“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 9, 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.

“Deep in a Dream” (1939)

“Deep in a Dream.” Words by Eddie De Lange, music by Jimmy Van Heusen (1938). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of George Scott-Wood at Studio 1, Abbey Road, London on February 1, 1939. HMV B.D. 663 mx. OEA7519-1.

Elsie Carlisle – "Deep in a Dream" (1939)

Elsie Carlisle – “Deep in a Dream” (1939)

In “Deep in a Dream,” the singer depicts herself sitting in a dark room, smoking and getting drowsy as she remembers a lover who is now inaccessible — whether through distance, dissolution of the romance, or death, we do not really know. The lost lover’s descent on a smoke staircase (as described in the lyrics) might suggest a quirky sort of descent from heaven. At any rate, the genuinely dreamy music swells as the memories of happier times are revived (“Awake or asleep, every memory I’ll keep / Deep in a dream of you”). The reverie ends when the cigarette burns the singer’s fingers and wakes her. To my knowledge, while this is one of three Jimmy Van Heusen songs written in 1938-1939 involving dreams1, it is the only one that uses the absence of fire safety as a plot point.

The lyrics of “Deep in a Dream” leave us in the dark as to what has happened between the two lovers. Elsie Carlisle’s interpretation is successful because she evokes the melancholy of the dark, smoky room, only to imbue her dream with a truly ecstatic spirit. She seems content to express alternating strong emotions, rather than to establish some sort of vocal character, as she often does. The anonymous studio band (led by director George Scott-Wood) complements Elsie’s singing nicely, contributing to this decidedly atmospheric piece.

“Deep in a Dream” was recorded in America in late 1938 and early 1939 by Chick Webb and His Orchestra (v. Ella Fitzgerald)Bob Crosby and His Orchestra (v. Marion Mann), Cab Calloway and His Orchestra (v. Cab Calloway), Artie Shaw and His Orchestra (v. Helen Forrest), and Connie Boswell (accompanied by Woody Herman and His Orchestra).

It was recorded in London in 1939 by Geraldo and His Orchestra (v. Al Bowlly), Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (v. Anne Lenner), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (v. Bill Currie), Lew Stone and His Band (v. Dorothy Alt), and Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band (v. Garry Gowan).

Notes:

  1. The others being “It’s the Dreamer in Me” and “Darn That Dream”.

“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

“Exactly Like You” (1930)

“Exactly Like You.” Words 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 mx. 5448-2.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. / Jack Miranda-cl / Eric Siday-vn / Harry Jacobson-p-cel / Len Fillis-g / sb

Elsie Carlisle – "Exactly Like You" (-2) (1930)

Elsie Carlisle – Exactly Like You (-2) (1930)

On February 25, 1930, Broadway writer and producer Lew Leslie opened his *International Revue* at the Majestic Theatre in New York City. One would have expected a show backed by the mastermind of the wildly popular *Blackbirds* revues, choreographed by Busby Berkeley, and with music by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, to be quite a success, but it had a comparatively short run of 95 performances, the last being on May 17, 1930. The lasting legacy of this well-funded flop consists of two songs: “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.

In “Exactly Like You,” the singer describes the joy of having had an ideal preconception of love that has suddenly become realized in the form of the song’s addressee. The lyrics use turns of phrase suited to dramatic interpretation:

You make me feel so grand,
I want to hand the world to you.
You seem to understand
Each foolish little scheme I’m scheming,
Dream I’m dreaming.

The music is extraordinarily catchy but presents the singer with quite a challenge in its range (an octave and a fifth).

Elsie Carlisle was up to the task. A veteran of musical theater, she had, of course, introduced Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” just the previous year, and it has an identical range. She works her way through the melody’s fourth intervals with dexterity, all the while giving the impression that she is on the verge of faltering. Hers was never a weak voice, but she was an actress who knew the power of the semblance of vulnerability. In the end, while the lyrics argue that we should be impressed by her lover, her overall vocal performance might lead us to admire the character that she has created, some anonymous small person who, prone to sadness, has the sudden opportunity to express great joy. I have argued elsewhere that Elsie did not simply interpret songs; she augmented them by creating comparatively advanced vocal personas that change greatly from song to song.

Elsie’s virtuoso performance is nicely complemented by the memorable instrumental accompaniment put together by Jay Wilbur, a bandleader who was also musical director at Imperial at the time. This was, incidentally, Elsie’s first recording session at Imperial, but she had worked previously with Wilbur at Dominion Records before it went bankrupt. She and the band recorded three different takes of “Exactly Like You” at their session in August 1930. It is worth comparing the slightly different instrumentals of take 2 (above) with take 1:

Elsie Carlisle – "Exactly Like You" (-1) (1930)

Elsie Carlisle – Exactly Like You (-1) (1930)

“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 a recording by Harry Richman himself, there were versions by Roger Wolfe Kahn and His Orchestra, Merle Johnston and His Ceco Couriers, Seger Ellis, The Casa Loma Orchestra (v. Jack Richmond), Sam Lanin and His Orchestra (v. Smith Ballew), Ruth Etting, Grace Hayes, and Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra (v. Louis Armstrong).

The song must have been equally popular in Britain. A London recording was made as early as January by Lou Abelardo. Jack Harris and His Orchestra did a version that was rejected by Decca. Successful issues were made by Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra (v. Jack Payne), Florence Oldham, Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), The Rhythmic Eight (directed by John Firman), Bidgood’s Broadcasters (as Ted Summer’s Dance Devils, v. Patrick Waddington), Harry Hudson’s Radio Melody Boys (v. Sam Browne), Sir Robert Peel, Bart., and His Band (v. Sam Browne), and Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (as Syd Kay’s Orchestra; v. Fred Douglas-Cavan O’Connor). London-based Americans Layton and Johnstone recorded the song as a piano duet that year.

"Exactly Like You" sheet music
“Exactly Like You” original sheet music

Elsie Carlisle’s 122nd 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.