The song “I Cover the Waterfront” was inspired by a 1932 book of the same name by Max Miller, a San Diego newspaper reporter, which is a collection of factual observations about the noteworthy events and criminal intrigues of that city’s waterfront. A pre-Code film, very loosely based on some events in the book, was released in 1933, and at the last minute the already popular Green-Heyman composition was included in it. Johnny Green and Edward Heyman are, of course, most famous for their collaboration with Robert Sour and Frank Eyton on Body and Soul.
“I Cover the Waterfront” references a book whose details are not really evident in the lyrics. The sentences “I cover the waterfront / I’m watching the sea” do not unequivocally convey to an audience the idea that the singer is impersonating a newspaper reporter (which is the premise of the book). The remainder of the lyrics repeatedly explain that the singer is waiting for a lover to return. The vagueness and repetition of the words create an attractive dreaminess that fits nicely with the atmospheric melody. The overall sound of “I Cover the Waterfront” is very much of its time; the song expresses the musical sensibilities of the early 1930s as well as “Ain’t Misbehavin'” does those of the late 1920s. Elsie Carlisle’s version of “I Cover the Waterfront” is exemplary of her ability to inject sincerity and character into any song, and in this case her plaintive tone makes us feel almost as if we knew its backstory — which we don’t.
The lyrics of “It’s the Talk of the Town” present a delicate situation: a couple engaged to be married has broken up after having already sent out wedding invitations. The song could be considered a torch song, but it is an atypical one, insofar as the singer’s argument for reconciliation rests less on passionate desire than on feelings of personal embarrassment resulting from gossip, the refrain being “Everybody knows you left me: it’s the talk of the town.”
Elsie Carlisle recorded three takes of “It’s the Talk of the Town” with Ambrose and His Orchestra on October 10, 1933, but they were rejected by Brunswick. On the morning of October 13, she made a successful recording for Decca with an eight-person band whose makeup is unknown but which probably contained Ambrose men:
“It’s the Talk of the Town.” Music by Jerry Levinson, words by Marty Symes and Al J. Neiburg (1933). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment in London on October 13, 1933. Decca F. 3696 mx. GB6186-1.
Elsie Carlisle – "It's the Talk of the Town" (1933)
In the early afternoon of the same day, Elsie would make her more famous and instrumentally more compelling recording of the song with Ambrose and His Orchestra. In this version, the emphasis on social awkwardness is highlighted by the band members’ snarling whisper: “IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN!”:
“It’s the Talk of the Town.” Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie Carlisle in London on October 13, 1933. Brunswick 01607 mx. GB6175-4.
Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-t-mel / Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-Tony Thorpe-tb / Danny Polo-reeds / Sid Phillips-reeds / Joe Jeannette-as / Billy Amstell-reeds / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Dick Ball-sb / Max Bacon-d (also humming and speaking by members of the orchestra)
Ambrose and His Orchestra (w. Elsie Carlisle) – "It's the Talk of the Town" (1933)
“It’s the Talk of the Town” was one of two hits written in 1933 by the team of Levinson, Symes, and Neiburg, the other being “Under a Blanket of Blue.” Neiburg had three years earlier penned the lyrics to “(I’m) Confessin’ (That I Love You),” and Levinson (under the name “Livingston”) went on in later decades to compose noteworthy music for movies and television, although his role in composing the 1943 novelty song “Mairzy Doats” should not be forgotten.
Off-stage she was a joy to be with; always cheerful, cracking gags, and telling very funny stories in a superb Mancunian accent. A great party-giver and a charming hostess she was at home in any company. Yet secretly, she was undoubtedly a far from happy woman, never having fully recovered from a romance that had soured some years before I met her. Such a wonderful person deserved to have a good marriage, but it would appear that didn’t eventuate – at least, not within the limits of my knowledge.
Bert Read alludes to some crushing disappointment in Elsie’s life that is impossible to identify now with any certainty. What is most fascinating, however, is the way that, writing a few months after her death, he qualifies the claim that she died a spinster with the proviso “not within the limits of my knowledge.”
