Elsie Carlisle (January 28, 1896-September 5, 1977), born in Manchester, England, was a prominent vocalist for the great British dance bands of the 1920s-1940s, as well as a prolific solo artist. She had her start in musical theater and was so highly thought of that Cole Porter personally requested her to introduce the jazz standard “What Is This Thing Called Love?” in a 1929 London stage production.1 She was on television as early as 1930 and appeared in films. She was primarily famous at the time, however, for her broadcasting, and by the mid-1930s she had become the most popular female singer on the airwaves, earning the epithets “The Idol of the Radio” and “Radio Sweetheart No. 1” (amongst many other amusing appellations). Her 340 recordings, in which she either provided “vocal refrain” for some eminent band or on which her own name (or occasionally a pseudonym) is given first place, have ensured that future generations can enjoy the output of this paragon of twentieth century popular music.
The band she is most often associated with is the elite Ambrose Orchestra, with whom she recorded the still-popular songs “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” “Pu-Leeze! Mister Hemingway!” and “You’ve Got Me Crying Again,” but some of her best collaborations were with other bands, such as Arthur Lally’s Rhythm Maniacs, Ray Starita’s Ambassadors’ Band, and Jack Harris and His Orchestra. In the 1930s, Elsie frequently sang duets and toured with Sam Browne, both under the direction of Ambrose and separately.
Elsie Carlisle’s style (particularly in her early career) has often been compared to that of American singers Ruth Etting and Annette Hanshaw. The comparison is not entirely unreasonable, insofar as Elsie started out singing a similar selection of popular songs and occasionally adopted personae similar to those of the other singers to fit the themes of the lyrics, but Elsie had a unique approach in her delivery that might almost be called dramatic. The selective quavering of her voice in her early torch songs, which is touching and provokes an emotional response, is more the mark of a consummate musical actress than that of a jazz crooner. The “celebrated comédienne,” as she is described on early record labels, was also known for the frequent levity of her singing; she even made bawdy recordings not fit for radio broadcast, such as “My Man o’ War,” “My Handy Man,” and, of course, “Pu-Leeze! Mister Hemingway!” These songs are full of sexually suggestive expressions, double-entendres, and metaphors.
Elsie stopped recording in 1942, though she was on stage and toured throughout the War. After that time she withdrew from public life and became a successful businesswoman, with a ballroom in London and an inn in Berkshire. She lived in a house in the posh Mayfair district of London for several decades, and died on September 5, 1977, in a hospital in Chelsea.
British dance band music, which as a genre dwindled after the Second World War, has seen a revival in public interest in recent years, due in no small part to its being featured in the popular 1978 Dennis Potter television series Pennies From Heaven. Elsie’s voice is showcased in the very first scene, in which Bob Hoskins lip-syncs as Ambrose’s 1932 recording of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” is played. Elsie resurfaces again in a later episode when Cheryl Campbell mimes the 1933 Ambrose recording of “You’ve Got Me Crying Again” while putatively reading a psalm to schoolchildren.
Elsie Carlisle occasionally recorded under the pseudonyms Maisie Ramsey, Amy Brunton, Sheila Kay, Gracie Collins, and Lallie Lack.