Jay Wilbur

An accomplished bandleader in his own right, Jay Wilbur (1898-1970) had enormous influence over the recording of British dance band music and over Elsie Carlisle’s “solo” output in his role as musical director for such labels as Dominion, Imperial, Eclipse, and Rex. Just as it has long been the custom to identify the glorious voices (including Elsie’s) credited only as “vocal refrain” on dance band records, it is increasingly common to recognize the part that people such as Wilbur played in determining the sound of British popular music. It would be fair to say that Wilbur’s contributions to Elsie’s career rival those of Ambrose.

Jay Wilbur – Wikipedia

Jay Wilbur

Jay Wilbur

“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” (1931)

“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes.” Words by Ted Koehler and Eddie Pola, music by Jack Golden (1931). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur on c. June 10, 1931. Imperial 2489 mx. 5717-3.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-ts / Norman Cole-?George Melachrino-vn / Billy Thorburn or Pat Dodd-p / Bert Thomas-g / Harry Evans-sb / ?Max Bacon-d-vib

Elsie Carlisle – "My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes" (1931)

Elsie Carlisle – “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” (1931)

“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” is a somewhat bizarre reflection on the topic of avian overindulgence. It begins with an introduction that marvels at a recent upheaval in social norms:

All this world is up to date —
Even children stay up late.
Things are not just what they used to be.
All this world is off its nut,
Going crazy, nothing but!
Just get this earful from me…

The singer proceeds to list off the ways in which 1931’s fast-paced, bibulous, dance- and sex-crazed society has affected the habits and health of a pet canary. The bird seems to have been infected with a passion for every form of loose living and pedestrian moral decadence. He dances “snake hips.” He is obsessed with some sparrow or another. He may be in some embarrassing sort of trouble (the reference in London recordings of this song to “look[ing] in Swaffer’s column” involves a notorious newspaper source of gossip). Finally, instead of responding favorably to birdseed, it is gin that he now likes — or harder stuff, in some versions.

The words of the song vary a good deal from singer to singer. Elsie Carlisle’s version for the Imperial label references a number of other songs: “Makin’ Whoopee”  (1928), which Eddie Cantor popularized and which provided Anglophone culture with a new term for sexual congress; “The Prisoner’s Song” (1925), which deals with a man who is to be jailed and who will be without his sweetheart — a useful comparandum for the formerly solitary canary in his cage; and “What Is This Thing Called Love” (1929), which only seems to be found in Elsie’s versions, probably out of respect for her having introduced the song two years earlier.

The success of Elsie’s Imperial recording of “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” rests in her realization of the fundamental silliness of the song’s underlying concept. She rattles off the catalogue of her pet’s newfound moral weaknesses fairly seriously, and the mock-solemnity of her complaint enhances the comic effect. We can see this approach to the song in her Pathétone short from the same year that also features it:

Elsie Carlisle (1931)

Elsie Carlisle (1931)

Video from British Pathé (YouTube)

“My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes” was recorded in 1931 by Sophie Tucker and by Marion Harris, two American singers then working in London. It was recorded in Wisconsin by Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra (with vocalist Frankie Sanders).  British artists who recorded the song that year were the Debroy Somers Band (with vocalist Dan Donovan), The Waldorfians (with vocalist Al Bowlly), Billie Lockwood, and Fred Spinelly.

“When the Blackbird Says ‘Bye-Bye'” (1940)

“When the Blackbird Says ‘Bye-Bye’ (and the Bluebird Says ‘Hello’).” Words and music by Art Noel and Don Pelosi (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur on December 31, 1940. Rex 9904 mx. R5204-1.

Elsie Carlisle – "When the Blackbird Says 'Bye-Bye'"

Elsie Carlisle – “When the Blackbird Says ‘Bye-Bye'”

British songwriters Art Noel and Don Pelosi co-wrote a good number of Elsie Carlisle’s later songs: “Little Drummer Boy,” “Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major,” “A Mother’s Prayer at Twilight,” and “Nursie, Nursie” are among them (and Art Noel made still further contributions to Elsie’s songbook). “When the Blackbird Says ‘Bye-Bye'” is a particularly beautiful representation of what the British music industry could turn out even during the dark months of the Blitz. The song’s theme of blackbirds departing and the apparently preferable bluebirds appearing does not appear to me to refer to ornithological facts about changing seasons. It is, rather, to musical tradition that we must look for the roots of this upbeat theme of better times and happy reunion, to the 1920s songs “Bye Bye, Blackbird” and “My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Now,” which also use breeds of birds to represent changing moods and fortunes.

The incredible sweetness of Elsie Carlisle’s later recording voice comes through nicely on this Rex record, which suffers from somewhat less “crackle” than the label was famous for. It is is quite satisfying to aficionados to hear Elsie reprise her famous theme of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” at 1:26. The orchestra is not identified on the label and the precise personnel is unknown, but the violin is particularly memorable.

“When the Blackbird Says ‘Bye-Bye'” was also recorded in 1940 by the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra (under the direction of Ronnie Munro, with vocals by Sam Browne), Geraldo and the Savoy Hotel Orchestra (with vocalist Jackie Hunter), Lew Stone and His Band (with Sam Browne), and Joe Loss and His Band (in a “Quick-Step Medley”).

“Dada, Dada” (1928 & 1930)

“Dada, Dada (D-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-da-da)” is a “stuttering song,” a song in which the performer either pretends to stutter or plays around with words that naturally sound a bit like stammering (in the present instance, a young woman’s call to her father — “Dada!  Dada!” — serves the purpose).  One might think that, in imitating a speech impediment, “Dada, Dada” might risk being insensitive, and yet when one considers every other facet of the song, it is the stuttering that emerges as least offensive. “Dada, Dada” is primarily known for its humorous dramatization of a very innocent young woman being taken advantage of by a somewhat predatory boyfriend. Her cries of “Dada! Dada!” reach her father’s ears, but they only serve to remind him of how he came to have a daughter in the first place; he does not come to the aid of the comically naïve and therefore actually rather unfortunate girl. The primary songwriter, Arthur Le Clerq, was not averse to edgy humor; he would go on to write “Is Izzy Azzy Woz?” (1929) which gives ample opportunities for a singer to practice Yiddishisms, and the overtly ageist “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty” (1934).

Having admitted that the theme of “Dada, Dada” is fundamentally unwholesome, I must admit that I rather enjoy hearing Elsie Carlisle singing it; her talent for interpreting bawdy, inappropriate lyrics is well known, and the song allows her to show off her upper vocal range by way of adolescent squeaks. A gauge of how much contemporary listeners must have liked her impersonation of a clueless girl is the fact that Elsie recorded it three times in a two-year period.

“Dada, Dada (D-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-da-da).” Words by Arthur Le Clerq and Wallace Dore, music by Arthur Le Clerq (1928). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra, London, late November 1928. Dominion A. 43 mx. 1055-2.

Personnel possibly includes Max Goldberg-Bill Shakespeare-t / Tony Thorpe-tb / Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-as-ts / Norman Cole-vn / Billy Thorburn-p / Dave Thomas or Bert Thomas-bj-g / Harry Evans-bb-sb / Jack Kosky-d-chm

Elsie Carlisle – "Dada, Dada" (Dominion; 1928)

Elsie Carlisle – “Dada, Dada” (Dominion; 1928)

In all versions of “Dada, Dada” Elsie alternates between narrating the story and playing its protagonist. In this latter role she is the expert comedian in terms of reenacting the awkward youthful encounter and keeping the mock-stammering from being too implausible or even just annoying and repetitive (for variation she appears to do an imitation of a sort of infantile cuckoo-clock at 1:48). The naughtiness of the lyrics is highlighted by a highly inappropriate reference to Scripture1:

He says I am an angel
And a heavenly little thing!
If angels feel like I do,
“Oh death, where is thy sting?”

