Isabela Gonzalez’ first and deepest love is classical music, but in 1962 she sang with Sandy Brown’s band on the album ‘Dr McJazz’.
Belle was born in Italy in the 1930s to parents who came from a mix of Polish, Filipino, Spanish and Chinese descendants. Her mother, Isang Tapales, was the only Filipino opera singer to perform in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly for the La Scala Opera Company in Milan.
Belle spent her early childhood in Italy and Belgium: “At the age of four I remember being stood on a table in order to sing the aria 'Un bel di vedremo' from Madam Butterfly which was my mother’s forte. It literally secured her career in Europe, but because my sister and I lived with a Belgian family while my mother ‘toured’, I sang it in French: 'Sur la mer calme' at a public function somewhere in Brussels”.
As the Second World War began in 1939, the family moved to the Philippines where Belle became a full-time boarder in a catholic convent. There she learned to play classical piano. By the time the war ended her family had lost everything.
“I had to get a job”, recalls Belle. “When Macarthur returned, Manila was raised to the ground in three short days and my family couldn’t afford to launch me on a piano playing career – especially not playing the ‘classics’ which is what I had been trained for. Instead, I entered some singing competitions, all of which I won. I started broadcasting. A recording company heard me and offered me the chance to record 'No Other Love' which Jo Stafford made famous all over the world, and which I made famous in the Philippines, simply because the government at the time had decided not to allow the sale of foreign records to encourage local business enterprise and trade. Although people had heard Jo Stafford’s recording on radio, they would have had to go abroad to obtain the record. My record sold several million copies, but having accepted a flat fee, the millionaire turned out not to be myself but the record company! Never had a head for business! I cut quite a few more records which sold very well, but my heart was with the classics and I yearned to go to Europe to continue with my piano studies”.
Belle’s singing career really began in 1950 in the Philippines. She was successful to the point where she never had to pursue other work - no sooner had one contract ended than another would turn up. She travelled to Okinawa, Bangkok, then Singapore where she met her English (ex)husband, and on to England.
Belle in1967 at Webbington Country Club
© Belle Gonzales
“Out of need, I had to find work again as a singer. My very first singing job in England was at ‘The Castle’ in Richmond where people went to dance. Later I was auditioned by a panel of BBC Radio producers one of whom was Gareth Walters who called me a ‘prodigy’ and promptly featured me in a series of late night shows called ‘Late Night Rendezvous’ which I did for well on ten years during which I was described as the most frequently broadcast singer on the BBC Light Programme”.
Belle singing Girl From Ipanema in Cornwall in the 1970s
© Belle Gonzales
“I remember singing at the BBC Concert Hall, Broadcasting House, under the baton of a conductor called ‘Max Jaffa’. As we stood on stage waiting for him to make an appearance, he finally struts on and literally shoves me sharply to one side with his elbow in order to get in front of me! I had a terrible urge to trip him up but with great effort of will, I restrained myself!!”
“My last broadcast was on the Sam Costa Show in the late 70s. I was often accompanied by the BBC Light Orchestra and a host of wonderful musicians – Brian Lemon, Sidney Bright, Sandy Brown, Johnny Scott and others. On that occasion I accompanied myself on guitar. I found Costa charming and helpful. ”
Singing at the Grill and Griddle in 1978.
Photograph © Belle Gonzalez
“My first TV show was with Alan Melville in From A to Z in which Beryl Reid provided the laughs. She was kind, friendly and very funny, even backstage! Another TV show was one of a series called How To Like Jazz Without Really Trying – Annie Ross and (I believe) Cleo Laine also took part.”
Belle’s first contact with Sandy Brown was at a jazz club in London’s West End in 1958 – before she had actually done any singing in London. “A friend took us there urging me to ‘sit in’ and do a song,” says Belle. “Sandy and Humphrey Lyttelton let me sing - I remember I sang 'It’s Alright With Me' - and although they liked my singing, they had no openings for a singer at that time."
"My next encounter with Sandy was about three years later just after I’d finished pre-recording that week’s broadcast at the Maida Vale Studios where he held the post of Chief Acoustic Engineer. He told me how much he liked my voice and would I be interested in recording some of his songs – and that was how Dr McJazz was conceived.”
Belle sang two songs on the album: ‘Monday’ and ‘Belle’s Farewell’. “Unfortunately”, Belle continues, “My copy of the original album was lent to Dudley Moore by the producer, Gareth Walters, who wanted him to accompany me and also do his own stuff in a series of jazz oriented shows – but he declined and never bothered to send me my record back. Oh well! … Then Sandy got me on his Sunday Special BBC show in which I sang some French songs as well as some jazz in English accompanied by Sandy’s clarinet and Brian Lemon’s piano.”
