Torch songs Articles

“Driftin’ Tide” (1934)

“Driftin’ Tide.” Words and music by Pat Castleton and Spencer Williams. Recorded in London on July 18, 1934 by Elsie Carlisle. Decca F-5122 mx. TB-1401-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “Driftin’ Tide” (1934)

Both bluesy and sophisticated, “Driftin’ Tide” is an unusually attractive tune by American Spencer Williams (composer of “Basin Street Blues” and “I’ve Found a New Baby,” among many other well known successes) and Pat Castleton (the stage name of British actress Agnes Muir Bage). Williams spent a lot of time working in England in the 1930s, and he and Castleton would go on to marry in 1936. The melody is one of those complex ones that defies the listener’s first attempts to hum it, and the lyrics are metrically unusual. On top of all of this, the title of the song appears a number of times in the lyrics, but in a grammatically jarring way — it would appear that the sea, the “driftin’ tide,” is being addressed by the singer in a moving expression of unrequited love — a “torch song.”

It seems appropriate that “Driftin’ Tide” should have been assigned to Elsie Carlisle, a veteran torch singer. She successfully applies her famous talent for sounding intermittently teared up to the song’s melancholy themes. I was surprised at how difficult it was to locate a copy of Carlisle’s record — it took me nine years — and it might seem that it did not sell very well. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the Ray Noble version of the song recorded the same day with Al Bowlly? The latter recording has a more interesting dance band arrangement, it must be admitted, but all the same I admire what the anonymous Decca studio band was able to do for Carlisle’s “solo” recording — it is an excellent example of the remarkable elegance one so often finds in her output from that time.

In Britain, in addition to the Elsie Carlisle and Ray Noble/Al Bowlly versions of “Driftin’ Tide,” there was a recording of the song by Pat Hyde, made two days later.

In America, an obscure trio named The Aces of the Air recorded “Driftin’ Tide” for radio broadcast in 1934. In 1935 versions were made by Alberta Hunter and Clark Randall (v. Clark Randall).

“He’s Not Worth Your Tears” (1931)

“He’s Not Worth Your Tears.” Words by Mort Dixon and Billy Rose, music by Harry Warren; composed for the musical Sweet and Low (1930). Recorded in London on February 25, 1931 by Elsie Carlisle (as Gracie Collins) under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur. Eclipse 50 mx. JW-173-3.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Max Goldberg-Bill Shakespeare-t / Ted Heath or Tony Thorpe-tb / Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / Norman Cole-?another-vn / Billy Thorburn or Pat Dodd-p / Bert Thomas-g / Harry Evans-sb / Jack Kosky-d

He’s Not Worth Your Tears – Gracie Collins (Elsie Carlisle) – Eclipse 50

Transfer by Jonathan David Holmes

Sheet music and record labels assert that “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” originated in the 1930 Broadway revue Sweet and Low, and yet sources for original casts and the like omit the song.1 Perhaps it was cut from the show but continued to be marketed as having been in it? At any rate, it was recorded by quite a few artists, Elsie Carlisle among them. This is her only record side with the budget Eclipse label (sold in Woolworth’s), and one of only four small, eight-inch records that she ever made.

This song showcases Elsie as a torch singer capable of appealing to our deepest sympathies for whatever lost or unrequited love she claims to have experienced. And yet this torch song has a bit of a twist: Elsie is not complaining so much about the lover who left her as the people who are trying to comfort her. “He’s not worth your tears,” they tell her to her annoyance. I find the lyrics of the B part particularly memorable:

They never bother an old weeping willow —
They leave it drooping there.
So if I want to confide in my pillow,
Why should strangers care?

Elsie is at her most mournful in this song. There is something deeply attractive about the way that her voice sounds as if it is about to break, but never does. I have listed the personnel that Richard J. Johnson identifies as having made up Jay Wilbur’s studio band at the time,2 but I only hear a pianist and a trumpet player; the latter has a short but memorable solo.

