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.

“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 – “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)

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)

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 – “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)

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).

“This Little Piggie Went to Market” (1934)

“This Little Piggie Went to Market” is a mock-lullaby based on the famous nursery rhyme and game of playing with an infant’s toes. One might, therefore, expect it to have had a fairly innocuous origin. Instead, one finds that the song was composed for the 1934 American movie 8 Girls in a Boat, which tells the story of a teenage girl at a boarding school in Switzerland who finds that she is pregnant and contemplates suicide.1

These unwholesome themes are typical of movies made in the period before the so-called “Hays Code” went into effect and ushered in an era of Hollywood self-censorship. All the more representative of the pre-Code period are the numerous scenes portraying teenage girls exercising in swimsuits, who at one point go so far as to blast each other with water from hoses and giggle with glee. The filmmakers seem to have sobered up from their gratuitous portrayal of the youthful feminine form at some point and had the girls of the school sing Coslow and Lewis’s “This Little Piggie Went to Market” as they have their evening glass of milk before bed (and instrumental versions of the theme can be heard at other points in the score). Perhaps we can take the lyrics “I dream and pray one day I’ll say / To a cute little piggie of my own, / ‘This little piggie went to market, / And this little piggie stayed home'” as a hint that this salacious and yet somehow quite forgettable film will have a happy ending, as it does? But only, of course, after considerably more rope-skipping and swimming.

“This Little Piggie Went to Market.” Lyrics by Sam Coslow, music by Harold “Lefty” Lewis. Composed for the Paramount picture 8 Girls in a Boat (1934). Recorded in London on February 2, 1934 by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocalist Elsie Carlisle. Brunswick 01694.

This Little Piggie Went To Market - Ambrose & his Orchestra (w. Elsie Carlisle)

This Little Piggie Went To Market – Ambrose & his Orchestra (w. Elsie Carlisle)

Video by David Weavings

The Ambrose version of “This Little Piggie Went to Market” features an impressive arrangement that gives the impression of a pastoral lullaby, although at points it grows so powerful and insistent that it almost jars with the simplicity of the vocal refrain. Elsie Carlisle’s cooing intonation of the latter is a sincere depiction of the hope of future motherhood. One can entirely understand why Ambrose chose her, only a few months later, to sing in his version of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” (especially as she had already made a lovely version of that other nursery-themed song with her own name on the label). This is just one of many cases where the coquettish flapper Elsie of the late 1920s is converted to the more sentimental tastes of the new decade — but the conversion is not an entirely unhappy one. Her versatility as an artist who can evoke a convincing character in under a minute and twenty seconds is on display here, and one can enjoy it even while admitting that the song is rather saccharine.

“This Little Piggie Went to Market.” Recorded in London on February 7, 1934 by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment. Decca F. 3887 mx. GB6532-2.

Elsie Carlisle - "This Little Piggie Went to Market" (1934)

Elsie Carlisle – “This Little Piggie Went to Market” (1934)

It seems highly likely that the orchestral accompaniment to Elsie’s solo version of “This Little Piggie Went to Market” consisted of members of Ambrose’s band, as they had been recording at Decca’s studios that day, and the two record matrices preceding this recording are theirs.2 The arrangement is comparatively subdued, leaving more room for Elsie’s gentle interpretation of the simple lyrics. All the same, the instrumental interpretation of the theme is quite beautiful and enjoyable.

“This Little Piggie Went to Market” was recorded in late December 1933 in Los Angeles by the Pickens Sisters on a Victor transcription, and in New York in early 1933 by Victor Young and His Orchestra (v. Jane Vance), Freddy Martin and His Orchestra (v. Helen Ward), and Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers. In London it was recorded in early 1934 by Jack Payne and His Band (v. Jack Payne), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (v. Al Bowlly), Harry Leader and His Band (with an unknown vocalist), and Howard Flynn and His Orchestra (v. Harry Bentley).

Notes:

  1. Henry Parsons has pointed out to me that 8 Girls in a Boat is also the origin of the song “A Day Without You.”
  2. Johnson, Richard J. Elsie Carlisle: A Discography. Aylesbury, UK, 1994, 25.

Elsie Carlisle Medley (1937)

Elsie Carlisle committed her last Decca record to shellac on January 31, 1936 and would not start recording again with HMV until October 25, 1937 — a hiatus of one year and nine months in an otherwise consistently busy period of fifteen years (1926-1942). We must not assume a low point in her career, however, but much the opposite. Elsie’s status as “Idol of the Radio” was at an all-time high, as suggested by the evidence of newspapers and industry magazines, and her stage activities seem to have kept up unabated.

