“Am I Blue?” (1929)

“Am I Blue?” Lyrics by Grant Clarke, music by Harry Akst. Composed for On with the Show (1929). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle (as Sheila Kay) with Cecil Norman and His Band (uncredited) in London on October 16, 1929. Worldecho A. 1012 mx. 119.

Personnel: Cecil Norman-p dir. Lloyd Shakespeare-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Les Norman-as /vn / __ Stanley-bb / Ronnie Gubertini-d

Elsie Carlisle (as Sheila Kay) – "Am I Blue?" (1929)

Elsie Carlisle (as Sheila Kay) – “Am I Blue?” (1929)

“Am I Blue?” was a wildly successful composition by lyricist Grant Clarke (also famous for “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” [1923]) and composer Harry Akst (already famous for “Dinah” [1925], he would go on to write “Guilty” in 1931). The song first appeared in 1929 in the backstage musical film On with the Show, which was the first movie to have both color and sound from beginning to end, though sadly only black-and-white prints survive. “Am I Blue?” is introduced in the movie on stage by Ethel Waters playing herself.

Waters appears on stage carrying what appears to be a basket full of cotton; the set behind her shows fields of the same stuff, and she is eventually joined by a small chorus of men dressed as farmhands. She repeatedly asks “Am I Blue?” as if she has just been asked that question. Very much so, her song goes on to say: she finds herself without her lover, who has abandoned her. The song is entirely catchy. On with the Show was financially successful, and the song “Am I Blue?” was recorded prolifically that year and has been perennially successful since then.

Elsie Carlisle’s version of “Am I Blue?” seems rather — well, bluesy — when compared to other recordings of the song made in 1929. That quality is doubtless due mostly to Cecil Norman’s band and the arrangement they used. Elsie’s own performance is difficult to describe. She is always uncommonly good at torch songs and other tearjerkers in which she seems sincere in her weepiness. In “Am I Blue?” however, it is as if she has found a song of that genre which she likes so much that it is mostly her ebullience, playfulness, and virtuosity that come through, not sadness. Elsie either had a genuinely good time making this recording, or else she gives the impression of having done so. Either way, the effect is extraordinary.

“Am I Blue?” was recorded in 1929 in America by Vaughn de Leath (as Betty Brown; also with B. A. Rolfe’s Lucky Strike Orchestra; also in a medley with the Edison Bell All Star Ensemble; and with the Colonial Club Orchestra), Ethel Waters and The Travellers, the California Ramblers (v. Irving Kaufman), Annette Hanshaw (as Gay Ellis, accompanied by the New Englanders), Irving Mills and His Modernists (v. Billy Murray), Tom Gerunovitch and His Roof Garden Orchestra (v. Jimmy Davis), The Dorsey Brothers and Their Orchestra (v. Irving Kaufman), Bill Moore’s Syncopaters (v. Paul Hagan), Helen Richards, Grace Hayes, Libby Holman, Ben Selvin and His Orchestra (v. Smith Ballew), Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (v. May Alix), Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra (v. Don Howard), and Stella Haugh. Seger Ellis and His Embassy Club Orchestra appeared playing it in a film short; a radio transcription survives of the Dixie Shoe Steppers playing it in a medley; and there are Vitaphone recordings of “Am I Blue?” being performed by Jeanne Fayal with Jack White and His Chateau Madrid Orchestra and by Frances Shelley and the Four Eton Boys.

Other 1929 British versions of “Am I Blue?” are those of Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), Herbert Jaeger and His Orchestra, Bidgood’s Broadcasters (first as the Manhattan Melody Makers with vocalist Mabel Mann,  later in a medley with vocalist Tom Barratt), Maurice Elwin, Lily Lapidus (with Arthur Roseberry’s Kit Cat Dance Band), John Firman’s Arcadians Dance Orchestra, Eddie Harding and His Night Club Boys (v. Tom Barratt), Alfredo’s Band (v. Eddie Grossbart), Anona Winn, Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Lou Abelardo), Jay Wilbur and His Orchestra (v. Les Allen), Jim Kelleher’s Piccadilly Band (v. Fred Douglas), and the Rhythm Maniacs (in a medley).

“Come On, Baby” (1929)

“Come On, Baby.” Composed by Sidney Clare, Archie Gottler, and Maceo Pinkard (1928). Recorded 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.

“Shake Down the Stars” (1940)

“Shake Down the Stars.” Words by Eddie De Lange, music by Jimmy Van Heusen (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on August 8, 1940. Rex 9847 mx. R4937-2.

Elsie Carlisle – "Shake Down the Stars" (1940)

Elsie Carlisle – “Shake Down the Stars” (1940)

“Shake Down the Stars” was the creation of prolific songwriting duo Eddie De Lange and Jimmy Van Heusen (who also wrote the similarly atmospheric “Deep in a Dream”). Its singer addresses the aftermath of the dissolution of a romantic relationship. In doing so, she calls for a corresponding dissolution of the natural order:

Shake down the stars,
Pull down the clouds,
Turn off the moon….
I wish I had a high stepladder
So I could scatter the stars….

The singer really says very little about her relationship, but she makes it clear how devastating its cessation is to her through the use of impressive hyperbole; in this way, the song resembles closely the 1932 song “Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon,” which Elsie Carlisle also recorded. In addition to the calls for the the astronomical order to be disrupted, the singer turns to the smaller things in life: “Crush every rose, / Hush every prayer…. / I know I can’t go on without you.” The impression is of a person to whom life has become worse than worthless: its continued existence is a mockery in light of her loss.