Eclipse 50 was the second Elsie Carlisle record that I ever bought. I put off sharing a transfer of it because my copy is rather worn and I was hoping to find a better one, but it would appear that this is a comparatively rare record. I was very pleased when Jonathan Holmes found a good copy and shared it on YouTube; his transfer is the one used at the beginning of the article. Readers might like to compare my copy, though, as it is take 2, not take 3, and there are interesting little differences in the pacing:

“He’s Not Worth Your Tears.” Recorded in London on February 25, 1931 by Elsie Carlisle (as Gracie Collins) under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur. Eclipse 50 mx. JW-173-2.

Elsie Carlisle – “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” (1931)

Elsie used the pseudonym Gracie Collins on Eclipse 50; the reverse side, “Homesick Blues,” is also supposed to be by Gracie Collins, but it clearly has Betty Bolton’s voice. If that is not confusing enough — having two very different singers pretending to have sung both sides of one record — there also exists a take 1 of “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” that was recorded by a singer named Elaine Rosslyn. I have not heard it myself.3

In America in 1930-1931 there were versions of “He’s Not Worth Your Tears” recorded by Doris Robbins, Marion Harris, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (v. Helen Rowland), Aileen Stanley (two takes rejected by Victor), Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (v. Mildred Bailey), and Ben Selvin and His Orchestra (v. Helen Rowland).

There were British dance band versions in 1931 by Jack Harris and His Orchestra (“She’s Not Worth Your Tears” — apparently mislabeled as “It’s Not Worth Your Tears”; v. Cavan O’Connor) and by the Debroy Somers Band (also “She’s Not Worth Your Tears”; v. Dan Donovan).

Notes:

  1. E.g., The Guide to Musical Theatre.
  2. Richard J.  Johnson, Elsie Carlisle: A Discography, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire: Richard J. Johnson, 1994, 12.
  3. For more about Eclipse’s “Gracie Collins” pseudonym, see Arthur Badrock’s comments in Talking Machine Review 88 (Autumn/Winter 1994): 2559-2560.

“Alone and Afraid” (1931)

“Alone and Afraid.” Music by Jack Trent, with lyrics by Stan Leigh (1931). Recorded in London in May 1931 by Elsie Carlisle (under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur). Imperial 2489 mx. 5701-2.

Personnel: Jay Wilbur dir. Laurie Payne-Jimmy Gordon-cl-as-bar / George Clarkson-cl-ts / Norman Cole-?George Melachrino-vn / Billy Thorburn or Pat Dodd-p / Bert Thomas-g / Harry Evans-sb / ?Max Bacon-d-vib

Elsie Carlisle – “Alone and Afraid” (1931)

Elsie Carlisle recorded more than a few torch songs in her time, but “Alone and Afraid” stands out as a particularly noteworthy example of her efforts. I have argued elsewhere that one of Elsie’s foremost talents as a dance band singer was to establish the audience’s idea of her persona in a very limited time frame (often in under a minute of singing). In “Alone and Afraid” Elsie has more time, as it is not a dance band record, and so she uses most of one side of a record to produce the perfect vocal tearjerker. She sings of a deep disappointment, of unrequited love, or at the very least, of an asymmetrical relationship subject to unfortunate misunderstanding (“I gave my love, but his was lent”). The tune is memorable and can even be played as an upbeat dance number, as we find out near the beginning of the 1931 Stanley Lupino film The Love Race.

In the same year, Elsie recorded a short film of her singing “Alone and Afraid” and “My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes,” accompanied by Harry Rubens on the piano (this may or may not be the same pianist as the Harry Robens who played briefly for Ray Starita’s band):

Elsie Carlisle (1931)

Very little camera footage survives of Elsie Carlisle, so it is hard to place this particular performance in the context of her career as a musical actress, but I find this film short both mesmerizing and satisfying. The quality of the singing is excellent and comparable to that of the record, but Elsie’s acting is really delightful. Her intense gazes into the camera leave one with the impression that she is sharing something very sincere.

“Alone and Afraid” was also recorded in 1931 in Britain by Jerry Hoey and His Band (v. Joe Leigh), Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra (v. Jack Payne), and Arthur Lally and the Million-airs (v. Cavan O’Connor).

