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.

“He’s Not Worth Your Tears” (1931)

“He’s Not Worth Your Tears.” Words by Mort Dixon and Billy Rose, music by Harry Warren; composed for the musical Sweet and Low (1930). Recorded in London on February 25, 1931 by Elsie Carlisle (as Gracie Collins) under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur. Eclipse 50 mx. JW-173-3.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Max Goldberg-Bill Shakespeare-t / Ted Heath or Tony Thorpe-tb / Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / Norman Cole-?another-vn / Billy Thorburn or Pat Dodd-p / Bert Thomas-g / Harry Evans-sb / Jack Kosky-d

He’s Not Worth Your Tears – Gracie Collins (Elsie Carlisle) – Eclipse 50

Transfer by Jonathan David Holmes

Sheet music and record labels assert that “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” originated in the 1930 Broadway revue Sweet and Low, and yet sources for original casts and the like omit the song.1 Perhaps it was cut from the show but continued to be marketed as having been in it? At any rate, it was recorded by quite a few artists, Elsie Carlisle among them. This is her only record side with the budget Eclipse label (sold in Woolworth’s), and one of only four small, eight-inch records that she ever made.

This song showcases Elsie as a torch singer capable of appealing to our deepest sympathies for whatever lost or unrequited love she claims to have experienced. And yet this torch song has a bit of a twist: Elsie is not complaining so much about the lover who left her as the people who are trying to comfort her. “He’s not worth your tears,” they tell her to her annoyance. I find the lyrics of the B part particularly memorable:

They never bother an old weeping willow —
They leave it drooping there.
So if I want to confide in my pillow,
Why should strangers care?

Elsie is at her most mournful in this song. There is something deeply attractive about the way that her voice sounds as if it is about to break, but never does. I have listed the personnel that Richard J. Johnson identifies as having made up Jay Wilbur’s studio band at the time,2 but I only hear a pianist and a trumpet player; the latter has a short but memorable solo.

Eclipse 50 was the second Elsie Carlisle record that I ever bought. I put off sharing a transfer of it because my copy is rather worn and I was hoping to find a better one, but it would appear that this is a comparatively rare record. I was very pleased when Jonathan Holmes found a good copy and shared it on YouTube; his transfer is the one used at the beginning of the article. Readers might like to compare my copy, though, as it is take 2, not take 3, and there are interesting little differences in the pacing:

“He’s Not Worth Your Tears.” Recorded in London on February 25, 1931 by Elsie Carlisle (as Gracie Collins) under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur. Eclipse 50 mx. JW-173-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” (1931)

Elsie used the pseudonym Gracie Collins on Eclipse 50; the reverse side, “Homesick Blues,” is also supposed to be by Gracie Collins, but it clearly has Betty Bolton’s voice. If that is not confusing enough — having two very different singers pretending to have sung both sides of one record — there also exists a take 1 of “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” that was recorded by a singer named Elaine Rosslyn. I have not heard it myself.3

In America in 1930-1931 there were versions of “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” recorded by Doris Robbins, Marion Harris, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (v. Helen Rowland), Aileen Stanley (two takes rejected by Victor), Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (v. Mildred Bailey), and Ben Selvin and His Orchestra (v. Helen Rowland).

There were British dance band versions in 1931 by Jack Harris and His Orchestra (“She’s Not Worth Your Tears” — apparently mislabeled as “It’s Not Worth Your Tears”; v. Cavan O’Connor) and by the Debroy Somers Band (also “She’s Not Worth Your Tears”; v. Dan Donovan).

Notes:

  1. E.g., The Guide to Musical Theatre.
  2. Richard J.  Johnson, Elsie Carlisle: A Discography, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire: Richard J. Johnson, 1994, 12.
  3. For more about Eclipse’s “Gracie Collins” pseudonym, see Arthur Badrock’s comments in Talking Machine Review 88 (Autumn/Winter 1994): 2559-2560.

“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (Two Versions; 1932)

“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” Words and music by Harry Woods and Billy Hill (the latter using the pseudonym George Brown; 1932). Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra (with vocals by Elsie Carlisle) on July 13, 1932. HMV B-6210 mx. OB-3134-1.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-tb / Joe Crossman-Billy Amstell-Joe Jeannete-reeds / Harry Hines-as / Ernie Lewis-Teddy Sinclair-Peter Rush-vn / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Don Stutely-sb / Max Bacon-d-vib

Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (1932)

Elsie Carlisle’s recording of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” with Ambrose and His Orchestra is fixed in the public’s memory as one of her most representative recordings. It is a perfect example of her ability to project vulnerability, in this case employing optimistic lyrics set to a powerful but somewhat melancholy arrangement. This recording seems to encapsulate our sense of the Great Depression as an era when popular culture offered eloquent expressions of hope amidst global disappointment and despair.

