In a recording and broadcasting career of nearly two decades Elsie Carlisle collaborated with a number of notable British dance bands, and yet it would be hard to think of a bandleader whose name is more tied in the public memory to hers than Ambrose. Between 1932 and 1935 she made 38 recordings with his orchestra, more than with any other, often accompanied by Sam Browne. She was part of his ensemble at the May Fair Hotel and later at the Embassy Club, toured with the band, and perhaps most importantly, in her ascent to become “the Idol of the Radio,” she broadcast frequently with them.
Benjamin Baruch Ambrose (September 15, 1896-June 11, 1971) claimed in later life to have been born in East London, but there is strong evidence that he was born in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire) and moved to London with his family as a child. He was encouraged by his father to learn to play the violin. When the Zeppelin attacks on London began in the First World War, his family sent him to live with his aunt in New York, where he became a musician at the elite Palais Royal cabaret, and then, somewhat serendipitously, a conductor, while still a teenager. It was at this time that he adopted the name “Bertram” or “Bert” Ambrose (though really everyone always just called him “Ambrose”), and he formed his own band.
In 1922 he returned to London, where he formed a small band based out of the Embassy Club, and in 1923 he made his first recording for Columbia. In 1924 he returned to New York for a year, after which time he returned to the Embassy Club in London, where he stayed until 1927, at which point he moved to the May Fair Hotel, an attractive venue which provided broadcasting opportunities. 1933 saw him return to the Embassy Club; in 1936 he returned again to the May Fair. This vacillation between employers seems baffling if one does not consider that this was a man who knew his worth and whose talent was obvious to all; he was in great demand and could threaten to move and follow through on the threat if his contract was not satisfactory to him and his men. Over the years, he surrounded himself with such accomplished musicians as Max Goldberg, Sylvester Ahola, and Bert Read, and his Orchestra has been termed “the Rolls-Royce of British dance bands.”
In 1937 Ambrose went in with American-born bandleader Jack Harris on buying Ciro’s Club, and they traded off playing there with their orchestras and even employed legendary American pianist Art Tatum for a number of months. When his relationship with Jack Harris went sour, however, Ambrose moved his operations to the Café de Paris, and when war broke out, he went on tour. As the war progressed and his health began to fail, Ambrose began to wind down his bandleading activities, but he did not cease entirely until 1956, by which time the dance band genre was well out of style. After this point he restyled himself as a talent scout and manager and discovered blonde bombshell Kathy Kirby, whom he represented and with whom he had a romantic relationship. It was at one of her television broadcasts in 1971 that he collapsed; he died later that night.
Elsie Carlisle is only one of many notable dance band singers associated with the Ambrose Orchestra. Sam Browne’s recording and broadcasting with Ambrose was beyond prolific. Other noteworthy Ambrose vocalists were Phyllis Robbins, Evelyn Dall, Vera Lynn, Anne Shelton, and Denny Dennis.
Happy birthday, Ambrose!
There survives a part of a 1965 BBC Desert Island Discs interview with Ambrose that is well work listening to. In it he discusses his origins and a great part of his career.