Bands & Directors

“Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” (two versions; 1934)

If risqué elements constitute one of the primary attractions of interwar Anglophone popular music for modern audiences (think “Pu-leeze! Mister Hemingway”), perhaps the sentimental might be seen as the ingredient most likely to repel us. Lullabies and songs about nursery rhymes abound, especially in the 1930s: even in Elsie Carlisle’s repertoire, we have “This Little Piggie Went to Market,” “Who Made Little Boy Blue?” “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire,” and “Little Drummer Boy” — among the more obvious examples. And yet there are very good recordings of these kinds of songs that explore the compelling potential of childhood themes. For me, perhaps, the most moving examples are Carlisle’s two recordings of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” one done with an anonymous studio orchestra, the other with Ambrose.

“Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.”  Words by Maurice Sigler and Al Hoffman, music by Mabel Wayne (1934).  Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on May 18, 1934.  Decca F-3990 mx. TB-1258-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” (1934)

Because of its “solo” format, Elsie Carlisle’s Decca recording of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” has a complete set of lyrics and some additional maternal bedside chatter. This is clearly not a recording aimed at a child audience, however; its evocation of feminine tenderness is the sort of thing that would appeal to grown-ups. Incidentally, the anonymous Decca studio band is particularly good in this number; they achieve memorable instrumental moments without ever upstaging Carlisle.

“Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.” Recorded in London on June 12, 1934 by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocalist Elsie Carlisle. Brunwick 01790 mx. TB-1295-3.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-t-mel / Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-Tony Thorpe-tb / Danny Polo-Sid Phillips-cl-as-bar / Joe Jeanette-as / Billy Amstell-cl-ts / Ernie Lewis-Reg Pursglove-sometimes others-vn / Bert Barnes-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Dick Ball-sb / Max Bacon-d / Elsie Carlisle-v

Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day”

Ambrose’s version of “Little Man” benefits from a particularly sophisticated arrangement and a predictably elegant execution. Carlisle’s vocal refrain is incredibly precious and memorable. I would have imagined this record was a best-seller if I did not know how hard it was to find it! Admittedly, that seems to be a general problem with Ambrose’s Brunswick issues.

Elsie Carlisle does appear to have succeeded in being linked in the public’s mind with “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” as it appears in her 1937 Elsie Carlisle Medley, which functions as a sort of “greatest hits” compilation.

In America that year, “Little Man” was made popular by the Pickens Sisters, Isham Jones and His Orchestra (with vocals by Eddie Stone),  Connee Boswell, and Paul Robeson.  Interpretations by British orchestras include those by Roy Fox and His Band (with vocals by Denny Dennis, in a Jack Nathan arrangement; they would revisit the song later in the year in a “Fox Favourites” medley), Billy Cotton and His Band (with vocalist Alan Breeze), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (with Al Bowlly), Jack Payne and His Band (with Jack Payne providing the vocals), The Casani Club Orchestra (directed by Charlie Kunz, with vocalist Dawn Davis)The BBC Dance Orchestra (directed by Henry Hall, with vocals by Kitty Masters, in a Phil Cardew arrangement), Harry Leader and His Band, and Eddie Wood and His Band.  Other British vocalists who recorded “Little Man” that year include Phyllis Robins, Gracie Fields, and Donald Peers.

“You’ll Find Out” (1932)

“You’ll Find Out.” Words and music composed by Archie Gottler and Betty Treynor (a pseudonym of Lawrence Wright) for On with the Show. Recorded in London on June 15, 1932 by Ray Starita and His Ambassadors with vocalists Elsie Carlisle and Sam Browne. Sterno 984 mx. S-2477-2.

Personnel: Ray Starita-cl-ts dir. Nat Gonella-t / t / tb / prob. Chester Smith-cl-as-bar-o / Nat Star-cl-as / George Glover-cl-ts-vn / George Hurley-vn / Harry Robens-p / George Oliver-bj-g / Arthur Calkin-sb / Rudy Starita-d

Ray Starita and his Ambassadors – You’ll Find Out – 1932

Transfer by Henry Parsons

Between 1932 and 1937, Elsie Carlisle would make some 42 record sides with Sam Browne, most famously with Ambrose and His Orchestra, but occasionally also with other bands. The two singers became best known for on-shellac vituperative bickering (the best examples being found in “Seven Years with the Wrong Woman,” “What’s Good for the Goose Is Good for the Gander,” and “I’m Gonna Wash My Hands of You”). But their fictional relationships could be much more playful and subtle, as we see here in “You’ll Find Out,” which they recorded with Ray Starita’s band.

