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.
“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)
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.
“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.
“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.
On February 25, 1930, Broadway writer and producer Lew Leslie opened his International Revue at the Majestic Theatre in New York City. One would have expected a show backed by the mastermind of the wildly popular Blackbirds revues, choreographed by Busby Berkeley, and with music by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, to be quite a success, but it had a comparatively short run of 95 performances, the last being on May 17, 1930. The lasting legacy of this well-funded flop consists of two songs: “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” introduced by Harry Richman, and “Exactly Like You,” sung in the revue by Richman and British actress Gertrude Lawrence.
In “Exactly Like You,” the singer describes the joy of having had an ideal preconception of love that has suddenly become realized in the form of the song’s addressee. The lyrics use turns of phrase suited to dramatic interpretation:
You make me feel so grand,
I want to hand the world to you.
You seem to understand
Each foolish little scheme I’m scheming,
Dream I’m dreaming.
The music is extraordinarily catchy but presents the singer with quite a challenge in its range (an octave and a fifth).
Elsie Carlisle was up to the task. A veteran of musical theater, she had, of course, introduced Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” just the previous year, and it has an identical range. She works her way through the melody’s fourth intervals with dexterity, all the while giving the impression that she is on the verge of faltering. Hers was never a weak voice, but she was an actress who knew the power of the semblance of vulnerability. In the end, while the lyrics argue that we should be impressed by her lover, her overall vocal performance might lead us to admire the character that she has created, some anonymous small person who, prone to sadness, has the sudden opportunity to express great joy. I have argued elsewhere that Elsie did not simply interpret songs; she augmented them by creating comparatively advanced vocal personas that change greatly from song to song.
Elsie’s virtuoso performance is nicely complemented by the memorable instrumental accompaniment put together by Jay Wilbur, a bandleader who was also musical director at Imperial at the time. This was, incidentally, Elsie’s first recording session at Imperial, but she had worked previously with Wilbur at Dominion Records before it went bankrupt. She and the band recorded three different takes of “Exactly Like You” at their session in August 1930. It is worth comparing the slightly different instrumentals of take 2 (above) with take 1:
“Tell Me More About Love” is a woman’s account of her love-making technique. Her approach is to seem innocent and to want instruction in the ways of love; hence the repetition of the title line “Tell me more about love.” She represents herself as a sort of student (“I don’t know what to do — / I can learn lots from you…”; “Teach me all — please don’t wait…”). She is “bashful” and “shy,” and explains that “love has never come [her] way,” but then she lets it slip that the various “lines” that she is rehearsing are ones that she practices every night with a different boy! In retrospect, her earlier request to have the lights dimmed or even turned off should have given her away.
Elsie Carlisle’s perky and chatty delivery in “Tell Me More About Love” showcases her talent for dramatizing a song and making it somewhat conversational, in spite of the absence of an interlocutor. Here Elsie’s delivery sounds a bit like that of Helen Kane, minus, of course, the exaggerated Bronx accent. Elsie’s romantic whimper at the end of the song is particularly precious, rivaled only by the primal girlish giggle in “Wasn’t It Nice?” (recorded the next year). A light and upbeat piece of music, “Tell Me More About Love” contrasts nicely with Elsie’s decidedly plaintive rendition of “Mean to Me” on the flip side of the record.
“Tell Me More About Love” was also recorded that year by Mabel Marks, the Arcadians Dance Orchestra (under the direction of Bert and John Firman), Florence Oldham (accompanied by Sid Bright on the piano and Len Fillis on the guitar — Oldham is sometimes portrayed on the sheet music), Kay and Kaye (a.k.a. Stanley Kirkby & Rita Bernard), and Billy Bartholomew, an English bandleader who recorded primarily in Germany from 1924-1938.
“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 in June 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)
“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: