Ambrose

Bert Ambrose is the bandleader most often associated with Elsie Carlisle. She recorded with him during the years 1932-1935, often accompanied by singer Sam Browne.

Ambrose – Wikipedia
Ambrose – Mike Thomas
Bert Ambrose – John Wright

Ambrose
Ambrose

“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (Two Versions; 1932)

“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

Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (1932)

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." Sheet music featuring Ambrose's face.

“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.

Elsie Carlisle – “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (1932)

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.

"The Clouds Will Soon Roll By" sheet music
“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” sheet music

Notes:

  1. Season One, Episode Ten.

“Hyde Park Corner” (1933)

“Hyde Park Corner.” Composed by Stanley J. Damerell, Tolchard Evans, and Robert Hargreaves (1933). Recorded in London on April 7, 1933 by Ambrose and His Orchestra, with vocals by Sam Browne and chorus and with Elsie Carlisle and Max Bacon in speaking roles. Brunswick 1495 mx. GB-5737-1.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-tb / Danny Polo-cl-as-bar / Joe Jeanette-cl-as / Harry Hayes-as / Billy Amstell-cl-ts / Bert Read-p / Joe Branelly-g / Don Stutely-sb / Max Bacon-d

Ambrose and His Orchestra – “Hyde Park Corner” (1933)

Stanley Damerell, Tolchard Evans, and Robert Hargreaves were prolific songwriting collaborators, and as co-founders of the Cecil Lennox Ltd. label, they were an impressive force in twentieth-century music, not just in Britain but worldwide. In Elsie Carlisle’s catalogue of songs we find quite a few that were written by two or even all three of these men: “On a Dreamy Afternoon,” “Hyde Park Corner,” “Da-Dar-Da-Dar,” “Let’s Make Love,” “The Whistling Lover’s Waltz,” and “Little Chap with Big Ideas.”

In Ambrose’s “Hyde Park Corner,” Elsie does not sing, except perhaps as part of the ensemble that occasionally belts out “Hyde Park Corner!” The song begins with instrumental imitations of busy London traffic. Sam Browne provides the vocal refrain, introducing the idea of Hyde Park as the perfect place for a Sunday walk. He then encounters Elsie and begins to flirt with her. She, in turn, interprets his approach as entirely too forward, and they bicker, as is their wont in so many songs from this period:

“Have you got anything on tonight?”

“What do you mean, ‘Have I got anything on?’ Who do you take me for, Lady Godiva?”

Even when she is not serving as a vocalist, Elsie manages to stand out as an amusing and feisty comic presence.

The song continues with Elsie abruptly changing her attitude, warming up to Sam, and joining him on his walk. He describes the offbeat characters who make use of the park’s famous Speaker’s Corner, and we encounter one of them, played by Ambrose Orchestra percussionist Max Bacon. He impersonates a stuttering eccentric giving a remarkably inept speech while another man (perhaps Sam Browne again?) repeatedly shouts out, à propos of nothing, “What about the working man?” Eventually Sam and Elsie give up on listening to Bacon. They must be getting near the bandstand, as Elsie suddenly gets excited about the music, and the recording ends with band music.

Other British dance bands who recorded “Hyde Park Corner” in 1933 were Jay Wilbur and His Band (v. Sam Browne and Billie Lockwood), Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band (v. Sam Browne and Fred Douglas), Jack Jackson and His Orchestra (v. Jack Jackson and George Melachrino, along with Chappie d’Amato in a speaking role), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Pat O’Malley, with speaking by O’Malley and George Baker), Billy Cotton and His Band (v. Sam Browne, with speaking by Fred Douglas and George Buck), Syd Roy and His R.K.O.lians (v. chorus, with Bill Currie and Ivor Moreton as speakers), and Jack Payne and His Band (v. Jack Payne, with speaking by Payne and Billy Scott-Coomber). It is worth comparing these various recordings, as while they share the same music, the comic scripts employed would appear to be entirely different from one another.

“A Bungalow, a Piccolo, and You!” (1932)

“A Bungalow, a Piccolo, and You!” Words and Music by Al Lewis, Al Sherman, and Lee David (1932). Recorded in London at Studio 1, Abbey Road on July 22, 1932 by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocalists Sam Browne and Elsie Carlisle. HMV B-6218.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-tb / Joe Crossman-cl-as-bar / Billy Amstell-cl-as-ts / Harry Hines-as / Joe Jeanette-cl-ts-?pic / Ernie Lewis-Teddy Sinclair-Peter Rush-vn / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Don Stutely-sb / Max Bacon-d1

A Bungalow, a Piccolo, and You ! – Ambrose and his Orchestra

Transfer by Lilian Harvey – YouTube

In the very first Elsie Carlisle discography, Elsie Carlisle – With a Different Style (1974), Edward S. Walker indicates that Ambrose’s version of “A Bungalow, a Piccolo, and You!” has a Sam Browne/Elsie Carlisle duet, and yet Elsie’s vocal has been ignored by every subsequent discography, including even my own Croonette: An Elsie Carlisle Discography (published earlier this year). The record would appear to be comparatively rare, and I only discovered “Lilian Harvey’s” transfer on YouTube last week. (The omission will be remedied in the second edition of Croonette, which should be ready for online publication very soon.)

The songwriters include Al Sherman and Al Lewis, who would later collaborate on “No! No! A Thousand Times No!” and Lee David, who would team up with Darl MacBoyle to write “That Means You’re Falling in Love”; the latter song was recorded in 1933 by Sam Browne and Elsie Carlisle. The title “A Bungalow, a Piccolo, and You!” recalls the earlier “A Bungalow, a Radio, and You” (Dempsey-Leibert; 1928), but that is where the similarities end. Another song in which the singer says that all he needs is one thing, another thing, “and you” is “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You” (Meyer-Dubin-Rose; 1925).2

Ambrose’s version of the song has a mostly instrumental introduction, except that very near the beginning a piccolo plays three series of notes which Elsie can be heard to mimic vocally. The piccolo continues to intervene playfully, even comically, throughout the song. Then Sam Browne begins to sing, describing himself as standing beneath someone’s window and telling her that all he needs is a bungalow, a piccolo, “and you.” Sam’s fun and comparatively brainless love song proceeds until the piccolo takes over for a moment. It is at that point that something incredibly cute occurs: Elsie again has an exchange with the piccolo in which she imitates it with her voice, but this time she scats. Even better, she boops (“Boop-a-doo!”), and then repeats Sam sentiments about needing a bungalow, a piccolo, “and you.” Overall, her contributions to the recording are brief but incredibly bright, joyful, and memorable.

While the songwriters were all American, I have not been able to locate any American recordings of “A Bungalow, a Piccolo, and You!” There are plenty of other British dance band recordings, however, including those by Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra (v. Val Rosing), Billy Cotton and His Band (v. Cyril Grantham), Terence McGovern (as Terry Mack and His Boys; v. Joe Leigh), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Pat O’Malley), Jack Payne and His Band (v. Jack Payne, Bob Manning, and Charlie Asplin), Nat Star (as Billy Seymour and the Boys; v. Fred Douglas), Jay Wilbur and His Band (as Jack Grose and His Metropole Players; v. Leslie Holmes), and Lew Stone and the Monseigneur Band (in a medley).

Notes:

  1. These are the personnel according to Rust and Forbes’s British Dance Bands on Record; for the tentative identification of Joe Jeanette as the piccolo player, I have Nick Dellow to thank. Jeanette apparently played piccolo and flute in the British army years before joining Ambrose’s orchestra.
  2. My thanks to Jonathan David Holmes for pointing out the resemblance.

“His Majesty the Baby” (Two Versions; 1935)

In his 1914 essay “On Narcissism,” Sigmund Freud wrote

The child shall have it better than his parents; he shall not be subject to the necessities that we have recognized as prevailing in life.  Sickness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, and restrictions on his own will shall not be valid for the child; the laws of nature, like those of society, shall come to a halt before him; he shall really be the center and heart of creation, His Majesty the Baby, as we once thought ourselves to be (emphasis mine).

Freud was writing in German, of course, but he wrote the expression “His Majesty the Baby” in English.  He appears to have been alluding to a late Victorian painting by Arthur Drummond in the Royal Academy:

"His Majesty the Baby" (1898)
“His Majesty the Baby” (1898)

One can see that, in Drummond’s painting, the whole world seems to wait upon the ermine-clad infant center-of-attention.  Of course, Freud uses the idea of “His Majesty the Baby” to refer to how the child sees things, not its parents — and he pulls in all sorts of notions about primary narcissism and auto-eroticism that need not concern us here.

In 1935, the phrase “His Majesty the Baby” resurfaces as the title of a slow foxtrot composed by American songwriters Neville Fleeson, Arthur Terker, and Mabel Wayne.  Elsie Carlisle sang other Mabel Wayne songs involving childhood themes; in 1934 she recorded two versions of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” that were issued and two versions of “Who Made Little Boy Blue.”  “His Majesty the Baby” has lyrics describing a baby who seems regal, the object of constant awe.  It is clear that it is the feelings of the adults surrounding the child that are being discussed, however, and that the imperious attitudes attributed to him are a mere transference of his parents’ reverence for his cuteness.

“His Majesty the Baby.” Words by Neville Fleeson and Arthur Terker; music by Mabel Wayne (1935). Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie Carlisle on January 11, 1935. Decca F. 5379 mx. GB-6868-2.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-t-mel / Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-Tony Thorpe-tb / Danny Polo-Sid Phillips-Billy Amstell-reeds / Joe Jeannette-as / Ernie Lewis-Reg Pursglove-others?-vn / Bert Barnes-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Dick Ball-sb / Max Bacon-d

Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “His Majesty the Baby” (1935)

The version of “His  Majesty the Baby” that Elsie Carlisle recorded with Ambrose and His Orchestra begins with a substantial instrumental introduction that seems stately enough.  Elsie’s concise delivery of the lyrics leaves no doubt that the worship being demanded for the infant child is somewhat tongue-in-cheek; the song plays on the attitude of fawning obedience that people adopt when around a beloved baby.

Several days later Elsie would record (again for Decca) a solo version of “His Majesty the Baby”:

“His Majesty the Baby.” Words by Neville Fleeson and Arthur Terker; music by Mabel Wayne (1935). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on January 14, 1935. Decca F. 5380 mx. GB6876-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “His Majesty the Baby” (1935)

This second interpretation of the song has a competent orchestral accompaniment, but it is Elsie’s voice that is the focus through the entire song, and one must admit that the piece suffers, not so much from “baby talk,” but from an exaggerated dramatization of infant bedtime.

Other notable British recordings of “His Majesty the Baby” were made in January 1935 by Billy Merrin and His Commanders (with vocals by Billy Merrin), the BBC Dance Orchestra under Henry Hall (with vocalist Kitty Masters), the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra under Percival Mackey (Jack Plant, vocalist), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (with vocals by Ivor Moreton), twice by Jay Wilbur and His Band with Eve Becke, and by Lou Preager and His Romanos Restaurant Dance Orchestra (with vocalist Pat Hyde).  Phyllis Robins made a solo recording of the song that year.  The notable American recording is from July 1935 and is by Rudy Vallée and His Connecticut Yankees.

“This Little Piggie Went to Market” (1934)

“This Little Piggie Went to Market” is a mock-lullaby based on the famous nursery rhyme and game of playing with an infant’s toes. One might, therefore, expect it to have had a fairly innocuous origin. Instead, one finds that the song was composed for the 1934 American movie 8 Girls in a Boat, which tells the story of a teenage girl at a boarding school in Switzerland who finds that she is pregnant and contemplates suicide.1

These unwholesome themes are typical of movies made in the period before the so-called “Hays Code” went into effect and ushered in an era of Hollywood self-censorship. All the more representative of the pre-Code period are the numerous scenes portraying teenage girls exercising in swimsuits, who at one point go so far as to blast each other with water from hoses and giggle with glee. The filmmakers seem to have sobered up from their gratuitous portrayal of the youthful feminine form at some point and had the girls of the school sing Coslow and Lewis’s “This Little Piggie Went to Market” as they have their evening glass of milk before bed (and instrumental versions of the theme can be heard at other points in the score). Perhaps we can take the lyrics “I dream and pray one day I’ll say / To a cute little piggie of my own, / ‘This little piggie went to market, / And this little piggie stayed home'” as a hint that this salacious and yet somehow quite forgettable film will have a happy ending, as it does? But only, of course, after considerably more rope-skipping and swimming.

“This Little Piggie Went to Market.” Lyrics by Sam Coslow, music by Harold “Lefty” Lewis. Composed for the Paramount picture 8 Girls in a Boat (1934). Recorded in London on February 2, 1934 by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocalist Elsie Carlisle. Brunswick 01694.

This Little Piggie Went To Market – Ambrose & his Orchestra (w. Elsie Carlisle)

Video by David Weavings

The Ambrose version of “This Little Piggie Went to Market” features an impressive arrangement that gives the impression of a pastoral lullaby, although at points it grows so powerful and insistent that it almost jars with the simplicity of the vocal refrain. Elsie Carlisle’s cooing intonation of the latter is a sincere depiction of the hope of future motherhood. One can entirely understand why Ambrose chose her, only a few months later, to sing in his version of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” (especially as she had already made a lovely version of that other nursery-themed song with her own name on the label). This is just one of many cases where the coquettish flapper Elsie of the late 1920s is converted to the more sentimental tastes of the new decade — but the conversion is not an entirely unhappy one. Her versatility as an artist who can evoke a convincing character in under a minute and twenty seconds is on display here, and one can enjoy it even while admitting that the song is rather saccharine.

“This Little Piggie Went to Market.” Recorded in London on February 7, 1934 by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment. Decca F. 3887 mx. GB6532-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “This Little Piggie Went to Market” (1934)

It seems highly likely that the orchestral accompaniment to Elsie’s solo version of “This Little Piggie Went to Market” consisted of members of Ambrose’s band, as they had been recording at Decca’s studios that day, and the two record matrices preceding this recording are theirs.2 The arrangement is comparatively subdued, leaving more room for Elsie’s gentle interpretation of the simple lyrics. All the same, the instrumental interpretation of the theme is quite beautiful and enjoyable.

“This Little Piggie Went to Market” was recorded in late December 1933 in Los Angeles by the Pickens Sisters on a Victor transcription, and in New York in early 1933 by Victor Young and His Orchestra (v. Jane Vance), Freddy Martin and His Orchestra (v. Helen Ward), and Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers. In London it was recorded in early 1934 by Jack Payne and His Band (v. Jack Payne), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (v. Al Bowlly), Harry Leader and His Band (with an unknown vocalist), and Howard Flynn and His Orchestra (v. Harry Bentley).

Notes:

  1. Henry Parsons has pointed out to me that 8 Girls in a Boat is also the origin of the song “A Day Without You.”
  2. Johnson, Richard J. Elsie Carlisle: A Discography. Aylesbury, UK, 1994, 25.

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