“You’ll Find Out” was a joint composition of American songwriter Archie Gottler and the prolific British composer Lawrence Wright, who most frequently used the pseudonym “Horatio Nicholls.” (His pseudonym used here — “Betty Treynor” — may have been a one-off.) As far as I can tell, this West End musical song was only recorded one other time; that recording, from April 1932, featured Sam Browne with Billie Lockwood under the Zonophone pseudonyms “Jack and Jill.” Now, “Jack and Jill” numbers, while delightful, tend to be comparatively sedate, and that is definitely the case with the Browne-Lockwood version. The two singers slowly take their turns delivering the increasingly suggestive lyrics, leaving the song’s comic sensibility underdeveloped.

Browne and Carlisle, in the Ray Starita recording of the song, uncover the composition’s potential. Part of their success is due to an audible chemistry that few duettists could match. But just as important is their phrasing as they deliver the lyrics. The joke of the song is that the young couple asks each other questions that seem to answer themselves: “What do lovers do out in the moonlight?” “What will we do evenings when it’s raining?” Supposing I must leave you for a week or two / And you haven’t got as single thing to do / How would you spend all those lonesome evenings?” Answered with “You’ll find out!” the questions suggest sex, infidelity, and the like.

The repeated punchline risks seeming monotonous. But we hear Sam and Elsie breaking up that monotony by altering the line “You’ll find out” in such a way as to dramatize it. “You’ll find out” gives way to “Ah! You’ll find out…”; “Could I? You’ll find out!”; “Oh, but…you’ll find out!”; “It is! You’ll find out…”; “Hmm… You’ll find out!” and finally, “Try and find out!” By varying the response, they produce something resembling a witty, funny conversation.

The vocal chorus is unusually long in this dance band recording, and the arrangement is remarkably sophisticated. Ray Starita’s musicians remain comparatively quiet during the vocal refrain, but as it progresses they build momentum and come in strong at the end. Starita’s band was brassless at the time, and one gets the sense from the powerful sax section work in “You’ll Find Out” that the orchestra could execute a dynamically scored arrangement without  trumpets and trombone — instruments added only for recording purposes in Starita’s 1932 British Homophone sessions.1

Notes:

  1. My thanks to Henry Parsons for reminding me of this latter point.

“Rock Your Cares Away” (1932)

“Rock Your Cares Away.” Words and music by Leonard Blitz (as Leo Towers), Harry Sugarman (as Harry Leon), Lawrence Wright (as Horatio Nicholls) (1932). 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

Elsie Carlisle – “Rock Your Cares Away” (1932)

It is a little difficult to taxonomize this recording of “Rock Your Cares Away” by bandleader. It is clearly Ray Starita’s band, as is indicated on the label of the Sterno recording made at the same session (Sterno and 4 in 1 were both products of the British Homophone Company), but Ray had not returned from a vacation to America the previous summer and so could not have directed the music. The 4 in 1 record from the session mentions not Ray, but his brother Rudy Starita, the percussionist who did eventually take over control of the band from his brother. And yet Rust and Forbes think it likely that this particular session was led by Nat Star, who was generally in charge of dance music at Homophone.1

Whoever directed it, the result was a memorable piece of lively dance band music. The lyrics of “Rock Your Cares Away” exhort us to cast away gloom, live in the moment, and “…rock [our] cares away / In a cradle of dreams.” The Star/Starita 4 in 1 version is uptempo; Elsie Carlisle’s vocal refrain, while brief, is memorable for its ebullience. Her enthusiastic delivery is infectious and evocative of a carefree mental state, and she gets across the song’s message through raw energy rather than mere earnestness.

“Rock Your Cares Away” was also recorded in 1932 by Billy Cotton and His Band (v. Cyril Grantham), Ray Noble and His New Mayfair Orchestra (v. Al Bowlly), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Pat O’Malley), and Ambrose and His Orchestra (with an unidentified vocalist).

