Torch songs Articles

“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)

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)

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)

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

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.

“What Is This Thing Called Love?” (1929)

“What Is This Thing Called Love?” Composed by Cole Porter and introduced by Elsie Carlisle in C. B. Cochran’s Wake Up and Dream (1929). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London c. May 1, 1929. Dominion A. 125 mx. 1251-4.

Personnel: ?Max Goldberg-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-sb / Jack Kosky-d1

Elsie Carlisle – "What Is This Thing Called Love?" (1929)

Elsie Carlisle – “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (1929)

On March 27, 1929, a revue opened at the London Pavilion, C. B. Cochran’s Wake Up and Dream, which had words and lyrics by Cole Porter. One of the numbers was exotic and featured Tilly Losch and Toni Birkmayer dancing to the sound of a tom-tom beat in front of an African idol2 (the choreography, while credited to Losch, appears to have been arranged by George Balanchine).3 As they danced, Elsie Carlisle, a ten-year veteran of the London stage, introduced the world to what would become one of Porter’s best-remembered songs, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Stephen Citron describes how Elsie, “the show’s languorous torch singer, leaned against the proscenium arch and intoned the refrain. The song…created a palpable sexuality and became the hit of the show.”4 Cole Porter is said to have personally requested that Elsie introduce the song,5 and she was billed simply as “The Girl.”

About a month later Elsie committed the song to the rather gravelly shellac of Dominion Records, with whom she had a recording contract. Dominion’s musical director was Jay Wilbur, who would oversee so many of Elsie’s recordings both early and late in her career, and the studio personnel were members of his dance band. Their throbbing accompaniment must recall the drumbeat of the stage show.

Elsie’s rendition of the song showcases her well-known talent in delivering torch songs. It is a particularly good example of her technique of allowing her voice to quaver, to falter, almost to break, thereby creating an impression of vulnerability. Elsie is so often remembered as a funny, witty, naughty singer that it would be possible to overlook how, in her torch songs and in her other love songs, she evokes such pathos that we do not even stop to question her sincerity.

Some British bands that recorded “What Is This Thing Called Love?” around the time of its opening in London and into that summer were Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra (vocals by Jack Payne), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (with vocalist Sam Browne),  Arthur Roseberry and His Kit-Cat Dance Band (with vocal by Len Lees), Philip Lewis and His Dance Orchestra (a.k.a the Rhythm Maniacs, under the direction of Arthur Lally, with vocals by Maurice Elwin), and Harry Hudson’s Melody Men (with Eddie Grossbart); the song also occurred in medleys derived from Wake Up and Dream recorded by the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra (directed by Carrol Gibbons) and John Firman’s London Orchestra.

"What Is This Thing Called Love?" original sheet music
“What Is This Thing Called Love?” original sheet music

Notes:

  1. According to Richard J. Johnson in Elsie Carlisle:  A Discography, Aylesbury, 1994, p. 8.
  2. Stephen Citron, Noel & Cole: The Sophisticates, 81.
  3. George Balanchine Catalogue 91. Wake Up and Dream!
  4. Stephen Citron, ibid.
  5. Richard J. Johnson, “Elsie Carlisle (with a different style). Part Two.” Memory Lane 175 (2012): 40.

“He’s a Good Man to Have Around” (1929)

“He’s a Good Man to Have Around.” Composed by Milton Ager, with lyrics by Jack Yellen, for the 1929 film “Honky Tonk.” Recorded by Elsie Carlisle (as “Sheila Kay”), with Cecil Norman and His Band, in London, October 16, 1929. World Echo A. 1013.

Personnel: Lloyd Shakespeare-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Les Norman-as / vn / Cecil Norman-p / __ Stanley-bb

He's A Good Man To Have Around – Elsie Carlisle (as Sheila Kay)

He’s a Good Man to Have Around – Elsie Carlisle (as Sheila Kay)

Video by David Weavings (YouTube)

