Photographs of Elsie Carlisle in the 1930s

Terry Brown was kind enough to share these photographs of Elsie in the 1930s with me. Click or tap on any of them to open the gallery:

 

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” (1935)

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter.” Words and music by Maurice Sigler, Al Goodhart, and Al Hoffman (1935). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle, accompanied by The Embassy Rhythm Eight, in London on February 15, 1935. Decca F. 5456 mx. GB6979-1.

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – "I'm Afraid to Open Your Letter" (1935)

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – “I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” (1935)

Like the song on the reverse side of the record (“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance”), “I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” is about a woman receiving a piece of mail and then deliberating, hesitating, and agonizing. In the case of this song, however, the conceit is even simpler, for as the song’s title and the singer repeatedly tell us, she does not open the letter that she has received from her lover, fearing that it is a breakup letter. She tells us nothing about her relationship or her reasons for expecting its dissolution.

Lyrics of such a basic and uncomplicated nature could prove a challenge for any singer; it is hard to repeat the same idea again and again, using virtually the same words, and still to seem sincere. Elsie Carlisle pulls it off, relying both on the inherent sweetness of her voice and on her uncanny ability to evoke with a quavering voice the idea of a weepy girl.  As is so often the case, Elsie’s success in evoking sympathy is rooted in her being not just a singer but a vocal actress.

It is rare for two songs so closely united in subject matter and tone as “I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” and “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” to end up on either side of a 78 rpm record. For the most part, the pairing of songs on a record seems entirely serendipitous. On both sides Elsie’s elegant interpretation of simple lyrics is complemented nicely by the playing of The Embassy Rhythm Eight, a studio recording band consisting of members of the Ambrose Orchestra.

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” was written by three composers well-represented in Elsie Carlisle’s songbook. Maurice Sigler was a collaborator on “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day”; Al Goodhart co-wrote “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Who Walks In When I Walk Out?”; Al Hoffman contributed to all three songs, as well as to “My Darling”; and all three men collaborated on “Rehearsing a Lullaby,” which Elsie would record later in 1935.

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” was recorded in America in 1935 by Don Bestor and His Orchestra. In Britain recordings were made by the Casani Club Orchestra (under the direction of Charlie Kunz, with vocals by George Barclay), Teddy Joyce and His Dance Music (with vocals by the Four Smith Brothers), Phyllis Robins, Ann Summers, and Primo Scala’s Accordion Band (in a medley).

“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” (1935)

“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance.” Words and music by Marty Symes, Al J. Neiburg, and Jerry Levinson (1934). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with the Embassy [Rhythm] Eight in London on February 15, 1935. Decca F. 5456 mx. GB6978-1.

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – "I've Got an Invitation to a Dance" (1935)

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” (1935)

“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” is the plaintive report of a woman who is reluctant to go to a party that might feature her ex-boyfriend (or possibly even fiancé), accompanied by a new sweetheart. Because she is hopeful for a possible reconciliation, her main concern is to prevent awkward gossip. The focus on idle talk in the context of a breakup might remind us of Elsie Carlisle’s 1933 recordings of “It’s the Talk of the Town,” and in fact that song had the same three composers.1

Elsie imbues the argument of “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” with poignancy while developing a vocal persona strong enough to make up for the vagueness of the lyrics. We do not know, for example, whom the woman blames for the breakup or any of its circumstances. Elsie seems to deliberate over each syllable to reveal what we do know about her character’s motivations, namely her desire to be reunited with her lover.

The melancholy  atmosphere is enhanced by the elegant but subdued playing of The Embassy Rhythm Eight (mentioned on the label simply as The Embassy Eight), a studio recording band made up of core members of the Ambrose Orchestra. I should note that on this record (unlike the one with “Whisper Sweet” and “Dancing with My Shadow,” songs for which The Embassy Rhythm Eight almost certainly played the accompaniment), both Elsie Carlisle and the band are credited on the label — a very rare occurrence. Elsie’s records are almost perfectly divided into groups that mention her name and not the band, or that mention the band and not her. Perhaps the Embassy Rhythm Eight, which had been recently formed, wanted the extra publicity.

“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” was recorded in America in 1934 by the Casa Loma Orchestra (with vocalist Kenny Sargent), Hal Kemp and His Orchestra, Paul Pendarvis and His Orchestra (with vocals by Eddie Scope), the Will Osborne Orchestra (with vocals by Will Osborne), Ruth Etting, and A. Ferdinando and His Orchestra.

British versions of “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” were made in 1935 by Roy Fox and His Band (with vocalist Denny Dennis), Billy Cotton and His Band (with vocals by Harold “Chips” Chippendall), Jay Wilbur and His Band (with singer Cyril Grantham), the New Grosvenor House Band (under director Sydney Lipton, with vocalist Gerry Fitzgerald), Lou Preager and His Romano’s Restaurant Dance Orchestra (with vocal refrain by Pat Hyde), and Scott Wood and His Orchestra (in a medley).

Notes:

  1. In addition to composing “It’s the Talk of the Town” and “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance,” Symes, Neiburg, and Levinson also collaborated on the 1935 “Star Gazing,” and Symes wrote the lyrics to “Somebody’s Thinking of You Tonight,” which Elsie would record in 1938.

Elsie Carlisle’s 121st 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 38 recordings made with Ambrose and His Orchestra between 1932 and 1935 are among the best remembered, but one should remember that she made at least 342 recordings 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 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.

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

Send this to a friend