“Is There Anything Wrong in That?” Words by Herb Magidson, music by Michael H. Cleary (1928). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with accompaniment by Jay Wilbur’s Orchestra in London c. February 1929. Dominion A. 83 mx. 1148-2.
Personnel: Max Goldberg-Bill Shakespeare-t / Tony Thorpe-tb / Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-as-ts / Norman Cole-vn / Billy Thorburn-p / Dave Thomas or Bert Thomas-bj-g / Harry Evans-bb-sb / Jack Kosky-d
Elsie Carlisle – "Is There Anything Wrong in That?" (1929)
Little Elsie has tried two extreme opposites this month. “Dreaming of To-morrow” is a rhythmical but sentimental number. The other one is of the “Naughty” type; it fits Elsie like a glove and is just the thing for everyone (except your maiden aunt).1
In “Is There Anything Wrong in That?” the singer repeatedly expresses hesitance, doubt, and more than anything, ignorance with regard to basic questions of morality. She explains, “I can’t tell the bad things from the good,” and “I can’t tell the naughty from the nice.” Her misdeeds appear to consist of taking gifts in exchange for sexual favors; she also seems to use her attractiveness to facilitate the theft of a fur-lined coat and a Cadillac!
The most familiar recordings of this song are by Helen Kane and Annette Hanshaw, both of whom use the persona of a Bronx-accented baby vamp. Their exaggerated little girl voices complement their bogus claims of ignorance and innocence. Elsie Carlisle, by contrast, uses an adult voice, so the comic effect is more subtle. Elsie sings mostly in a parlando style, where the delivery of the lines is close to natural speech. Her more natural intonation gives her leeway to emphasize the lyrics’ ridiculous statements.
“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four.” Words by Eric Maschwitz, music by George Posford. Composed for the Eric Maschwitz revue New Faces (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on February 10, 1941. Rex 9934.
“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” has its origins in the 1940 revue New Faces, which is also where “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” was introduced. The lyrics describe a woman’s happy memory of a night spent with her lover in a luxury hotel too expensive for either of them. She describes the night as “her very first and only rendezvous,” and for good reason: this comparatively wholesome song is about a honeymoon, not a tryst. It is tame, therefore, by the standards of Elsie Carlisle’s songbook, which includes not just “My Man o’ War” but also “Public Sweetheart No. 1.”
Elsie Carlisle committed “Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” to shellac in her last year of recording. While I generally prefer the underlying compositions of her earlier period, it is delightful to hear her voice on her later Rex-label records. Elsie’s later style of singing seems slightly more confident, and the crisp beauty of her voice is made even more evident by the more modern recording techniques available by that time — in spite of Rex’s reputation for “crackly” shellac. The studio band’s virtuosity is showcased nicely in their rather swingy instrumental segment.
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:
“Tell Me More About Love” is a woman’s account of her love-making technique. Her approach is to seem innocent and to want instruction in the ways of love; hence the repetition of the title line “Tell me more about love.” She represents herself as a sort of student (“I don’t know what to do — / I can learn lots from you…”; “Teach me all — please don’t wait…”). She is “bashful” and “shy,” and explains that “love has never come [her] way,” but then she lets it slip that the various “lines” that she is rehearsing are ones that she practices every night with a different boy! In retrospect, her earlier request to have the lights dimmed or even turned off should have given her away.
Elsie Carlisle’s perky and chatty delivery in “Tell Me More About Love” showcases her talent for dramatizing a song and making it somewhat conversational, in spite of the absence of an interlocutor. Here Elsie’s delivery sounds a bit like that of Helen Kane, minus, of course, the exaggerated Bronx accent. Elsie’s romantic whimper at the end of the song is particularly precious, rivaled only by the primal girlish giggle in “Wasn’t It Nice?” (recorded the next year). A light and upbeat piece of music, “Tell Me More About Love” contrasts nicely with Elsie’s decidedly plaintive rendition of “Mean to Me” on the flip side of the record.
“Tell Me More About Love” was also recorded that year by Mabel Marks, the Arcadians Dance Orchestra (under the direction of Bert and John Firman), Florence Oldham (accompanied by Sid Bright on the piano and Len Fillis on the guitar — Oldham is sometimes portrayed on the sheet music), Kay and Kaye (a.k.a. Stanley Kirkby & Rita Bernard), and Billy Bartholomew, an English bandleader who recorded primarily in Germany from 1924-1938.
“When the Blackbird Says ‘Bye-Bye’ (and the Bluebird Says ‘Hello’).” Words and music by Art Noel and Don Pelosi (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur on December 31, 1940. Rex 9904 mx. R5204-1.
Elsie Carlisle – "When the Blackbird Says 'Bye-Bye'"
British songwriters Art Noel and Don Pelosi co-wrote a good number of Elsie Carlisle’s later songs: “Little Drummer Boy,”“Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major,” “A Mother’s Prayer at Twilight,” and “Nursie, Nursie” are among them (and Art Noel made still further contributions to Elsie’s songbook). “When the Blackbird Says ‘Bye-Bye'” is a particularly beautiful representation of what the British music industry could turn out even during the dark months of the Blitz. The song’s theme of blackbirds departing and the apparently preferable bluebirds appearing does not appear to me to refer to ornithological facts about changing seasons. It is, rather, to musical tradition that we must look for the roots of this upbeat theme of better times and happy reunion, to the 1920s songs “Bye Bye, Blackbird” and “My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Now,” which also use breeds of birds to represent changing moods and fortunes.
The incredible sweetness of Elsie Carlisle’s later recording voice comes through nicely on this Rex record, which suffers from somewhat less “crackle” than the label was famous for. It is is quite satisfying to aficionados to hear Elsie reprise her famous theme of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” at 1:26. The orchestra is not identified on the label and the precise personnel is unknown, but the violin is particularly memorable.
“When the Blackbird Says ‘Bye-Bye'” was also recorded in 1940 by the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra (under the direction of Ronnie Munro, with vocals by Sam Browne), Geraldo and the Savoy Hotel Orchestra (with vocalist Jackie Hunter), Lew Stone and His Band (with Sam Browne), and Joe Loss and His Band (in a “Quick-Step Medley”).
"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.