“Driftin’ Tide” (1934)

“Driftin’ Tide.” Words and music by Pat Castleton and Spencer Williams. Recorded in London on July 18, 1934 by Elsie Carlisle. Decca F-5122 mx. TB-1401-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “Driftin’ Tide” (1934)

Both bluesy and sophisticated, “Driftin’ Tide” is an unusually attractive tune by American Spencer Williams (composer of “Basin Street Blues” and “I’ve Found a New Baby,” among many other well known successes) and Pat Castleton (the stage name of British actress Agnes Muir Bage). Williams spent a lot of time working in England in the 1930s, and he and Castleton would go on to marry in 1936. The melody is one of those complex ones that defies the listener’s first attempts to hum it, and the lyrics are metrically unusual. On top of all of this, the title of the song appears a number of times in the lyrics, but in a grammatically jarring way — it would appear that the sea, the “driftin’ tide,” is being addressed by the singer in a moving expression of unrequited love — a “torch song.”

It seems appropriate that “Driftin’ Tide” should have been assigned to Elsie Carlisle, a veteran torch singer. She successfully applies her famous talent for sounding intermittently teared up to the song’s melancholy themes. I was surprised at how difficult it was to locate a copy of Carlisle’s record — it took me nine years — and it might seem that it did not sell very well. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the Ray Noble version of the song recorded the same day with Al Bowlly? The latter recording has a more interesting dance band arrangement, it must be admitted, but all the same I admire what the anonymous Decca studio band was able to do for Carlisle’s “solo” recording — it is an excellent example of the remarkable elegance one so often finds in her output from that time.

In Britain, in addition to the Elsie Carlisle and Ray Noble/Al Bowlly versions of “Driftin’ Tide,” there was a recording of the song by Pat Hyde, made two days later.

In America, an obscure trio named The Aces of the Air recorded “Driftin’ Tide” for radio broadcast in 1934. In 1935 versions were made by Alberta Hunter and Clark Randall (v. Clark Randall).

Elsie Carlisle’s 128th 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.

A Decade with Elsie Carlisle

Exactly ten years ago — on December 31, 2013, at 7:44 p.m. Pacific Standard Time — I created the Elsie Carlisle page on Facebook. At the time I did not know exactly where my newfound passion would take me. All I had to start with was an earworm.

If you are not familiar with that term, I am sure you are acquainted with the phenomenon it describes. You are exposed to some particularly catchy music, and it resonates so much with you that it is on long-term repeat in your head. It is like an itch, and the only way to scratch it is to play the song again — which of course embeds the earworm even more inextricably in your brain. Sometimes the only way to exorcise an earworm is to become infected with a new one.

So far, what I have described would appear to be an experience familiar to most people, but I seem to fall into a smaller subspecies: people who take pleasure from hearing a good song played repeatedly — twenty to forty times in a row. It has to be the right song, of course, but for a few of us there does not appear to be too much of a good thing. I am happy to say that my peculiar taste in music repetition has not driven people away from me — rather, it would appear that the similarly afflicted are drawn to each other.

I remember, when I was a postgraduate in Cambridge, playing Mary Martin singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” (with Eddy Duchin’s orchestra) at least thirty times in a row one evening. But I must have had five friends over, and they all seemed just as dedicated to hearing it played again and again as I did — I am sure I let people take turns hitting the “previous track” button. We reconvened regularly, no doubt to enjoy the collective pleasure of hearing the song for the hundredth time.

Many years later, in late 2013, my earworm was Elsie Carlisle’s 1930 “Exactly Like You.” After a month of listening to the song on repeat, I began to branch out and listen to other of her hits, such as “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” and “You’ve Got Me Crying Again.” I grew more and more intrigued. This was my favorite singer — ever. But there were not really that many of her songs available to the casual (or even fanatical) listener at the time — a handful were available in easily obtained digital collections. I did not really know what I was getting into, but I made it perhaps my only New Year’s resolution ever to start a Facebook page for Elsie Carlisle and to learn as I went along how to find out more about her and how to share my appreciation of her art.

