Harry Woods Articles

“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (Two Versions; 1932)

“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” Words and music by Harry Woods and Billy Hill (the latter using the pseudonym George Brown; 1932). Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra (with vocals by Elsie Carlisle) on July 13, 1932. HMV B-6210 mx. OB-3134-1.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-tb / Joe Crossman-Billy Amstell-Joe Jeannete-reeds / Harry Hines-as / Ernie Lewis-Teddy Sinclair-Peter Rush-vn / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Don Stutely-sb / Max Bacon-d-vib

Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (1932)

Elsie Carlisle’s recording of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” with Ambrose and His Orchestra is fixed in the public’s memory as one of her most representative recordings. It is a perfect example of her ability to project vulnerability, in this case employing optimistic lyrics set to a powerful but somewhat melancholy arrangement. This recording seems to encapsulate our sense of the Great Depression as an era when popular culture offered eloquent expressions of hope amidst global disappointment and despair.

The use of extended meteorological comparisons to encourage an upbeat attitude precedes the Depression, of course. Irving Berlin’s 1926 Blue Skies is another song that similarly combines hopeful lyrics with a rather sad tune. In 1932, the year when Harry Woods and Billy Hill published “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” Berlin would write “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” a much perkier but similarly themed composition, one of whose lines is “And the clouds will soon roll by.”  It is as if songwriters had hit upon the perfect metaphorical vehicle — weather, the most pedestrian topic of light chat — as the best way to convey consolation.

The Ambrose arrangement of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” would be memorable even if it lacked Elsie’s vocals. The intro seems to churn and roll like the upper atmosphere in a storm, and the music evokes both sadness and confidence. But Elsie is at her best in this piece. She allows her voice to quaver slightly at important points as if crying, all the while comforting both herself and us. It is worth noting that she sings for barely over a minute of the recording, which is not unusual in a dance band arrangement. What is interesting is that we remember her part so well.

The Ambrose recording is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable pieces of British popular music from the interwar period; it is also one of Elsie Carlisle’s best-known songs. There is a peculiar reason for this. The 1978 Dennis Potter television miniseries Pennies from Heaven featured long and frequently bizarre musical interludes based on British dance band recordings, and in many ways it created a canon of recognizable songs. The very first such song in the very first episode is Ambrose’s “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” and when Elsie begins to sing, the actor who mimes to her voice is the very masculine Bob Hoskins. The effect is jarring and memorable. Again, in the 1981 miniseries Brideshead Revisited.1 protragonist Charles Ryder puts the Ambrose record on a gramophone at a moment when comfort is needed, but he and his lover leave the room just as Elsie’s voice begins to be audible.

"The Clouds Will Soon Roll By." Sheet music featuring Ambrose's face.

“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with piano accompaniment and with Len Fillis on the steel guitar on September 19, 1932 in Chelsea Town Hall, London.  Decca F-3146 mx. GB-4844-4.

Elsie Carlisle – “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (1932)

In her later Decca recording, Elsie Carlisle sings “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” at a more leisurely pace. The accompaniment is a simple piano and Len Fillis on the steel guitar. The song is still bittersweet, but there is a lazy, dreamy quality to it as well. At one point when Fillis’s guitar is foregrounded, Elsie hums the tune and even begins to engage in a half-hearted attempt at scat. The overall effect is not as powerful as the  Ambrose version, but the recording is nevertheless memorable for its playful interpretation of the song.

"The Clouds Will Soon Roll By" sheet music
“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” sheet music

Notes:

  1. Season One, Episode Ten.

“Since I Found You” (1927)

“Since I Found You.” Words by Sidney Clare, music by Harry Woods. Recorded by Elsie Carlisle at Studio B, Hayes, Middlesex, on May 6, 1927. HMV B. 2489 mx. Bb-10690-3.

Elsie Carlisle – “Since I Found You” (1927)

Video by David Weavings (YouTube)

“Since I Found You” is an effusive love song, but one vague on details: the song tells us very little about the “I” or the “you” of the title. Even the sex of the “I” is only implied by that of the singer; there is nothing internal to the song that suggests boy-loves-girl or girl-loves-boy, the two most obvious scenarios for a popular song of the early twentieth century. Ironically, the ambiguity of “Since I Found You” may be one of its strengths.

When I first began to listen carefully to different versions of popular songs from this period, I marveled that artists and arrangers were so adept at shifting the male and female pronouns in love songs around to suit the sex of the singer (and thus incidentally to preserve a heterosexual norm). At length I came to the conclusion that the lyrics were carefully written that way in the first place. A commercially ambitious Tin Pan Alley songwriter would never want to limit the number of artists who could record his music by using words that could not easily be swapped out. An example of success in this regard would be “I Can’t Get Over a Girl Like You (Loving a Boy Like Me)”; the pronouns in the title are simply begging to be reversed, as they were when Elsie Carlisle sang them.

“Since I Found You” is particularly ingenious in this regard, insofar as it mostly involves the first and second grammatical persons (“I” and “you”); there are no he’s that need to become she’s. In fact, the “I” of the song tells us practically nothing about himself (or herself) or about the “you” of the song, except to say that the former is absolutely ecstatic about having found the latter. The singer expresses his or her joy by insisting that the whole universe feels it, by transferring his or her feelings to heavenly bodies, birds, bees, and insects. This clever use of the pathetic fallacy renders the song simultaneously more general and even vague (and thus requiring no adaptations for sex) and yet entirely effective as an effusive emotional outpouring.

I do not mean to suggest that there is any doubt as to Elsie Carlisle’s identity in her version of “Since I Found You”; to the contrary, she is ebullient in a feminine and perhaps even girlish way. The lack of a real plot line does not prevent her from vocally caressing each of the lyrics’ hyperbolic claims regarding the transformation of the natural world by her love life. Elsie’s dulcet cooing is complemented in this 1927 recording by the piano playing of Carroll Gibbons.

“Since I Found You” was recorded in 1926 and 1927 in America by Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike) and His Hot Combination, Vincent Lopez and His Casa Lopez Orchestra, Jim Miller and Charlie Farrell, and Vaughn de Leath (in January with an orchestra and in February with piano accompaniment).

British recordings were made in 1927 by Bert Firman’s Dance Orchestra, Bert and John Firman (as Eugene Brockman’s Dance Orchestra), Teddy Brown and His Café de Paris Band (with vocalist John Thorne), Jack Payne and His Hotel Cecil Orchestra (with Jack Payne singing), and the Savoy Havana Band. In late 1927 Al Bowlly recorded “Since I Found You” with Arthur Briggs’ Savoy Syncopaters Orchestra in Berlin.

“Dancing with My Shadow” (1935)

“Dancing with My Shadow.” Composed by Harry Woods for the British musical comedy Thank You So Much. Recorded by Elsie Carlisle, probably with the Embassy Rhythm Eight, on February 5, 1935. Decca F-5436.

Personnel: Max Goldberg-t / Lew Davis-tb / Danny Polo-cl / Billy Amstell-ts / Bert Barnes-p / Joe Brannely-g / Max Bacon-d

Elsie Carlisle – “Dancing with My Shadow” (1935)

Transfer by Clive Hooley (YouTube)

A song about the loneliness of lovers drawn apart, “Dancing with My Shadow” encapsulates its theme of longing in its refrain:

Dancing with my shadow,
Feeling kind of blue,
Dancing with my shadow
And making believe it’s you.

This slow foxtrot was composed by Harry Woods for the British musical comedy Thank You So Much. Woods wrote other notable songs that Elsie Carlisle recorded; one thinks particularly of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” The song also notably appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation of The 39 Steps. Elsie Carlisle, veteran torch singer, interprets the lyrics masterfully on this record, which she appears to have recorded with the Embassy Rhythm Eight, who went uncredited; this identification is strengthened by an examination of the sequence of matrices on the records they recorded with Decca on the same day.

“Dancing with My Shadow” had been recorded in the United States the previous year by Richard Himber and His Ritz-Carlton Orchestra and by Joe Reichman and His Orchestra (with vocalist Paul Small). In Britain in early 1935 there were versions by Billy Cotton and His Band (with Alan Breeze), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (Ivor Moreton, vocalist), the Piccadilly Hotel Band (with vocalist Jack Plant), the New Grosvenor House Band, Joseph Swindin and His Boys (Frank Gough, vocalist), and Harry Leader and His Band. The song was even popular in Swedish and Danish translations.

“We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” (1932)

“We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye.” Words and music by Harry Woods (1932). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with an instrumental trio in Manchester on September 23, 1932. Decca F. 3193 mx. KB-134-1.

Elsie Carlisle – “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” (1932)

A light, romantic song about two lovers’ reconciliation, Harry Woods’s “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” is noteworthy for its fanciful personification of pieces of furniture. When the couple is on the verge of parting, a chair and a sofa cry. A smiling clock expresses its feelings about the situation and brings the two people back together again, at which point the room in which everything happens sings and dances. Elsie Carlisle’s delivery of the lyrics is varied; it starts out somber, almost plodding, and becomes more upbeat as the relationship between the lovers improves. She engages in a sort of call and response with the clarinet at one point and almost whispers the final “I tell you confidentially.” Elsie’s is not exactly a lively take on the tune; it is, rather, a very deliberate interpretation of the sense of the lyrics, and of the other versions of the song recorded that year, it most closely resembles that of the American-born but London-based Layton and Johstone.

In America in 1932 there were versions of “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” recorded by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers (with vocals by Chick Bullock), Ralph Bennett and His Seven Aces, The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra (with the Boswell Sisters), Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (Mildred Bailey, vocalist), and Freddy Martin and His Orchestra. Annette Hanshaw sang it on a record and August 1932 and would go on to sing it in a film (the 1933 Captain Henry’s Radio Show). Even Shirley Temple sang it, in the 1933 film Kid in Hollywood, which is as cute as it is cacophonous.

In Britain, 1932 saw recordings of “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” by the Blue Mountaineers, the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (with vocals by Jack Plant), Ambrose and His Orchestra (Sam Browne, vocalist), Billy Cotton and His Band (Cyril Grantham, vocalist), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (with vocals by Pat O’Malley), Nat Star (as Bernie Blake and His Band, with Les Allen as vocalist), Jay Wilbur and His Band (vocalist Tom Barratt), and Jack Plant (as Jack Gordon). Notable duets were recorded by, as I have noted, Layton and Johnstone, and also by Hardy and Hudson.

"We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye" sheet music
“We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” sheet music

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