Notes:

  1. Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes. British Dance Bands on Record, 1911 to 1945, and Supplement. Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, Ltd., 1989, 1021-1022.

“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
Embarrassed 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.

“He’s Not Worth Your Tears” (1931)

“He’s Not Worth Your Tears.” Words by Mort Dixon and Billy Rose, music by Harry Warren; composed for the musical Sweet and Low (1930). Recorded in London on February 25, 1931 by Elsie Carlisle (as Gracie Collins) under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur. Eclipse 50 mx. JW-173-3.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Max Goldberg-Bill Shakespeare-t / Ted Heath or Tony Thorpe-tb / Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / Norman Cole-?another-vn / Billy Thorburn or Pat Dodd-p / Bert Thomas-g / Harry Evans-sb / Jack Kosky-d

He’s Not Worth Your Tears – Gracie Collins (Elsie Carlisle) – Eclipse 50

Transfer by Jonathan David Holmes

Sheet music and record labels assert that “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” originated in the 1930 Broadway revue Sweet and Low, and yet sources for original casts and the like omit the song.1 Perhaps it was cut from the show but continued to be marketed as having been in it? At any rate, it was recorded by quite a few artists, Elsie Carlisle among them. This is her only record side with the budget Eclipse label (sold in Woolworth’s), and one of only four small, eight-inch records that she ever made.

This song showcases Elsie as a torch singer capable of appealing to our deepest sympathies for whatever lost or unrequited love she claims to have experienced. And yet this torch song has a bit of a twist: Elsie is not complaining so much about the lover who left her as the people who are trying to comfort her. “He’s not worth your tears,” they tell her to her annoyance. I find the lyrics of the B part particularly memorable:

They never bother an old weeping willow —
They leave it drooping there.
So if I want to confide in my pillow,
Why should strangers care?

Elsie is at her most mournful in this song. There is something deeply attractive about the way that her voice sounds as if it is about to break, but never does. I have listed the personnel that Richard J. Johnson identifies as having made up Jay Wilbur’s studio band at the time,2 but I only hear a pianist and a trumpet player; the latter has a short but memorable solo.

Eclipse 50 was the second Elsie Carlisle record that I ever bought. I put off sharing a transfer of it because my copy is rather worn and I was hoping to find a better one, but it would appear that this is a comparatively rare record. I was very pleased when Jonathan Holmes found a good copy and shared it on YouTube; his transfer is the one used at the beginning of the article. Readers might like to compare my copy, though, as it is take 2, not take 3, and there are interesting little differences in the pacing:

“He’s Not Worth Your Tears.” Recorded in London on February 25, 1931 by Elsie Carlisle (as Gracie Collins) under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur. Eclipse 50 mx. JW-173-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” (1931)

Elsie used the pseudonym Gracie Collins on Eclipse 50; the reverse side, “Homesick Blues,” is also supposed to be by Gracie Collins, but it clearly has Betty Bolton’s voice. If that is not confusing enough — having two very different singers pretending to have sung both sides of one record — there also exists a take 1 of “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” that was recorded by a singer named Elaine Rosslyn. I have not heard it myself.3

In America in 1930-1931 there were versions of “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” recorded by Doris Robbins, Marion Harris, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (v. Helen Rowland), Aileen Stanley (two takes rejected by Victor), Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (v. Mildred Bailey), and Ben Selvin and His Orchestra (v. Helen Rowland).

There were British dance band versions in 1931 by Jack Harris and His Orchestra (“She’s Not Worth Your Tears” — apparently mislabeled as “It’s Not Worth Your Tears”; v. Cavan O’Connor) and by the Debroy Somers Band (also “She’s Not Worth Your Tears”; v. Dan Donovan).

Notes:

  1. E.g., The Guide to Musical Theatre.
  2. Richard J.  Johnson, Elsie Carlisle: A Discography, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire: Richard J. Johnson, 1994, 12.
  3. For more about Eclipse’s “Gracie Collins” pseudonym, see Arthur Badrock’s comments in Talking Machine Review 88 (Autumn/Winter 1994): 2559-2560.

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