“He’s the Last Word.” Lyrics by Gus Kahn, music by Walter Donaldson (1926). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with accompaniment by piano (Carroll Gibbons) and violin at Studio B, Hayes, Middlesex, on May 6, 1927. HMV B. 2579 mx. Bb10689-2.
“He’s the Last Word” follows an argument familiar to aficionados of popular music: its singer goes through a catalogue of her “sweet somebody’s” various deficits (insufficient talent at dancing, for example), only to conclude that when it comes to romance, “he’s the last word” — he is the very best. In her recording of the song, Elsie Carlisle is pure enthusiasm, and her frequent nonsensical ejaculations remind us of the fun, popular genre that she is working in. She is accompanied by excellent instrumentalists on the piano and violin, the former of whom discographer Richard J. Johnson identifies as Carroll Gibbons (who had indeed been Elsie’s accompanist for most of the previous year). Johnson does not identify the violinist.1
A contemporary record reviewer was under a very different impression as to the identities of the accompanists, writing that
Elsie Carlisle has a thoroughly good vocal record of “He’s the Last Word” [54 at 78] (B2579). She sings tunefully, and is one of the most stylish and rhythmical of all our English comediennes. She has been excellently accompanied by Hugo Rignold (violin) and Arthur Young (piano)—Young does one of the best piano solo choruses I have heard. I wish I could say as much for his effort in “What’s the Use of Crying?” by the same artists on the reverse side.2
Richard Johnson recognizes Arthur Young as the pianist on the other side of the record (“What’s the Use of Crying”), but that side was recorded over three months later. It is possible that Melody Maker‘s reviewer was unaware that the two sides had been recorded so far apart and simply assumed that the piano accompaniments were played by the same man at a single session. The suggestion that the violinist is Rignold is interesting. Hugo Rignold was already famous for his exceedingly “jazzy” playing, and certainly the violinist in “He’s the Last Word” gives the impression of being lively and playful, employing double and triple stops. All the same, I am increasingly inclined to the view that the violinist on “He’s the Last Word” was Eric Siday, while the one of “What’s the Use of Crying” was Rignold.3
Other noteworthy early versions of “He’s the Last Word” include ones by Art Kahn and His Orchestra, Jack Pettis and His Band (with vocalist Billy Hillpot), Ben Pollack and His Californians (with the Williams Sisters), Ben Bernie and His Roosevelt Orchestra (with vocals by Scrappy Lambert), the Broadway Bellhops (with singer Irving Kaufman), Jane Gray, Vaughn de Leath (recording as “Gertrude Dwyer”), The Troubadors, Annette Hanshaw (with Irving Brodsky on the piano), and Jack Linx and His Birmingham Society Serenaders. American Josephine Baker recorded “He’s the Last Word” in Paris accompanied by Jacob’s Jazz, and in August 1927 the Merl Twins (“Syncopating Songsters”) sang it in an early Hollywood Vitaphone short film.
In Britain in 1927, in addition to Elsie Carlisle’s, there were versions of “He’s the Last Word” by The Savoy Orpheans (directed by Carroll Gibbons), Syd Roy’s Lyricals, and Bert Firman’s Dance Orchestra (as Eugene Brockman’s Dance Orchestra).