The BBC Genome project shows a fair number of radio appearances in 1936 and 1937. Importantly, a December issue of Melody Maker prints the results of a nationwide poll showing Elsie Carlisle as the most popular British female singer1. Meanwhile, a 1935 stage show featuring Sam Browne and Elsie Carlisle (accompanied by pianist Ronnie Aldrich and Freddie Aspinall) morphed in 1936 into an act that featured solely Elsie. This act would continue into at least July 19372 and seems to have featured “Home, James, and Don’t Spare the Horses,” ending with “No, No, a Thousand Times, No!”

It should not be a surprise, then, that within days of returning to recording, Elsie recorded a collection including those two songs that went under the name “Elsie Carlisle Medley.” It was the first of two such medleys that would be released under her name in a three-month period. The medleys, which include songs that must have been perceived as somehow representative of her whole career up to that point, must reinforce her special status as a premiere vocalist.

“Elsie Carlisle Medley.” Part 1: “Gertie, the girl with the gong,” “Home James, and don’t spare the horses,” “No, No, a thousand times no.” Part 2: “Dirty hands, dirty face,” “Little chap with big ideas,” “Little man, you’ve had a busy day.” Arranged by Con Lamprecht. Recorded on November 8, 1937 in London at Studio No. 1A, Abbey Roads by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Ronnie Munro. HMV B.D. 476 matrices OEA 5869-1 and OEA 5870-1.

Elsie Carlisle - "Elsie Carlisle Medley" (1937)

Elsie Carlisle Medley (1937)

This medley, arranged, according to Richard J. Johnson, by Con Lamprecht,3 begins with Ronnie Munro’s own “Gertie, the Girl with the Gong” (Sonin-Munro; 1935), which Elsie famously recorded with Ambrose and His Orchestra in 1935 (Decca F. 5486). The next two numbers were, as I have already noted, famously a part of Elsie’s stage show, but they had also been memorably recorded with Ambrose and His Orchestra on Decca F. 5318 (“Home, James, and Don’t Spare the Horses” [Sherman-Lewis-Silver; 1934]; “No, No, a Thousand Times, No” [Fred Hillebrand; 1934]).

Part 2 of the “Elsie Carlisle Medley” is a group of songs with childhood themes. According to Richard J. Johnson,4, it was originally supposed to include “He’s an Angel” (Michael Hodges; 1936; recorded by Elsie Carlisle on Decca F. 5902), but that song was not ultimately recorded for the “Medley” session. Instead, Part 2 begins with “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” (Leslie-Jolson-Clarke-Monaco; 1923), which Elsie had never recorded. Perhaps it was part of her stage act, or perhaps she had broadcast it on the radio. The song’s popularity was long-lived, especially after Al Jolson featured it in The Jazz Singer (1927). Elsie had not recorded the next song, either: “Little Chap with Big Ideas” (Drake-Damerell-Evans) was a new song in 1937, and Elsie may very well have sung it on the radio. The last song, “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” was one that Elsie had recorded twice in 1934, first solo, and then with Ambrose and His Orchestra on Brunswick 01790.

Newspaper ads for the first “Elsie Carlisle Medley” described it as “Elsie Carlisle sing[ing] a medley of her successes,”5 and the tabloid Illustrated Police News (Thursday, February 10, 1938, p. 15) included the following delightful review:

Croonette

Elsie Carlisle is probably the ace girl vocalist of the radio—British radio, at any rate. She has made a record of some of her most popular hits under the heading “Elsie Carlisle Medley.”

Elsie croons through these numbers in just as delightful fashion as she does when heard “on the air….”

The success of this collection of songs may be gauged by HMV’s decision to have the “ace croonette” record “Elsie Carlisle Medley No. 2” in January 1938, which similarly included four songs that Elsie had recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as well as a couple that she had not recorded, but that she must have been associated with in some other way, whether through broadcast or stage.

Notes:

  1. Melody Maker 12.187 (Dec. 19, 1936) 11.
  2. The Stage issue 2,937 (July 15, 1937) 7.
  3. Elsie Carlisle: A Discography. Aylesbury, Bucks. (1994) 33.
  4. Ibid.
  5. In the Belfast News-Letter (Wednesday, February 2, 1938) 11 and elsewhere.

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