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

“You’re in My Arms” (1941)

“You’re in My Arms.” Words by Jack Popplewell, music by Michael Carr (1941). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle on December 19, 1941. Rex 10092 mx. R6581-2.

"You're in My Arms" – Elsie Carlisle (1941)

“You’re in My Arms” – Elsie Carlisle (1941)

“You’re in My Arms (and a Million Miles Away)” is a beguine from the 1941 musical “Get a Load of This,” written by playwright and lyricist Jack Popplewell and composer Michael Carr.  The song was introduced by 17-year-old Celia Lipton (daughter of bandleader Sidney Lipton) and saw treatments in 1941 by Jay Wilbur and His Band (with vocalist Pat O’Regan), Ambrose and His Orchestra (with Anne Shelton), Joe Loss and His Band (Chick Henderson, vocalist), Harry Roy and His Band (with Marjorie Kingsley – though Regal Zonophone rejected the take), and Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Orpheans (with Anne Lenner).  Vera Lynn was to record a version the next year.


"You're in My Arms" sheet music featuring Celia Lipton
“You’re in My Arms” sheet music featuring Celia Lipton

“Mean to Me” (1929)

“Mean to Me.” Words by Roy Turk, music by Fred E. Ahlert (1929). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle, accompanied by Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra (uncredited) c. late June 1929. Dominion A. 168.

Personnel: Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-as-ts / Norman Cole-vn / vn / vn / Billy Thorburn-p /Dave Thomas or Bert Thomas-bj-g /Harry Evans-sb / Jack Kosky-d

Elsie Carlisle – “Mean to Me”

Transfer by Mick Johnson (YouTube)

The torch song “Mean to Me” is perhaps the most familiar of the many pieces resulting from the collaboration of composer Fred E. Ahlert and lyricist Roy Turk. Whereas many dance bands’ versions of this comparatively morose song are paradoxically upbeat, Elsie Carlisle’s version is marked by considerable pathos and fidelity to the sentiments of the lyrics. As is often the case with Elsie’s renditions of popular music, there is a dramatic element present in her “Mean to Me” that sets it aside from other recordings.

“Mean to Me” was recorded in America in 1929 by Annette Hanshaw, Vaughn de Leath (as Betty Brown), Helen MorganRuth Etting, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, Seger Ellis, Phil Napoleon’s Emperors, Helen Richards, and the Charlie Davis Orchestra (with vocalist Louis Lowe). Isabelle Washington sang “Mean to Me” in an August 1929 Vitaphone Film, accompanied by “Dave Apollon and His Russian Stars,” who were, according to Ross Laird, a group of “Filipinos in Scotch kilts playing American jazz.”

By mid-1929, “Mean to Me” had become a common anthem of the British dance bands, with recordings by Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (vocalist Sam Browne), Ambrose and His Orchestra, Alfredo’s Band (vocalist Eddie Collis), Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (as Eugene Brockman’s Dance Orchestra),  Harry Bidgood’s Manhattan Melody Makers (with vocals by Mabel Mann), Carroll Gibbons and His Playmates (with vocalist Alma Vane), Tommy Kinsman’s Florida Club Dance Band, Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra (Lou Abelardo, vocalist), Jim Kelleher’s Picadilly Band (vocalist Fred Douglas), Hal Swain’s Café Royal Band (with vocals by Hal Swain himself, Jimmy Redmond, and Cecil Woods), Bidgood’s Broadcasters (as the Midnight Merrymakers, with Tom Barratt singing), Bert and John Firman’s Arcadians Dance Orchestra (with vocals by Maurice Elwin), and Cecil and Leslie Norman’s Savoy Plaza Band (with vocals by Cavan O’Connor).

“Mean to Me” notably appears in the 1932 Betty Boop cartoon Minnie the Moocher (listen for it at 2:53, although be sure not to skip Cab Calloway’s remarkable dancing at the beginning of the short).

"Mean to Me" sheet music
“Mean to Me” sheet music

“My Man o’ War”

[This article first appeared in The Discographer Magazine, Volume 1, No. 6 (2014) 8-12.]

Out of the 340 recordings that Elsie Carlisle is known to have made between 1926 and 1942, a great deal of attention is paid to her two versions of “My Man o’ War” on Dominion C 307 and Filmophone 143, and rightly so:  it is an especially funny, naughty song, brilliantly performed by the “celebrated comedienne.”  She recorded other ribald songs that were considered unsuitable for airplay (“Pu-leeze! Mister Hemingway!” for example), but the Dominion version of “My Man o’ War” is unique in being associated with a supposed legal scandal.  The story can be found in its classic form in the account of Brian Rust, who refers to the song as “an obvious piece of recorded pornography”:

It is said that the censors, who were very active in the Lord Chamberlain’s office in those days, vetoed the issue of further copies when the dreadful deed was discovered.  The subsequent fine reportedly put Dominion out of business.

Brian Rust.  The American Record Label Book.  New Rochelle, NY (1978) 101.

