“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (1934)

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Otto Harbach, for their musical Roberta (1933). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle in London on October 31, 1934.  Decca F. 5289 mx. TB 1696-1.

Elsie Carlisle – "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (1934)

Elsie Carlisle – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (1934)

Elsie Carlisle, so often the torch singer, beautifully conveys the pathos of the lyrics of the show tune “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” As a veteran of light musical stage drama, Elsie had a voice suited to the song, with its memorable full-octave melodic ascension at the beginning (more reminiscent of European operetta than of popular song). It was perhaps in consideration of this perfect match between her vocal capabilities and the already popular song that Decca had Elsie record “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” twice in two days, first as a “solo” record, and again the next day with Ambrose and His Orchestra, in an arrangement that is perhaps somewhat less of a tear-jerker and more suited to dancing:

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie Carlisle on November 1, 1934. Decca F. 5293.

"Smoke gets in your eyes" – Ambrose & His Orchestra

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – Ambrose & His Orchestra

Video by Playedback (YouTube)

It seems hard to believe, but the perennial favorite “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was twice discarded from shows before it actually got used in the Broadway musical Roberta. Jerome Kern originally composed it as a tap dance number to be performed during a scene change in his 1927 hit Showboat, but for one reason or another, it was cut. In 1932 Kern retooled it as a march to be used as the theme song for an NBC radio series which never aired. It was in the light, romantic 1933 drama Roberta that “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was finally introduced to the public, this time retooled as a sentimental ballad, either at the suggestion of the producer or of lyricist Otto Harbach. Harbach’s lyrics borrow their tag line “When you’re heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes” from a Russian proverb. The original Broadway production of Roberta starred, amongst others, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, Fay Templeton, Ray Middleton, and Sydney Greenstreet, but it was Ukrainian actress Tamara Drasin, playing a Russian princess, who first sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

Notable American recordings in 1933 and 1934 include ones by Gertrude Niesen (with orchestral accompaniment directed by Ray Sinatra), Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (with vocals by Bob Lawrence), Emil Coleman and His Riviera Orchestra (with vocalist Jerry Cooper), Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (with vocals by Tamara Drasin, from the original Broadway production), Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers, Dick Robertson, and Ruth Etting. Film audiences would hear the song performed by Irene Dunne in a 1935 movie of Roberta.

In 1934 there were other British recordings of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by Jay Wilbur and His Band (Sam Browne, vocalist), Charlie Kunz’s Casani Club Orchestra (with vocals by Harry Bentley), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (with vocals by Ivor Moreton), Jack Payne and His Band (Billy Scott-Coomber, vocalist), Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra (with vocals by Dan Donovan, in a Bert Read arrangement), Lew Stone and His Band (with Alan Kane as vocalist, in a Stanley Black arrangement), and Joe Loss and His Kit-Cat Band.

“Oh! What a Surprise for the Du-ce!” (1940)

“Oh! What a Surprise for the Du-ce!” Original melody by Nino Casiroli (1939), English lyrics by Phil Park (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on December 31, 1940.  Rex 9904 mx. R5203-1.

Elsie Carlisle – "Oh! What a Surprise for the Du-ce!" (1940)

Elsie Carlisle – “Oh! What a Surprise for the Du-ce!” (1940)

On October 28, 1940, Italian ambassador to Greece Emmanuele Grazzi presented Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas with an ultimatum:  allow Axis forces to occupy strategic locations in Greece or be invaded. Metaxas responded in diplomatic French, Alors, c’est la guerre!” (“Then it’s war!”), but rumor had it that he responded laconically «Όχι» (“Ohi,” “No!”), which is why October 28 is celebrated to this day as Ohi Day (Επέτειος του «Όχι»), in memory of Greece’s defiance of Axis bullying.

War ensued, but it was not the easy conquest that Italy had expected. An Italian attempt at invading Greece was met with a counterattack in which Greece occupied a large part of Albania, by then an Italian protectorate. The Italians were held at bay for five months, and it was only in April 1941, when the Germans invaded Greece, that the Greco-Italian War came to an end. In the meantime Greece had diverted Axis resources and delayed their progress, thus contributing to future victory by Allied forces.

Greece’s inspiring example was not lost on the world. English lyricist Phil Park was quick to adapt a popular Italian song, Evviva la Torre di Pisa, inventing lyrics that mocked Mussolini’s pretensions. “Oh! What a Surprise for the Du-ce!” uses clever wordplay to highlight the irony of Greece’s successfully blunting Fascist aspirations in the Balkans:

His troubadors advance with roars of “Viva!  Oh, viva!”
In armoured cars they strum guitars
Till frilly white skirts
Play the deuce with Blackshirts.
Oh!  What a surprise for the Du-ce, the Du-ce,
He can’t put it over the Greeks!

The “frilly white skirts” were the Evzones, an elite Greek infantry group known for their white, kilt-like traditional garb. The expression “play the deuce” reminds us of the ever-present “Du-ce,” and the Blackshirts are, of course, the Fascists, with contrasting clothing.

Elsie Carlisle, already a confirmed wartime singer, delivers the lyrics in a mock-operatic fashion with occasional asides in the comical, chatty tone for which she was famous. “Oh! What a Surprise for the Du-ce!” was definitely catchy, and it was adapted into Greek by Paul Menestrel as Πω πω τι έπαθε ο Μουσολίνι and recorded by popular singer and actress Sophia Vembo (who even sings some of the English lyrics near the end of the song). In Britain, in addition to Elsie Carlisle’s rendition, there were recordings in 1940 by Florence Desmond, Ambrose and His Orchestra (with vocals by Sam Browne), and Jack White and His Band (Anton Mosley and Ronnie Priest, vocalists), with a further recording in mid-January 1941 by Billy Cotton and His Band (with vocals by Alan Breeze).

“One Little Kiss” (1934)

“One Little Kiss.” Written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby for the RKO Radio Film Kentucky Kernels (1934). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment in London on October 31, 1934. Decca F. 5289 mx. TB1698-2.

Elsie Carlisle – "One Little Kiss" (1934)

Elsie Carlisle – “One Little Kiss” (1934)

“One Little Kiss” was written for the 1934 RKO Radio Film Kentucky Kernels starring comedy duo Wheeler and Woolsey. In the movie, the various characters sing increasingly silly versions of the song in succession. The apex of the wackiness takes the form of child star Spanky McFarland’s singing to a dog and Woolsey’s serenading a donkey. It comes as no surprise that Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who wrote the screenplay of Kentucky Kernels and composed its songs, had contributed to the 1932 Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers and composed the anthem “Everyone Says I Love You,” which is similarly rendered by the film’s various characters with increasingly comic bathos.1

Elsie Carlisle’s version of “One Little Kiss” lacks the silliness of its celluloid antecedent, the last vestige of which, perhaps, is the repetition of the phrase “One teeny little, weeny little kiss.” Instead, it is a comparatively serious interpretation of the lyrics which highlights the inherent merits of the catchy melody. As with most popular songs from musical comedies, “One Little Kiss” saw a number of treatments in 1934. In America, there were versions by Cliff Edwards and the Eton Boys, Harry Reser and His Orchestra (with vocals by Tom Stacks), and Ted Weems and His Orchestra (with Gene Glennan as vocalist). In Britain, in addition to Elsie Carlisle’s version, there were recordings of “One Little Kiss” made by Brian Lawrance and His Quaglino’s Quartet in November 1934 and by Kitty Masters and Val Rosing in February 1935.

Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar at the piano
Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar at the piano

Notes:

  1. See also Erin Elisavet Kozák’s article on “The Marx Brothers’ ‘Everyone Says “I Love You’ in Film and Popular Music.” The Discographer Magazine 3.5 (2016), especially p. 4.