“It’s the Talk of the Town” (Two Versions; 1933)

The lyrics of “It’s the Talk of the Town” present a delicate situation: a couple engaged to be married has broken up after having already sent out wedding invitations. The song could be considered a torch song, but it is an atypical one, insofar as the singer’s argument for reconciliation rests less on passionate desire than on feelings of personal embarrassment resulting from gossip, the refrain being “Everybody knows you left me: it’s the talk of the town.”

Elsie Carlisle recorded three takes of “It’s the Talk of the Town” with Ambrose and His Orchestra on October 10, 1933, but they were rejected by Brunswick. On the morning of October 13, she made a successful recording for Decca with an eight-person band whose makeup is unknown but which probably contained Ambrose men:

“It’s the Talk of the Town.” Music by Jerry Levinson, words by Marty Symes and Al J. Neiburg (1933). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment in London on October 13, 1933. Decca F. 3696 mx. GB6186-1.

Elsie Carlisle – “It’s the Talk of the Town” (1933)

In the early afternoon of the same day, Elsie would make her more famous and instrumentally more compelling recording of the song with Ambrose and His Orchestra. In this version, the emphasis on social awkwardness is highlighted by the band members’ snarling whisper: “IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN!”:

“It’s the Talk of the Town.” Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie Carlisle in London on October 13, 1933. Brunswick 01607 mx. GB6175-4.

Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-t-mel / Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-Tony Thorpe-tb / Danny Polo-reeds / Sid Phillips-reeds / Joe Jeannette-as / Billy Amstell-reeds / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g  / Dick Ball-sb / Max Bacon-d (also humming and speaking by members of the orchestra)

Ambrose and His Orchestra (w. Elsie Carlisle) – “It’s The Talk of The Town” (1933)

“It’s the Talk of the Town” was one of two hits written in 1933 by the team of Levinson, Symes, and Neiburg, the other being “Under a Blanket of Blue.” Neiburg had three years earlier penned the lyrics to “(I’m) Confessin’ (That I Love You),” and Levinson (under the name “Livingston”) went on in later decades to compose noteworthy music for movies and television, although his role in composing the 1943 novelty song “Mairzy Doats” should not be forgotten.

In the late summer of 1933 America saw versions of “It’s the Talk of the Town” recorded by Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra (with vocals by Kenny Sargent), Connee Boswell, Dick Robertson and His Orchestra, Will Osborne and His Orchestra, Annette Hanshaw, Red McKenzie and His Orchestra, and Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra.

As summer turned to autumn, British bands did their own versions. In addition to Ambrose’s recording and Elsie’s solo version on Decca, there were recordings made by the BBC Dance Orchestra (under the direction of Henry Hall, with vocal refrain by Phyllis Robins), Jay Wilbur and His Band (with vocalists Dan Donovan and Phyllis Robins), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (with vocals by Eve Becke), Billy Cotton and His Band (Alan Breeze, vocalist), Jack Payne and His Band (with vocals by Billy Scott-Coomber), Joe Loss and His Band (with Jimmy Messini), George Glover and His Band (also with Jimmy Messini), Bertini and His Orchestra (Jack Plant, vocalist), and Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band (as “Art Willis and His Band,” with vocals by Harry Davis).

“Hangin’ On to That Man” (1931, 1932)

The dark and moody song “Hangin’ On to That Man” has music written by Russian-born composer Josef Myerow, who later as Joe Myrow would compose the popular “You Make Me Feel So Young” (1946). “Hangin’ On to That Man” is recognizably a torch song, insofar as it involves a woman describing how she keeps loving a man in spite of all the misery that he causes her. The song is thus very much in the mold of Mistinguett’s “Mon homme” or its anglophone version “My Man” (made popular by Fanny Brice in the 1921 Ziegfeld Follies).

It is not clear to me if anyone other than Elsie Carlisle ever recorded “Hangin’ On to That Man”; Ethel Waters is mentioned on the sheet music, but I have no evidence that she ever committed the song to shellac (she probably performed it on stage). It is therefore interesting that Elsie recorded the song not once but three times. She made the first two recordings with Spike Hughes and His Dance Orchestra, and we are fortunate enough to have Spike Hughes’s own account of the genesis of his sessions with Elsie.

