Noël Coward Articles

“Mad about the Boy” (1932)

“Mad about the Boy.” Words and music by Noël Coward for the 1932 revue Words and Music. Recorded in London on November 5, 1932 by Rudy Starita and His Ambassadors with vocalist Elsie Carlisle. 4 in 1 – 17 mx. X-218-2.

Personnel: probably Nat Star-cl-as dir. / Nat Gonella-t / t / tb / cl-as / cl-ts / vn / p / bj-g / bb-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x

Rudy Starita and His Ambassadors (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “Mad About the Boy” (1932)

“Mad about the Boy” must be one of Sir Noël Coward’s most successful compositions, especially if we measure success by the fact that the song continues to be recorded and even used in advertising many decades after its debut on the London stage. It originated in the 1932 revue Words and Music, whose words, music, script, and direction were all done by Coward himself; the show included other memorable songs such as “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Let’s Say Goodbye.” “Mad about the Boy” was sung on stage by a cast of female characters — a society lady, a prostitute, a schoolgirl, and a Cockney servant — who describe their passion for a movie star as they wait in line to see one of his films. The lyrics are predictably witty, using a surprising variety of rhymes for the monosyllables “mad” and “boy”.1

It is not clear whether the song was meant to reference a specific film actor. A great deal of effort has been put into identifying an unrequited real-life crush that Coward is said to have had on some American actor (the name Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. comes up frequently). Coward may have contributed to the idea that the song had a homosexual theme by writing verses for a businessman character to sing in the New York version:

…I’m mad about the boy
And even Doctor Freud cannot explain
Those vexing dreams
I’ve had about the boy.
When I told my wife
She said
“I never heard such nonsense in my life!”
Her lack of sympathy
Embarassed me
And made me frankly glad about the boy.

(The character was cut from the production — the idea may have been too risqué for its time.)2 I find it ultimately unnecessary, however, to assume that the “boy” of “Mad about the Boy” must have a specific, real-world analogue — in any case, infatuation with an inaccessible celebrity is a very common occurrence.

Elsie Carlisle’s versions of “Mad about the Boy” were made with Ray Starita’s band, but in the bandleader’s absence — Ray had gone on vacation to America in the summer of 1932 and never returned to England. There are quite a few records whose labels read “Ray Starita and His Ambassadors” that were likely made without him; one of the records with “Mad about the Boy” on them (4 in 1 – 17) is the first to specifically mention Ray’s brother Rudy Starita instead. Yet Rust and Forbes hesitate to say that Rudy was actually the musical director for that session, writing that it was probably Nat Star who played that role.3 It should be noted that the band and Elsie recorded takes for two records of “Mad about the Boy” that day, a Sterno and a 4 in 1 (both products of the British Homophone Company).

The other dance bands’ arrangements of “Mad about the Boy” exclusively used the society lady’s lines from the Words and Music review. For some reason, the Starita band had Elsie sing the prostitute’s verse, which is rather more edgy:

I’m hardly sentimental;
Love isn’t so sublime.
I have to pay my rental,
And I can’t afford to waste much time.

Elsie’s alternately weepy and enraptured vocal complements the band’s funereally melancholy yet infectiously catchy treatment of the tune. Her evocation of a street-walker’s brooding obsession with a Hollywood persona is really quite convincing.

Other British bands who recorded “Mad About the Boy” in 1932 were Ray Noble and His New Mayfair Orchestra, who did an instrumental version and included it in Words and Music medley, the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (dir. Carroll Gibbons / v. Cecile Petrie), the Debroy Somers Band (in a Words and Music medley), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Phyllis Robins), The Blue Lyres (dir. Bert Ambrose / v. Anona Winn), and The Blue Mountaineers (v. Sam Browne). In 1932 Coward’s close friend and professional associate Gertrude Lawrence would record a version that includes the society lady’s intro. Coward himself recorded “Mad about the Boy” in 1932, but his version was not issued during his lifetime.

Notes:

  1. Stephen Citron. Noel and Cole: The Sophisticates. United Kingdom: Hal Leonard, 2005, 318.
  2. Sheridan Morely. Noël Coward. London: Haus, 2005, 57.
  3. Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes. British Dance Bands on Record, 1911 to 1945, and Supplement. Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, Ltd., 1989, 1021-1022.