It is worth noting that Rust does not particularly insist on the veracity of this industry rumor, and indeed he goes on to point out that Dominion’s financial position at the time was so poor that it would have collapsed anyway.  If the company had been fined, one would expect that there would be a record of the penalty in some government office, but no such evidence has ever surfaced, to my knowledge.

True or false, this is a story that people like to repeat.  They look at their coveted copies of Dominion C 307 with their simple black-and-white labels and want to see them as precious contraband.  They take delight in listening to the risqué disc and feel a sudden, intimate connection to a supposedly historical scandal.  The suggestion that “My Man o’ War” is not just naughty but criminally transgressive evokes the common motif of the subversive artist taking on a repressive society, and one takes vicarious pleasure in thoroughly enjoying something once forbidden (albeit morally pedestrian in terms of today’s popular music).

I would like to focus on the genuine artistic merits of Elsie Carlisle’s Dominion recording of “My Man o’ War” (and of the Filmophone version that she did over a year later), simply because it is an exceedingly clever composition artfully interpreted by a consummate mistress of comic music.

Which is not to say that a pretty girl singing a smutty song is not of perennial fascination.

“My Man o’ War” was composed by Spencer Williams, with words by Andy Razaf, and was published in New York at the beginning of 1930.  Razaf, a prolific lyricist (and interestingly also a member of the deposed royal family of Imerina, now Madagascar), helped to write other songs that Elsie Carlisle sang, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Porter’s Love Song,” and “My Handy Man,” the latter being almost as sexually suggestive as “My Man o’ War” (with which it is paired on Filmophone 143).

The lyrics of “My Man o’ War” involve an extended metaphor in which a woman compares her lover to a soldier and her bedroom to a battlefield.  The rhetoric ratchets up quickly from simple comparison (“My flat looks more like an armory”) to sexually suggestive expression (“Takes out his bugle when he sees me”) to raunchy double-entendre (“At night he’s drilling me constantly”).

By the second refrain the assault of word play has become relentless:

He storms my trench and he’s not dead,
His bayonet makes me cry for aid,
Oh, how he handles his hand grenade…
If I’m retreatin’ he goes around
And gets me in the rear.
He keeps repeatin’ a flank attack
‘Til victory is near…

The first recording of “My Man o’ War” features blues singer Lizzie Miles accompanied by Harry Brooks on the piano.  Victor 23281 was recorded in New York on January 27, 1930, only a few weeks before Elsie Carlisle did her Dominion version.  The tempo is slow, almost mournful, but Miles’s voice is powerful, and the attitude that she projects is brazen.  It is hard to tell if she is complaining about or rather boasting about her lover’s indefatigable prowess in bed, and the ambiguity contributes to the comic effect.

Lizzie Miles – My Man O'War

Lizzie Miles – “My Man o’ War” (1930)

Video by novonine (YouTube)

Elsie Carlisle made her first recording of the song in March 1930 with Dominion Records, when Jay Wilbur was still musical director there.  The differences between her version and Lizzie Miles’s are striking.  The latter’s hint of bragging is replaced by Elsie’s girlish persona of mock-innocence and mock-earnestness.  The tempo is faster (with more complex orchestration to make up for the lost time), and Elsie’s delivery is more varied.  She feigns shock, surprise, and exhaustion; her voice quavers wearily.  In short, Elsie’s performance is dramatic in character, and what less would we expect from a veteran of the musical theater who had only a year before introduced the world to Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (supposedly at the composer’s own request).1  In “My Man o’ War,” she does not merely sing naughty lyrics beautifully; she conveys a persona that suggests innocence but delivers filth, and the incongruity makes the song uproariously funny.

Elsie Carlisle – "My Man o' War" (1930 – Dominion C 307)

Elsie Carlisle – “My Man o’ War” (1930 – Dominion C 307)

Whether or not there really was a problem with the authorities over this record, Dominion’s finances were in ruins, and in July Jay Wilbur quit his job as musical director to take up a similar position at Crystalate (where Elsie would start recording again the next month).  Elsie seems to have gone on a four-month recording hiatus after “My Man o’ War,” but it is clear that she kept busy, even appearing in an experimental Baird Television broadcast in June.

The Dominion recording turns up again over a year later, in mid-December 1931, this time reissued on the physically less friable, decidedly floppier Filmophone 143.  Whereas the earlier Dominion record had had Elsie’s rendition of the comparatively respectable “Body and Soul” on its other side, Filmophone 143 is pure impropriety; its reverse side has her singing Razaf’s “My Handy Man,” another example of sexual innuendo (in this one, the singer declares that her man “greases [her] griddle, churns [her] butter, strokes [her] fiddle” – you get the idea).  Many, but not all, copies of the Filmophone record have the pseudonym “Amy Brunton” on them, but it is not clear that Elsie was really distancing herself from the song.  The Lawrence Wright sheet music of the time features nothing but a striking photograph of her on the cover, and she ultimately recorded a second version of the song that appears on many pressings of Filmophone 143.

