“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.

“I Heard” – Ray Starita with Elsie Carlisle (1932)

“I Heard.”  Words and music by Don Redman (1931).  Recorded by Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band with Elsie Carlisle on September 1, 1932.  Four-in-One 5 mx. X149-2.

Personnel: Ray Starita-cl-ts dir. Nat Gonella- t/ t / tb / ?Chester Smith-cl-as-bar-o / Nat Star-cl-as / George Glover-cl-ts-vn / George Hurley-vn / Harry Robens-p / George Oliver-bj-g / Arthur Calkin-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x

Ray Starita and His Ambassadors (v. Elsie Carlisle) - "I Heard" (1932)

Ray Starita and His Ambassadors (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “I Heard” (1932)

“I Heard” is a novelty song written by the American musician, bandleader, and composer Don Redman.  It involves interlocutors who discuss a piece of apparently scandalous  gossip, but who cut each other off so as to leave the listener in the dark as to the real nature of the rumor.  A reference to “the birds in the spring, and the rabbits,” and the threat that “They’re gonna name it after you!” suggest a love affair with an illegitimate offspring. This 1932 British recording was made by the great American-born bandleader Ray Starita and his Ambassadors’ Band.  Elsie Carlisle plays the person who has heard the rumor, and there is a male speaker who questions her, doubts her, and eggs her on.  The latter was once thought to be Ray Starita himself, although it is now more generally supposed that it is Les Allen.

This recording of “I Heard” appears on a Four-in-One record.  As the name would suggest, Four-in-One records pushed the limits of technology by fitting two songs onto each side of the disc, the result being a bargain for the record buyer.  The downside of their concept is that the grooves are a bit narrower than usual and thus more prone to being scratched up by repeated playing.  In the same recording session, Starita and Elsie did a separate take for the Sterno label, which used the more typical one-song-per-side approach.  The Sterno recording is quite similar for the most part, but the violin solo is rather different and does not reach into such a high register.

The composer, Don Redman, recorded two versions of “I Heard” in late 1931 (here and here), and in 1933 appeared in a Betty Boop short of the same title.  In 1932 it was recorded by Harlan Lattimore and His Connie’s Inn Orchestra, as well as by Chick Bullock.  The Mills Brothers did a particularly popular 1932 version that led to their appearance singing it in the 1934 film Twenty Million Sweethearts.

In Britain in 1932, other recordings of “I Heard” were made by the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (Al Bowlly, vocalist), Billy Cotton and His Band ( Cyril Grantham, vocalist), Nat Gonella, and Harry Roy and His R.K. Olians (with vocalists Harry Roy, Bill Currie, and Ivor Moreton).

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.

Elsie Carlisle’s 124th Birthday

Elizabeth Carlisle was born on January 28, 18961 in Manchester, England to James Carlisle and Mary Ellen Carlisle (née Cottingham). Elsie was not the only member of her family to show a knack for show business; her brothers James (“Jim”) and Albert (“Tim”) were both singers who worked with the great composer, publisher, and impresario Lawrence Wright. By her own account, Elsie was encouraged to learn singing by her mother, who paid for her to have lessons when she was only a small girl.2 It was her brother Jim who got her her first theatrical role at the age of 12,3 and by the time of her marriage in 1914 she could be described as a “musical hall artiste” on the wedding certificate. By 1919 she was appearing in the West End in a show whose cast included Betty Bolton, and the next year she merited her own show, entitled Elsie Carlisle – With a Different Style, in which she performed as a solo vocalist.

How “different” her style was would quickly be made known to larger and larger audiences. Her stage career grew, only to be eclipsed, starting in 1926, by her broadcasting and recording efforts. Elsie’s 38 recordings made with Ambrose and His Orchestra between 1932 and 1935 are among the best remembered, but one should remember that she made at least 342 recordings between 1926 and 1942 — a prolific output. The British public would have known her better still from her broadcasts on the BBC and Radio Luxembourg. She was often billed as the “Idol of the Radio,” a well-earned epithet. By the mid-1930s she was ranked amongst the top vocalists who could be heard on the British airwaves, and she had film and television credits to her name as well. Her dulcet delivery of themes both comic and plaintive continues to attract listeners over a century after her first performance in a Manchester music hall, and the world is much richer for her having lived in it.

Notes:

  1. January 28, 1896 is the date that Elsie Carlisle’s mother provided when she registered her daughter’s birth on March 3, 1896. The same birthday appears on Elsie’s baptismal certificate, which is dated April 15, 1896, so the date “21 January 1897” found on Elsie’s death certificate must be erroneous. People are not generally baptized before they are born, and one would assume that Elsie’s mother was a better source of information regarding her own daughter’s birth than Elsie’s son Wilfred, the informant for the death certificate.
  2. Ralph Graves. “Radio Sweetheart No. 1.” Radio Pictorial 251 (November 4, 1938): 8.
  3. According to Richard J. Johnson in “Elsie Carlisle (with a different style).” Memory Lane 174 (2012): 25.