The use of extended meteorological comparisons to encourage an upbeat attitude precedes the Depression, of course. Irving Berlin’s 1926 Blue Skies is another song that similarly combines hopeful lyrics with a rather sad tune. In 1932, the year when Harry Woods and Billy Hill published “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” Berlin would write “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” a much perkier but similarly themed composition, one of whose lines is “And the clouds will soon roll by.”  It is as if songwriters had hit upon the perfect metaphorical vehicle — weather, the most pedestrian topic of light chat — as the best way to convey consolation.

The Ambrose arrangement of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” would be memorable even if it lacked Elsie’s vocals. The intro seems to churn and roll like the upper atmosphere in a storm, and the music evokes both sadness and confidence. But Elsie is at her best in this piece. She allows her voice to quaver slightly at important points as if crying, all the while comforting both herself and us. It is worth noting that she sings for barely over a minute of the recording, which is not unusual in a dance band arrangement. What is interesting is that we remember her part so well.

The Ambrose recording is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable pieces of British popular music from the interwar period; it is also one of Elsie Carlisle’s best-known songs. There is a peculiar reason for this. The 1978 Dennis Potter television miniseries Pennies from Heaven featured long and frequently bizarre musical interludes based on British dance band recordings, and in many ways it created a canon of recognizable songs. The very first such song in the very first episode is Ambrose’s “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” and when Elsie begins to sing, the actor who mimes to her voice is the very masculine Bob Hoskins. The effect is jarring and memorable. Again, in the 1981 miniseries Brideshead Revisited.1 protragonist Charles Ryder puts the Ambrose record on a gramophone at a moment when comfort is needed, but he and his lover leave the room just as Elsie’s voice begins to be audible.

"The Clouds Will Soon Roll By." Sheet music featuring Ambrose's face.

“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with piano accompaniment and with Len Fillis on the steel guitar on September 19, 1932 in Chelsea Town Hall, London.  Decca F-3146 mx. GB-4844-4.

Elsie Carlisle – “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (1932)

In her later Decca recording, Elsie Carlisle sings “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” at a more leisurely pace. The accompaniment is a simple piano and Len Fillis on the steel guitar. The song is still bittersweet, but there is a lazy, dreamy quality to it as well. At one point when Fillis’s guitar is foregrounded, Elsie hums the tune and even begins to engage in a half-hearted attempt at scat. The overall effect is not as powerful as the  Ambrose version, but the recording is nevertheless memorable for its playful interpretation of the song.

"The Clouds Will Soon Roll By" sheet music
“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” sheet music

Notes:

  1. Season One, Episode Ten.

“Conversation for Two” (1935)

“Conversation for Two.” Composed by Sammy Mysels, Billy Hueston, and Bob Emmerich (1935). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on September 7, 1935. Decca F-5689 mx. 7369-1.

Elsie Carlisle – “Conversation for Two” (1935)

Elsie Carlisle sings this languid love song about small talk leading to romance with considerably less of the dramatic element than is her wont. Instead, she adapts her delivery to the slow yet catchy tune in such a way as to make it atmospheric. Even her dreamy humming “Mm-mm-mm-mm…” followed by “I love you” is seductively sedating. It is perhaps fitting that the flip side of the record is “Star Gazing,” a song which is similarly leisurely in pace and vaguely mesmerizing.

Elsie’s 1935 rendition of “Conversation for Two” is the only recording that I have found of the song. Even the sheet music appears to be rare. The three composers were all prolific, however. Mysels and Emmerich got involved in composing music for motion pictures, and Emmerich, a pianist in the Tommy Dorsey Band and songwriter for Fats Waller, went on to write “The Big Apple,” a song which popularized New York City’s peculiar sobriquet.

“His Majesty the Baby” (Two Versions; 1935)

In his 1914 essay “On Narcissism,” Sigmund Freud wrote

The child shall have it better than his parents; he shall not be subject to the necessities that we have recognized as prevailing in life.  Sickness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, and restrictions on his own will shall not be valid for the child; the laws of nature, like those of society, shall come to a halt before him; he shall really be the center and heart of creation, His Majesty the Baby, as we once thought ourselves to be (emphasis mine).

Freud was writing in German, of course, but he wrote the expression “His Majesty the Baby” in English.  He appears to have been alluding to a late Victorian painting by Arthur Drummond in the Royal Academy:

"His Majesty the Baby" (1898)
“His Majesty the Baby” (1898)

One can see that, in Drummond’s painting, the whole world seems to wait upon the ermine-clad infant center-of-attention.  Of course, Freud uses the idea of “His Majesty the Baby” to refer to how the child sees things, not its parents — and he pulls in all sorts of notions about primary narcissism and auto-eroticism that need not concern us here.

