“The Girl in the Hansom Cab” was composed by Jimmy Kennedy in 1937. Kennedy was a prolific lyricist and composer, with such well-known songs as “Isle of Capri” (1934), and “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” (1939) to his name, but “The Girl in the Hansom Cab” does not seem to be one of his more frequently covered compositions. It involves a chorus girl who marries up (although her having committed bigamy is suggested!), and the song employs the sort of barely veiled sexual innuendo so perfectly suited to Elsie’s comic delivery. Lyrics.
“I’m a Little Prairie Flower.” Composed by Leslie Sarony and Leslie Holmes (1937). Recorded by Jack Harris and His Orchestra with Elsie Carlisle as vocalist on October 25, 1937. HMV BD-5289 mx. 0EA-5109-1.
Personnel: Jack Harris-vn dir. Alfie Noakes-Doug Holman-t / Lewis Davis-Don Binney-tb /Harry Karr-cl-as-f / Freddy Williams-cl-as / Harry Smith-cl-as-ts / George Glover-bar / Max Jaffa-Bill Sniderman-vn / Bert Read-Jack Penn-p-a / Cyril Halliday-Joe Brannelly-g / Alf Gray-d
Elsie Carlisle made her recording of “I’m a Little Prairie Flower” on October 25, 1937 with Jack Harris and His Orchestra, with altered lyrics. There were also versions done in November 1937 by Billy Cotton and His Band (with Alan Breeze as the vocalist) and by Jack Jackson and His Orchestra (with vocals by Helen Clare, Jackie Hunter, Jack Jackson, and Jack Cooper).
Elsie recorded five other songs with Jack Harris and His Orchestra in late 1937 and did radio broadcasts with them in 1938. Harris was an American bandleader who moved to England in 1927 and was an important figure in British dance band music through the 1930s. He even co-owned Ciro’s Club for a while with Ambrose. When war broke out in Europe, however, he went back to America, and was not able to return to Britain for want of safe passage.
“You’re My Everything.” Words by Mort Dixon and Joe Young, music by Harry Warren (1931). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with an instrumental trio in Manchester on September 23, 1932. Decca F-3193 mx. KB-135-2.
An effusive expression of affection, “You’re My Everything” has its origins as the hit song of of a 1931-1932 two-act Broadway revue entitled The Laugh Parade, produced by and starring Ed Wynn, a comedian who twenty years later would provide the voice for the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. The music for the play was composed by Harry Warren, with lyrics provided by Mort Dixon and Joe Young. It was French actress Jeanne Aubert and American actor Lawrence Gray who introduced the signature tune.
Elsie Carlisle, in her 1932 recording of the song, brings sincerity to its hyperbolic lyrics. Hers is a surprisingly straightforward and touching interpretation of the composition; we find absent the coyness of her torch songs, the levity of her racier music. The band provides a suitably atmospheric accompaniment to her professions of love and awe for the lucky “you” of the song.
A light, romantic song about two lovers’ reconciliation, Harry Woods’s “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” is noteworthy for its fanciful personification of pieces of furniture. When the couple is on the verge of parting, a chair and a sofa cry. A smiling clock expresses its feelings about the situation and brings the two people back together again, at which point the room in which everything happens sings and dances. Elsie Carlisle’s delivery of the lyrics is varied; it starts out somber, almost plodding, and becomes more upbeat as the relationship between the lovers improves. She engages in a sort of call and response with the clarinet at one point and almost whispers the final “I tell you confidentially.” Elsie’s is not exactly a lively take on the tune; it is, rather, a very deliberate interpretation of the sense of the lyrics, and of the other versions of the song recorded that year, it most closely resembles that of the American-born but London-based Layton and Johstone.
In a recording and broadcasting career of nearly two decades Elsie Carlisle collaborated with a number of notable British dance bands, and yet it would be hard to think of a bandleader whose name is more tied in the public memory to hers than Ambrose. Between 1932 and 1935 she made 38 recordings with his orchestra, more than with any other, often accompanied by Sam Browne. She was part of his ensemble at the May Fair Hotel and later at the Embassy Club, toured with the band, and perhaps most importantly, in her ascent to become “the Idol of the Radio,” she broadcast frequently with them.
Benjamin Baruch Ambrose (September 15, 1896-June 11, 1971) claimed in later life to have been born in East London, but there is strong evidence that he was born in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire) and moved to London with his family as a child. He was encouraged by his father to learn to play the violin. When the Zeppelin attacks on London began in the First World War, his family sent him to live with his aunt in New York, where he became a musician at the elite Palais Royal cabaret, and then, somewhat serendipitously, a conductor, while still a teenager. It was at this time that he adopted the name “Bertram” or “Bert” Ambrose (though really everyone always just called him “Ambrose”), and he formed his own band.
In 1922 he returned to London, where he formed a small band based out of the Embassy Club, and in 1923 he made his first recording for Columbia. In 1924 he returned to New York for a year, after which time he returned to the Embassy Club in London, where he stayed until 1927, at which point he moved to the May Fair Hotel, an attractive venue which provided broadcasting opportunities. 1933 saw him return to the Embassy Club; in 1936 he returned again to the May Fair. This vacillation between employers seems baffling if one does not consider that this was a man who knew his worth and whose talent was obvious to all; he was in great demand and could threaten to move and follow through on the threat if his contract was not satisfactory to him and his men. Over the years, he surrounded himself with such accomplished musicians as Max Goldberg, Sylvester Ahola, and Bert Read, and his Orchestra has been termed “the Rolls-Royce of British dance bands.”
In 1937 Ambrose went in with American-born bandleader Jack Harris on buying Ciro’s Club, and they traded off playing there with their orchestras and even employed legendary American pianist Art Tatum for a number of months. When his relationship with Jack Harris went sour, however, Ambrose moved his operations to the Café de Paris, and when war broke out, he went on tour. As the war progressed and his health began to fail, Ambrose began to wind down his bandleading activities, but he did not cease entirely until 1956, by which time the dance band genre was well out of style. After this point he restyled himself as a talent scout and manager and discovered blonde bombshell Kathy Kirby, whom he represented and with whom he had a romantic relationship. It was at one of her television broadcasts in 1971 that he collapsed; he died later that night.
Elsie Carlisle is only one of many notable dance band singers associated with the Ambrose Orchestra. Sam Browne’s recording and broadcasting with Ambrose was beyond prolific. Other noteworthy Ambrose vocalists were Phyllis Robbins, Evelyn Dall, Vera Lynn, Anne Shelton, and Denny Dennis.
Happy birthday, Ambrose!
There survives a part of a 1965 BBC Desert Island Discs interview with Ambrose that is well work listening to. In it he discusses his origins and a great part of his career.
"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.