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


“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (1934)

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Otto Harbach, for their musical Roberta (1933). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle in London on October 31, 1934.  Decca F-5289 mx. TB-1696-1.

Elsie Carlisle – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (1934)

Elsie Carlisle, so often the torch singer, beautifully conveys the pathos of the lyrics of the show tune “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” As a veteran of light musical stage drama, Elsie had a voice suited to the song, with its memorable full-octave melodic ascension at the beginning (more reminiscent of European operetta than of popular song). It was perhaps in consideration of this perfect match between her vocal capabilities and the already popular song that Decca had Elsie record “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” twice in two days, first as a “solo” record, and again the next day with Ambrose and His Orchestra, in an arrangement that is perhaps somewhat less of a tear-jerker and more suited to dancing:

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie Carlisle on November 1, 1934. Decca F-5293.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – Ambrose & His Orchestra

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It seems hard to believe, but the perennial favorite “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was twice discarded from shows before it actually got used in the Broadway musical Roberta. Jerome Kern originally composed it as a tap dance number to be performed during a scene change in his 1927 hit Showboat, but for one reason or another, it was cut. In 1932 Kern retooled it as a march to be used as the theme song for an NBC radio series which never aired. It was in the light, romantic 1933 drama Roberta that “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was finally introduced to the public, this time retooled as a sentimental ballad, either at the suggestion of the producer or of lyricist Otto Harbach. Harbach’s lyrics borrow their tag line “When you’re heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes” from a Russian proverb. The original Broadway production of Roberta starred, amongst others, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, Fay Templeton, Ray Middleton, and Sydney Greenstreet, but it was Ukrainian actress Tamara Drasin, playing a Russian princess, who first sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

Notable American recordings in 1933 and 1934 include ones by Gertrude Niesen (with orchestral accompaniment directed by Ray Sinatra), Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (with vocals by Bob Lawrence), Emil Coleman and His Riviera Orchestra (with vocalist Jerry Cooper), Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (with vocals by Tamara Drasin, from the original Broadway production), Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers, Dick Robertson, and Ruth Etting. Film audiences would hear the song performed by Irene Dunne in a 1935 movie of Roberta.

In 1934 there were other British recordings of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by Jay Wilbur and His Band (Sam Browne, vocalist), Charlie Kunz’s Casani Club Orchestra (with vocals by Harry Bentley), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (with vocals by Ivor Moreton), Jack Payne and His Band (Billy Scott-Coomber, vocalist), Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra (with vocals by Dan Donovan, in a Bert Read arrangement), Lew Stone and His Band (with Alan Kane as vocalist, in a Stanley Black arrangement), and Joe Loss and His Kit-Cat Band.

Ambrose’s Birthday

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!

Ambrose and His Orchestra in 1935. Ambrose is at the center, with Elsie Carlisle and Sam Browne to the left and the Rhythm Sisters to the right.
Ambrose and His Orchestra in 1935. Ambrose is at the center, with Elsie Carlisle and Sam Browne to the left and the Rhythm Sisters to the right.

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.

“Fare Thee Well, Annabelle” (1935)

“Fare Thee Well, Annabelle.”  Words by Mort Dixon, music by Allie Wrubel (1934).  Recorded on June 20, 1935 by Ambrose and His Orchestra, with vocals by Donald Stewart, Elsie Carlisle, and the Rhythm Brothers.  Decca F. 5590.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-t-mel / Harry Owen and 1 unknown-t / Ted Heath-Lew Davis-tb / Danny Polo-cl-as-bar / Sid Phillips-cl-as-bar-a / Joe Jeannette-as / Billy Amstell-cl-ts / Ernie Lewis-Reg Pursglove-vn / Bert Barnes-p-a /Joe Brannelly-g /Dick Ball-sb /Max Bacon-d

Ambrose and his Orchestra – “Fare Thee Well, Annabelle” (1935)

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Mort Dixon and Allie Wrubel wrote “Fare Thee Well, Annabelle” in 1934; it was introduced in 1935 by Rudy Vallée and Ann Dvorak in the film Sweet Music.  The Ambrose Orchestra’s version does justice to this admirable example of the “train song” genre; it lacks the lollapalooza tap dancing sequence of the film, but its simulated train sounds evoke the original context of the song nicely, and Donald Stewart and Elsie Carlisle make suitable stand-ins for the movie actors.

Notable Americans to record “Fare Thee Well, Annabelle” that year were Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra (with Pee Wee Hunt as vocalist), Charlie Barnet (with singer Marion Nichols), Ted Fio Rito and His Orchestra (with vocals by Muzzy Marcellino and The Debutantes), Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers, Wingy Manone, and the Boswell Sisters (recording in London).

In 1935 Britain would hear other recordings of “Fare Thee Well, Annabelle” by the Debroy Somers Band (with Brian Lawrance as vocalist), Billy Merrin and His Commanders (Ken Crossley, vocalist), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (Bill Currie, vocalist), Sidney Kyte and His Piccadilly Hotel band (with Norman Phillips singing), and Joe Loss and His Radio Band.

"Fare Thee Well, Annabelle" sheet music featuring Rudy Vallée and Ann Dvorak
“Fare Thee Well, Annabelle” sheet music featuring Rudy Vallée and Ann Dvorak

R.I.P. Bob Hoskins

English actor Bob Hoskins passed away today at the age of 71. His thespian accomplishments are too numerous to mention, although this writer particularly recommends seeing him in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and in Mermaids (1990). I mention him here, however, because of his starring role in Dennis Potter’s 1978 television mini-series “Pennies from Heaven” as Arthur Parker, a traveling sheet music salesman, for which he won a BAFTA TV Award for Best Actor. That show reintroduced a younger generation to the British dance band music of the 1930s, and has notable actors miming original recordings, one of which is featured here for obvious reasons.

Bob Hoskins as Elsie Carlisle, singing “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By”:

Dennis Potter’s ‘Pennies From Heaven’ – ‘The Clouds Will Soon Roll By’

Video from songanddanceman1234 (YouTube)

Her Majesty the Baby

On April 15, 1896, Elsie Carlisle was baptized in the parish of St. James’, Collyhurst, in Greater Manchester. The parish registry gives the date of the baptism and lists her birth as having occurred earlier in the same year, on January 28. Her parents’ names were James and Mary Ellen. They lived at 7 Whitehead St., and her father was described as a greengrocer.

The baptismal font in use in St. James', Collyhurst in 1971
The baptismal font in use in St. James’, Collyhurst in 1971

And now, for a semi-topical musical interlude:

“His Majesty the Baby.” Music by Mabel Wayne, words by Neville Fleeson and Arthur Terker (1935). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with Ambrose and His Orchestra on January 11, 1935. Decca F. 5379.

His Majesty The Baby. Ambrose & His Orchestra. 1935.

Video by 85scampi (YouTube)

Elsie recorded the song again the next day without Ambrose. Other versions made the very same month were by Henry Hall, Billy Merrin, the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra, Lou Preager, Harry Roy, Jay Wilbur, and Eddie Wood.

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