Elsie Carlisle in America

I have been postponing writing about Elsie Carlisle’s 1923-1924 stay in America for eight and a half years now, nearly the entire time that I have been running this website. Originally, I hesitated to comment simply because I was not sure the trip had happened. Later, it became clear that she had spent a few months in the United States, but I could not confidently name a single thing that she did here. There were rumors that she had made the journey to conceal her having a third child.

I am now prepared to clear the matter up a little.

Carlisle’s personal life was admittedly marked by subterfuge. She spent nearly half a century married to Wilfred Malpas, and yet she liked to pose as a single woman, passing off her two sons as her brothers. It is perhaps natural that people researching her life and her family expect to find more examples of secrecy and potential scandal.

I was first tipped off to the possibility of Carlisle’s having visited America by a gracious correspondent who was doing some genealogical research. American immigration records showed that a certain artist named Elsie Carlisle, born in Manchester, England in 1899 and based out of London, had arrived in New York on the steamer Franconia on August 26, 1923. The birth date was incorrect by three years — but might she not have been gilding the lily by making herself three years younger? My correspondent theorized about a secret trip to hide a pregnancy, which I supposed was possible. What turned me off was the final destination. This Elsie Carlisle was on her way to Memphis, Tennessee to visit Mrs. Ernest [sic] Taylor of Poplar Ave. The whole thing seemed so outlandish — what possible connection could the Elsie Carlisle we know have with Tennessee? I dismissed the whole matter as a probable confusion of persons. “Elsie Carlisle” must have been a common enough name, after all.

But soon I would find references in newspapers and trade journals to the famous Elsie Carlisle taking a trip to New York at exactly that time. I reconstructed her movements as follows. As late as August 8, 1923, an advertisement was run in The Era suggesting that Carlisle could still be seen on the London stage in Fred Karno’s revue “1923.”1 By September 5, she was in America:

We hear that Elsie Carlisle, who recently concluded her second season’s engagement in Fred Karno’s “1922-3,” is spending a holiday in America.2

Carlisle had, then, arrived on the Franconia on August 26 and told immigration that she was going to visit Mrs. Taylor in Tennessee. The Era continued to give British readers updates as to her activities:

Elsie Carlisle, who was last seen here in that successful revue, “1923,” opens this week on the Keith Circuit, New York. Elsie went over a few weeks ago for a holiday, but has evidently been prevailed upon to play there during her stay.3

What startled me was the following comment in the U.S.-based journal Variety:

Elsie Carlisle, English, recently arriving in New York will return to London without making an appearance in New York.4

Had there been some ruse? When Elsie really did get back to England — on March 4, after a six-month stay — the press was under the impression that she had been on stage and had been well received:

Elsie Carlisle, who was a principal in Fred Karno’s “1922” and “1923” revues, arrived in England on the “Ansonia” on Tuesday [March 4, 1924] after a six months’ successful tour on the Keith Circuit.5

With the London press suggesting that Carlisle was on stage in the United States but with U.S.-based Variety having her prepare to return to England without appearing in New York, I was beginning to think that perhaps her journey did have an ulterior motive. At this point I compared notes with researcher Terry Brown, who had noticed many of the same references in the press to Carlisle’s American trip. Terry informed me that he had also heard a theory that she had gone to America for privacy while pregnant with a third son (he did not himself take a position on the likelihood of that scenario), one Arthur Davies.

I let some more time pass, but of course I did not forget the intriguing rumor. Finally this month, while pulling together some biographical notes about Elsie Carlisle, I discovered the source of the confusion (which has made its way into a couple of family trees on ancestry.com, I see): there is an Arthur Davies, born either August 4 or September 4, 1923, whose mother was apparently named Elizabeth Malpas — Elsie Carlisle’s legal name. I say “apparently” because Davies’s mother’s last name was almost certainly “Malpass”, with two s’s, and it was her maiden name — I have seen the wedding certificate. She was an entirely different person.

I shared the results of my research with Terry, and he surprised me with some of his own: a clipping from the American publication Billboard (November 8, 1923):

Elsie Carlisle sang several songs in the second spot, affecting a naive style of delivery coupled with an appealing soprano voice. All of her songs are in a rather low key, so low as to make the performance monotonous. Miss Carlisle seemed to have a weakness for rolling her eyes toward an upper box and on two or three occasions while singing she burst into laughter, apparently at her own funny catch lines, or some incident that she happened to think of at that time. Probably it was all in the act, but if it was, she failed to follow it up and receive the full benefit of it, for she closed rather weak.6

So Carlisle was on stage, and in New York, at that! Variety had been misinformed. And the American reviewer had given Carlisle by far the worst review I have ever seen of her.

So the facts fall into place. Elsie Carlisle went to America in 1923 and ended up staying into 1924. I do not think that she could have secretly had a child in either of those years; she would have been on stage enough for people to notice. At least one reviewer thought her U.S. show was unmemorable, but whoever was promoting her career back in London was keen to assert that her performances had been “fully successful.” It is worth noting that The Era first described Elsie’s absence from London as a mere “holiday” or vacation, but it  seems to have turned into a professional opportunity soon afterwards.

