“So Is Your Old Lady.” Words by Al Dubin, music by Joe Burke (1926). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with piano accompaniment by Carroll Gibbons on May 25, 1926. Ariel 940 mx. Bb8427-1 (also on Zonophone 2757 and Ariel 1006).
“So’s your old man!” is a somewhat dated rejoinder to an insult, a suggestion that one’s interlocutor can take what he has said and apply it to his own father. One still hears the term “old lady” used to refer to a man’s wife or girlfriend. In this playful 1926 song, lyricist Al Dubin combines the two expressions in an exchange between a wife and a husband, the latter of whom has been philandering a little too obviously. The wife tells him to do as he likes, but to remember that while he is pursuing his affairs, “so is [his] old lady” — a suggestion of reciprocal infidelity. At this recording session in 1926 (which was her first), Elsie Carlisle handled the quick patter and formulaic repetition in the lyrics deftly, bringing something both cute and slightly titillating to the taunting threats of the wife. Carroll Gibbons’s piano playing complements Elsie’s quick, crisp delivery quite nicely. The recording was made for Zonophone but also appeared on the Ariel label under Elsie’s first known pseudonym: “Maisie Ramsey.”
“Since I Found You” is an effusive love song, but one vague on details: the song tells us very little about the “I” or the “you” of the title. Even the sex of the “I” is only implied by that of the singer; there is nothing internal to the song that suggests boy-loves-girl or girl-loves-boy, the two most obvious scenarios for a popular song of the early twentieth century. Ironically, the ambiguity of “Since I Found You” may be one of its strengths.
When I first began to listen carefully to different versions of popular songs from this period, I marveled that artists and arrangers were so adept at shifting the male and female pronouns in love songs around to suit the sex of the singer (and thus incidentally to preserve a heterosexual norm). At length I came to the conclusion that the lyrics were carefully written that way in the first place. A commercially ambitious Tin Pan Alley songwriter would never want to limit the number of artists who could record his music by using words that could not easily be swapped out. An example of success in this regard would be “I Can’t Get Over a Girl Like You (Loving a Boy Like Me)”; the pronouns in the title are simply begging to be reversed, as they were when Elsie Carlisle sang them.
“Since I Found You” is particularly ingenious in this regard, insofar as it mostly involves the first and second grammatical persons (“I” and “you”); there are no he’s that need to become she’s. In fact, the “I” of the song tells us practically nothing about himself (or herself) or about the “you” of the song, except to say that the former is absolutely ecstatic about having found the latter. The singer expresses his or her joy by insisting that the whole universe feels it, by transferring his or her feelings to heavenly bodies, birds, bees, and insects. This clever use of the pathetic fallacy renders the song simultaneously more general and even vague (and thus requiring no adaptations for sex) and yet entirely effective as an effusive emotional outpouring.
I do not mean to suggest that there is any doubt as to Elsie Carlisle’s identity in her version of “Since I Found You”; to the contrary, she is ebullient in a feminine and perhaps even girlish way. The lack of a real plot line does not prevent her from vocally caressing each of the lyrics’ hyperbolic claims regarding the transformation of the natural world by her love life. Elsie’s dulcet cooing is complemented in this 1927 recording by the piano playing of Carroll Gibbons.
“Baby.” Words by Raymond W. Peck and music by Percy Wenrich (1922); featured in the Broadway musical Castles in the Air (1926). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle, accompanied by Carroll Gibbons and an unidentified violinist, on May 6, 1927. HMV B-2489 mx. Bb-10514-5.
“Baby (Fox-trot Lullaby)” was written in 1922 but was most prominently featured four years later in Castles in the Air, a musical comedy of manners that saw moderate success in 1926 on Broadway (less so the next year in London, where the show had only 28 performances). The lyrics have a surprisingly simple thesis, suggesting that “old-fashioned lullabies” have given way to modern “fox-trot lullab[ies],” that babies are no longer rocked in cradles but rather in the arms of dancing parents. The song tries to make its point with an introduction that roughly resembles a lullaby but that gives way to a catchy, fast-paced refrain. It would appear that Peck and Wenrich did not originate the notion of a foxtrot lullaby, as there had been a 1921 song entitled “Nestle in My Loving Arms — A Lullaby Fox-Trot.”
Elsie Carlisle successfully realizes the conceit of “Baby” by applying sweet earnestness to the intro at a measured pace but then propelling her way into the refrain. At the end of the song she repeats the refrain in a slow, dreamy way, thus integrating the ideas of “foxtrot” and “lullaby” into one. In the middle of the recording there is a remarkably good, quick-paced violin solo. The identity of the violinist is unknown; a contemporary review in Melody Maker suggests that it could be Hugo Rignold, although the reviewer gets the pianist wrong, suggesting that he is Arthur Young (we can be fairly sure that it is Carroll Gibbons).1
“He’s the Last Word.” Lyrics by Gus Kahn, music by Walter Donaldson (1926). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with accompaniment by piano (Carroll Gibbons) and violin at Studio B, Hayes, Middlesex, on May 6, 1927. HMV B. 2579 mx. Bb10689-2.
