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

“More Than You Know” (1930)

“More Than You Know.” Lyrics by William Rose and Edward Eliscu, music by Vincent Youmans (1929). Composed for the film Great Day (unreleased). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra (uncredited) in London in late September 1930. Imperial 2362 mx. 5510-1.

Personnel: 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-bb-sb / Jack Kosky-d-chm / Wag Abbey-x / Len Fillis-bj

Elsie Carlisle – "More Than You Know" (1930)

Elsie Carlisle – “More Than You Know” (1930)

In “More Than You Know” we have one of those eminently successful, perennial standards that originated in a Broadway flop (one might compare “Exactly Like You,” also recorded by Elsie Carlisle). It was introduced in the musical Great Day, set in the American Deep South, which saw only 36 performances over the course of a single month. The Vincent Youmans score was so catchy, though, that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer planned and almost completed a 1930 movie version starring Joan Crawford. Crawford was so personally disappointed with the results (including with her own acting) that she convinced the studio to rewrite and reshoot the greater part of the film and to release it in 1931, but this never happened, and a 1934 attempt starring Jeanette MacDonald also never came to fruition. The legacy of these failed shows, then, is in the songs “Without a Song” and “More Than You Know.”

“More Than You Know” shares the structure of many Broadway tunes of its time, consisting of an introduction that is melodically quite different from the verses. Its intro is even more melancholy than the rest of the song, which is sad in tone but which encapsulates an effusive expression of love for a man without respect to any flaws he might have. Elsie Carlisle’s version fully embraces the gushing quality of the lyrics while maintaining a sense of credibility and sincerity. One might compare it to her recording of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (which she had introduced on the London stage the previous year); in both, she evokes innocence and vulnerability of a sort that is immediately attractive to the listener. It is worth noting that the Imperial label of the disc on which “More Than You Know” is recorded mentions the film Great Day; there must have still been a keen expectation of the release of the film and a corresponding need for a tie-in.

“More Than You Know” was recorded in 1929 in America by Helen Morgan, Ruth Etting, Libby Holman, and Carmel Myers. It was recorded in London in 1930-1931 by Zaidee Jackson, The Million-Airs (Arthur Lally dir., v. Maurice Elwin), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), The New Mayfair Dance Orchestra (Ray Noble dir.; in a medley), Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra (v. Val Rosing; also in a medley), Gwladys Stanley, and Bert Maddison and His Dance Orchestra (Nat Star dir., v. Dan Donovan; in a medley).

“Wasn’t It Nice?” (1930)

“Wasn’t It Nice?” Words by Joe Young, music by Seymour Simons (1930). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra (uncredited) in London c. late September 1930. Imperial 2362 mx. 5509-1.1

Personnel: 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-bb-sb / Jack Kosky-d-chm / Wag Abbey-x / Len Fillis-bj

Elsie Carlisle – "Wasn't It Nice?" (1930)

Elsie Carlisle – “Wasn’t It Nice?” (1930)

The lyrics of “Wasn’t It Nice?” describe an idyllic romantic relationship. They consist of fond recollections of the early days of that relationship and of the ensuing marriage (the refrain for each reminiscence is “Gee, dear, wasn’t it nice?”). There is a notable description of “canoedling” (cuddling in a boat, a common occupation in the years before motorcars were common enough to provide young couples with privacy). The lyrics also mention a wedding at which not only is the familiar rice thrown, but also shoes (an older practice) — one of which is said nonsensically to still have a foot in it! This last detail provides a suitable ending for a fundamentally goofy song.

Elsie Carlisle’s version of “Wasn’t It Nice?” is noteworthy for its evocation of a certain sort of almost infantile femininity. Elsie perfectly captures a mood of youthful glee which is worlds away from the squeaky protestations of her also childlike persona in the rather sinister “Dada, Dada.”  Particularly delightful is the primal girlish giggle that she emits at 2:09. The use of the chimes in the middle of the song adds to an overall feeling of simplicity and innocence, insofar as they recall the sounds of nursery toys.

“Wasn’t It Nice?” was recorded in America in 1930 by Marion Harris, Tom Clines and His Music (v. Jack Carney), The Charleston Chasers, and Aileen Stanley. Other British bands who recorded it in 1930 were The Million-Airs (Arthur Lally dir., v. Maurice Elwin; in a medley), The Arcadians Dance Orchestra (John Firman dir.), Van Phillips and His Band (v. Billy Milton), Bert Maddison and His Dance Orchestra (Nat Star dir., v. Fred Douglas; in a medley), Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (v. Fred Douglas and Jack Hodges; in a medley), and the Million-Airs (Arthur Lally dir., v. Fred Douglas).

Notes:

  1. The discographies do not mention take -1, but I would appear to own it.

“Shake Down the Stars” (1940)

“Shake Down the Stars.” Words by Eddie De Lange, music by Jimmy Van Heusen (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on August 8, 1940. Rex 9847 mx. R4937-2.

Elsie Carlisle – "Shake Down the Stars" (1940)

Elsie Carlisle – “Shake Down the Stars” (1940)

“Shake Down the Stars” was the creation of prolific songwriting duo Eddie De Lange and Jimmy Van Heusen (who also wrote the similarly atmospheric “Deep in a Dream”). Its singer addresses the aftermath of the dissolution of a romantic relationship. In doing so, she calls for a corresponding dissolution of the natural order:

Shake down the stars,
Pull down the clouds,
Turn off the moon….
I wish I had a high stepladder
So I could scatter the stars….

