Solo Recordings

It seems almost a misnomer to speak of Elsie Carlisle “solo” recordings, for she always had accompanists. What I here call “solo” recordings are records on which her name is featured, rather than that of a band, and usually only when the accompanists cannot be safely identified.

“I Was True” (1932)

“I Was True (That’s Why I’m Blue).” Words by Kate Smith, music by J. Russell Robinson (1931). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment in London on February 12, 1932. Decca F. 2827 mx. GB3954-2.

Elsie Carlisle – "I Was True" (1932)

Elsie Carlisle – “I Was True” (1932)

The song “I Was True” was a creation of J. Russell Robinson (a former member of the Original Dixieland Jass Band who later wrote the music for two other songs that Elsie Carlisle recorded, “Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon” and “Hold Up Your Hands”) and a certain lyricist named Kate Smith. It is possible that the latter person was the well-known singer Kate Smith, who may have occasionally penned lyrics, but I am not certain of this.1 “I Was True” describes a relationship about to dissolve due to one party’s infidelity. One could not accuse it of being a very complex or deep song, but Elsie’s version holds a certain fascination for me. It has a languid, melancholy quality that makes the repetitive lyrics mesmerizing. The studio band adds a certain elegance to a simple arrangement.

Other British artists who recorded “I Was True” in 1931-1932 were Ray Noble and His New Mayfair Orchestra (v. Al Bowlly-The Three Ginx), The Savoy Hotel Orpheans (recording as The Masqueraders), Henry Hall and His Gleneagles Hotel Band (v. Maurice Elwin), and Harry Bidgood’s Broadcasters (recording as Lew Sylva and His Band; v. Sam Browne).

Notes:

  1. Robinson had accompanied the singer Kate Smith in vaudeville. See Ragtime: An Encyclopedia (2007) 222.

“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.

“Am I Blue?” (1929)

“Am I Blue?” Lyrics by Grant Clarke, music by Harry Akst. Composed for On with the Show (1929). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle (as Sheila Kay) with Cecil Norman and His Band (uncredited) in London on October 16, 1929. Worldecho A. 1012 mx. 119.

Personnel: Cecil Norman-p dir. Lloyd Shakespeare-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Les Norman-as /vn / __ Stanley-bb / Ronnie Gubertini-d

Elsie Carlisle (as Sheila Kay) – "Am I Blue?" (1929)

Elsie Carlisle (as Sheila Kay) – “Am I Blue?” (1929)

“Am I Blue?” was a wildly successful composition by lyricist Grant Clarke (also famous for “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” [1923]) and composer Harry Akst (already famous for “Dinah” [1925], he would go on to write “Guilty” in 1931). The song first appeared in 1929 in the backstage musical film On with the Show, which was the first movie to have both color and sound from beginning to end, though sadly only black-and-white prints survive. “Am I Blue?” is introduced in the movie on stage by Ethel Waters playing herself.

Waters appears on stage carrying what appears to be a basket full of cotton; the set behind her shows fields of the same stuff, and she is eventually joined by a small chorus of men dressed as farmhands. She repeatedly asks “Am I Blue?” as if she has just been asked that question. Very much so, her song goes on to say: she finds herself without her lover, who has abandoned her. The song is entirely catchy. On with the Show was financially successful, and the song “Am I Blue?” was recorded prolifically that year and has been perennially successful since then.

Elsie Carlisle’s version of “Am I Blue?” seems rather — well, bluesy — when compared to other recordings of the song made in 1929. That quality is doubtless due mostly to Cecil Norman’s band and the arrangement they used. Elsie’s own performance is difficult to describe. She is always uncommonly good at torch songs and other tearjerkers in which she seems sincere in her weepiness. In “Am I Blue?” however, it is as if she has found a song of that genre which she likes so much that it is mostly her ebullience, playfulness, and virtuosity that come through, not sadness. Elsie either had a genuinely good time making this recording, or else she gives the impression of having done so. Either way, the effect is extraordinary.

“Am I Blue?” was recorded in 1929 in America by Vaughn de Leath (as Betty Brown; also with B. A. Rolfe’s Lucky Strike Orchestra; also in a medley with the Edison Bell All Star Ensemble; and with the Colonial Club Orchestra), Ethel Waters and The Travellers, the California Ramblers (v. Irving Kaufman), Annette Hanshaw (as Gay Ellis, accompanied by the New Englanders), Irving Mills and His Modernists (v. Billy Murray), Tom Gerunovitch and His Roof Garden Orchestra (v. Jimmy Davis), The Dorsey Brothers and Their Orchestra (v. Irving Kaufman), Bill Moore’s Syncopaters (v. Paul Hagan), Helen Richards, Grace Hayes, Libby Holman, Ben Selvin and His Orchestra (v. Smith Ballew), Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (v. May Alix), Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra (v. Don Howard), and Stella Haugh. Seger Ellis and His Embassy Club Orchestra appeared playing it in a film short; a radio transcription survives of the Dixie Shoe Steppers playing it in a medley; and there are Vitaphone recordings of “Am I Blue?” being performed by Jeanne Fayal with Jack White and His Chateau Madrid Orchestra and by Frances Shelley and the Four Eton Boys.

Other 1929 British versions of “Am I Blue?” are those of Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), Herbert Jaeger and His Orchestra, Bidgood’s Broadcasters (first as the Manhattan Melody Makers with vocalist Mabel Mann,  later in a medley with vocalist Tom Barratt), Maurice Elwin, Lily Lapidus (with Arthur Roseberry’s Kit Cat Dance Band), John Firman’s Arcadians Dance Orchestra, Eddie Harding and His Night Club Boys (v. Tom Barratt), Alfredo’s Band (v. Eddie Grossbart), Anona Winn, Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Lou Abelardo), Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra (v. Les Allen), Jim Kelleher’s Piccadilly Band (v. Fred Douglas), and the Rhythm Maniacs (in a medley).

“Let There Be Love” (1941)

“Let There Be Love.” Music by Lionel Rand, words by Ian Grant. Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on May 22, 1941. Rex 9989 mx. R5782-2.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Alfie Noakes-Chick Smith-t / Paul Fenoulhet or Ted Heath or George Rowe-tb / Frank Johnson-Frank Weir-cl-as / George Smith or Cliff Timms-ts / Matt Heft-p / Jack Simmons-g / Billy Bell-sb / Jack Simpson-d

Elsie Carlisle – "Let There Be Love" (1941)

Elsie Carlisle – “Let There Be Love” (1941)

The output of songwriters apparently known for little else, “Let There Be Love” has exhibited unusual staying power, with a notable artist reviving it every decade or so: Nat King Cole (1961), Rosemary Clooney (1992), Cliff Richard and Matt Monro (2006). Bruce Forsyth even sang it as a duet in 1976 with Miss Piggy of Muppets fame.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I do not like this song, and that Elsie Carlisle’s version of it is my least favorite of her recordings. Some of my objection to it must stem, no doubt, from simple matters of personal aesthetic sensibility. I find the rhythm of the beguine moderately irritating: it is to dance genres what a cloying, fruity blended drink is to cocktails (I am referring to the kind with a paper umbrella in it). All the same, 1941 saw Elsie Carlisle release a recording of another beguine, “You’re in My Arms,” which seems in every way preferable to me.

Surely there must be firmer grounds for my dislike of “Let There Be Love.” I locate those grounds in the insipid lyrics, which aim for cuteness and end up with stupidity verging on the repugnant. The rhymes are facile and seem to be the driving force behind the lyrics, rather than any detectable thematic cohesion:

Let there be you,
And let there be me.
Let there be oysters
Under the sea.

The moment of maximum bathos comes early in the song:

Let there be birds
To sing in the trees,
Someone to bless me
Whenever I sneeze.

The blessing-sneezing moment is no doubt the most carefully thought-out part of the lyrics. “…[O]ysters / Under the sea,” for example, only rhymes and does not contribute to a love theme, but “Someone to bless me / Whenever I sneeze” is a preconceived notion that the lyricist actually had to work to put into words — it is not there simply for the sake of rhyming.

One might hope that, as is usually the case with weak underlying compositions, Elsie Carlisle (assisted by some musical luminary such as Jay Wilbur) could redeem the piece in some way, but I cannot hear it. The arrangement contains one too many wacky woodwind flourish for my taste. It is all just too regrettable: Elsie’s voice seems to have acquired strength over the course of her career, and the improved recording techniques of the early 1940s (putting the Rex label’s infamous “crackle” aside) capture every bright moment, every delicious quaver in her voice. That they captured this particular song is perhaps unfortunate, but it provides us with something like an absolute zero on the thermometer of Elsie Carlisle songs. Everything else is better, even “Calliope Jane.”

Noteworthy 1940-1941 American recordings of “Let There Be Love” are those of Sammy Kaye, Kay Kyser and His Orchestra (v. Harry Babbit), Maxine Gray, Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythm Orchestra (v. Hal Derwin), and Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra (v. Bob Eberly).

The song was recorded in Britain by Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Anne Shelton and Sam Browne), Joe Loss and His Band (v. Bob Arden and Bette Roberts), Victor Silvester and His Ballroom Orchestra, and the Savoy Orpheans (dir. Carroll Gibbons, v. Anne Lenner).

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