“Honey” (1929)

“Honey.”  Music by Richard A. Whiting, lyrics by Haven Gillespie and Seymour Simons (1928).  Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London, c. mid-October 1929.  Dominion A. 215.

"Honey" thumbnail
Skip ahead to 3:12 to hear “Honey”

Elsie Carlisle – “Honey”

Transfer by Mick Johnson (YouTube)

“Honey” is a sentimental 1928 foxtrot of which many popular recordings were made in 1929 and which is still quite familiar to the general public.  Elsie Carlisle’s version of it, with piano and string accompaniment, is paired with “Ain’t Misbehavin'” on Dominion A. 215, and the juxtaposition seems fitting.  In “Ain’t Misbehavin'” she articulates the themes of sincerity and fidelity convincingly in a straightforward interpretation of the lyrics.  She sings “Honey” equally sweetly and with an air of innocence suited to its simple lyrics.  In this song we find a sustained expression of affection; there is none of the unrequited love so frequently found in her other songs, and none of her famed naughtiness.  “Honey” showcases Elsie’s mezzo-soprano voice and her ability to convey emotion in the musical medium.

“Honey” was popularized in a wildly successful February 1929 recording by Rudy Vallée and His Connecticut Yankees.  Other artists who issued versions of the song in the first half of 1929 were Hal Kemp’s Caroline Club Orchestra, the Mills Merry Makers (with vocals by Scrappy Lambert, as “Harold Lang”), Ben Selvin’s Knickerbockers (Larry Murphy, vocalist), Smith Ballew, the California Ramblers (as the Golden Gate Orchestra, with vocals by Ed Kirkeby, on a very late Edison cylinder recording), Vaughn de Leath, and Mildred Hunt.

“Honey” was in vogue with British recording artists in the second half of 1929, with recordings made by Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (with vocals by Sam Browne), Tommy Kinsman’s Florida Club Dance Band, Nat Star and His Orchestra (as Bernie Blake and His Orchestra on Sterno or as Eugene Brockman’s Dance Orchestra on Homochord, with vocals by Cavan O’Connor), Bidgood’s Broadcasters (vocals by Fairy South), the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra (in a Paul Jones medley), Teddy Brown, Cecil and Leslie Norman’s Savoy Plaza Band (Cavan O’Connor, vocalist), Philip Lewis and His Orchestra (a.k.a the Rhythm Maniacs, under the direction of Arthur Lally, with vocals by Maurice Elwin), Ronnie Munro and His Dance Orchestra (in the medley “Talkieland Selection Part 5”), and G. H. Elliott (accompanied by an Edison Bell Radio studio band directed by Harry Hudson).

The composer and lyricists of “Honey” are remembered for a number of other popular songs, many of which were featured in motion pictures.  Whiting, Gillespie, and Simons had already collaborated in writing “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze” in 1926, and that same year Whiting and Simons (without Gillespie) had produced “Hello Baby.”  Simons is perhaps best remembered for co-writing the 1931 song “All of Me” with Gerald Marks.  Haven Gillespie penned the lyrics to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in 1934, and in that same year Whiting would compose the song “Rock and Roll” (whose title seems to be the origin of name of the musical genre) and “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”  In 1937 he composed “Hooray for Hollywood” (with Johnny Mercer as his lyricist).  “Honey” would later appear in the 1945 movie “Her Highness and the Bellboy,” starring Hedy Lamarr.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” (1929)

“Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Music by Fats Waller and Harry Brooks, with lyrics by Andy Razaf (1929). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London, c. mid-October 1929. Dominion A. 215.

Elsie Carlisle – “Ain’t Misbehavin’”

Transfer  by Mick Johnson (YouTube)

For a song that has been recorded well over a thousand times over the better part of a century, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” seems particularly evocative of the time of its conception: the year 1929, in the months preceding the stock market crash. It was composed for an all-black musical revue called Hot Chocolates which was so popular with audiences at the popular Harlem speakeasy Connie’s Inn that it moved on to the Hudson Theatre on Broadway, where it had 219 performances. It was at Hudson Theatre during the run of Hot Chocolates that Louis Armstrong had a sort of Broadway debut; he played “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on the trumpet during intermissions.