“Cavalcade” (1931)

“Cavalcade.” Composed by various artists, including Noël Coward. Recorded under the direction of Ray Noble (uncredited) in London on November 24, 1931, with narration by Henry Oscar and with uncredited soloists (including Elsie Carlisle), full chorus, orchestra, and organ. HMV C. 2330, matrices 2B-1546-2 and 2B-1547-1.

“Cavalcade” — Descriptive Record (1931)

“Cavalcade (32 Years of England)” is derived from a stage play of the same name by Sir Noël Coward that was enormously successful in 1931 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with 405 performances. The play concerns the life of a British family and their servants and spans over the first three decades of the twentieth century. It was the inspiration for a 1933 Fox film.

The play “Cavalcade” includes music contemporary to each period it depicts that was either chosen by Noël Coward or even written by him (“Lover of My Dreams” and “Twentieth Century Blues” were both introduced in the drama). The musical revivals inspired a number of recordings, such as the HMV medley with Noël Coward as vocalist (side one and side two), one by The New Mayfair Orchestra (under the direction of Ray Noble, with prologue and epilogue spoken by Noël Coward), and medleys by Sam Greening’s Rhythmic Troubadours, Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (both in early November and in mid-December; you may hear side A and side B of the latter on YouTube), and Jay Wilbur and His Band.

The 1931 record labelled by HMV as “‘Cavalcade’–Descriptive Record (’32 Years of England’)” credits prolific British actor Henry Oscar as narrator, but leaves the “soloists, full chorus, orchestra, and organ[ist]” unnamed. Ray Pallett has identified Ray Noble as the leader and arranger and Max Goldberg as one of the trumpet players,1 but it is the audible presence of Elsie Carlisle as soloist (and presumably also as ensemble member) that interests me most.

The numbers performed on the record include

  • Soldiers of the Queen
  • Has Anyone Seen a German Band?
  • Knocked ‘Em in the Old Kent Road
  • I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside
  • The Merry Widow Waltz
  • It’s a Long Way to Tipperary
  • I’ll Make a Man of You
  • Our God, Our Help in Ages Past
  • Rhapsody in Blue
  • Twentieth-Century Blues
  • Pomp and Circumstance

Elsie takes the solos in “I’ll Make a Man of You” (5:29-5:58) and “Twentieth-Century Blues” (7:44-8:22). The former is a reprise of a WWI recruiting song that encourages young men to enlist by suggesting that they will get more dates. Elsie brightly sings out

On Sunday I walk out with a Soldier,
On Monday I’m taken by a Tar,
On Tuesday I’m out with a baby Boy Scout,
On Wednesday an Hussar;
On Thursday I gang out wi’ a Scottie,
On Friday the Captain of the crew —
But on Saturday I’m willing, if you’ll only take the shilling,
To make a man of any one of you!

Elsie’s great moment, though, comes just after an instrumental excerpt from that declaration of modernity, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The music of Gershwin gives way to that of Noël Coward, and Elsie bursts out with

Blues!
Twentieth-century blues
Are getting me down!
Who’s
Escaped those dreary
Twentieth-century blues?
Why,
If there’s a God in the sky,
Why shouldn’t he grin?
High
Above this dreary
Twentieth-century din?

Elsie would record Coward’s music again one year later, with Mad About the Boy (recorded with Ray Starita and His Ambassadors).

Even though her role in this HMV recording is easily overlooked, Elsie distinguishes herself with gestures to music dating from the beginnings of her career as well as to current compositions. The brevity of her solos allows her to show her dexterity at summoning up a character at a moment’s notice. Bold, saucy, querulous, and comical, Elsie Carlisle shines as a talented singer on this strangely anonymous record.

Notes:

  1. Liner notes to Elsie Carlisle (with a different style), a CD issued by Memory Lane in 2011.

Happy 110th Birthday, Ray Starita!

Ray (Renato) Starita, an Italian-American, along with his brothers Al and Rudy (and the less well-known Julio) were influential in British dance band music in the 1920s and early 1930s.  Ray, a saxophonist and clarinetist, led the Piccadilly Revels Band and the Ambassadors’ Band.

John Wright has compiled some interesting historical data regarding the Starita family, drawing on the accounts of their children, and he provides a unique photo gallery of Ray Starita‘s career in England and later life in the United States.

Elsie Carlisle made a number of noteworthy recordings with Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band in 1932, including “Let That Be a Lesson to You,” “I Heard,” and Noël Coward’s “Mad About the Boy.”

Ray Starita and His Ambassadors' Band c. 1930
Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band c. 1930

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