Elsie Carlisle sings this languid love song about small talk leading to romance with considerably less of the dramatic element than is her wont. Instead, she adapts her delivery to the slow yet catchy tune in such a way as to make it atmospheric. Even her dreamy humming “Mm-mm-mm-mm…” followed by “I love you” is seductively sedating. It is perhaps fitting that the flip side of the record is “Star Gazing,” a song which is similarly leisurely in pace and vaguely mesmerizing.
Elsie’s 1935 rendition of “Conversation for Two” is the only recording that I have found of the song. Even the sheet music appears to be rare. The three composers were all prolific, however. Mysels and Emmerich got involved in composing music for motion pictures, and Emmerich, a pianist in the Tommy Dorsey Band and songwriter for Fats Waller, went on to write “The Big Apple,” a song which popularized New York City’s peculiar sobriquet.
Elsie Carlisle passed from this world on September 5, 1977, dying of cancer at the age of 81 in the Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea, London. The informant who signed the death certificate was Wilfred “Willie” Ypres Carlisle, one of her two sons, who gave as his own address the same one that she had been living at for the previous four decades, 8 Deanery Street, in the posh Mayfair district. She is described in the document as “A Theatrical Artist (retired)” and “Widow of Wilfred Malpas.”
The era of British dance band music was long over, and she had lived in great privacy for many years. It was four days before the London Times took notice of Elsie Carlisle’s death, when they printed an abbreviated eulogy:
Elsie Carlisle, who was a notable crooner of the 1930s, has died. Born in Manchester she was an established name by the time she was 16. She appeared in many Royal Command performances, among her song title hits being “No, no, a Thousand Times, No!” and “Little Drummer Boy”. For four years she was partnered by Sam Brown [sic] but they split up in 1935.
By contrast, during the interwar years the praise showered upon Elsie’s talent and winning personality was far more effusive. In 1921, almost five years before Elsie made her first radio broadcast, she earned the following review from the Angus Evening Telegraph for her performance in a Dundee production of the play French Beans:
An ideal Cupid is Elsie Carlisle, who entertains as much with her bewitching personality as with her charming voice. She has a knack of getting to the heart of her audience, and it seemed as though she were not to be allowed to make her bow last night.
In 1926, Elsie began both to sing on the radio and to make records, and her increasingly nationally recognized celebrity attracted ever more fanciful epithets. In 1927 she was a “charming microphone personality.” By 1934 she had become “the champion mezzo-soprano crooner” and “Your Radio Favourite.” In 1936, surveys showed her to be the public’s favorite female radio singer, and she earned the oft-repeated title “Idol of the Radio,” a status she enjoyed for several years. In November 1939, Radio Pictorial famously dubbed her “Radio Sweetheart No. 1,” and in 1941, the penultimate year of her making records, the Hull Daily Mail was still calling her “the charming songstress of the radio.”
In 1940-1941, nearing the end of her professional career, Elsie toured the country with a troupe of younger entertainers. The draw that her name exerted is attested by the fact that the group called itself “The Carlisle Express.” She stopped making records in 1942, but she was still on stage and continued making broadcasts through 1945. After this point she almost completely dropped out of the public eye, but it is worth noting that that was true of most dance band personalities; the genre did not really survive the war. Her attention shifted to business ventures, including a ballroom in London and an inn in Berkshire.
It was not only for stage, broadcasting, and recording that Elsie was known; she also worked in other media. In addition to making short but amusing appearances singing in a number of films, Elsie was an early television star, appearing first on the crude Baird system in 1930, and she continued to pop up on TV as the technology improved during the 1930s. In the early 1950s, she did a television interview accompanied by Ambrose and then disappeared utterly from public view until 1973, when she appeared on the Denis Norden program Looks Familiar. She was to return to that show in 1975. 1
An erstwhile child actress who rose to striking celebrity and dominated the airwaves for nearly twenty years, Elsie Carlisle ended her days in comparative obscurity, but those who had worked with her remembered her not just as a great musical talent, but as a warm, fun, and charitable person. In the words of accompanist Bert Read, writing in the months following her death: “I shall always retain the warmest memories of a fine artiste and a gentle, compassionate, woman. R.I.P.”
David Weavings tells me that he saw the 1973 appearance of Elsie Carlisle on Looks Familiar, and that Denis Norden was able to convince Elsie to sing the first line of “My Man o’ War.”↩
The child shall have it better than his parents; he shall not be subject to the necessities that we have recognized as prevailing in life. Sickness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, and restrictions on his own will shall not be valid for the child; the laws of nature, like those of society, shall come to a halt before him; he shall really be the center and heart of creation, His Majesty the Baby, as we once thought ourselves to be (emphasis mine).
Freud was writing in German, of course, but he wrote the expression “His Majesty the Baby” in English. He appears to have been alluding to a late Victorian painting by Arthur Drummond in the Royal Academy:
One can see that, in Drummond’s painting, the whole world seems to wait upon the ermine-clad infant center-of-attention. Of course, Freud uses the idea of “His Majesty the Baby” to refer to how the child sees things, not its parents — and he pulls in all sorts of notions about primary narcissism and auto-eroticism that need not concern us here.
In 1935, the phrase “His Majesty the Baby” resurfaces as the title of a slow foxtrot composed by American songwriters Neville Fleeson, Arthur Terker, and Mabel Wayne. Elsie Carlisle sang other Mabel Wayne songs involving childhood themes; in 1934 she recorded two versions of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” that were issued and two versions of “Who Made Little Boy Blue.” “His Majesty the Baby” has lyrics describing a baby who seems regal, the object of constant awe. It is clear that it is the feelings of the adults surrounding the child that are being discussed, however, and that the imperious attitudes attributed to him are a mere transference of his parents’ reverence for his cuteness.