Credited co-composer Harry Brooks, who has been occasionally dismissed as a mere arranger of the song for Hot Chocolates, would later explain that the tune of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was written in imitation of the beginning notes and bridge of Gershwin’s 1924 song “The Man I Love.” Fats Waller claimed that the title “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was a reference to his inability to misbehave in alimony jail, which is where he claimed to have composed the song. Andy Razaf, who outlived Waller by three decades, would later explain that Waller was misbehaving in misleading people: Razaf had come up with the title and the lyrics in Waller’s house in New York, where they finished the whole song in 45 minutes.

Elsie Carlisle sang other music with lyrics by Andy Razaf, including “My Man o’ War,” “The Porter’s Love Song,” “My Handy Man,” and “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More,” but whereas those songs lean towards naughtiness – misbehavin’, one might almost say – “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is charming in that it defines the qualities of fidelity and sincerity by alluding to their opposites. Elsie sounds fetchingly innocent as she declares her loyalty and denies any misconduct. Particularly touching is how she handles the upwards and downards progressions with the lyrics

Like Jack Horner
In the corner,
Don’t go nowhere.
What do I care?
Your kisses are worth waiting for,
Believe me.

It is ironic that Elsie’s recorded image would later make an unintentional appearance in what would appear to be a rather pornographic 1974 movie (I have not had the pleasure of seeing it myself) entitled Ain’t Misbehavin’,  in which old footage is used of her singing “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes,” along with Fats Waller singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose” (and Django Reinhardt playing Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” and who knows what else that appears in this article), all interspersed with vintage lewd footage – or so I am told.

In the summer of 1929 there were American recordings of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” by the Charleston Chasers (with vocals by Eva Taylor), Ben Selvin’s Bar Harbor Society Orchestra (going under the name “Jerry Mason and His Californians, with Irving Kaufman singing under the pseudonym “Robert Wood”), Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (Lew Conrad, vocalist), Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, Gene Austin, Ruth Etting, the California Ramblers (as the Golden Gate Orchestra), Irving Mills and His Hotsy Totsy Gang (with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson singing and tap-dancing), and Fess Williams and His Royal Flush Orchestra.

Composer Fats Waller recorded his own piano version of the piece on August 2, 1929 and would revisit it on a 1938 record made with his band (“Fats Waller and His Rhythm”) in which he sings the lyrics, but perhaps his most memorable performance is in the 1943 film Stormy Weather, made just before he died. It could be argued that he risked being upstaged by his own eyebrows in one scene.

Autumn 1929 saw British bands begin to record this Jazz Age anthem. On October 8, Jack Hylton and His Orchestra, with Sam Browne as their vocalist, made two records, one of standard length, the other a longer “concert arrangement” on a twelve-inch disc (Billy Ternent being the arranger); both versions involve recurrent allusions to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” That same day Bidgood’s Broadcasters also recorded “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and as the season progressed there were versions made by the Rhythmic Eight, Hal Swain’s Café Royal Band, Ambrose and His Orchestra (with vocalist Lou Abelardo, in a Lew Stone arrangement), Arthur Roseberry and His Dance Band (as Bert Maddison and His Dance Orchestra, with vocal refrain by Len Lees), Cecil and Leslie Norman’s Savoy Plaza Band (Cavan O’Connor, vocalist), Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (as Eugene Brockman’s Dance Orchestra), and Percival Mackey’s Band (with vocals by Billy Milton). Jim Kelleher’s Piccadilly Band recorded two takes of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that were never issued. In November, Harry Jacobson sang the song while playing the piano, accompanied by the Edison Bell studio orchestra directed by Harry Hudson (you may hear it in John Wright’s British Dance Band Show podcast #275, at 8:09). In this latter rendition, the band musically cites “Rhapsody in Blue” (at 9:35), much as Jack Hylton’s orchestra had done.

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

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