In 1935, Spike Hughes published an autobiography serialized in Swing Music. He recollects

In the days when I had had colourful visions of making a fortune writing blues and low-down songs, I had a great ambition to write a song that Elsie Carlisle would sing, perhaps even sing on the radio and record. I don’t think, as a matter of truth, that I had ever heard her sing in those days, but her face made a pretty picture on a song of which I was very fond around 1929, and I thought she would probably sing my masterpieces better than another other native singer.

When she first started recording for Decca a contingent from the band used to accompany her, and I found that my dream-singer, whose picture I had liked so much in 1929, sang every bit as well as I had imagined. But I had no songs, no blue masterpieces to offer her. Obviously, she must appear in one of my records, for she was good company. After sessions she would entertain at a neighbouring public-house with unlimited Lancashire stories, which endeared her particularly to young William Walton, whose local the “Six Bells” was, and who, like Elsie, also came from Oldham.

Some time before the session of which I am writing, we had had a session from which no records resulted. For some reason everything had gone wrong. We had made Minnie, The Moocher, a long while before that epic became popular; we had tried a commercial number, To Whom It May Concern, in which Val Rosing made a fleeting appearance, but we made a mess of that; we had also recorded an Ethel Waters tune, Hangin’ On To That Man, but without vocal refrain and the solos had been bad, for it was a difficult tune to improvise upon. In short, it had been an unsuccessful session.1

The session that Hughes describes seems like a poorly remembered version of the June 18, 1931 session, at which the three songs mentioned were recorded and not issued; but Elsie did record a version of “Hangin’ On to That Man” that day, at least if eminent discographers Brian Rust and Richard Johnson can be trusted (I am not fortunate enough to own a copy of the unissued Decca recording with the matrix GB2920).

Of the second recording of “Hangin’ On to That Man,” Spike Hughes recalls

I decided, however, that if we were to do anything with the tune, it must have a vocal refrain to it. So Elsie Carlisle learnt it–not without some difficulty in finding the right key, I think she will confess. Apparently, Elsie liked it for she adopted it as her signature tune. For our part, we produced a record with the longest introduction that has ever gone on a ten-inch disc.

Here is the recording described by Hughes with his mixture of snark and admiration:

“Hangin’ On to That Man.” Lyrics by Frank Capano and Harry Filler, with music by Josef Myerow, alias Joe Myrow (1931). Recorded by Spike Hughes and His Dance Orchestra, with vocals by Elsie Carlisle, in London on November 18, 1931. Decca F. 2735 mx. GB3601-2.

Personnel: Spike Hughes-sb ldr. Chick Smith-Leslie Thompson-Jimmy Macaffer-t / Lew Davis-Bill Mulraney-tb  / Harry Hayes-as / Billy Amstell-cl-as / Buddy Featherstonhaugh-ts / Billy Mason-p / Claude Ivy-chm / Alan Ferguson-g / Ronnie Gubertini-d

Spike Hughes & His Dance Orchestra (v. Elsie Carlisle) – “Hangin’ On to That Man” (1933)

I am not sure exactly what Spike Hughes was referring to when he wrote that Elsie “adopted [‘Hangin’ On to That Man’] as her signature tune,” but certainly it is noteworthy that she recorded it a third time many months later:

“Hangin’ On to That Man.” Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment in London on June 23, 1932. Decca F. 3038.

Personnel: ?Johnny Rosen-?Maurice Loban-vn / g / sb / ?Max Abrams-d

Elsie Carlisle — Hangin’ On to That Man

Transfer by Andy LeMaitre (YouTube)

In this version Elsie sings a languid introduction, and indeed the first half of the song is comparatively subdued. The contrast with the quicker and more impassioned second half gives Elsie the opportunity to engage in monodrama, which happens to be a specialty of hers. We can appreciate, with Spike Hughes, the attraction of Elsie’s pretty visage reproduced on sheet music, but we must admit that it was her ability to create a persona with nothing but her voice, in the small time allotted by the size of a shellac record, that will always define Elsie best.

"Hangin' on to That Man" sheet music signed by the composer
“Hangin’ on to That Man” sheet music

Notes:

  1. Spike Hughes, “Decca Days.” Swing Music 1.4 (June 1935): 84, 112.

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