“He’s a Good Man to Have Around” is a torch song fashioned loosely after the model of Mistinguett’s “Mon homme” or its English adaptation “My Man” (introduced by Fanny Brice in the 1921 Ziegfeld Follies). The singer catalogues her “man’s” various faults and insists that she loves him in spite of them. One lyrical advantage that “He’s a Good Man to Have Around” has over comparable songs (such as “Hangin’ On to That Man”) is that the man’s moral deficits creep up comically in intensity; at first one expects the song to remain light, insofar as the man’s faults are merely not being good-looking, being a poor dancer and a poor speaker, and occasionally being mildly irritating. Indeed, the lyrics as used in Elsie’s August 23, 1929 recording of the song with Philip Lewis and His Dance Orchestra (a.k.a. the Rhythm Maniacs)1 stop at this point; they complement the comparatively upbeat instrumental interpretation nicely. In the October 16 Worldecho recording, however, Elsie sings the whole song, including the parts about how her lover is untrustworthy, unfaithful, and apparently such a dangerous fellow as to warrant her having bought a pistol — which she won’t use, for “He’s a Good Man to Have Around!” Elsie Carlisle recorded this record and three others with Worldecho under the name “Sheila Kay”; as she was recording under her own name for the Dominion label at the time, it may be that contractual obligations necessitated the use of the pseudonym.

Originally written for the 1929 film “Honky Tonky” starring Sophie Tucker (which does not survive as a movie, although the Vitaphone soundtrack is intact), “He’s a Good Man to Have Around” was first recorded by Tucker herself (with Ted Shapiro’s Orchestra). In 1929 versions of the song were also recorded in America by Herman Kenin and His Ambassador Hotel Orchestra, Lee Morse and Her Blue Grass Boys, The Cotton Pickers (both with Libby Holman and without), Kate Smith and the Harmonians, and Jimmy Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (with vocals by Helen Savage).

“He’s a Good Man to Have Around” was recorded in 1929 in Britain by Florence Oldham (accompanied by Len Fillis on the guitar and by Sid Bright on the piano), Lily Lapidus, the Rhythmic Eight (with vocals by Maurice Elwin), The Picadilly Players (Eddie Collis, vocalist), Mabel Marks, Belle Dyson, the Blue River Band (with vocalist Sybil Jason), and Mabel Lawrence.

Notes:

  1. It is incidentally amusing to hear take one of this Decca recording, in which Elsie gets a couple of notes wrong!

“Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon” (1932)

“Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon.” Words and music by Hartwell “Harty” Cook, W. Mercer Cook, and J. Russel Robinson. Recorded by Ray Starita and His Ambassadors with vocalist Elsie Carlisle on September 1, 1932. Four-in-One 6 mx. S2557-2.

Personnel: Ray Starita-reeds dir. Nat Gonella-t / tb / prob. Chester Smith-reeds / Nat Star-reeds / George Glover-reeds-vn / George Hurley-vn / George Oliver-g / Arthur Calkin-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x1

Ray Starita and His Ambassadors (w. Elsie Carlisle) – "Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon" (1932)

Ray Starita and His Ambassadors (w. Elsie Carlisle) – “Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon” (1932)

“Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon (My Man’s Gone)”2 is a 1932 composition by Harty Cook, Mercer Cook, and J. Russel Robinson (the latter two also produced the popular “Is I in Love? I Is” that same year). In this song, the singer makes almost Biblical demands for the powers of nature — and technology, for that matter — to cease their usual operations, for she has lost her man. This sort of theme was suited to Elsie Carlisle’s dramatic manner of delivery, and in this recording her impassioned complaint serves as a fitting summation to the pulsating instrumental interpretation of the tune by Ray Starita and His Ambassadors’ Band. They would do another take of the song that day with Elsie, and it appears on Sterno 1028.

There were recordings of “Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon” in America that year by Joel Shaw and His Orchestra (with vocals by Dick Robertson), Dick Robertson and His Orchestra (with vocalist Chick Bullock), the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra (with the Boswell Sisters), Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers (with Chick Bullock singing), the Ted Dahl Orchestra, and Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (with vocalist Mildred Bailey).

In addition to the two record sides made by Ray Starita with Elsie Carlisle, there was a 1932 British version of “Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon” by Ambrose and His Orchestra (with vocalist Sam Browne).

Notes:

  1. According to Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes, British Dance Bands on Record (1911-1945) and Supplement (1989), p. 1021.
  2. The subtitle of the song is also found as “My Gal’s Gone” when the singer is a man.

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