“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
Elsie Carlisle – "Is There Anything Wrong in That?" (1929)
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.
“Deep in a Dream.” Words by Eddie De Lange, music by Jimmy Van Heusen (1938). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of George Scott-Wood at Studio 1, Abbey Road, London on February 1, 1939. HMV B.D. 663 mx. OEA7519-1.
In “Deep in a Dream,” the singer depicts herself sitting in a dark room, smoking and getting drowsy as she remembers a lover who is now inaccessible — whether through distance, dissolution of the romance, or death, we do not really know. The lost lover’s descent on a smoke staircase (as described in the lyrics) might suggest a quirky sort of descent from heaven. At any rate, the genuinely dreamy music swells as the memories of happier times are revived (“Awake or asleep, every memory I’ll keep / Deep in a dream of you”). The reverie ends when the cigarette burns the singer’s fingers and wakes her. To my knowledge, while this is one of three Jimmy Van Heusen songs written in 1938-1939 involving dreams1, it is the only one that uses the absence of fire safety as a plot point.
The lyrics of “Deep in a Dream” leave us in the dark as to what has happened between the two lovers. Elsie Carlisle’s interpretation is successful because she evokes the melancholy of the dark, smoky room, only to imbue her dream with a truly ecstatic spirit. She seems content to express alternating strong emotions, rather than to establish some sort of vocal character, as she often does. The anonymous studio band (led by director George Scott-Wood) complements Elsie’s singing nicely, contributing to this decidedly atmospheric piece.
On February 25, 1930, Broadway writer and producer Lew Leslie opened his *International Revue* at the Majestic Theatre in New York City. One would have expected a show backed by the mastermind of the wildly popular *Blackbirds* revues, choreographed by Busby Berkeley, and with music by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, to be quite a success, but it had a comparatively short run of 95 performances, the last being on May 17, 1930. The lasting legacy of this well-funded flop consists of two songs: “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” introduced by Harry Richman, and “Exactly Like You,” sung in the revue by Richman and British actress Gertrude Lawrence.
In “Exactly Like You,” the singer describes the joy of having had an ideal preconception of love that has suddenly become realized in the form of the song’s addressee. The lyrics use turns of phrase suited to dramatic interpretation:
You make me feel so grand,
I want to hand the world to you.
You seem to understand
Each foolish little scheme I’m scheming,
Dream I’m dreaming.
The music is extraordinarily catchy but presents the singer with quite a challenge in its range (an octave and a fifth).
Elsie Carlisle was up to the task. A veteran of musical theater, she had, of course, introduced Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” just the previous year, and it has an identical range. She works her way through the melody’s fourth intervals with dexterity, all the while giving the impression that she is on the verge of faltering. Hers was never a weak voice, but she was an actress who knew the power of the semblance of vulnerability. In the end, while the lyrics argue that we should be impressed by her lover, her overall vocal performance might lead us to admire the character that she has created, some anonymous small person who, prone to sadness, has the sudden opportunity to express great joy. I have argued elsewhere that Elsie did not simply interpret songs; she augmented them by creating comparatively advanced vocal personas that change greatly from song to song.
Elsie’s virtuoso performance is nicely complemented by the memorable instrumental accompaniment put together by Jay Wilbur, a bandleader who was also musical director at Imperial at the time. This was, incidentally, Elsie’s first recording session at Imperial, but she had worked previously with Wilbur at Dominion Records before it went bankrupt. She and the band recorded three different takes of “Exactly Like You” at their session in August 1930. It is worth comparing the slightly different instrumentals of take 2 (above) with take 1:
The lyrics of “It’s the Talk of the Town” present a delicate situation: a couple engaged to be married has broken up after having already sent out wedding invitations. The song could be considered a torch song, but it is an atypical one, insofar as the singer’s argument for reconciliation rests less on passionate desire than on feelings of personal embarrassment resulting from gossip, the refrain being “Everybody knows you left me: it’s the talk of the town.”
Elsie Carlisle recorded three takes of “It’s the Talk of the Town” with Ambrose and His Orchestra on October 10, 1933, but they were rejected by Brunswick. On the morning of October 13, she made a successful recording for Decca with an eight-person band whose makeup is unknown but which probably contained Ambrose men:
“It’s the Talk of the Town.” Music by Jerry Levinson, words by Marty Symes and Al J. Neiburg (1933). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment in London on October 13, 1933. Decca F. 3696 mx. GB6186-1.
Elsie Carlisle – "It's the Talk of the Town" (1933)
In the early afternoon of the same day, Elsie would make her more famous and instrumentally more compelling recording of the song with Ambrose and His Orchestra. In this version, the emphasis on social awkwardness is highlighted by the band members’ snarling whisper: “IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN!”:
“It’s the Talk of the Town.” Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie Carlisle in London on October 13, 1933. Brunswick 01607 mx. GB6175-4.
Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-t-mel / Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-Tony Thorpe-tb / Danny Polo-reeds / Sid Phillips-reeds / Joe Jeannette-as / Billy Amstell-reeds / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Dick Ball-sb / Max Bacon-d (also humming and speaking by members of the orchestra)
Ambrose and His Orchestra (w. Elsie Carlisle) – "It's the Talk of the Town" (1933)
“It’s the Talk of the Town” was one of two hits written in 1933 by the team of Levinson, Symes, and Neiburg, the other being “Under a Blanket of Blue.” Neiburg had three years earlier penned the lyrics to “(I’m) Confessin’ (That I Love You),” and Levinson (under the name “Livingston”) went on in later decades to compose noteworthy music for movies and television, although his role in composing the 1943 novelty song “Mairzy Doats” should not be forgotten.