“Is There Anything Wrong in That?” Words by Herb Magidson, music by Michael H. Cleary (1928). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with accompaniment by Jay Wilbur’s Orchestra in London c. February 1929. Dominion A. 83 mx. 1148-2.
Personnel: Max Goldberg-Bill Shakespeare-t / Tony Thorpe-tb / Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-as-ts / Norman Cole-vn / Billy Thorburn-p / Dave Thomas or Bert Thomas-bj-g / Harry Evans-bb-sb / Jack Kosky-d
Elsie Carlisle – "Is There Anything Wrong in That?" (1929)
Little Elsie has tried two extreme opposites this month. “Dreaming of To-morrow” is a rhythmical but sentimental number. The other one is of the “Naughty” type; it fits Elsie like a glove and is just the thing for everyone (except your maiden aunt).1
In “Is There Anything Wrong in That?” the singer repeatedly expresses hesitance, doubt, and more than anything, ignorance with regard to basic questions of morality. She explains, “I can’t tell the bad things from the good,” and “I can’t tell the naughty from the nice.” Her misdeeds appear to consist of taking gifts in exchange for sexual favors; she also seems to use her attractiveness to facilitate the theft of a fur-lined coat and a Cadillac!
The most familiar recordings of this song are by Helen Kane and Annette Hanshaw, both of whom use the persona of a Bronx-accented baby vamp. Their exaggerated little girl voices complement their bogus claims of ignorance and innocence. Elsie Carlisle, by contrast, uses an adult voice, so the comic effect is more subtle. Elsie sings mostly in a parlando style, where the delivery of the lines is close to natural speech. Her more natural intonation gives her leeway to emphasize the lyrics’ ridiculous statements.
“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four.” Words by Eric Maschwitz, music by George Posford. Composed for the Eric Maschwitz revue New Faces (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on February 10, 1941. Rex 9934.
“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” has its origins in the 1940 revue New Faces, which is also where “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” was introduced. The lyrics describe a woman’s happy memory of a night spent with her lover in a luxury hotel too expensive for either of them. She describes the night as “her very first and only rendezvous,” and for good reason: this comparatively wholesome song is about a honeymoon, not a tryst. It is tame, therefore, by the standards of Elsie Carlisle’s songbook, which includes not just “My Man o’ War” but also “Public Sweetheart No. 1.”
Elsie Carlisle committed “Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” to shellac in her last year of recording. While I generally prefer the underlying compositions of her earlier period, it is delightful to hear her voice on her later Rex-label records. Elsie’s later style of singing seems slightly more confident, and the crisp beauty of her voice is made even more evident by the more modern recording techniques available by that time — in spite of Rex’s reputation for “crackly” shellac. The studio band’s virtuosity is showcased nicely in their rather swingy instrumental segment.
“To Be Worthy of You” was composed in 1931 by Benny Davis and John Frederick Coots. Davis had written the successful standard “Baby Face” back in 1926, and Coots would go on to co-write the best-selling “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” in 19341 “To Be Worthy of You” did not have the staying power that those other songs enjoyed. Indeed, the melody falls short of being particularly infectious or compelling, and the lyrics initially seem gushy. I do think, however, that the words express sentiments that are comparatively deep for a popular song, and that Elsie Carlisle’s version is a rather elegant realization of the song’s possibilities.
At first it would seem that Elsie is merely expressing her satisfaction at having found a love partner whose merits are so great that she feels scarcely worthy of having him. In fact, she is rejoicing in having resolved to be a better person: “Watch the way that I’ll come through / To be worthy of you.” The idea of being transported, not just with the joy of love, but also with delight at having discovered in another person the means of self-improvement, is really extraordinary.
Elsie’s singing in this comparatively simple arrangement is nothing if not refined. Her anonymous accompaniment is also noteworthy, in particular the pianist, whom Richard J. Johnson tentatively identifies as Bert Read2, a constant fixture at Elsie’s recording sessions (especially in his role as an Ambrose man). Whatever this pianist’s identity, his flourishes contribute a great deal to the overall bright, crisp sound of the recording and to the idea that we are dealing in this piece with an elevated mental state.
“To Be Worthy of You” was also recorded in a radio transcript in 1931 or 1932 in America by Gus Arnheim’s Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors (v. Loyce Whiteman). In Britain it was recorded by Roy Fox and His Band (v. Al Bowlly), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (v. Jack Plant).
Not to mention “Gosh Darn,” which Elsie Carlisle would record with Ray Starita and His Ambassadors later in 1932. ↩
Johnson, Richard J. Elsie Carlisle: A Discography. Aylesbury, UK, 1994, 14. ↩
“Deep in a Dream.” Words by Eddie De Lange, music by Jimmy Van Heusen (1938). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of George Scott-Wood at Studio 1, Abbey Road, London on February 1, 1939. HMV B.D. 663 mx. OEA7519-1.
In “Deep in a Dream,” the singer depicts herself sitting in a dark room, smoking and getting drowsy as she remembers a lover who is now inaccessible — whether through distance, dissolution of the romance, or death, we do not really know. The lost lover’s descent on a smoke staircase (as described in the lyrics) might suggest a quirky sort of descent from heaven. At any rate, the genuinely dreamy music swells as the memories of happier times are revived (“Awake or asleep, every memory I’ll keep / Deep in a dream of you”). The reverie ends when the cigarette burns the singer’s fingers and wakes her. To my knowledge, while this is one of three Jimmy Van Heusen songs written in 1938-1939 involving dreams1, it is the only one that uses the absence of fire safety as a plot point.
The lyrics of “Deep in a Dream” leave us in the dark as to what has happened between the two lovers. Elsie Carlisle’s interpretation is successful because she evokes the melancholy of the dark, smoky room, only to imbue her dream with a truly ecstatic spirit. She seems content to express alternating strong emotions, rather than to establish some sort of vocal character, as she often does. The anonymous studio band (led by director George Scott-Wood) complements Elsie’s singing nicely, contributing to this decidedly atmospheric piece.
“Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire.” Words by Nixon Grey, music by Nixon Grey and Reg Connelly (1936). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on January 31, 1936. Decca F. 5877 mx. GB7661-1.
Elsie Carlisle – "Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire" (1936)
“Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” was composed by the relatively minor British lyricist Nixon Grey and the great songwriter and producer Reg Connelly (of Campbell and Connelly publishing fame). The title alludes to a childhood nickname for bedtime. As the song explains,
The old wooden hill was the old wooden stair,
And Bedfordshire, a cot, where I knelt to say my pray’r.
Climbing up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,
They were happy, happy days for me.
The lyrics are an adult’s memory of an idyllic childhood, and especially of the joys of riding on “Dad’s” shoulders upstairs to go to sleep; in short, they are perfect treacle, but perhaps suited to the sentimental tastes of their day. One might compare them to “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” but that earlier song is more melodically compelling and has the added bonus of possibly not really being about childhood.
Elsie Carlisle recorded “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” at this her last session with Decca (she would not begin recording with HMV until late 1937, but is clear that she was more than busy broadcasting during that hiatus). She breathes a fair amount of life into the flawed composition, palliating its saccharinity with the appearance of sincerity. Vera Lynn also recorded this song, but her organ accompaniment makes the whole affair seem unnecessarily solemn. Elsie’s studio band can be applauded for their more playful approach to the melody; the overall effect is sweet and light.
"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.