January 28, 2014 was the first time I celebrated Elsie Carlisle’s birthday. I descended upon the Facebook groups The Golden Age of British Dance Bands and Female Singers (I would soon afterwards become an administrator of the latter) and spent well over twenty-four hours sharing favorite songs and making new friends — most of whom I have gotten to know much better in the years since. I was impressed by their knowledge of interwar music, as well as of the technical aspects of playing and digitally transferring shellac 78 rpm discs.

The discs began to arrive in the mail, mostly from England, mostly from eBay. There were lovely autographed photographs and postcards, too. I was fortunate to have begun collecting in 2014, as a lot of records and memorabilia were for sale at that time which I have seldom seen since.

Meanwhile, it seemed as if in time, there might be things worth saying about Elsie Carlisle’s songs or periods of her life that would be better consigned to a more permanent and accessible part of the Internet than a mere Facebook page, so in early February 2014 I launched this blog, elsiecarlisle.com, and I began to use it as a place to play around with writing primarily about individual songs, with the occasional biographical piece here and there.

As I grew more comfortable doing digital transfers — which can be extraordinarily challenging, especially when you’re dealing with a 1930s Imperial with uncommonly wide grooves, or an earlier Dominion which was described as sounding merely “OK” by the reviewers when it was new, before it had been scraped a hundred times by steel needles — I started to upload to my own YouTube account. Over the years, I have uploaded some things that I was particularly proud of, especially “What Is This Thing Called Love?” — a song introduced originally by Elsie Carlisle on stage at Cole Porter’s request. Collectors can estimate how scarce that record is.

The years went by, and the blog grew. I was asked to write a few articles on Elsie Carlisle for Discographer Magazine (now unfortunately defunct). But it was really with the beginning of the pandemic that my activities exploded. Stuck at home and with extra time on my hands, I resolved to address the need for a new Elsie Carlisle discography.

When I had started, I had no complete discography to work with. I had Ross Laird’s admirable 1995 Moanin’ Low, which attempts to tabulate all popular female vocalist recordings up through 1933 — but Elsie Carlisle continued recording through 1942 (as I would eventually discover). A helpful person shared Edward Walker’s 1974 Elsie Carlisle — With a Different Style with me. It was groundbreaking when it came out — and still useful — and yet, with the passage of so much time, its incompleteness and inaccuracy are fairly obvious. It took me years to find a copy of Richard Johnson’s 1994 Elsie Carlisle with a Different Style, which remains unsurpassed in its attempts to nail down which instrumentalists might have been present — even at Carlisle’s solo sessions — and yet even it was not complete enough for my purposes. I had developed a discography of my own over time, but I had never shared it. About a month into the pandemic, I published it here as Croonette: An Elsie Carlisle Discography.

I am sure that I am not the only person whose record collection began to grow considerably during the pandemic. In fact, mine was growing so quickly in 2020 that I had to up my game by improving, not just how I transferred records, but how I simply played them — the turntable was spinning nearly all day long at this point. By the summer of 2020, I had released 78curves, a library of equalization curves (and related filters) for playing 78 rpm records through a computer in real time, accurately equalized so as to reproduce the sound of the original performance (as much as possible).

Since then, I have tried to begin replicating my successes on elsiecarlisle.com by launching similar projects involving British vocalists Maurice Elwin (mauriceelwin.com) and Anne Lenner (annelenner.com), both of which are accompanied by biographies and discographies (the Elwin discography, Monarch of the Microphone, being the most daring project yet — I have documented well over 2,000 recordings by Elwin, and I continue to update the 271-page digital tome regularly).

I cannot begin to tell you how many “sidequests” I have had along the way. I have gained more than one client for website design and maintenance because someone admired my sites. And, in order to navigate the filesystems of those websites and efficiently develop and update their various components, I have created a number of free command-line software projects, one of which now has possibly hundreds of thousands of users.