But what do we do with the Taylors in Memphis, Tennessee, Elsie Carlisle’s supposed hosts while staying in the States? Mr. Emmett Taylor of 1071 Poplar Avenue was a cotton buyer, according to censuses, and he and his wife Elizabeth were prominent enough citizens to be listed in the social register.7 Their teenage daughter, Elizabeth Scott Taylor, made trips to Europe; a passport application has her leaving New York on the Leviathan on July 28, 1923, the first such trip of hers that I know of. That does not give her much time to become bosom friends with Carlisle, but she could definitely have arranged an invitation.

Did Elsie Carlisle, however, actually get as far as Memphis? Your guess is as good as mine.

Notes:

  1. “Elsie Carlisle – With a Different Style – ‘1923’ 2nd Season L.T.V. Tour,” The Era, August 8, 1923, 15, British Newspaper Archive.
  2. “The Variety World,” The Era, September 5, 1923, 12, British Newspaper Archive.
  3. “The Variety World,” The Era, October 10, 1923, 12, British Newspaper Archive.
  4. “Editorial,” Variety, November 8, 1923, 11.
  5. “Variety Gossip,” The Stage, March 6, 1924, 13, British Newspaper Archive; see also “The Variety World,” The Era, March 26, 1924, 12, British Newspaper Archive, where Carlisle is described as having been “fully successful.”
  6. “B. S. Moss’ Regent, N. Y.” Billboard, October 27, 1923, 18. https://worldradiohistory.com/Archive-All-Music/Billboard/20s/1923/Billboard-1923-10-27-List-Number.pdf.
  7. Social Register of Memphis. Memphis, Tennessee: Penn-Renshaw, 1925, 105.

“You’ll Find Out” (1932)

“You’ll Find Out.” Words and music composed by Archie Gottler and Betty Treynor (a pseudonym of Lawrence Wright) for On with the Show. Recorded in London on June 15, 1932 by Ray Starita and His Ambassadors with vocalists Elsie Carlisle and Sam Browne. Sterno 984 mx. S-2477-2.

Personnel: Ray Starita-cl-ts dir. Nat Gonella-t / t / tb / prob. Chester Smith-cl-as-bar-o / Nat Star-cl-as / George Glover-cl-ts-vn / George Hurley-vn / Harry Robens-p / George Oliver-bj-g / Arthur Calkin-sb / Rudy Starita-d

Ray Starita and his Ambassadors – You’ll Find Out – 1932

Transfer by Henry Parsons

Between 1932 and 1937, Elsie Carlisle would make some 42 record sides with Sam Browne, most famously with Ambrose and His Orchestra, but occasionally also with other bands. The two singers became best known for on-shellac vituperative bickering (the best examples being found in “Seven Years with the Wrong Woman,” “What’s Good for the Goose Is Good for the Gander,” and “I’m Gonna Wash My Hands of You”). But their fictional relationships could be much more playful and subtle, as we see here in “You’ll Find Out,” which they recorded with Ray Starita’s band.

“You’ll Find Out” was a joint composition of American songwriter Archie Gottler and the prolific British composer Lawrence Wright, who most frequently used the pseudonym “Horatio Nicholls.” (His pseudonym used here — “Betty Treynor” — may have been a one-off.) As far as I can tell, this West End musical song was only recorded one other time; that recording, from April 1932, featured Sam Browne with Billie Lockwood under the Zonophone pseudonyms “Jack and Jill.” Now, “Jack and Jill” numbers, while delightful, tend to be comparatively sedate, and that is definitely the case with the Browne-Lockwood version. The two singers slowly take their turns delivering the increasingly suggestive lyrics, leaving the song’s comic sensibility underdeveloped.

Browne and Carlisle, in the Ray Starita recording of the song, uncover the composition’s potential. Part of their success is due to an audible chemistry that few duettists could match. But just as important is their phrasing as they deliver the lyrics. The joke of the song is that the young couple asks each other questions that seem to answer themselves: “What do lovers do out in the moonlight?” “What will we do evenings when it’s raining?” Supposing I must leave you for a week or two / And you haven’t got as single thing to do / How would you spend all those lonesome evenings?” Answered with “You’ll find out!” the questions suggest sex, infidelity, and the like.

The repeated punchline risks seeming monotonous. But we hear Sam and Elsie breaking up that monotony by altering the line “You’ll find out” in such a way as to dramatize it. “You’ll find out” gives way to “Ah! You’ll find out…”; “Could I? You’ll find out!”; “Oh, but…you’ll find out!”; “It is! You’ll find out…”; “Hmm… You’ll find out!” and finally, “Try and find out!” By varying the response, they produce something resembling a witty, funny conversation.

The vocal chorus is unusually long in this dance band recording, and the arrangement is remarkably sophisticated. Ray Starita’s musicians remain comparatively quiet during the vocal refrain, but as it progresses they build momentum and come in strong at the end. Starita’s band was brassless at the time, and one gets the sense from the powerful sax section work in “You’ll Find Out” that the orchestra could execute a dynamically scored arrangement without  trumpets and trombone — instruments added only for recording purposes in Starita’s 1932 British Homophone sessions.1

Notes:

  1. My thanks to Henry Parsons for reminding me of this latter point.

Anniversary of Elsie Carlisle’s Death

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.”

