“Driftin’ Tide” (1934)

“Driftin’ Tide.” Words and music by Pat Castleton and Spencer Williams. Recorded in London on July 18, 1934 by Elsie Carlisle. Decca F-5122 mx. TB-1401-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “Driftin’ Tide” (1934)

Both bluesy and sophisticated, “Driftin’ Tide” is an unusually attractive tune by American Spencer Williams (composer of “Basin Street Blues” and “I’ve Found a New Baby,” among many other well known successes) and Pat Castleton (the stage name of British actress Agnes Muir Bage). Williams spent a lot of time working in England in the 1930s, and he and Castleton would go on to marry in 1936. The melody is one of those complex ones that defies the listener’s first attempts to hum it, and the lyrics are metrically unusual. On top of all of this, the title of the song appears a number of times in the lyrics, but in a grammatically jarring way — it would appear that the sea, the “driftin’ tide,” is being addressed by the singer in a moving expression of unrequited love — a “torch song.”

It seems appropriate that “Driftin’ Tide” should have been assigned to Elsie Carlisle, a veteran torch singer. She successfully applies her famous talent for sounding intermittently teared up to the song’s melancholy themes. I was surprised at how difficult it was to locate a copy of Carlisle’s record — it took me nine years — and it might seem that it did not sell very well. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the Ray Noble version of the song recorded the same day with Al Bowlly? The latter recording has a more interesting dance band arrangement, it must be admitted, but all the same I admire what the anonymous Decca studio band was able to do for Carlisle’s “solo” recording — it is an excellent example of the remarkable elegance one so often finds in her output from that time.

In Britain, in addition to the Elsie Carlisle and Ray Noble/Al Bowlly versions of “Driftin’ Tide,” there was a recording of the song by Pat Hyde, made two days later.

In America, an obscure trio named The Aces of the Air recorded “Driftin’ Tide” for radio broadcast in 1934. In 1935 versions were made by Alberta Hunter and Clark Randall (v. Clark Randall).

Elsie Carlisle’s 128th 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 recordings made with Ambrose and His Orchestra between 1932 and 1935 are among the best remembered, but one should remember that she recorded at least 332 record sides 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 well 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.