Ambrose’s Birthday

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!

Ambrose and His Orchestra in 1935. Ambrose is at the center, with Elsie Carlisle and Sam Browne to the left and the Rhythm Sisters to the right.
Ambrose and His Orchestra in 1935. Ambrose is at the center, with Elsie Carlisle and Sam Browne to the left and the Rhythm Sisters to the right.

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.

“On a Dreamy Afternoon” (1932)

“On a Dreamy Afternoon.” Lyrics by Robert Hargreaves and Stanley J. Damerell, with music by Montague Ewing (1932). Recorded by Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band on September 15, 1932, with vocals by Elsie Carlisle. Four-in-One 7.

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-vib-x

Ray Starita & His Ambassadors w. Elsie Carlisle – "On a Dreamy Afternoon" (1932)

Ray Starita and His Ambassadors w. Elsie Carlisle – “On A Dreamy Afternoon” (1932)

“On a Dreamy Afternoon” was composed by Montague Ewing, who was known for his light music. The lyricists Hargreaves and Damerell (who sometimes used the joint pseudonym “Erell Reaves”) more frequently collaborated with composer Tolchard Evans, turning out such popular tunes as “Lady of Spain” and “If.”

Ray Starita’s version of “On a Dreamy Afternoon” was made in 1932, the last year of his recording career and one of the best, when his band included such greats as Nat Gonella and Nat Star. It was also the only year he used Elsie Carlisle as a vocalist, though he did so quite a bit, turning out excellent recordings of “Kiss by Kiss,” “Let That Be a Lesson to You,” and “I Heard,” amongst others. “On a Dreamy Afternoon” has music and lyrics that are mellow and atmospheric and showcase nicely the sweet quality of Elsie’s voice — this is definitely not one of her torch songs, and there is nothing particularly naughty in it — it is soothingly beautiful and romantic.

The recording in the YouTube video above is one of two takes of the song recorded by Ray Starita with Elsie Carlisle that day; the other appears on Sterno 1026:


Other versions of this song were recorded in October 1932 by Arthur Lally (Maurice Elwin, vocalist), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (with vocals by Pat O’Malley; hear the unissued take 3 on jackhylton.com), and Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans, with Cavan O’Connor singing).

“He’s My Secret Passion” (1930)

“He’s My Secret Passion.” Composed by Arthur Young, with lyrics by Val Valentine (1930). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment (probably under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur) c. September 3, 1930. Imperial 2333.

Personnel:  ?Jay Wilbur dir. Jack Miranda-cl-ts / Eric Siday-vn / Harry Jacobson-p-cel / Len Fillis-g

Elsie Carlisle – "He's My Secret Passion" (1930)

Elsie Carlisle – “He’s My Secret Passion” (1930)

“He’s My Secret Passion” was written for a British crime drama called “Children of Chance” (1930) starring Elissa Landi and John Stuart. Elsie Carlisle’s September 1930 versions of the song appear on Imperial 2333 mx. 5464 with the take numbers -3, -4, and -5, and discographers Richard Johnson and Ross Laird have deduced from the high take numbers that recording spanned over more than one session. Elsie had begun to record for Imperial, where Jay Wilbur was musical director, the previous month after a four-month hiatus following the closing of Dominion Records (whose music Wilbur had also supervised).

One might reasonably call “He’s My Secret Passion” a torch song, insofar as it involves a longing lament over an unrealized romance, but the lyrics involve enough amorous boasting (e.g. “I’ll burn him up when I sit on his knee”) that perhaps the song transcends the genre. Elsie conveys her yearning with a slightly quavering voice, and her delivery becomes more confident as the argument of the lyrics becomes stronger. The studio band plays in a subdued and mellow fashion, nicely showcasing Elsie’s voice.

1930 saw British versions of “He’s My Secret Passion” (often turned into “She’s My Secret Passion,” as suggested in the original sheet music, when sung by male vocalists) by the Rhythm Maniacs (vocalist Ella Logan), Ambrose and His Orchestra (Sam Browne, vocalist), the Four Bright Sparks (vocalist Queenie Leonard, with Arthur Young on the piano), Harry Bidgood’s Broadcasters (Tom Barratt, vocalist), Bert Madison and His Dance Orchestra (Nat Star, again with Tom Barratt doing the singing), Len Fillis’s Phantom Players (vocalist Al Bowlly), and Jay Wilbur and His Band (with Les Allen as vocalist).

In America, the song was recorded in 1930 by Doris Robbins, Danny Yates and His Orchestra (with vocals by Smith Ballew), Lee Morse and Her Blue Grass Boys, Marion Harris, and in February 1931 by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (with vocals by Donald King).

"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.