Al Hoffman Articles

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” (1935)

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter.” Words and music by Maurice Sigler, Al Goodhart, and Al Hoffman (1935). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle, accompanied by The Embassy Rhythm Eight, in London on February 15, 1935. Decca F. 5456 mx. GB6979-1.

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – "I'm Afraid to Open Your Letter" (1935)

Elsie Carlisle (with The Embassy Rhythm Eight) – “I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” (1935)

Like the song on the reverse side of the record (“I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance”), “I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” is about a woman receiving a piece of mail and then deliberating, hesitating, and agonizing. In the case of this song, however, the conceit is even simpler, for as the song’s title and the singer repeatedly tell us, she does not open the letter that she has received from her lover, fearing that it is a breakup letter. She tells us nothing about her relationship or her reasons for expecting its dissolution.

Lyrics of such a basic and uncomplicated nature could prove a challenge for any singer; it is hard to repeat the same idea again and again, using virtually the same words, and still to seem sincere. Elsie Carlisle pulls it off, relying both on the inherent sweetness of her voice and on her uncanny ability to evoke with a quavering voice the idea of a weepy girl.  As is so often the case, Elsie’s success in evoking sympathy is rooted in her being not just a singer but a vocal actress.

It is rare for two songs so closely united in subject matter and tone as “I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” and “I’ve Got an Invitation to a Dance” to end up on either side of a 78 rpm record. For the most part, the pairing of songs on a record seems entirely serendipitous. On both sides Elsie’s elegant interpretation of simple lyrics is complemented nicely by the playing of The Embassy Rhythm Eight, a studio recording band consisting of members of the Ambrose Orchestra.

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” was written by three composers well-represented in Elsie Carlisle’s songbook. Maurice Sigler was a collaborator on “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day”; Al Goodhart co-wrote “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Who Walks In When I Walk Out?”; Al Hoffman contributed to all three songs, as well as to “My Darling”; and all three men collaborated on “Rehearsing a Lullaby,” which Elsie would record later in 1935.

“I’m Afraid to Open Your Letter” was recorded in America in 1935 by Don Bestor and His Orchestra. In Britain recordings were made by the Casani Club Orchestra (under the direction of Charlie Kunz, with vocals by George Barclay), Teddy Joyce and His Dance Music (with vocals by the Four Smith Brothers), Phyllis Robins, Ann Summers, and Primo Scala’s Accordion Band (in a medley).

“Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” (1934)

“Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.”  Words by Maurice Sigler and Al Hoffman, music by Mabel Wayne.  Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on May 18, 1934.  Decca F. 3990.

Elsie Carlisle – "Little Man, You've Had a Busy Day" (1934)

Elsie Carlisle – “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” (1934)

“Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” a 1934 hit that has seen revivals in every subsequent decade, is a lullaby both in theme and in mood and hence runs the risk of being hopelessly saccharine.  In spite of that basic handicap, the song met with truly excellent interpretations in its first year, no doubt because the tune is fundamentally quite beautiful and the lyrics pleasantly mesmerizing, as those of a lullaby should be.

Elsie Carlisle’s “solo” version of “Little Man” is quite complete in its lyrics and even includes some bedside chatter.  The version she was to do a month later with the Ambrose Orchestra (in which the band not surprisingly plays almost as sweetly as Elsie sings) is naturally more abbreviated and leaves open the possibility that she is cooing to a husband, but the earlier version really does seem directed to a child.  One might ask what the attraction of such a song would be to an adult audience, but admittedly there is something inherently attractive about the idea of being tucked into bed by Elsie Carlisle.  Out of a great many British versions of “Little Man” recorded in the middle of 1934, it would appear that Elsie’s versions were particularly successful.  A good indicator of that success would be the fact that it reappears in the 1937 “Carlisle Medley” (HMV BD 476), a sort of “best hits” compilation.

In America that year, “Little Man” was made popular by the Pickens Sisters, Isham Jones and His Orchestra (with vocals by Eddie Stone),  Connee Boswell, and Paul Robeson.  Interpretations by British orchestras include those by Roy Fox and His Band (with vocals by Denny Dennis, in a Jack Nathan arrangement; they would revisit the song later in the year in a “Fox Favourites” medley), Billy Cotton and His Band (with vocalist Alan Breeze), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (with Al Bowlly), Jack Payne and His Band (with Jack Payne providing the vocals), The Casani Club Orchestra (directed by Charlie Kunz, with vocalist Dawn Davis), Ambrose and His Orchestra (with Elsie Carlisle), The BBC Danc Orchestra (directed by Henry Hall, with vocals by Kitty Masters, in a Phil Cardew arrangement), Harry Leader and His Band (with Dawn Davis), and Eddie Wood and His Band.  Other British vocalists who recorded “Little Man” that year include Phyllis Robins, Gracie Fields, and Donald Peers.

