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.

“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).

“To Be Worthy of You” (1932)

“To Be Worthy of You.” Words by Benny Davis, music by John Frederick Coots (1931). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on February 8, 1932. Zonophone 6069 mx. OY2687-2.

Personnel: cl / Bert Firman-vn / ?Bert Read-p / ?Joe Brannelly-g / ?Billy Bell-sb

Elsie Carlisle - "To Be Worthy of You" (1932)

Elsie Carlisle -- “To Be Worthy of You” (1932)

“To Be Worthy of You” was composed in 1931 by Benny Davis and John Frederick Coots. Davis had written the successful standard “Baby Face”  back in 1926,  and Coots would go on to co-write the best-selling “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” in 19341 “To Be Worthy of You” did not have the staying power that those other songs enjoyed. Indeed, the melody falls short of being particularly infectious or compelling, and the lyrics initially seem gushy. I do think, however, that the words express sentiments that are comparatively deep for a popular song, and that Elsie Carlisle’s version is a rather elegant realization of the song’s possibilities.

At first it would seem that Elsie is merely expressing her satisfaction at having found a love partner whose merits are so great that she feels scarcely worthy of having him. In fact, she is rejoicing in having resolved to be a better person: “Watch the way that I’ll come through / To be worthy of you.” The idea of being transported, not just with the joy of love, but also with delight at having discovered in another person the means of self-improvement, is really extraordinary.

Elsie’s singing in this comparatively simple arrangement is nothing if not refined. Her anonymous accompaniment is also noteworthy, in particular the pianist, whom Richard J. Johnson tentatively identifies as Bert Read2, a constant fixture at Elsie’s recording sessions (especially in his role as an Ambrose man). Whatever this pianist’s identity, his flourishes contribute a great deal to the overall bright, crisp sound of the recording and to the idea that we are dealing in this piece with an elevated mental state.

“To Be Worthy of You” was also recorded in a radio transcript in 1931 or 1932 in America by Gus Arnheim’s Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors (v. Loyce Whiteman). In Britain it was recorded by Roy Fox and His Band (v. Al Bowlly), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (v. Jack Plant).

Notes:

  1. Not to mention “Gosh Darn,” which Elsie Carlisle would record with Ray Starita and His Ambassadors later in 1932.
  2. Johnson, Richard J. Elsie Carlisle: A Discography. Aylesbury, UK, 1994, 14.

“Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” (1936)

“Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire.” Words by Nixon Grey, music by Nixon Grey and Reg Connelly (1936). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on January 31, 1936. Decca F. 5877 mx. GB7661-1.

Elsie Carlisle - "Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire" (1936)

Elsie Carlisle -- “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” (1936)

“Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” was composed by the relatively minor British lyricist Nixon Grey and the great songwriter and producer Reg Connelly (of Campbell and Connelly publishing fame). The title alludes to a childhood nickname for bedtime. As the song explains,

The old wooden hill was the old wooden stair,
And Bedfordshire, a cot, where I knelt to say my pray’r.
Climbing up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,
They were happy, happy days for me.

The lyrics are an adult’s memory of an idyllic childhood, and especially of the joys of riding on “Dad’s” shoulders upstairs to go to sleep; in short, they are perfect treacle, but perhaps suited to the sentimental tastes of their day. One might compare them to “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” but that earlier song is more melodically compelling and has the added bonus of possibly not really being about childhood.

Elsie Carlisle recorded “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” at this her last session with Decca (she would not begin recording with HMV until late 1937, but is clear that she was more than busy broadcasting during that hiatus). She breathes a fair amount of life into the flawed composition, palliating its saccharinity with the appearance of sincerity. Vera Lynn also recorded this song, but her organ accompaniment makes the whole affair seem unnecessarily solemn. Elsie’s studio band can be applauded for their more playful approach to the melody; the overall effect is sweet and light.

"Up the Wooden Hill to Bedforshire" original sheet music featuring Elsie Carlisle

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