“Is There Anything Wrong in That?” Words by Herb Magidson, music by Michael H. Cleary (1928). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with accompaniment by Jay Wilbur’s Orchestra in London c. February 1929. Dominion A. 83 mx. 1148-2.
Personnel: Max Goldberg-Bill Shakespeare-t / Tony Thorpe-tb / Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-as-ts / Norman Cole-vn / Billy Thorburn-p / Dave Thomas or Bert Thomas-bj-g / Harry Evans-bb-sb / Jack Kosky-d
Little Elsie has tried two extreme opposites this month. “Dreaming of To-morrow” is a rhythmical but sentimental number. The other one is of the “Naughty” type; it fits Elsie like a glove and is just the thing for everyone (except your maiden aunt).1
In “Is There Anything Wrong in That?” the singer repeatedly expresses hesitance, doubt, and more than anything, ignorance with regard to basic questions of morality. She explains, “I can’t tell the bad things from the good,” and “I can’t tell the naughty from the nice.” Her misdeeds appear to consist of taking gifts in exchange for sexual favors; she also seems to use her attractiveness to facilitate the theft of a fur-lined coat and a Cadillac!
The most familiar recordings of this song are by Helen Kane and Annette Hanshaw, both of whom use the persona of a Bronx-accented baby vamp. Their exaggerated little girl voices complement their bogus claims of ignorance and innocence. Elsie Carlisle, by contrast, uses an adult voice, so the comic effect is more subtle. Elsie sings mostly in a parlando style, where the delivery of the lines is close to natural speech. Her more natural intonation gives her leeway to emphasize the lyrics’ ridiculous statements.
“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four.” Words by Eric Maschwitz, music by George Posford. Composed for the Eric Maschwitz revue New Faces (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on February 10, 1941. Rex 9934.
“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” has its origins in the 1940 revue New Faces, which is also where “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” was introduced. The lyrics describe a woman’s happy memory of a night spent with her lover in a luxury hotel too expensive for either of them. She describes the night as “her very first and only rendezvous,” and for good reason: this comparatively wholesome song is about a honeymoon, not a tryst. It is tame, therefore, by the standards of Elsie Carlisle’s songbook, which includes not just “My Man o’ War” but also “Public Sweetheart No. 1.”
Elsie Carlisle committed “Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” to shellac in her last year of recording. While I generally prefer the underlying compositions of her earlier period, it is delightful to hear her voice on her later Rex-label records. Elsie’s later style of singing seems slightly more confident, and the crisp beauty of her voice is made even more evident by the more modern recording techniques available by that time — in spite of Rex’s reputation for “crackly” shellac. The studio band’s virtuosity is showcased nicely in their rather swingy instrumental segment.
“To Be Worthy of You” was composed in 1931 by Benny Davis and John Frederick Coots. Davis had written the successful standard “Baby Face” back in 1926, and Coots would go on to co-write the best-selling “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” in 19341 “To Be Worthy of You” did not have the staying power that those other songs enjoyed. Indeed, the melody falls short of being particularly infectious or compelling, and the lyrics initially seem gushy. I do think, however, that the words express sentiments that are comparatively deep for a popular song, and that Elsie Carlisle’s version is a rather elegant realization of the song’s possibilities.
At first it would seem that Elsie is merely expressing her satisfaction at having found a love partner whose merits are so great that she feels scarcely worthy of having him. In fact, she is rejoicing in having resolved to be a better person: “Watch the way that I’ll come through / To be worthy of you.” The idea of being transported, not just with the joy of love, but also with delight at having discovered in another person the means of self-improvement, is really extraordinary.
Elsie’s singing in this comparatively simple arrangement is nothing if not refined. Her anonymous accompaniment is also noteworthy, in particular the pianist, whom Richard J. Johnson tentatively identifies as Bert Read2, a constant fixture at Elsie’s recording sessions (especially in his role as an Ambrose man). Whatever this pianist’s identity, his flourishes contribute a great deal to the overall bright, crisp sound of the recording and to the idea that we are dealing in this piece with an elevated mental state.