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.

“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.

“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).

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