanthropic Society’s 58th Annual Festival Dinner and Ball, at the Savoy on 14 November 1933. Apart from playing light classics, Nat also provided the backing to the cabaret. But by then, a no doubt exhausted Nat, whose health had become problematical around this time decided to take a complete change of direction and in 1935, he opened a Radio & Electrical shop ‘Star Radio’, at 35, Old Church Road, London, E4, with day to day management undertaken by his son Bert. Incidentally, just after the war, it became the first shop to have, ‘television’, incorporated into its trading name, when it became, ‘Star Radio & Television’.

Although now a store owner, Nat still kept his hand in as a musician for hire particularly for the International Broadcasting Company, (IBC), which made programmes for the commercial radio stations. Singer Paula Green who also worked for IBC, spent many hours recording shows at Sterno’s old studio, (which had been taken over by IBC in 1935), and later at their new Portland Place studio in London, and remembered Nat very well, both as a colleague and friend. Some of the shows Paula remembered Nat playing in during 1936, included, ‘depping’, with Debroy Somers Band for the Horlick’s sponsored, ‘Tea Time Hour’, (recorded in the Scala Theatre, Kings Cross), playing in the band backing ‘Let’s Go Round to Norman Long’s’, sponsored by Krushen Salts, and as one of Harry Bidgood’s Buccaneers presented by the makers of Ex-Lax. Nat was also still doing ‘gigs’, at this time, including another showing with the Excelsior Philanthropic Society, again at the Savoy on 19 November 1936.

In early 1937, Nat was contracted by IBC to form an orchestra for its new, Sunday 6.00pm evening show, ‘Music Hall Memories’, a 15 minute slot, sponsored by Maclean’s, featuring, Bertha Willmott, Muriel Farquer, and veteran vocalist, Fred Douglas.

The show began on Radio Luxembourg on Sunday 7 February 1937, (later moving to Radio Normandy then back again to Luxembourg), with a run to the end of the year. Nat formed, Charles Star’s Old Time Variety Orchestra for the show, although it was only billed as such from April. The show was recorded in batches of 13 quarter hour segments over a number of days.

But that was about it.

From 1938 onwards, Nat devoted himself almost solely to his business and family. Sadly, as Nat grew older, it appears that dementia set in, although this condition was little understood at the time, and Nat died on 26 March 1950 at just 63 years of age. Melody Maker in a brief obituary, described Nat as, ‘a sax pioneer’. Nat’s wife, Annie died in 1973 and Nat’s son Bert had two children, Roy born in 1946 and Carole born in 1950, with Bert himself dying on 16 February 1981 and his wife Sylvia on 29 September 2009.

*****

I would like to thank, Roy Star himself for his wholehearted help and support in helping me compile this article. Roy, his wife Brenda and Sister Carole have endeavored to keep Nat’s name alive and were closely involved in providing photos and documents relating to Nat for the exhibit featuring Jewish entertainers and musicians at the Jewish Museum in North London. Roy managed to keep one example of Nat’s IBC shows on a 12” recording, as well as some superb photos from Nat’s heyday. Nat was loved and respected within the industry and his contribution to the popular music of the 20’s and 30’s, is without question, outstanding. A number of Nat’s recordings can be found on CD, and many of Nat’s sides have now begun to appear on YouTube, and well worth seeking out. This biography concludes with a gallery of star photos sent to Nat over the years in appreciation for his recording work and contributions to the history of popular music.

Footnotes

1 See label scan – Hurlingham Club Orchestra issue on Edison Bell Winner rec. August/September 1922 December 2015 / 24

2 For a detailed biography on Harry Bidgood, see The Discographer Magazine, Vol.3 No.1, (August 2015 issue) – pp.54-101