“He’s the Last Word” follows an argument familiar to aficionados of popular music: its singer goes through a catalogue of her “sweet somebody’s” various deficits (insufficient talent at dancing, for example), only to conclude that when it comes to romance, “he’s the last word” — he is the very best. In her recording of the song, Elsie Carlisle is pure enthusiasm, and her frequent nonsensical ejaculations remind us of the fun, popular genre that she is working in. She is accompanied by excellent instrumentalists on the piano and violin, the former of whom discographer Richard J. Johnson identifies as Carroll Gibbons (who had indeed been Elsie’s accompanist for most of the previous year). Johnson does not identify the violinist.1
A contemporary record reviewer was under a very different impression as to the identities of the accompanists, writing that
Elsie Carlisle has a thoroughly good vocal record of “He’s the Last Word” [54 at 78] (B2579). She sings tunefully, and is one of the most stylish and rhythmical of all our English comediennes. She has been excellently accompanied by Hugo Rignold (violin) and Arthur Young (piano)—Young does one of the best piano solo choruses I have heard. I wish I could say as much for his effort in “What’s the Use of Crying?” by the same artists on the reverse side.2
Richard Johnson recognizes Arthur Young as the pianist on the other side of the record (“What’s the Use of Crying”), but that side was recorded over three months later. It is possible that Melody Maker‘s reviewer was unaware that the two sides had been recorded so far apart and simply assumed that the piano accompaniments were played by the same man at a single session. The suggestion that the violinist is Rignold is interesting. Hugo Rignold was already famous for his exceedingly “jazzy” playing, and certainly the violinist in “He’s the Last Word” gives the impression of being lively and playful, employing double and triple stops. All the same, I am increasingly inclined to the view that the violinist on “He’s the Last Word” was Eric Siday, while the one of “What’s the Use of Crying” was Rignold.3
In Britain in 1927, in addition to Elsie Carlisle’s, there were versions of “He’s the Last Word” by The Savoy Orpheans (directed by Carroll Gibbons), Syd Roy’s Lyricals, and Bert Firman’s Dance Orchestra (as Eugene Brockman’s Dance Orchestra).
Elsie Carlisle: A Discography. Aylesbury, UK, 1994, p. 6. ↩
The names are emphasized in the original. “The Gramophone Review.” The Melody Maker and British Metronome 2.24 (Dec. 1, 1927): 1273. ↩
I thank Brett Lowe for suggesting Siday (see below in the comments). ↩
In his famous November 4, 1938 article in Radio Pictorial (which either originated or, at the least, strongly reinforced Elsie Carlisle’s epithet “Radio Sweetheart No. 1”), reporter Ralph Graves recounts Elsie’s first meeting with American pianist Carroll Gibbons (who would, the next year, become the bandleader of the Savoy Hotel Orpheans):
Now for another scene.
This time not a swank lunch, but a very informal party.
Elsie was asked to sing. No, she hadn’t her music, but a quiet, bespectacled young man at the piano knew all the latest numbers, and could instantly transpose into any key Elsie wanted.
She sang several numbers which went down well, but the outstanding thought in Elsie’s mind was what a good accompanist this young man was. And when he played some piano solos on his own afterwards her opinion of him went up.
She asked who he was.
“That chap at the piano? Oh, he’s a Mr. Gibbons. Just come over from the States with Rudy Vallee, you know. Carroll Gibbons I believe his name is….”
That was in the days when Carroll was striving to make a name for himself.
Elsie and Carroll used to meet quite often after that party, as they held each other in mutual esteem. Well, now here’s a secret. Even his best friends will admit that Carroll has a “queer” voice. Those melodious deep tones, so very “Southern” are a characteristic. His announcements are fun, but you can’t imagine him as a singer, can you!
Yet it is a fact that Carroll and Elsie not only made gramophone records together, but on at least one of them Carroll sang part of the vocals! Yes, that vocalist is a fine pianist!
Graves later ends his article by teasing
But if you want to hear Elsie in another vocal team, just try to get one of the old copies of a certain Zono record! If you’re lucky, you’ll hear a then unknown singer, a Miss Carlisle, singing with a certain Mr. Gibbons, a new pianist, trying to make a name for himself as a Bing Crosby!
Graves’s article overstates quite a few things, among them the idea that Carroll Gibbons had a very notable vocal part on Zonophone 2815 (his piano playing is audible throughout, of course), but it is still a treat to hear Gibbons’s faint antiphony in “Ya Gotta Know How to Love” and in the song on the reverse side of the record, “My Cutey’s Due at Two-to-Two Today.”
“Ya Gotta Know How to Love” is a Harry Warren tune that is infectious in spite of, or perhaps because of, the simplicity of Bud Green’s lyrics. It does not develop its theme much past the idea contained in the title of the song, namely that in a love relationship, a certain savoir faire is required (with the additional warning that one’s “baby” will be inclined to want expensive things). Elsie Carlisle adopts the persona that she has in many of her early recordings, that of the fetching, frenetic flapper.