Elsie Carlisle’s death certificate shows that Bert Read’s hesitation was well-placed. The certificate describes her as “A Theatrical Artist. (retired), Widow of Wilfred Malpas.” The informant who certified the document is one “Wilfred Ypres Carlisle, Son,” who signed his name “Willie Carlisle,” and who is presumably the same “Wilfred Y. Malpas” (mother’s maiden name “Carlisle”) found in the first-quarter birth registry for 1915 (the date of birth is listed as November 20, 1914). This son’s address given on the death certificate is identical to that of his mother: 8 Deanery Street, Elsie’s posh Mayfair apartment.
His father, the elder Wilfred Malpas, had married Elizabeth (“Elsie”) Carlisle on August 8, 1914 in St. Edmund’s Roman Catholic Church in Monsall St., Miles Platting (in Greater Manchester),1 “according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Roman Catholics,” as the marriage certificate states. We know little about Mr. Malpas, other than that he is described on the certificate as a “House and Church Decorator Journeyman” (eighteen-year-old Elsie being described already as a “Music Hall Artist”). The couple’s fathers were both deceased by this time; Wilfred Malpas’s father had been some sort of musician. At the time of the wedding, Wilfred was 23, Elsie 18.
The sort of people who like to count the number of months between a marriage and the birth of a child might have tittered over the very short interval between Elsie’s nuptials and Wilfred Ypres’s2 birthday (November 20, 1914) — slightly over three months — but in that era of considerably less tolerance regarding premarital sex, a complicating factor would have been the couple’s already having had a child before they were married, one Basil Albert Carlisle, born June 16, 1913, well over a year before the wedding. Elsie had been only seventeen when Basil was born, and his father’s name appears nowhere on his birth certificate, although a small amendment appears in the margin of that document noting that he was “Re-registered under the Legitimacy Act 1926 on 5th February 1934” (the Legitimacy Act established that people born out of wedlock could be considered legitimate if their parents married subsequently). Indeed, Basil does appear a second time in the first-quarter birth registry for 1934 as “Basil A. Malpas” (with the mother’s maiden name being Carlisle).
So far I have found little record concerning Wilfred Malpas’s and Elsie Carlisle’s married life. Elsie had great success as a musical theater artist, at first just in Manchester, but by 1919 she had established herself as a London actress — and as an apparently single woman. Malpas disappeared from the picture entirely, although he and Elsie must have remained legally married for her to be described as his widow when she died in 1977 (he had passed away in 1962).3 The two boys were raised by Elsie’s mother, Mary Ellen Carlisle, and attended St. Edmund’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Miles Platting, Manchester.4 Elsie meanwhile led an extraordinarily private life for such a visible person.
The potential for scandal was great, however, especially at a time when the BBC, Elsie’s main source of income, was under the direction of the infamously prudish Sir John Reith. When, in the mid-1930s, Elsie’s sons came to London, she began to refer to them as brothers,5 and the press followed suit. Wilfred Ypres Carlisle appears in British newspapers of the 1930s-1950s as Billie, Billy, or Willie Carlisle, brother of the more famous Elsie Carlisle, although he himself had a successful stage career. I have discovered less about Basil’s life; his 1940 marriage is indexed both under the name Malpas (probably out of legal necessity) and under Carlisle, the latter name being the one he used. Both sons went by Carlisle; they had to in order to keep up the ruse that they were Elsie’s brothers. It was Wilfred who acted as Elsie’s partner in the hospitality and ballroom business after she retired from music, and, as we have seen, he lived with her in the 1970s, when she was suffering from cancer. Wilfred died in 1993, Basil in 2000.
What stands out to me as most remarkable is not Elsie Carlisle’s teenage motherhood and the threat it later posed to her career — the former is a common enough occurrence, and the latter a function of the unfortunate mores of the times — but rather the awkwardness of the ruse she adopted, of having her sons pose as her brothers. Yet we shall probably never know the nature of her relationship with Wilfred Malpas or the complexities of her family life even before her ambitious and wildly successful public career had started. Her narrative, full of gaps and silences, begins with the pregnancy of a sixteen-year-old girl who not only achieved greatness but also had a reputation for being charming and charitable. That she ended her days in the care of one of her sons is perhaps more meaningful than anything else.