The singer really says very little about her relationship, but she makes it clear how devastating its cessation is to her through the use of impressive hyperbole; in this way, the song resembles closely the 1932 song “Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon,” which Elsie Carlisle also recorded. In addition to the calls for the the astronomical order to be disrupted, the singer turns to the smaller things in life: “Crush every rose, / Hush every prayer…. / I know I can’t go on without you.” The impression is of a person to whom life has become worse than worthless: its continued existence is a mockery in light of her loss.

“Shake Down the Stars” was recorded by many artists in 1940. Elsie Carlisle’s version stands out as perhaps the least swingy of the lot, which is natural, insofar as it is intended to showcase the vocalist, not the band. The result is refreshing: Elsie’s more dramatic interpretation of the unusually tempestuous lyrics is more impressive to me than the other excellent versions. The novel rhythms of the latter are so distractingly upbeat that one almost forgets that the song is about destroying the universe out of frustration.

“Shake Down the Stars” was recorded in 1940 in America by George Auld and His Orchestra (v. Kay Foster), Bob Crosby and His Orchestra (v. Bob Crosby), Glenn Miller and His Orchestra (v. Ray Eberle), Chick Bullock, Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra (v. Frank Sinatra)Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (v. Helen Forrest), and Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra.

In 1940, British bands who recorded “Shake Down the Stars” include Harry Roy and His Band (v. Kay Harding), Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (v. Anne Lenner), Oscar Rabin (v. Beryl Davis), and Mantovani and His Orchestra.

“Is There Anything Wrong in That?” (1929)

“Is There  Anything Wrong in That?” Words by Herb Magidson, music by Michael H. Cleary (1928). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with accompaniment by Jay Wilbur’s Orchestra in London c.  February 1929. Dominion A. 83 mx. 1148-2.

Personnel: 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

Elsie Carlisle – "Is There Anything Wrong in That?" (1929)

Elsie Carlisle – “Is There Anything Wrong in That?” (1929)

A 1929 review of Dominion A. 83 explains

Little Elsie has tried two extreme opposites this month. “Dreaming of To-morrow” is a rhythmical but sentimental number. The other one is of the “Naughty” type; it fits Elsie like a glove and is just the thing for everyone (except your maiden aunt).1

In “Is There Anything Wrong in That?” the singer repeatedly expresses hesitance, doubt, and more than anything, ignorance with regard to basic questions of morality. She explains, “I can’t tell the bad things from the good,” and “I can’t tell the naughty from the nice.” Her misdeeds appear to consist of taking gifts in exchange for sexual favors; she also seems to use her attractiveness to facilitate the theft of a fur-lined coat and a Cadillac!

The most familiar recordings of this song are by Helen Kane and Annette Hanshaw, both of whom use the persona of a Bronx-accented baby vamp. Their exaggerated little girl voices complement their bogus claims of ignorance and innocence. Elsie Carlisle, by contrast, uses an adult voice, so the comic effect is more subtle. Elsie sings mostly in a parlando style, where the delivery of the lines is close to natural speech. Her more natural intonation gives her leeway to emphasize the lyrics’ ridiculous statements.

“Is There Anything Wrong in That?” was recorded in 1928-1929 in America by Helen Kate, Beth Challis, Annette Hanshaw, Ermine Callway (with the Seven Blue Babies), and Helen Charleston (with Ken Murray). In Britain it was recorded in 1929 by Lily Lapidus and The Rhythmic Eight.

"Is There Anything Wrong in That?" original sheet music

Notes:

  1. “Elsie Carlisle.” The Melody Maker. (The Gramophone Review). 4.40 (April 1, 1929): 376.

“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” (1941)

“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four.” Words by Eric Maschwitz, music by George Posford. Composed for the Eric Maschwitz revue New Faces (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on February 10, 1941. Rex 9934.

Elsie Carlisle – “Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” (1941)

Original 78 rpm Transfer by Charles Hippisley-Cox

“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” has its origins in the 1940 revue New Faces, which is also where “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” was introduced. The lyrics describe a woman’s happy memory of a night spent with her lover in a luxury hotel too expensive for either of them. She describes the night as “her very first and only rendezvous,” and for good reason: this comparatively wholesome song is about a honeymoon, not a tryst. It is tame, therefore, by the standards of Elsie Carlisle’s songbook, which includes not just “My Man o’ War” but also “Public Sweetheart No. 1.”

Elsie Carlisle committed “Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” to shellac in her last year of recording. While I generally prefer the underlying compositions of her earlier period, it is delightful to hear her voice on her later Rex-label records. Elsie’s later style of singing seems slightly more confident, and the crisp beauty of her voice is made even more evident by the more modern recording techniques available by that time — in spite of Rex’s reputation for “crackly” shellac. The studio band’s virtuosity is showcased nicely in their rather swingy instrumental segment.

Other versions of “Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” were recorded in Britain in 1940-1941 by Vera Lynn (accompanied by Jay Wilbur and His Band), Geraldo and His Orchesta (v. Dorothy Carless), The Savoy Hotel Orpheans (dir. Carroll Gibbons, v. Anne Lenner), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Ann Shelton), again by Jay Wilbur and His Band (v. Anne Lenner), and by Binnie Hale.

"Room Five-Hundred-and-Four" sheet music
“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” sheet music

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