“Who Walks In When I Walk Out?” (1934)

“Who Walks In When I Walk Out?” Words by Ralph Freed, music by Al Goodhart and Al Hoffman (1933). Recorded on January 2, 1934 by Elsie Carlisle. Decca F. 3838 mx. GB6451-2.

Elsie Carlisle – "Who Walks In When I Walk Out?" (1934)

Elsie Carlisle – “Who Walks In When I Walk Out?” (1934)

One might think, from its credits, that this “Goodhart-Hoffman-Freed” song was written by the composers of “Fit as a Fiddle,” which Elsie Carlisle had recorded a year earlier, and one would be just slightly more than two-thirds correct. The music was composed by the same two men, while it was Arthur Freed’s somewhat less famous brother Ralph who penned the lyrics to “Who Walks In When I Walk Out?” The latter song would fit in nicely in a soundtrack for a film about American gangsters, although I am not aware of anyone’s actually having used it that way. It was versatile enough to have crossed generic boundaries early, with a 1935 country version by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. For Elsie Carlisle, it provided an opportunity to explore a slightly lower area of her vocal range than usual, and her voice has a brooding quality to it as she makes a series of jealous accusations of infidelity, along with what appears to be a physical threat (“I’m gonna give you the third degree…”).

In 1934 there were American versions of “Who Walks In When I Walk Out?” by Adrian Rollini and His Orchestra (Herb Weil, vocalist), and Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (with Ramona Davies). In Britain artists were more prolific, with recordings by Harry Roy and His Orchestra (with vocals by Bill Currie), Scott Wood and His Orchestra (with vocalist Sam Browne), Jack Payne and His Band (who made one record with Billy Scott-Coomber and one for a German label that was entirely instrumental), The New Mayfair Dance Orchestra, under the direction of Ray Noble, with vocals by Al Bowlly (who curiously talks his way through the lyrics — but to great effect), Jock McDermott’s Silver Serenaders (with vocalists Fred and Leslie Douglas), Harry Leader and His Band (as Joe Taub and His Melodians, with Leslie Holmes), Aileen Stanley (who had relocated to London and was accompanied on this recording by Max Goldberg and other British artists), Madame Tussaud’s Dance Orchestra (with vocalist Annette Keith), Dare Lea’s Band, and the Astorians Dance Band.

“Fit as a Fiddle” (1933)

“Fit as a Fiddle.” Words by Arthur Freed, music by Al Hoffman and Al Goodhart (1932). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on January 13, 1933. Decca F. 3411 mx. GB5467-2.

Elsie Carlisle – "Fit as a Fiddle" (1933)

Elsie Carlisle – “Fit as a Fiddle” (1933)

The lyrics of “Fit as a Fiddle (and Ready for Love),” penned by Arthur Freed, are an ecstatic expression of a happy anticipation of marriage somewhat in the mold of the classic 1925 Henderson/Lewis/Young song “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” (made popular by Al Jolson). “Fit as a Fiddle,” however, is marked by its peculiarly infectious rhythm and its reliance on nonsense words. “Hi, diddle, diddle” and “Hey nonny nonny and a hot-cha-cha!” stand out, although Elsie Carlisle apparently could not get the latter colloquialism quite right, in spite of its being very clearly written on the cover of the sheet music (although “Hainy nainy nonny and a HAH-chah!” is a very cute variant, I will admit). Baby words aside, Elsie’s “Fit as a Fiddle” is nothing if not ebullient, and she is complemented nicely by her band.

In America the year 1932 had seen versions of  “Fit as a Fiddle” by The Three Keys, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, Roger Wolfe Kahn and His Orchestra (with vocals by the Kahn-a-Sirs), Gene Kardos and His Orchestra (as Ed Lloyd and His Orchestra, with vocalist Chick Bullock), Will Osborne and His Orchestra with vocalist Annette Hanshaw (who naturally managed to sound not only fit as a fiddle, but a little bit naughty and lazy to boot), Paul Small, and The Ponce Sisters. In 1933 Phil Harris did a version with Leah Ray as the vocalist.

“Fit as a Fiddle” was recorded in London in January and early February 1933 by the Blue Mountaineers (vocalists Sam Browne and Nat Gonella), Ambrose and His Orchestra (with Sam Browne), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (with vocals by Pat O’Malley, Jack Hylton himself, and Billy Ternent, who arranged the song), and Rudy Starita and His Band, and by soprano Frances Maddux (with Carroll Gibbons on the piano and Len Fillis on the guitar).

Post-War listeners are most likely familiar with “Fit as a Fiddle” because Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor sing it in a flashback in the 1952 musical comedy film Singin’ in the Rain, which was in fact produced by lyricist Arthur Freed himself.

"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.