One should note that Wilfred Ypres Malpas was born only hours before the Allies won the month-long Battle of Ypres in Belgium, so he was probably given his middle name out of patriotic motives. The Battle of Ypres was the beginning of trench warfare in World War I, a war in which Elsie would lose her brother Arthur. ↩
Elsie Carlisle biographer Richard J. Johnson suggests that “[i]t is possible that the marriage had failed but as a Catholic divorce was no option.” (“Elsie Carlisle [with a different style].” Memory Lane 175 : 39). I would note that Elsie was baptized in the Church of England, but she must have converted to Roman Catholicism in order to have a Roman Catholic marriage. ↩
I want to offer my special thanks to Elsie’s great nephew Alan Carlisle and to his late uncle James Carlisle for clarifying many details of Elsie’s sons’ upbringing. Incidentally, Basil and Wilfred’s time at St. Edmund’s may have overlapped with that of the future author and composer Anthony Burgess, whose father was known to play piano accompaniment to the singing of Elsie’s brother, Albert “Tim” Carlisle. My thanks to Simon Johnson for pointing out the family connection. ↩
“Tell Me More About Love” is a woman’s account of her love-making technique. Her approach is to seem innocent and to want instruction in the ways of love; hence the repetition of the title line “Tell me more about love.” She represents herself as a sort of student (“I don’t know what to do — / I can learn lots from you…”; “Teach me all — please don’t wait…”). She is “bashful” and “shy,” and explains that “love has never come [her] way,” but then she lets it slip that the various “lines” that she is rehearsing are ones that she practices every night with a different boy! In retrospect, her earlier request to have the lights dimmed or even turned off should have given her away.
Elsie Carlisle’s perky and chatty delivery in “Tell Me More About Love” showcases her talent for dramatizing a song and making it somewhat conversational, in spite of the absence of an interlocutor. Here Elsie’s delivery sounds a bit like that of Helen Kane, minus, of course, the exaggerated Bronx accent. Elsie’s romantic whimper at the end of the song is particularly precious, rivaled only by the primal girlish giggle in “Wasn’t It Nice?” (recorded the next year). A light and upbeat piece of music, “Tell Me More About Love” contrasts nicely with Elsie’s decidedly plaintive rendition of “Mean to Me” on the flip side of the record.
“Tell Me More About Love” was also recorded that year by Mabel Marks, the Arcadians Dance Orchestra (under the direction of Bert and John Firman), Florence Oldham (accompanied by Sid Bright on the piano and Len Fillis on the guitar — Oldham is sometimes portrayed on the sheet music), Kay and Kaye (a.k.a. Stanley Kirkby & Rita Bernard), and Billy Bartholomew, an English bandleader who recorded primarily in Germany from 1924-1938.
“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes.” Words by Ted Koehler and Eddie Pola, music by Jack Golden (1931). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur on c. June 10, 1931. Imperial 2489 mx. 5717-3.
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 – "My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes" (1931)
“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” is a somewhat bizarre reflection on the topic of avian overindulgence. It begins with an introduction that marvels at a recent upheaval in social norms:
All this world is up to date —
Even children stay up late.
Things are not just what they used to be.
All this world is off its nut,
Going crazy, nothing but!
Just get this earful from me…
The singer proceeds to list off the ways in which 1931’s fast-paced, bibulous, dance- and sex-crazed society has affected the habits and health of a pet canary. The bird seems to have been infected with a passion for every form of loose living and pedestrian moral decadence. He dances “snake hips.” He is obsessed with some sparrow or another. He may be in some embarrassing sort of trouble (the reference in London recordings of this song to “look[ing] in Swaffer’s column” involves a notorious newspaper source of gossip). Finally, instead of responding favorably to birdseed, it is gin that he now likes — or harder stuff, in some versions.
The words of the song vary a good deal from singer to singer. Elsie Carlisle’s version for the Imperial label references a number of other songs: “Makin’ Whoopee” (1928), which Eddie Cantor popularized and which provided Anglophone culture with a new term for sexual congress; “The Prisoner’s Song” (1925), which deals with a man who is to be jailed and who will be without his sweetheart — a useful comparandum for the formerly solitary canary in his cage; and “What Is This Thing Called Love” (1929), which only seems to be found in Elsie’s versions, probably out of respect for her having introduced the song two years earlier.
The success of Elsie’s Imperial recording of “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” rests in her realization of the fundamental silliness of the song’s underlying concept. She rattles off the catalogue of her pet’s newfound moral weaknesses fairly seriously, and the mock-solemnity of her complaint enhances the comic effect. We can see this approach to the song in her Pathétone short from the same year that also features it: