Embassy Rhythm Eight

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” (1935)

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter.” Words and music by Maurice Sigler, Al Goodhart, and Al Hoffman (1935). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle, accompanied by The Embassy Rhythm Eight, in London on February 15, 1935. Decca F. 5456 mx. GB6979-1.

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – "I'm Afraid to Open Your Letter" (1935)

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – “I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” (1935)

Like the song on the reverse side of the record (“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance”), “I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” is about a woman receiving a piece of mail and then deliberating, hesitating, and agonizing. In the case of this song, however, the conceit is even simpler, for as the song’s title and the singer repeatedly tell us, she does not open the letter that she has received from her lover, fearing that it is a breakup letter. She tells us nothing about her relationship or her reasons for expecting its dissolution.

Lyrics of such a basic and uncomplicated nature could prove a challenge for any singer; it is hard to repeat the same idea again and again, using virtually the same words, and still to seem sincere. Elsie Carlisle pulls it off, relying both on the inherent sweetness of her voice and on her uncanny ability to evoke with a quavering voice the idea of a weepy girl.  As is so often the case, Elsie’s success in evoking sympathy is rooted in her being not just a singer but a vocal actress.

It is rare for two songs so closely united in subject matter and tone as “I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” and “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” to end up on either side of a 78 rpm record. For the most part, the pairing of songs on a record seems entirely serendipitous. On both sides Elsie’s elegant interpretation of simple lyrics is complemented nicely by the playing of The Embassy Rhythm Eight, a studio recording band consisting of members of the Ambrose Orchestra.

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” was written by three composers well-represented in Elsie Carlisle’s songbook. Maurice Sigler was a collaborator on “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day”; Al Goodhart co-wrote “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Who Walks In When I Walk Out?”; Al Hoffman contributed to all three songs, as well as to “My Darling”; and all three men collaborated on “Rehearsing a Lullaby,” which Elsie would record later in 1935.

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” was recorded in America in 1935 by Don Bestor and His Orchestra. In Britain recordings were made by the Casani Club Orchestra (under the direction of Charlie Kunz, with vocals by George Barclay), Teddy Joyce and His Dance Music (with vocals by the Four Smith Brothers), Phyllis Robins, Ann Summers, and Primo Scala’s Accordion Band (in a medley).

“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” (1935)

“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance.” Words and music by Marty Symes, Al J. Neiburg, and Jerry Levinson (1934). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with the Embassy [Rhythm] Eight in London on February 15, 1935. Decca F. 5456 mx. GB6978-1.

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – "I've Got an Invitation to a Dance" (1935)

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” (1935)

“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” is the plaintive report of a woman who is reluctant to go to a party that might feature her ex-boyfriend (or possibly even fiancé), accompanied by a new sweetheart. Because she is hopeful for a possible reconciliation, her main concern is to prevent awkward gossip. The focus on idle talk in the context of a breakup might remind us of Elsie Carlisle’s 1933 recordings of “It’s the Talk of the Town,” and in fact that song had the same three composers.1

Elsie imbues the argument of “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” with poignancy while developing a vocal persona strong enough to make up for the vagueness of the lyrics. We do not know, for example, whom the woman blames for the breakup or any of its circumstances. Elsie seems to deliberate over each syllable to reveal what we do know about her character’s motivations, namely her desire to be reunited with her lover.

The melancholy  atmosphere is enhanced by the elegant but subdued playing of The Embassy Rhythm Eight (mentioned on the label simply as The Embassy Eight), a studio recording band made up of core members of the Ambrose Orchestra. I should note that on this record (unlike the one with “Whisper Sweet” and “Dancing with My Shadow,” songs for which The Embassy Rhythm Eight almost certainly played the accompaniment), both Elsie Carlisle and the band are credited on the label — a very rare occurrence. Elsie’s records are almost perfectly divided into groups that mention her name and not the band, or that mention the band and not her. Perhaps the Embassy Rhythm Eight, which had been recently formed, wanted the extra publicity.

“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” was recorded in America in 1934 by the Casa Loma Orchestra (with vocalist Kenny Sargent), Hal Kemp and His Orchestra, Paul Pendarvis and His Orchestra (with vocals by Eddie Scope), the Will Osborne Orchestra (with vocals by Will Osborne), Ruth Etting, and A. Ferdinando and His Orchestra.

British versions of “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” were made in 1935 by Roy Fox and His Band (with vocalist Denny Dennis), Billy Cotton and His Band (with vocals by Harold “Chips” Chippendall), Jay Wilbur and His Band (with singer Cyril Grantham), the New Grosvenor House Band (under director Sydney Lipton, with vocalist Gerry Fitzgerald), Lou Preager and His Romano’s Restaurant Dance Orchestra (with vocal refrain by Pat Hyde), and Scott Wood and His Orchestra (in a medley).

Notes:

  1. In addition to composing “It’s the Talk of the Town” and “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance,” Symes, Neiburg, and Levinson also collaborated on the 1935 “Star Gazing,” and Symes wrote the lyrics to “Somebody’s Thinking of You Tonight,” which Elsie would record in 1938.

“Whisper Sweet” (1935)

“Whisper Sweet.” Words and music by James P. Johnson, Jo Trent, and Horatio Nicholls (a.k.a. Lawrence Wright). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle, probably with the Embassy Rhythm Eight, on February 1, 1935. Decca F. 5436.

Whisper Sweet, Elsie Carlisle, 1935

“Whisper Sweet” – Elsie Carlisle

Transfer by Clive Hooley (YouTube)

The names James P. Johnson and Horatio Nicholls (a pseudonym of composer, music publisher, and impresario Lawrence Wright) are well known, that of Jo Trent considerably less so, and the origin of their song “Whisper Sweet” is comparatively obscure. Legendary stride pianist James P. Johnson composed many classic jazz tunes, including the original “Charleston.” Jo Trent was a lyricist who worked with many of the great composers, including Johnson; in 1931, for example, the two of them collaborated on the songs “Fooling Around with Love,” “Hanging Around Yo’ Door,” and “Hot Harlem,” but Trent appears to have avoided the spotlight; it has even been uncertain whether he was a man or a woman (he was the former, it seems:  Joseph H. Trent).  Lawrence Wright used his own name when publishing and sometimes even writing music, but he used the pseudonym Horatio Nicholls solely on compositions. There is sheet music for “Whisper Sweet” featuring a photograph of Eve Becke that credits Jo Trent and James P. Johnson as having written the words and music, with no mention of “Nicholls” at all (although the music was published by Lawrence Wright and bears that trademark). It might be asked if Lawrence Wright made some contribution to the arrangement that Elsie Carlisle sang. For what it is worth, I can find no fundamental difference between the arrangement that Elsie used and the one used by Bob Howard the next day in New York.

As with the flip side “Dancing with My Shadow,” it is assumed that Elsie’s accompanists for “Whisper Sweet” were the Embassy Rhythm Eight, as the matrices of Decca F. 5436 and two recordings that the Rhythm Eight did on February 1 and 5 form an interlacing sequence. “Whisper Sweet” is considerably livelier than “Dancing with My Shadow,” and its theme more upbeat. Elsie’s simple, sweet interpretation is suited to the dreamy lyrics, which focus primarily on the subtle outward signs of the beginning of romantic attraction.

The day after Elsie Carlisle recorded “Whisper Sweet,” Bob Howard and His Orchestra did a version in New York. Later in January there were London recordings by Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (with singer Brian Lawrance) and by Pat Hyde. In April Valaida Snow sang it for Parlophone, again in London. Sometime that year Eve Becke must have both broadcasted and recorded it, something which is asserted by the cover of the Lawrence Wright sheet music, but I have not identified an actual disc.

“Dancing with My Shadow” (1935)

“Dancing with My Shadow.” Composed by Harry Woods for the British musical comedy Thank You So Much. Recorded by Elsie Carlisle, probably with the Embassy Rhythm Eight, on February 5, 1935. Decca F. 5436.

Dancing with my Shadow, Elsie Carlisle, 1930's

Elsie Carlisle – “Dancing with My Shadow” (1935)

Transfer by Clive Hooley (YouTube)

A song about the loneliness of lovers drawn apart, “Dancing with My Shadow” encapsulates its theme of longing in its refrain:

Dancing with my shadow,
Feeling kind of blue,
Dancing with my shadow
And making believe it’s you.

This slow foxtrot was composed by Harry Woods for the British musical comedy Thank You So Much. Woods wrote other notable songs that Elsie Carlisle recorded; one thinks particularly of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” The song also notably appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation of The 39 Steps. Elsie Carlisle, veteran torch singer, interprets the lyrics masterfully on this record, which she appears to have recorded with the Embassy Rhythm Eight, who went uncredited; this identification is strengthened by an examination of the sequence of matrices on the records they recorded with Decca on the same day.

“Dancing with My Shadow” had been recorded in the United States the previous year by Richard Himber and His Ritz-Carlton Orchestra and by Joe Reichman and His Orchestra (with vocalist Paul Small). In Britain in early 1935 there were versions by Billy Cotton and His Band (with Alan Breeze), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (Ivor Moreton, vocalist), the Piccadilly Hotel Band (with vocalist Jack Plant), the New Grosvenor House Band, Joseph Swindin and His Boys (Frank Gough, vocalist), and Harry Leader and His Band. The song was even popular in Swedish and Danish translations.

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