Jay Wilbur Articles

“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.

“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

"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).

“Is There Anything Wrong in That?” (1929)

“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)

Elsie Carlisle – “Is There Anything Wrong in That?” (1929)

A 1929 review of Dominion A. 83 explains

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.

“Is There Anything Wrong in That?” was recorded in 1928-1929 in America by Helen Kate, Beth Challis, Annette Hanshaw, Ermine Callway (with the Seven Blue Babies), and Helen Charleston (with Ken Murray). In Britain it was recorded in 1929 by Lily Lapidus and The Rhythmic Eight.

"Is There Anything Wrong in That?" original sheet music

Notes:

  1. “Elsie Carlisle.” The Melody Maker. (The Gramophone Review). 4.40 (April 1, 1929): 376.

“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” (1941)

“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.

Elsie Carlisle – “Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” (1941)

Original 78 rpm Transfer by Charles Hippisley-Cox

“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.

Other versions of “Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” were recorded in Britain in 1940-1941 by Vera Lynn (accompanied by Jay Wilbur and His Band), Geraldo and His Orchesta (v. Dorothy Carless), The Savoy Hotel Orpheans (dir. Carroll Gibbons, v. Anne Lenner), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Ann Shelton), again by Jay Wilbur and His Band (v. Anne Lenner), and by Binnie Hale.

"Room Five-Hundred-and-Four" sheet music
“Room Five-Hundred-and-Four” sheet music

“Exactly Like You” (1930)

“Exactly Like You.” Words by Dorothy Fields, music by Jimmy McHugh (1930). Recorded in London c. mid-August 1930 by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur. Imperial 2318 mx. 5448-2.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. / Jack Miranda-cl / Eric Siday-vn / Harry Jacobson-p-cel / Len Fillis-g / sb

Elsie Carlisle – "Exactly Like You" (-2) (1930)

Elsie Carlisle – Exactly Like You (-2) (1930)

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:

Elsie Carlisle – "Exactly Like You" (-1) (1930)

Elsie Carlisle – Exactly Like You (-1) (1930)

“Exactly Like You” saw many recorded versions in 1930, some of them quite commercially successful, on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, in addition to a recording by Harry Richman himself, there were versions by Roger Wolfe Kahn and His Orchestra, Merle Johnston and His Ceco Couriers, Seger Ellis, The Casa Loma Orchestra (v. Jack Richmond), Sam Lanin and His Orchestra (v. Smith Ballew), Ruth Etting, Grace Hayes, and Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra (v. Louis Armstrong).

The song must have been equally popular in Britain. A London recording was made as early as January by Lou Abelardo. Jack Harris and His Orchestra did a version that was rejected by Decca. Successful issues were made by Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra (v. Jack Payne), Florence Oldham, Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), The Rhythmic Eight (directed by John Firman), Bidgood’s Broadcasters (as Ted Summer’s Dance Devils, v. Patrick Waddington), Harry Hudson’s Radio Melody Boys (v. Sam Browne), Sir Robert Peel, Bart., and His Band (v. Sam Browne), and Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (as Syd Kay’s Orchestra; v. Fred Douglas-Cavan O’Connor). London-based Americans Layton and Johnstone recorded the song as a piano duet that year.

"Exactly Like You" sheet music
“Exactly Like You” original sheet music

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