“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
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.
“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
“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
“I never heard such nonsense in my life!”
Her lack of sympathy
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.
“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
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 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
“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” Words and music by Harry Woods and Billy Hill (the latter using the pseudonym George Brown; 1932). Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra (with vocals by Elsie Carlisle) on July 13, 1932. HMV B-6210 mx. OB-3134-1.
Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-tb / Joe Crossman-Billy Amstell-Joe Jeannete-reeds / Harry Hines-as / Ernie Lewis-Teddy Sinclair-Peter Rush-vn / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Don Stutely-sb / Max Bacon-d-vib
Elsie Carlisle’s recording of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” with Ambrose and His Orchestra is fixed in the public’s memory as one of her most representative recordings. It is a perfect example of her ability to project vulnerability, in this case employing optimistic lyrics set to a powerful but somewhat melancholy arrangement. This recording seems to encapsulate our sense of the Great Depression as an era when popular culture offered eloquent expressions of hope amidst global disappointment and despair.
The use of extended meteorological comparisons to encourage an upbeat attitude precedes the Depression, of course. Irving Berlin’s 1926 Blue Skies is another song that similarly combines hopeful lyrics with a rather sad tune. In 1932, the year when Harry Woods and Billy Hill published “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” Berlin would write “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” a much perkier but similarly themed composition, one of whose lines is “And the clouds will soon roll by.” It is as if songwriters had hit upon the perfect metaphorical vehicle — weather, the most pedestrian topic of light chat — as the best way to convey consolation.
The Ambrose arrangement of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” would be memorable even if it lacked Elsie’s vocals. The intro seems to churn and roll like the upper atmosphere in a storm, and the music evokes both sadness and confidence. But Elsie is at her best in this piece. She allows her voice to quaver slightly at important points as if crying, all the while comforting both herself and us. It is worth noting that she sings for barely over a minute of the recording, which is not unusual in a dance band arrangement. What is interesting is that we remember her part so well.
The Ambrose recording is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable pieces of British popular music from the interwar period; it is also one of Elsie Carlisle’s best-known songs. There is a peculiar reason for this. The 1978 Dennis Potter television miniseries Pennies from Heaven featured long and frequently bizarre musical interludes based on British dance band recordings, and in many ways it created a canon of recognizable songs. The very first such song in the very first episode is Ambrose’s “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” and when Elsie begins to sing, the actor who mimes to her voice is the very masculine Bob Hoskins. The effect is jarring and memorable. Again, in the 1981 miniseries Brideshead Revisited.1 protragonist Charles Ryder puts the Ambrose record on a gramophone at a moment when comfort is needed, but he and his lover leave the room just as Elsie’s voice begins to be audible.
“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with piano accompaniment and with Len Fillis on the steel guitar on September 19, 1932 in Chelsea Town Hall, London. Decca F-3146 mx. GB-4844-4.
In her later Decca recording, Elsie Carlisle sings “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” at a more leisurely pace. The accompaniment is a simple piano and Len Fillis on the steel guitar. The song is still bittersweet, but there is a lazy, dreamy quality to it as well. At one point when Fillis’s guitar is foregrounded, Elsie hums the tune and even begins to engage in a half-hearted attempt at scat. The overall effect is not as powerful as the Ambrose version, but the recording is nevertheless memorable for its playful interpretation of the song.
“Just a Dancing Sweetheart.” Words by Charles Tobias, music by Peter De Rose (1931). Recorded in Chelsea, London on September 4, 1931 by Spike Hughes and His Dance Orchestra (as Arthur Lally and the Million-Airs) with vocals by Elsie Carlisle. Decca F-2510 mx. GB-3182-1.
Personnel: Spike Hughes-sb ldr. Jimmy McCaffer-1 other-t / Lew Davis-tb / Billy Amstell-cl-as / Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar / Buddy Featherstonehaugh-ts / Boris Penker-vn / Claude Ivy-p / Alan Ferguson-g
Successful Tin Pan Alley songwriters Charles Tobias and Peter De Rose are well represented among Elsie Carlisle’s recordings. Tobias, for example, co-wrote “Rose O’Day (The Filla-Ga-Dusha Song)”; De Rose collaborated on “Have You Ever Been Lonely?”; and together they wrote “One More Kiss, Then Goodnight.” Their 1931 “Just a Dancing Sweetheart” is a waltz, still a flourishing genre in popular music at the time. Elsie Carlisle’s version is a dance band arrangement, and because of that format, the instrumentals are long and the vocal refrain brief (at forty-six seconds) — but it does make a powerful impression.
The song is a reflection on the gap between how a person is perceived functionally as part of a social set vs. that person’s inner mental life. The singer describes herself as being perceived merely as a “dancing sweetheart,” and she is the recipient of loving attention that seems more like song lyrics than “real romance.” What is conveyed is less sadness than it is longing for a more authentic relationship. There is a slight paradox in the fact that these ideas take the form of a dance song.
Elsie Carlisle seems the ideal singer to deliver this brief complaint, insofar as she is so good at using the very little time allotted to her to make us feel as if we have encountered a real person who matters. Her voice conveys sincerity, and its appeal stands in for her character’s attractiveness to her dancing partners. Her strong emotion is expressed through a sort of subtle vocal quavering that is such a mark of her singing technique — perfect for the torch songs, but well suited also to this harder-to-categorize waltz.
It might appear that there is some confusion about the identity of the band. The label of the record says “Arthur Lally and the Million-Airs,” one of Decca’s studio bands. Rust and Forbes list the songs recorded at the September 4, 1931 session under Arthur Lally, but Richard J. Johnson, in his 1994 Elsie Carlisle discography, chose to describe the band as Spike Hughes’s band masquerading as Arthur Lally’s, and in fact, not only is Spike Hughes on the personnel list that day, but the other instrumentalists match his usual lineup very closely.1
Some noteworthy American recordings of “Just a Dancing Sweetheart” in 1931 were by Dick Robertson, Johnny Hamp and His Orchestra (v. Carl Graub), and Fred Rich and His Orchestra (v. Smith Ballew; on Columbia and on Hit of the Week).
Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes, British Dance Bands on Record, 1911 to 1945, and Supplement (Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, Ltd., 1989), 551; Richard J. Johnson, Elsie Carlisle: A Discography (Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire: Richard J. Johnson, 1994), 13. ↩
"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.