In this 1928 version, Jay Wilbur’s orchestra shines out admirably even from the asphalt-like shellac of Dominion Records.

Elsie would sing a bit of “Dada, Dada” again with many of the same accompanists in the “Imperial Revels” medley, recorded in late September 1930. She recorded the whole song again the next month, again with Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra (uncredited):

Elsie Carlisle with Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra, London, October 26, 1930. Imperial 2381 mx. 5536-4.

Personnel possibly includes the following: Max Goldberg-Bill Shakespeare-t / Ted Heath or Tony Thorpe-tb / Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Melachrino-cl-as-vn / George Clarkson-cl-ts / Norman Cole-vn / Billy Thorburn or Pat Dodd-p / Bert Thomas-g / Harry Evans-bb-sb / Jack Kosky-d

Elsie Carlisle – "Dada, Dada" (Imperial; 1930)

Elsie Carlisle – “Dada, Dada” (Imperial; 1930)

The accompaniment on Imperial 2381 is punchier, heavier on the brass and lighter on the strings, and more explicitly comical: the musicians seem to mimic Elsie’s singing at times. Her delivery of the “Dadas” is less sing-song than in her original version and more closely approaches natural speech, if her strange exclamations can be called that. Overall, one gets the impression of performers trying very hard to keep an inherently repetitive piece fresh and succeeding admirably.

Other versions of “Dada, Dada” were recorded in Britain in 1929 by Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band (with vocals by Phil Allen), The Rhythmics (under the direction of Nat Star, with vocalist Tom Barratt), and comedian Jack Morrison (accompanied by Bidgood’s Broadcasters).  The full lyrics that Morrison uses depict an increasingly rough struggle between the young people, thus fully realizing the song’s creepy potential.

It should finally be noted that although Elsie Carlisle does speak briefly in a 1933 recording by Maurice Winnick and His Orchestra entitled “Da-Dar-Da-Dar (Da-Dar-Da-Dee),” stuttering the words “d-d-d-darling” and “d-d-d-dearest,” that song concerns the difficulty young lovers have finding privacy — it is a much less troubling piece delivered almost entirely by Sam Browne, and it should not be mistaken for harder stuff.

Notes:

  1. 1 Corinithians 15:55.

“The Moon Remembered, But You Forgot” (1939)

“The Moon Remembered, But You Forgot.” Words by Frank Eyton, music by Noel Gay. Composed for the comedy film Let’s Be Famous (1939). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur on August 4, 1939. Rex 9610 mx. R3786-1.

Elsie Carlisle – "The Moon Remembered, But You Forgot" (1939)

Elsie Carlisle – “The Moon Remembered, But You Forgot” (1939)

“The Moon Remembered, But You Forgot,”  from the British comedy film Let’s Be Famous, was composed by Frank Eyton, an English popular lyricist most famous for having contributed to the words of “Body and Soul,” and Noel Gay, a prolific composer who also wrote such popular hits as “The Sun Has Got His Hat On” and “Lambeth Walk.” Its singer describes an outdoor anniversary rendezvous to which her partner does not show up. Left all alone in the presence of the evening moon, she engages in the pathetic fallacy, attributing to the moon human faculties, qualities, and emotions: memory, patience, certainty, and regret. Elsie Carlisle applies her best sincerity and pathos to this song on the first record she made for Rex Records (1939-1942). Rex was the last label that she was signed to, and it was there that she was reunited with musical director Jay Wilbur, who had played the same role in her career in the late 1920s and early 1930s, at Dominion, Imperial, and Eclipse. This was also the last record that Elsie made before war broke out in Europe.

“The Moon Remembered, But You Forgot” was also recorded in 1939 by Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, Maxwell Stewart’s Ballroom Melody, Lew Stone and His Band (with vocalist Sam Browne), and Betty Driver.