In 1935, the phrase “His Majesty the Baby” resurfaces as the title of a slow foxtrot composed by American songwriters Neville Fleeson, Arthur Terker, and Mabel Wayne.  Elsie Carlisle sang other Mabel Wayne songs involving childhood themes; in 1934 she recorded two versions of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” that were issued and two versions of “Who Made Little Boy Blue.”  “His Majesty the Baby” has lyrics describing a baby who seems regal, the object of constant awe.  It is clear that it is the feelings of the adults surrounding the child that are being discussed, however, and that the imperious attitudes attributed to him are a mere transference of his parents’ reverence for his cuteness.

“His Majesty the Baby.” Words by Neville Fleeson and Arthur Terker; music by Mabel Wayne (1935). Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie Carlisle on January 11, 1935. Decca F. 5379 mx. GB-6868-2.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-t-mel / Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-Tony Thorpe-tb / Danny Polo-Sid Phillips-Billy Amstell-reeds / Joe Jeannette-as / Ernie Lewis-Reg Pursglove-others?-vn / Bert Barnes-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Dick Ball-sb / Max Bacon-d

Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “His Majesty the Baby” (1935)

The version of “His  Majesty the Baby” that Elsie Carlisle recorded with Ambrose and His Orchestra begins with a substantial instrumental introduction that seems stately enough.  Elsie’s concise delivery of the lyrics leaves no doubt that the worship being demanded for the infant child is somewhat tongue-in-cheek; the song plays on the attitude of fawning obedience that people adopt when around a beloved baby.

Several days later Elsie would record (again for Decca) a solo version of “His Majesty the Baby”:

“His Majesty the Baby.” Words by Neville Fleeson and Arthur Terker; music by Mabel Wayne (1935). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on January 14, 1935. Decca F. 5380 mx. GB6876-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “His Majesty the Baby” (1935)

This second interpretation of the song has a competent orchestral accompaniment, but it is Elsie’s voice that is the focus through the entire song, and one must admit that the piece suffers, not so much from “baby talk,” but from an exaggerated dramatization of infant bedtime.

Other notable British recordings of “His Majesty the Baby” were made in January 1935 by Billy Merrin and His Commanders (with vocals by Billy Merrin), the BBC Dance Orchestra under Henry Hall (with vocalist Kitty Masters), the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra under Percival Mackey (Jack Plant, vocalist), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (with vocals by Ivor Moreton), twice by Jay Wilbur and His Band with Eve Becke, and by Lou Preager and His Romanos Restaurant Dance Orchestra (with vocalist Pat Hyde).  Phyllis Robins made a solo recording of the song that year.  The notable American recording is from July 1935 and is by Rudy Vallée and His Connecticut Yankees.

“Alone and Afraid” (1931)

“Alone and Afraid.” Music by Jack Trent, with lyrics by Stan Leigh (1931). Recorded in London in May 1931 by Elsie Carlisle (under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur). Imperial 2489 mx. 5701-2.

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 – “Alone and Afraid” (1931)

Elsie Carlisle recorded more than a few torch songs in her time, but “Alone and Afraid” stands out as a particularly noteworthy example of her efforts. I have argued elsewhere that one of Elsie’s foremost talents as a dance band singer was to establish the audience’s idea of her persona in a very limited time frame (often in under a minute of singing). In “Alone and Afraid” Elsie has more time, as it is not a dance band record, and so she uses most of one side of a record to produce the perfect vocal tearjerker. She sings of a deep disappointment, of unrequited love, or at the very least, of an asymmetrical relationship subject to unfortunate misunderstanding (“I gave my love, but his was lent”). The tune is memorable and can even be played as an upbeat dance number, as we find out near the beginning of the 1931 Stanley Lupino film The Love Race.

In the same year, Elsie recorded a short film of her singing “Alone and Afraid” and “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes,” accompanied by Harry Rubens on the piano (this may or may not be the same pianist as the Harry Robens who played briefly for Ray Starita’s band):

Elsie Carlisle (1931)

Very little camera footage survives of Elsie Carlisle, so it is hard to place this particular performance in the context of her career as a musical actress, but I find this film short both mesmerizing and satisfying. The quality of the singing is excellent and comparable to that of the record, but Elsie’s acting is really delightful. Her intense gazes into the camera leave one with the impression that she is sharing something very sincere.

“Alone and Afraid” was also recorded in 1931 in Britain by Jerry Hoey and His Band (v. Joe Leigh), Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra (v. Jack Payne), and Arthur Lally and the Million-airs (v. Cavan O’Connor).

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