Belle recorded for EMI Columbia twice, once for Dr McJazz, and then for an album of her own songs simply called Belle. But Belle’s songs were also recorded by others – Cilla Black and Dahlia Lavi both recorded the song 'Black Paper Roses'. Sadly, many of her songs remain unpublished and unrecorded. “I found it impossible to obtain another recording contract after the one with EMI ended, I don’t know why. I did have the opportunity to record for a very talented producer named Mervyn Conn but I declined because I had been sent to see him by an agency who hoped to manage me but in which I didn’t have much faith. I suppose I could have joined his outfit anyway, but that wouldn’t have sat well on my conscience, so, one of many good opportunities lost …”
Copies of the album ‘Belle’, an Air London production for EMI-Columbia with artwork by Alan Saunders, may still be found through various sources on the internet by entering ‘Belle by Belle Gonzalez’ in search engines.
Click here to listen to the album.
The end of the 1960s saw a period where jazz and poetry evenings were popular and Belle was involved in a number of such events. One review in the Times of an event ‘New Jazz and Poetry’ at the Wigmore Hall in London said:
‘….. Cool in her white lace, Belle Gonzales sang poems by Christena Rosetti, Lawrence Durrell, Byron and Auden. The settings by Wallace Southam were particularly fine, and Audun’s lament 'Stop All The Clocks' came across with great energy and sensitivity, bringing the audience together with sudden delight.’
Another review in the Melody Maker added: ‘This is, of course, Cleo Laine territory and very demanding it was too and whilst I would not suggest that Miss Gonzalez is in the same league, I am astonished that such a talent is so little known.’
This 1965 recording (click here) is of particular interest as it features Belle. Entitled When I Am Dead, My Dearest, this is a poem by Christina Rossetti & Wallace Southam. The accompanying jazz musicians are: Eddie Blair (trumpet), Al Burke (bass), Stan Gorman (drums), Ike Isaacs (guitar), Al Newman (alto saxophone/clarinet) and Leslie Pearon (piano).
The recording is from the "Poets Set in Jazz" 7" E.P. on Jupiter Recordings Ltd. JEP OC37 and the video images have been created by Gavin Toomey. You will find other tracks alongside the one we have selected.
Belle has put Lesbos from Contemporary Poets Set To Jazz on YouTube (click here). Click here to listen to her reading W.H. Auden's Stop All The Clocks.
Rehearsing numbers at Maida Vale recording studios for Jupiter Records ‘Poets Set To Jazz’ with Jack Gorowsky (London Philarmonic) and Leonard Salcedo (Composer).
Photograph © Belle Gonzalez
Belle also worked in a variety of Cabaret Clubs – The Embassy Club, Quaglino’s, Churchill’s, The Stork ….”and a club in Streatham which was very successful. I forget the name but it was one of the better clubs. The composer of 'Delilah' came in with his wife to hear me. I’d done some work with him on some recording sessions in Denmark Street in the 60s – a wonderful musician and a very nice person. A columnist in the Melody Maker once named me ‘The Ghost Of Denmark Street’ as I had done so many recordings of new material for auditioning by famous recording artists and their producers!”
Click here for a recording of Belle singing in cabaret at the Serpentine Restaurant in the 1970s.
Belle retired from singing in 1981 and set herself up as a piano teacher. She prepared pupils for the ABRSM and Trinity College examinations and was rewarded with 75% of them passing with Distinction, the rest with Merit, a few just Passing – and no failures! She now lives in North London.
Belle at the ‘Omar Khayyam’ and ‘Villarosa’ Clubs in Lebanon and Jordan owned by the King of Jordan’s brother Shariff Hussein.
We leave it to someone with the initials B.J.T. from the King’s Lyn Times in 1966 to sum up. Belle had appeared at the St George’s Guildhall with a septet of London musicians led by Kenny Knapper (piano, bass) and including Tony Crombie (drums), Bob Burns (saxophone), Johnny Scott (flute and alto) and Kenny Wheeler (trumpet and flugelhorn):
‘It is impossible to classify Belle Gonzalez. She does not fit into any convenient pigeon-hole. This talented singer is said to be able to cover almost the entire field of popular music, and indeed in her late-night recital she showed great versatility, dividing her time between such widely varied branches of her art as singing folk music to a guitar and poetry set to modern jazz accompaniment. Her rich, warm voice seemed equally at home in each sphere …’
Dr McJazz is available from Lake Records.
Belle has put other items on YouTube - click here for her singing on a BBC broadcast including Blues Aint Nothin', Don't Think Twice by Bob Dylan, Daddy Out De Light (Jamaican pop), Filipino Folk Bahay Kubo. Click here to listen to her singing Carlo. You will find other items if you type 'Belle Gonzalez' into the YouTube search bar.
Fifty-four years on and Belle still has a piano that takes up most of her living room. She is visited regularly by neighbours' cats, probably because she spoils them. She continues to write music and poetry, and impressively, she has just gone online to publish her own book of poetry with her own drawings - Cats And Other Friends can be downloaded from the Amazon website (click here).
Belle shares with us one of the poems from the book - The Earthworm:
The earthworm's dance
Always slow and
When it passes
By its partner
John abbott has included some references to Belle on his website 'A Tune A day' featuring some of her other music. You can see them by clicking here:
© Belle Gonzalez and Ian Maund 2009-2015
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