“Mad about the Boy” (1932)

“Mad about the Boy.” Words and music by Noël Coward for the 1932 revue Words and Music. Recorded in London on November 5, 1932 by Rudy Starita and His Ambassadors with vocalist Elsie Carlisle. 4 in 1 – 17 mx. X-218-2.

Personnel: probably Nat Star-cl-as dir. / Nat Gonella-t / t / tb / cl-as / cl-ts / vn / p / bj-g / bb-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x

Rudy Starita and His Ambassadors (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “Mad About the Boy” (1932)

“Mad about the Boy” must be one of Sir Noël Coward’s most successful compositions, especially if we measure success by the fact that the song continues to be recorded and even used in advertising many decades after its debut on the London stage. It originated in the 1932 revue Words and Music, whose words, music, script, and direction were all done by Coward himself; the show included other memorable songs such as “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Let’s Say Goodbye.” “Mad about the Boy” was sung on stage by a cast of female characters — a society lady, a prostitute, a schoolgirl, and a Cockney servant — who describe their passion for a movie star as they wait in line to see one of his films. The lyrics are predictably witty, using a surprising variety of rhymes for the monosyllables “mad” and “boy”.1

It is not clear whether the song was meant to reference a specific film actor. A great deal of effort has been put into identifying an unrequited real-life crush that Coward is said to have had on some American actor (the name Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. comes up frequently). Coward may have contributed to the idea that the song had a homosexual theme by writing verses for a businessman character to sing in the New York version:

…I’m mad about the boy
And even Doctor Freud cannot explain
Those vexing dreams
I’ve had about the boy.
When I told my wife
She said
“I never heard such nonsense in my life!”
Her lack of sympathy
Embarassed me
And made me frankly glad about the boy.

(The character was cut from the production — the idea may have been too risqué for its time.)2 I find it ultimately unnecessary, however, to assume that the “boy” of “Mad about the Boy” must have a specific, real-world analogue — in any case, infatuation with an inaccessible celebrity is a very common occurrence.

Elsie Carlisle’s versions of “Mad about the Boy” were made with Ray Starita’s band, but in the bandleader’s absence — Ray had gone on vacation to America in the summer of 1932 and never returned to England. There are quite a few records whose labels read “Ray Starita and His Ambassadors” that were likely made without him; one of the records with “Mad about the Boy” on them (4 in 1 – 17) is the first to specifically mention Ray’s brother Rudy Starita instead. Yet Rust and Forbes hesitate to say that Rudy was actually the musical director for that session, writing that it was probably Nat Star who played that role.3 It should be noted that the band and Elsie recorded takes for two records of “Mad about the Boy” that day, a Sterno and a 4 in 1 (both products of the British Homophone Company).

The other dance bands’ arrangements of “Mad about the Boy” exclusively used the society lady’s lines from the Words and Music review. For some reason, the Starita band had Elsie sing the prostitute’s verse, which is rather more edgy:

I’m hardly sentimental;
Love isn’t so sublime.
I have to pay my rental,
And I can’t afford to waste much time.

Elsie’s alternately weepy and enraptured vocal complements the band’s funereally melancholy yet infectiously catchy treatment of the tune. Her evocation of a street-walker’s brooding obsession with a Hollywood persona is really quite convincing.

Other British bands who recorded “Mad About the Boy” in 1932 were Ray Noble and His New Mayfair Orchestra, who did an instrumental version and included it in Words and Music medley, the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (dir. Carroll Gibbons / v. Cecile Petrie), the Debroy Somers Band (in a Words and Music medley), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Phyllis Robins), The Blue Lyres (dir. Bert Ambrose / v. Anona Winn), and The Blue Mountaineers (v. Sam Browne). In 1932 Coward’s close friend and professional associate Gertrude Lawrence would record a version that includes the society lady’s intro. Coward himself recorded “Mad about the Boy” in 1932, but his version was not issued during his lifetime.

Notes:

  1. Stephen Citron. Noel and Cole: The Sophisticates. United Kingdom: Hal Leonard, 2005, 318.
  2. Sheridan Morely. Noël Coward. London: Haus, 2005, 57.
  3. Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes. British Dance Bands on Record, 1911 to 1945, and Supplement. Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, Ltd., 1989, 1021-1022.

Anniversary of Elsie Carlisle’s Death

Elsie Carlisle passed from this world on September 5, 1977, dying of cancer at the age of 81 in the Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea, London. The informant who signed the death certificate was Wilfred “Willie” Ypres Carlisle, one of her two sons, who gave as his own address the same one that she had been living at for the previous four decades, 8 Deanery Street, in the posh Mayfair district. She is described in the document as “A Theatrical Artist (retired)” and “Widow of Wilfred Malpas.”

The era of British dance band music was long over, and she had lived in great privacy for many years. It was four days before the London Times took notice of Elsie Carlisle’s death, when they printed an abbreviated eulogy:

Elsie Carlisle, who was a notable crooner of the 1930s, has died. Born in Manchester she was an established name by the time she was 16. She appeared in many Royal Command performances, among her song title hits being “No, no, a Thousand Times, No!” and “Little Drummer Boy”. For four years she was partnered by Sam Brown [sic] but they split up in 1935.

By contrast, during the interwar years the praise showered upon Elsie’s talent and winning personality was far more effusive. In 1921, almost five years before Elsie made her first radio broadcast, she earned the following review from the Angus Evening Telegraph for her performance in a Dundee production of the play French Beans:

An ideal Cupid is Elsie Carlisle, who entertains as much with her bewitching personality as with her charming voice. She has a knack of getting to the heart of her audience, and it seemed as though she were not to be allowed to make her bow last night.

In 1926, Elsie began both to sing on the radio and to make records, and her increasingly nationally recognized celebrity attracted ever more fanciful epithets. In 1927 she was a “charming microphone personality.” By 1934 she had become “the champion mezzo-soprano crooner” and “Your Radio Favourite.” In 1936, surveys showed her to be the public’s favorite female radio singer, and she earned the oft-repeated title “Idol of the Radio,” a status she enjoyed for several years. In November 1939, Radio Pictorial famously dubbed her “Radio Sweetheart No. 1,” and in 1941, the penultimate year of her making records, the Hull Daily Mail was still calling her “the charming songstress of the radio.”

Elsie was not only known for her solo work, of course. Her name is closely associated with the elite Ambrose Orchestra (with whom she recorded the still-popular songs “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” “Pu-leeze! Mister Hemingway!” and “You’ve Got Me Crying Again”), but some of her best work was done with other bands, such as the Rhythm Maniacs (under the direction of Arthur Lally), Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band, and Jack Harris and His Orchestra. She was also frequently paired with the singer Sam Browne, with whom she  recorded duets in the early 1930s.

In 1940-1941, nearing the end of her professional career, Elsie toured the country with a troupe of younger entertainers. The draw that her name exerted is attested by the fact that the group called itself “The Carlisle Express.” She stopped making records in 1942, but she was still  on stage and continued making broadcasts through 1945. After this point she almost completely dropped out of the public eye, but it is worth noting that that was true of most dance band personalities; the genre did not really survive the war. Her attention shifted to business ventures, including a ballroom in London and an inn in Berkshire.

It was not only for stage, broadcasting, and recording that Elsie was known; she also worked in other media. In addition to making short but amusing appearances singing in a number of films, Elsie was an early television star, appearing first on the crude Baird system in 1930, and she continued to pop up on TV as the technology improved during the 1930s. In the early 1950s, she did a television interview accompanied by Ambrose and then disappeared utterly from public view until 1973, when she appeared on the Denis Norden program Looks Familiar. She was to return to that show in 1975. 1

An erstwhile child actress who rose to striking celebrity and dominated the airwaves for nearly twenty years, Elsie Carlisle ended her days in comparative obscurity, but those who had worked with her remembered her not just as a great musical talent, but as a warm, fun, and charitable person. In the words of accompanist Bert Read, writing in the months following her death: “I shall always retain the warmest memories of a fine artiste and a gentle, compassionate, woman.  R.I.P.”

Notes:

  1. David Weavings tells me that he saw the 1973 appearance of Elsie Carlisle on Looks Familiar, and that Denis Norden was able to convince Elsie to sing the first line of “My Man o’ War.”

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