Elsie was not only known for her solo work, of course. Her name is closely associated with the elite Ambrose Orchestra (with whom she recorded the still-popular songs “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” “Pu-leeze! Mister Hemingway!” and “You’ve Got Me Crying Again”), but some of her best work was done with other bands, such as the Rhythm Maniacs (under the direction of Arthur Lally), Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band, and Jack Harris and His Orchestra. She was also frequently paired with the singer Sam Browne, with whom she  recorded duets in the early 1930s.

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.”

Notes:

  1. 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.”

“Rock Your Cares Away” (1932)

“Rock Your Cares Away.” Words and music by Leonard Blitz (as Leo Towers), Harry Sugarman (as Harry Leon), Lawrence Wright (as Horatio Nicholls) (1932). Recorded in London on November 5, 1932 by Rudy Starita and His Ambassadors with vocalist Elsie Carlisle. 4 in 1 – 17 mx. X-218-2.

Personnel: probably Nat Star-cl-as dir. / Nat Gonella-t / t / tb / cl-as / cl-ts / vn / p / bj-g / bb-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x

Elsie Carlisle – “Rock Your Cares Away” (1932)

It is a little difficult to taxonomize this recording of “Rock Your Cares Away” by bandleader. It is clearly Ray Starita’s band, as is indicated on the label of the Sterno recording made at the same session (Sterno and 4 in 1 were both products of the British Homophone Company), but Ray had not returned from a vacation to America the previous summer and so could not have directed the music. The 4 in 1 record from the session mentions not Ray, but his brother Rudy Starita, the percussionist who did eventually take over control of the band from his brother. And yet Rust and Forbes think it likely that this particular session was led by Nat Star, who was generally in charge of dance music at Homophone.1

Whoever directed it, the result was a memorable piece of lively dance band music. The lyrics of “Rock Your Cares Away” exhort us to cast away gloom, live in the moment, and “…rock [our] cares away / In a cradle of dreams.” The Star/Starita 4 in 1 version is uptempo; Elsie Carlisle’s vocal refrain, while brief, is memorable for its ebullience. Her enthusiastic delivery is infectious and evocative of a carefree mental state, and she gets across the song’s message through raw energy rather than mere earnestness.

“Rock Your Cares Away” was also recorded in 1932 by Billy Cotton and His Band (v. Cyril Grantham), Ray Noble and His New Mayfair Orchestra (v. Al Bowlly), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Pat O’Malley), and Ambrose and His Orchestra (with an unidentified vocalist).

Notes:

  1. Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes. British Dance Bands on Record, 1911 to 1945, and Supplement. Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, Ltd., 1989, 1021-1022.

Elsie Carlisle’s 126th Birthday

Elizabeth Carlisle was born on January 28, 18961 in Manchester, England to James Carlisle and Mary Ellen Carlisle (née Cottingham). Elsie was not the only member of her family to show a knack for show business; her brothers James (“Jim”) and Albert (“Tim”) were both singers who worked with the great composer, publisher, and impresario Lawrence Wright. By her own account, Elsie was encouraged to learn singing by her mother, who paid for her to have lessons when she was only a small girl.2 It was her brother Jim who got her her first theatrical role at the age of 12,3 and by the time of her marriage in 1914 she could be described as a “musical hall artiste” on the wedding certificate. By 1919 she was appearing in the West End in a show whose cast included Betty Bolton, and the next year she merited her own show, entitled Elsie Carlisle – With a Different Style, in which she performed as a solo vocalist.

How “different” her style was would quickly be made known to larger and larger audiences. Her stage career grew, only to be eclipsed, starting in 1926, by her broadcasting and recording efforts. Elsie’s recordings made with Ambrose and His Orchestra between 1932 and 1935 are among the best remembered, but one should remember that she recorded at least 332 record sides between 1926 and 1942 — a prolific output. The British public would have known her better still from her broadcasts on the BBC and Radio Luxembourg. She was often billed as the “Idol of the Radio,” a well-earned epithet. By the mid-1930s she was ranked amongst the top vocalists who could be heard on the British airwaves, and she had film and television credits to her name as well. Her dulcet delivery of themes both comic and plaintive continues to attract listeners well over a century after her first performance in a Manchester music hall, and the world is much richer for her having lived in it.

Notes:

  1. January 28, 1896 is the date that Elsie Carlisle’s mother provided when she registered her daughter’s birth on March 3, 1896. The same birthday appears on Elsie’s baptismal certificate, which is dated April 15, 1896, so the date “21 January 1897” found on Elsie’s death certificate must be erroneous. People are not generally baptized before they are born, and one would assume that Elsie’s mother was a better source of information regarding her own daughter’s birth than Elsie’s son Wilfred, the informant for the death certificate.
  2. Ralph Graves. “Radio Sweetheart No. 1.” Radio Pictorial 251 (November 4, 1938): 8.
  3. According to Richard J. Johnson in “Elsie Carlisle (with a different style).” Memory Lane 174 (2012): 25.