I still have much to do, on this website and on others; much collecting to do; more records to discover and document. But I feel that I can be happy today if I have in any way made Elsie Carlisle’s music more accessible to the non-collector, or if I have had any success in sharing my love of her art.

And may I say what a profound pleasure it has been to make so many hundreds of friends along the way? Even if I am seldom in the same room as you, I feel as if I am always in very good company with music lovers. I hope that our next ten years can be at least as profitable and enjoyable as the last ones.

Happy New Year!

A. G. Kozak

“Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” (two versions; 1934)

If risqué elements constitute one of the primary attractions of interwar Anglophone popular music for modern audiences (think “Pu-leeze! Mister Hemingway”), perhaps the sentimental might be seen as the ingredient most likely to repel us. Lullabies and songs about nursery rhymes abound, especially in the 1930s: even in Elsie Carlisle’s repertoire, we have “This Little Piggie Went to Market,” “Who Made Little Boy Blue?” “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire,” and “Little Drummer Boy” — among the more obvious examples. And yet there are very good recordings of these kinds of songs that explore the compelling potential of childhood themes. For me, perhaps, the most moving examples are Carlisle’s two recordings of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” one done with an anonymous studio orchestra, the other with Ambrose.

“Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.”  Words by Maurice Sigler and Al Hoffman, music by Mabel Wayne (1934).  Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on May 18, 1934.  Decca F-3990 mx. TB-1258-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” (1934)

Because of its “solo” format, Elsie Carlisle’s Decca recording of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” has a complete set of lyrics and some additional maternal bedside chatter. This is clearly not a recording aimed at a child audience, however; its evocation of feminine tenderness is the sort of thing that would appeal to grown-ups. Incidentally, the anonymous Decca studio band is particularly good in this number; they achieve memorable instrumental moments without ever upstaging Carlisle.

“Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.” Recorded in London on June 12, 1934 by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocalist Elsie Carlisle. Brunwick 01790 mx. TB-1295-3.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-t-mel / Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-Tony Thorpe-tb / Danny Polo-Sid Phillips-cl-as-bar / Joe Jeanette-as / Billy Amstell-cl-ts / Ernie Lewis-Reg Pursglove-sometimes others-vn / Bert Barnes-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Dick Ball-sb / Max Bacon-d / Elsie Carlisle-v

Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day”

Ambrose’s version of “Little Man” benefits from a particularly sophisticated arrangement and a predictably elegant execution. Carlisle’s vocal refrain is incredibly precious and memorable. I would have imagined this record was a best-seller if I did not know how hard it was to find it! Admittedly, that seems to be a general problem with Ambrose’s Brunswick issues.

Elsie Carlisle does appear to have succeeded in being linked in the public’s mind with “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” as it appears in her 1937 Elsie Carlisle Medley, which functions as a sort of “greatest hits” compilation.

In America that year, “Little Man” was made popular by the Pickens Sisters, Isham Jones and His Orchestra (with vocals by Eddie Stone),  Connee Boswell, and Paul Robeson.  Interpretations by British orchestras include those by Roy Fox and His Band (with vocals by Denny Dennis, in a Jack Nathan arrangement; they would revisit the song later in the year in a “Fox Favourites” medley), Billy Cotton and His Band (with vocalist Alan Breeze), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (with Al Bowlly), Jack Payne and His Band (with Jack Payne providing the vocals), The Casani Club Orchestra (directed by Charlie Kunz, with vocalist Dawn Davis)The BBC Dance Orchestra (directed by Henry Hall, with vocals by Kitty Masters, in a Phil Cardew arrangement), Harry Leader and His Band, and Eddie Wood and His Band.  Other British vocalists who recorded “Little Man” that year include Phyllis Robins, Gracie Fields, and Donald Peers.

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.

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.”