In the second version of “My Man o’ War,” Elsie sounds less naïve, more confident, more mature; in other words, somewhat more in on the joke; and yet the humor is not diminished.  It is in fact somewhat enhanced by the addition of Max Goldberg on the trumpet, who introduces comical variations on the idea of a military bugle.  The song is punctuated at the end by a collective sigh suggestive of sexual passion subsiding.

My Man O' War (Filmophone Version) – Elsie Carlisle (Risque!)

Elsie Carlisle – “My Man o’ War” (Filmophone; 1931)

Video by David Weavings (YouTube)

Elsie Carlisle was particularly good at singing ribald songs because she combined a beautiful voice with an ability to project a comical persona and a knack for letting her voice quaver or falter dramatically at just the right moment.  She could use these talents on occasion to make a song edgier.  Whereas the Andrews Sisters’ 1939 version of “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” suggests a mere teenage crush, Elsie’s 1940 version, with the same lyrics, has so much vocal frustration, urgency, and excitement in it that it seems considerably less innocent.

This ability to add or enhance sexual innuendo with dramatic vocal effects was, however, but one of Elsie Carlisle’s talents.  We have seen that “My Man o’ War” on Dominion C 307 is the flip side of Elsie’s moving rendition of “Body and Soul,” and her very next record (Imperial 2318) has her sublimely touching “Exactly Like You” on it.  Her tone of vulnerable, bittersweet optimism in her 1932 version of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” with Ambrose and His Orchestra (HMV B 6210) provides a further example of the range of passions that she could evoke – but one has to admit that she was rather good at singing a dirty song.

"My Man o' War" sheet music featuring Elsie Carlisle
“My Man o’ War” sheet music featuring Elsie Carlisle


  1. Richard J. Johnson, “Elsie Carlisle (with a different style). Part Two.” Memory Lane 175 (2012): 40

“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (1940)

“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”  Words by Eric Maschwitz, music by Manning Sherwin (1940).  Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur on April 11, 1940.  Rex 9816.

A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square – Elsie Carlisle

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square – Elsie Carlisle

Video by hawkmoon03111951 (YouTube)

“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is a simple, sentimental love song that recounts the circumstances of the first meeting of two lovers in Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London, which happens to be only five blocks from where Elsie Carlisle lived for decades.  On April 11, 1940 she recorded this atmospheric composition for the Rex label to the accompaniment of an electric organ.  Hers remains one of the memorable early versions of the piece, which continues to see treatments by popular artists to this day.

First performed in the musical revue New Faces by Judy Campbell, the song was popular with British dance bands in June and July of 1940:  there were versions by Carrol Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (with Anne Lenner singing), Ambrose and His Orchestra (with Anne Shelton as vocalist), Geraldo and His Orchestra (with Dorothy Carless), Billy Cotton and His Band (Alan Breeze, vocalist), and Joe Loss and His Band (with Paula Greene singing).  It was included in medleys by Jay Wilbur and His Band (Sam Browne, vocalist) and by Joe Loss.  Other than Elsie Carlisle’s, the most notable solo recording that year was by Vera Lynn, who is unusual in having sung the first stanza, which is traditionally omitted.

“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” was popular in America that fall and was recorded by Gene Krupa and His Orchestra (with vocalist Howard Dulaney), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (Larry Stewart, vocalist), and Glenn Miller and His Orchestra (with singer Ray Eberle)Kate Smith would make a notable solo recording of the song (like Vera Lynn, she sings the first stanza).

Sadly, German bombs would fall on Berkeley Square only months after Elsie Carlisle made her recording.

“Little White Lies” (1930)

“Little White Lies.”  Music and words by Walter Donaldson (1930).  Recorded in London c. September 10, 1930 by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur (Imperial 2346).

Personnel probably Jack Miranda-cl-ts / Eric Siday-vn / vn / Harry Jacobson-p-cel / Len Fillis-g

Little white lies – Elsie Carlisle

Little White Lies – Elsie Carlisle

Video by hawkmoon03111951 (YouTube)

Prolific composer Walter Donaldson, also known for such jazz standards as “Makin’ Whoopee,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and “My Blue Heaven,” published “Little White Lies” in 1930, and it became an instant hit.  Initially recorded by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, the song saw countless American recordings within months, including by such noted female vocalists as Marion Harris, Lee Morse, and Annette Hanshaw (“That’s all!”).

“Little White Lies” saw equal attention that year in Britain.  Notable recordings were made by the Rhythmic Eight and the Rhythm Maniacs (both with Maurice Elwin as vocalist), Harry Hudson’s Radio Melody Boys (Sam Browne, vocalist), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (Pat O’Malley, vocalist), Bert Madison’s Dance Orchestra (directed by Nat Star, with Cavan O’Connor as vocalist), and Jay Wilbur and His Band (vocals by Jack Plant).  Jay Wilbur was, of course, the musical director at Imperial at the time, so he would have overseen Elsie Carlisle’s recording the previous month.

Sir Paul McCartney has reported that “Little White Lies” was John Lennon’s favorite childhood song, and that this was a fondness that they shared, but it is assumed that it was the 1947 Dick Haymes version that they were familiar with.

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