“Shake Down the Stars” was recorded by many artists in 1940. Elsie Carlisle’s version stands out as perhaps the least swingy of the lot, which is natural, insofar as it is intended to showcase the vocalist, not the band. The result is refreshing: Elsie’s more dramatic interpretation of the unusually tempestuous lyrics is more impressive to me than the other excellent versions. The novel rhythms of the latter are so distractingly upbeat that one almost forgets that the song is about destroying the universe out of frustration.

“Shake Down the Stars” was recorded in 1940 in America by George Auld and His Orchestra (v. Kay Foster), Bob Crosby and His Orchestra (v. Bob Crosby), Glenn Miller and His Orchestra (v. Ray Eberle), Chick Bullock, Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra (v. Frank Sinatra)Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (v. Helen Forrest), and Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra.

In 1940, British bands who recorded “Shake Down the Stars” include Harry Roy and His Band (v. Kay Harding), Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (v. Anne Lenner), Oscar Rabin (v. Beryl Davis), and Mantovani and His Orchestra.

“So Is Your Old Lady” (1926)

“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).

Elsie Carlisle – "So Is Your Old Lady" (1926)

Elsie Carlisle – “So Is Your Old Lady” – (1926)

“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.”

Other versions of “So Is Your Old Lady” were done in 1926 in America by the Original Indiana Five, Ruth Etting,  and Warner’s Seven Aces. In Britain the song was recorded by Jack Hylton and His Orchestra, Teddy Brown and His Café de Paris Band (with vocalist Lionel Rothery), Bert Firman (under the pseudonym of Newton Carlisle’s Dance Orchestra), Hilda Glyder, Victor Sterling and His Band (directed by Nat Star), and the Edison Bell Dance Orchestra (with vocals by Tom Barratt).

“Let There Be Love” (1941)

“Let There Be Love.” Music by Lionel Rand, words by Ian Grant. Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on May 22, 1941. Rex 9989 mx. R5782-2.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Alfie Noakes-Chick Smith-t / Paul Fenoulhet or Ted Heath or George Rowe-tb / Frank Johnson-Frank Weir-cl-as / George Smith or Cliff Timms-ts / Matt Heft-p / Jack Simmons-g / Billy Bell-sb / Jack Simpson-d

Elsie Carlisle – "Let There Be Love" (1941)

Elsie Carlisle – “Let There Be Love” (1941)

The output of songwriters apparently known for little else, “Let There Be Love” has exhibited unusual staying power, with a notable artist reviving it every decade or so: Nat King Cole (1961), Rosemary Clooney (1992), Cliff Richard and Matt Monro (2006). Bruce Forsyth even sang it as a duet in 1976 with Miss Piggy of Muppets fame.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I do not like this song, and that Elsie Carlisle’s version of it is my least favorite of her recordings. Some of my objection to it must stem, no doubt, from simple matters of personal aesthetic sensibility. I find the rhythm of the beguine moderately irritating: it is to dance genres what a cloying, fruity blended drink is to cocktails (I am referring to the kind with a paper umbrella in it). All the same, 1941 saw Elsie Carlisle release a recording of another beguine, “You’re in My Arms,” which seems in every way preferable to me.

Surely there must be firmer grounds for my dislike of “Let There Be Love.” I locate those grounds in the insipid lyrics, which aim for cuteness and end up with stupidity verging on the repugnant. The rhymes are facile and seem to be the driving force behind the lyrics, rather than any detectable thematic cohesion:

Let there be you,
And let there be me.
Let there be oysters
Under the sea.

The moment of maximum bathos comes early in the song:

Let there be birds
To sing in the trees,
Someone to bless me
Whenever I sneeze.

The blessing-sneezing moment is no doubt the most carefully thought-out part of the lyrics. “…[O]ysters / Under the sea,” for example, only rhymes and does not contribute to a love theme, but “Someone to bless me / Whenever I sneeze” is a preconceived notion that the lyricist actually had to work to put into words — it is not there simply for the sake of rhyming.

One might hope that, as is usually the case with weak underlying compositions, Elsie Carlisle (assisted by some musical luminary such as Jay Wilbur) could redeem the piece in some way, but I cannot hear it. The arrangement contains one too many wacky woodwind flourish for my taste. It is all just too regrettable: Elsie’s voice seems to have acquired strength over the course of her career, and the improved recording techniques of the early 1940s (putting the Rex label’s infamous “crackle” aside) capture every bright moment, every delicious quaver in her voice. That they captured this particular song is perhaps unfortunate, but it provides us with something like an absolute zero on the thermometer of Elsie Carlisle songs. Everything else is better, even “Calliope Jane.”

Noteworthy 1940-1941 American recordings of “Let There Be Love” are those of Sammy Kaye, Kay Kyser and His Orchestra (v. Harry Babbit), Maxine Gray, Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythm Orchestra (v. Hal Derwin), and Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra (v. Bob Eberly).

The song was recorded in Britain by Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Anne Shelton and Sam Browne), Joe Loss and His Band (v. Bob Arden and Bette Roberts), Victor Silvester and His Ballroom Orchestra, and the Savoy Orpheans (dir. Carroll Gibbons, v. Anne Lenner).