“Come On, Baby” (1929)

“Come On, Baby.” Composed by Sidney Clare, Archie Gottler, and Maceo Pinkard (1928). Recorded by the Rhythm Maniacs with vocalist Elsie Carlisle at the Chenil Galleries Studios in Chelsea on August 23, 1929. Decca F. 1528-2.

Personnel:  Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar dir. Sylvester Ahola-t / Danny Polo-Johnny Helfer-reeds / Joe Brannelly-bj-g / Max Bacon-d-vib1

The Rhythm Maniacs (v. Elsie Carlisle) - "Come On, Baby" (1929)

 The Rhythm Maniacs (w. Elsie Carlisle) – “Come On, Baby”

On August 23, 1929 Elsie Carlisle recorded three songs for Decca (“Why Can’t You?” “Come on, Baby,” and “He’s a Good Man to Have Around”) with a band known variously as the Rhythm Maniacs and as Philip Lewis and His Dance Orchestra. This was a studio band, and Philip Lewis the recording manager for Decca; it was really the great  Arthur Lally (pictured above) who led the sessions. An Ambrose Orchestra saxophonist, Lally also directed a great many sessions at Decca and Filmophone between 1929 and 1932 under various band names and oversaw the making of some of the “hottest” dance band music of the period.

“Come On, Baby” begins and ends with primal, saxophone-dominated instrumental segments, with Elsie singing for a mere 42 seconds in the middle of the song. She delivers the flirtatious lyrics with considerably more fervor and desperation than other contemporary singers. Her final appeal, “Come on, and let your conscience guide you,” concluding with “Oh BABY, come on!” conveys an impression of passionate urgency.

We have an earlier take of this song made the same day, and it is interesting to hear the development that the band and Elsie make over the course of the session. The first take is instrumentally weaker; it lacks the punch of the final recording as issued by Decca. Elsie begins on the wrong note – it is humbling to hear her make such a mistake – but she recovers admirably. There is also an alternate take from that session of “He’s a Good Man to Have Around,” in which she noticeably sings a note natural when it should be flat. Here we have, perhaps, a glimpse into the fast-paced life of these recording artists, who could have a weak start to a session but still turn out an excellent final product.

“Come On, Baby” had been popular the previous year in America. Between September and December 1928 there were versions by Allister Wylie and His Coronado Hotel Orchestra, Lou Gold and His Orchestra, Ted Weems and His Orchestra, Fred Hall and His Sugar Babies, Ernie Golden, Meyer Davis and His Orchestra (as The Park Inn Good Timers, with vocals by Smith Ballew), and Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra.

British recordings of “Come On, Baby” date from September 1929 to January 1930, with versions by the Rhythmic Eight, Ray Noble’s New Mayfair Dance Orchestra (in a “Paul Jones” medley), Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band (Eddie Grossbart, vocalist), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (Sam Browne, vocalist), Bidgood’s Broadcasters (vocalist Tom Barratt), Arthur Roseberry and His Dance Band (as Barry Bryan and His Syncopators, with Pat O’Malley and possibly Len Lees doing the singing), Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra (as the Brooklyn Broadcasters, with Tom Barratt as vocalist), Cecil and Leslie Norman (as Norman Sissel and His Rhythm Twisters, with Cavan O’Connor doing the singing), Hal Swain and His Band (vocalist Hal Swain), Ronnie Munro’s Parlophone Variety Company (in their “Talkieland Selection”), Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (as Eugene Brockman’s Dance Orchestra), Jay Whidden and His Band (vocalist Jay Whidden), and Harry Hudson’s Plaza Band (with vocalist John Thorne). There were also recordings of the song by the Trix Sisters in August 1929, and by Miriam Ferris in October 1929. Comedienne Dorothy Ward was noted for her performance of it in a Julian Wylie pantomime of “Robinson Crusoe” at The Palace, Manchester that same year.

It has always seemed odd to me that a song entitled “Come On, Baby” would not actually have that phrase in its lyrics (“Oh, baby, come on!” is as close as it gets). Such is human perversity.

"Come On, Baby!" sheet music featuring a photograph of Jack Hylton
“Come On, Baby!” sheet music featuring a photograph of Jack Hylton

Notes:

  1. According to Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes’s British Dance Bands on Record (1911-1945) and Supplement, p. 537.