“Exactly Like You.” Lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Jimmy McHugh (1930). Recorded in London c. mid-August 1930 by Elsie Carlisle (under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur). Imperial 2318.
Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. / Jack Miranda-cl/ Eric Siday-vn / Harry Jacobson-p-cel / Len Fillis-g / sb / d
Video by 1930birds’s channel (YouTube)
On Februrary 25, 1930, impresario Lew Leslie opened his International Revue on Broadway. One would have expected a show backed by the mastermind of the wildly popular Blackbirds revues, choreographed by Busby Berkeley, and with lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Jimmy McHugh to be quite a success, but it had a surprisingly short run of 95 performances, the last being on May 17. The lasting legacy of the well-funded flop consists of two Fields/McHugh tunes, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” introduced by Harry Richman, and “Exactly Like You,” sung in the revue by Richman and British actress Gertrude Lawrence.
Harry Richman himself made a record in March 1930 with both songs on it. His version of “Exactly Like You,” a simple song about finding the perfect match, has some unfamiliar lyrics, which are, perhaps closer to those of the original libretto than to the more familiar abbreviated sheet music. He is, of course, a very different sort of singer from Elsie Carlisle, but it is useful to note a commonality that they share with some other performers of that year that is not universal in the many revivals of the song in subsequent decades: they sing the melody.
One has to admit that this is a rather difficult song to sing, with a range of an octave and a fifth and a melody based on descending fourths that can throw less talented singers off pitch. In fact, many vocalists have chosen simply to hold a single note for the first two phrases of the melody. The first to record the song this way was Louis Armstrong, for whom we might make the special case that he had an unconventional voice and a correspondingly unusual style of vocal interpretation.
Not so with Elsie Carlisle. Until her status as “Idol of the Radio” overtook her reputation for musical theater, she was, to the public, a “well-known mezzo-soprano” with a reputation for vocal dexterity, and she shows it in her Imperial recording of “Exactly Like You.” She sticks to the music as written while enhancing her ascents and descents through the tune by giving the occasional impression of being on the verge of faltering, a technique which adds character to her performance. Hers was never a weak voice, but she was an actress who knew when to give the impression of touching vulnerability. Elsie’s virtuoso performance is nicely complemented by the memorable instrumental accompaniment put together by Jay Wilbur, musical director at Imperial at the time.
“Exactly Like You” saw many recorded versions in 1930, some of them quite commercially successful, on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, in addition to Harry Richman’s record, there were versions by Roger Wolfe Kahn and His Orchestra (Libby Holman, vocalist), Merle Johnson and His Ceco Couriers, Seger Ellis, the Casa Loma Orchestra (with vocals by Jack Richmond), Sam Lanin and His Orchestra (Smith Ballew, vocalist), Ruth Etting, Grace Hayes, and Louis Armstrong (as noted earlier).
The song must have been equally popular in Britain. On May 26, Jack Harris and His Orchestra recorded it, but Decca rejected their version. Records were issued, however, by Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra (with Jack Payne himself doing the singing), Florence Oldham, Ambrose and His Orchestra (Sam Browne, vocalist, in an arrangement by Lew Stone), the Rhythmic Eight, Harry Bidgood’s Broadcasters (as Ted Summer’s Dance Devils, with Patrick Waddington as vocalist), Harry Hudson’s Radio Melody Boys (with Sam Browne), Sir Robert Peel, Bart. and His Band (with Tom Barratt as vocalist), and Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (as Syd Kay’s Band, with vocals by Fred Douglas and Cavan O’Connor). London-based Americans Layton and Johnstone recorded the song as a piano duet that year.