“His Majesty the Baby.” Words by Neville Fleeson and Arthur Terker; music by Mabel Wayne (1935). Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie Carlisle on January 11, 1935. Decca F. 5379 mx. GB-6868-2.
Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-t-mel / Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-Tony Thorpe-tb / Danny Polo-Sid Phillips-Billy Amstell-reeds / Joe Jeannette-as / Ernie Lewis-Reg Pursglove-others?-vn / Bert Barnes-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Dick Ball-sb / Max Bacon-d
Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Elsie Carlisle) - "His Majesty the Baby" (1935)
The version of “His Majesty the Baby” that Elsie Carlisle recorded with Ambrose and His Orchestra begins with a substantial instrumental introduction that seems stately enough. Elsie’s concise delivery of the lyrics leaves no doubt that the worship being demanded for the infant child is somewhat tongue-in-cheek; the song plays on the attitude of fawning obedience that people adopt when around a beloved baby.
Several days later Elsie would record (again for Decca) a solo version of “His Majesty the Baby”:
“His Majesty the Baby.” Words by Neville Fleeson and Arthur Terker; music by Mabel Wayne (1935). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on January 14, 1935. Decca F. 5380 mx. GB6876-2.
This second interpretation of the song has a competent orchestral accompaniment, but it is Elsie’s voice that is the focus through the entire song, and one must admit that the piece suffers, not so much from “baby talk,” but from an exaggerated dramatization of infant bedtime.
Other notable British recordings of “His Majesty the Baby” were made in January 1935 by Billy Merrin and His Commanders (with vocals by Billy Merrin), the BBC Dance Orchestra under Henry Hall (with vocalist Kitty Masters), the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra under Percival Mackey (Jack Plant, vocalist), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (with vocals by Ivor Moreton), twice by Jay Wilbur and His Band with Eve Becke, and by Lou Preager and His Romanos Restaurant Dance Orchestra (with vocalist Pat Hyde). Phyllis Robins made a solo recording of the song that year. The notable American recording is from July 1935 and is by Rudy Vallée and His Connecticut Yankees.
“Alone and Afraid.” Music by Jack Trent, with lyrics by Stan Leigh (1931). Recorded in London in May 1931 by Elsie Carlisle (under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur). Imperial 2489 mx. 5701-2.
Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-ts / Norman Cole-?George Melachrino-vn / Billy Thorburn or Pat Dodd-p / Bert Thomas-g / Harry Evans-sb / ?Max Bacon-d-vib
Elsie Carlisle recorded more than a few torch songs in her time, but “Alone and Afraid” stands out as a particularly noteworthy example of her efforts. I have argued elsewhere that one of Elsie’s foremost talents as a dance band singer was to establish the audience’s idea of her persona in a very limited time frame (often in under a minute of singing). In “Alone and Afraid” Elsie has more time, as it is not a dance band record, and so she uses most of one side of a record to produce the perfect vocal tearjerker. She sings of a deep disappointment, of unrequited love, or at the very least, of an asymmetrical relationship subject to unfortunate misunderstanding (“I gave my love, but his was lent”). The tune is memorable and can even be played as an upbeat dance number, as we find out near the beginning of the 1931 Stanley Lupino film The Love Race.
In the same year, Elsie recorded a short film of her singing “Alone and Afraid” and “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes,” accompanied by Harry Rubens on the piano (this may or may not be the same pianist as the Harry Robens who played briefly for Ray Starita’s band):
Very little camera footage survives of Elsie Carlisle, so it is hard to place this particular performance in the context of her career as a musical actress, but I find this film short both mesmerizing and satisfying. The quality of the singing is excellent and comparable to that of the record, but Elsie’s acting is really delightful. Her intense gazes into the camera leave one with the impression that she is sharing something very sincere.
“Alone and Afraid” was also recorded in 1931 in Britain by Jerry Hoey and His Band (v. Joe Leigh), Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra (v. Jack Payne), and Arthur Lally and the Million-airs (v. Cavan O’Connor).
“Won’t You Stay to Tea?” Words by Mack Gordon, music by Harry Revel (1932). Recorded in London on March 3, 1933 by Elsie Carlisle and Sam Browne with orchestral accompaniment. Decca F. 3510 mx. GB5633-1.
Elsie Carlisle and Sam Browne - "Won't You Stay to Tea?" (1933)
Prolific songwriters Mack Gordon and Harry Revel turned out a great many successful tunes in the 1930s, particularly for Hollywood movies, and three of them made it into Elsie Carlisle’s discography. “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” (1933) and “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming” (1934) were both written for Paramount films and were recorded by artists on both sides of the Atlantic. Elsie’s other Gordon-Revel song, “Won’t You Stay to Tea?” only saw treatments in Britain (as far as I know), no doubt because of its culturally specific premise.
The question “Won’t You Stay to Tea?” is an amusingly pedestrian suggestion, but Gordon and Revel turn it into the occasion for a somewhat awkward romantic encounter. The impending rainstorm that prompts the social invitation transforms itself straightway into what the singer or singers describe as an indoor shower of “the loveliest love.” In this Sam Browne/Elsie Carlisle version of the song, the drama is allowed to play itself out fully, with Elsie lightly rejecting Sam’s various advances long enough that the outdoor weather actually improves — and yet she agrees to stay to tea anyway, signalling her genuine affection for him.