Announcement of Elsie Carlisle's having signed on to Rex Records
Announcement of Elsie Carlisle’s having signed on to Rex Records

“The Hut-Sut Song” (1941)

“The Hut-Sut Song.” Words and music by Leo V. Killion, Ted McMichael, and Jack Owens (1941). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment under the direction of Jay Wilbur on July 4, 1941. Rex 10021 mx. R5971-2.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Alfie Noakes-Chick Smith-t / 2 unknown from Paul Fenoulhet (t-tb) (Ted Heath/George Rowe (tb) / Frank Johnson-Frank Weir-cl-as / George Smith-Cliff Timms-ts / Matt Heft-p / Jack Simmons-g / Billy Bell-sb / Jack Simpson-d / vocal chorus by the orchestra1

Elsie Carlisle – "The Hut-Sut Song" (1941)

Elsie Carlisle – “The Hut-Sut Song” (1941)

“The Hut-Sut Song (A Swedish Serenade)” has lyrics consisting primarily of the repetitive, catchy refrain

“Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit.”

There are recurring intimations that the mysterious words are Swedish — they are not, of course, anything of the kind, but rather nonsense of the first order. It would appear that “The Hut-Sut Song” is in some way an imitation of a much older song, “Hot Shot Dawson,” which begins with the words

“Hot Shot Dawson on a river boat with his brawlin’, sprawlin’ sweetie….”

In 1941, Time Magazine noted the existence of the older tune, but had difficulty finding anyone who could remember how it went. The similarity between the two songs probably indicates not plagiarism or authorial skullduggery, but mere hut-suttery.

“The Hut-Sut Song” is a novelty song typical of its era (its nonsensical lyrics might remind one of the crypto-sensical and similarly infectious “Mairzy Doats,” which would be composed two years later). Its utter wackiness and surprising popularity inspired a short film portraying a boarding house full of people (played by “The King’s Men” ) who sing it incessantly. The proprietor has them removed to a mental hospital, where they continue singing “Hut-Sut” in a padded cell.

Elsie Carlisle’s version of “The Hut-Sut Song,” recorded under the direction of Jay Wilbur and with the instrumental and choral accompaniment of his studio band, is surprisingly pretty. It is perhaps precisely because the lyrics are so inane that they highlight nicely her crisp, sweet voice. Elsie’s wartime recordings are of a flavor very different from her earlier work, and while the underlying compositions are largely not to my taste, her vocal excellence shines with the aid of the slightly better bandwidth provided by more modern recording technology.

In 1941 “The Hut-Sut Song” was recorded by artists in America such as Freddy Martin and His Orchestra (v. Eddie Stone),  The Jesters, Joe Reichman and His Orchestra, Johnny Messner, Ella Logan, Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights (with vocals by Donna and Her Don Juans),  Frankie Masters and His Orchestra (with vocals by The Swingmasters), The Four King Sisters with the Rhythm “Reys,” The Merry Macs, Sammy Kay and His Orchestra, and The Hoosier Hot Shots. There were notable radio broadcasts of the song by Glenn Miller and also by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell, who sang a duet incorporating verses that nonsensically combine items from Chinese restaurant menus.

Other British recordings of “The Hut-Sut Song” were made by Lew Stone and His Band (v. Carl Barriteau), Nat Gonella, Harry Roy and His Band (v. Marjorie Kingsley), Billy Cotton and His Band (v. Dolly Elsie), and Harry Leader and His Band (in a Paul Jones Medley).

I would also note that there were three recordings of “The Hut-Sut Song” in 1941 by artists in Sweden! One can only wonder what the Swedes thought about the ridiculous suggestion that the song had anything to do with them, but apparently they were amused.

Notes:

  1. According to Richard J. Johnson in Elsie Carlisle: A Discography (1994).

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

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