“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.
“To Be Worthy of You” was composed in 1931 by Benny Davis and John Frederick Coots. Davis had written the successful standard “Baby Face” back in 1926, and Coots would go on to co-write the best-selling “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” in 19341 “To Be Worthy of You” did not have the staying power that those other songs enjoyed. Indeed, the melody falls short of being particularly infectious or compelling, and the lyrics initially seem gushy. I do think, however, that the words express sentiments that are comparatively deep for a popular song, and that Elsie Carlisle’s version is a rather elegant realization of the song’s possibilities.
At first it would seem that Elsie is merely expressing her satisfaction at having found a love partner whose merits are so great that she feels scarcely worthy of having him. In fact, she is rejoicing in having resolved to be a better person: “Watch the way that I’ll come through / To be worthy of you.” The idea of being transported, not just with the joy of love, but also with delight at having discovered in another person the means of self-improvement, is really extraordinary.
Elsie’s singing in this comparatively simple arrangement is nothing if not refined. Her anonymous accompaniment is also noteworthy, in particular the pianist, whom Richard J. Johnson tentatively identifies as Bert Read2, a constant fixture at Elsie’s recording sessions (especially in his role as an Ambrose man). Whatever this pianist’s identity, his flourishes contribute a great deal to the overall bright, crisp sound of the recording and to the idea that we are dealing in this piece with an elevated mental state.
In his famous November 4, 1938 article in Radio Pictorial (which either originated or, at the least, strongly reinforced Elsie Carlisle’s epithet “Radio Sweetheart No. 1”), reporter Ralph Graves recounts Elsie’s first meeting with American pianist Carroll Gibbons (who would, the next year, become the bandleader of the Savoy Hotel Orpheans):
Now for another scene.
This time not a swank lunch, but a very informal party.
Elsie was asked to sing. No, she hadn’t her music, but a quiet, bespectacled young man at the piano knew all the latest numbers, and could instantly transpose into any key Elsie wanted.
She sang several numbers which went down well, but the outstanding thought in Elsie’s mind was what a good accompanist this young man was. And when he played some piano solos on his own afterwards her opinion of him went up.
She asked who he was.
“That chap at the piano? Oh, he’s a Mr. Gibbons. Just come over from the States with Rudy Vallee, you know. Carroll Gibbons I believe his name is….”
That was in the days when Carroll was striving to make a name for himself.
Elsie and Carroll used to meet quite often after that party, as they held each other in mutual esteem. Well, now here’s a secret. Even his best friends will admit that Carroll has a “queer” voice. Those melodious deep tones, so very “Southern” are a characteristic. His announcements are fun, but you can’t imagine him as a singer, can you!
Yet it is a fact that Carroll and Elsie not only made gramophone records together, but on at least one of them Carroll sang part of the vocals! Yes, that vocalist is a fine pianist!
Graves later ends his article by teasing
But if you want to hear Elsie in another vocal team, just try to get one of the old copies of a certain Zono record! If you’re lucky, you’ll hear a then unknown singer, a Miss Carlisle, singing with a certain Mr. Gibbons, a new pianist, trying to make a name for himself as a Bing Crosby!
Graves’s article overstates quite a few things, among them the idea that Carroll Gibbons had a very notable vocal part on Zonophone 2815 (his piano playing is audible throughout, of course), but it is still a treat to hear Gibbons’s faint antiphony in “Ya Gotta Know How to Love” and in the song on the reverse side of the record, “My Cutey’s Due at Two-to-Two Today.”
“Ya Gotta Know How to Love” is a Harry Warren tune that is infectious in spite of, or perhaps because of, the simplicity of Bud Green’s lyrics. It does not develop its theme much past the idea contained in the title of the song, namely that in a love relationship, a certain savoir faire is required (with the additional warning that one’s “baby” will be inclined to want expensive things). Elsie Carlisle adopts the persona that she has in many of her early recordings, that of the fetching, frenetic flapper.
Elsie Carlisle sang “Oh, My Bundle of Love”1 at her third recording session, for her third record, accompanied, as she always would be that year, by a 23-year-old Carroll Gibbons on the piano. The composition has a bubbly energy typical of the dance music of its period, and the lyrics express the goofy enthusiasm of a young lover by way of precious, cutesy colloquialisms (e.g. “sweetie-sweet”). For this song, Elsie dons a persona of somewhat mindless ebullience that reminds me of her 1930 version of “Wasn’t It Nice?”; she is the picture of pure, giggly fun. The recording is also a good example of Carroll Gibbons’s developing piano virtuosity (he would not be known as a band leader for another year).
Today we remember Al Bowlly, that unique interwar singer who was perhaps unrivaled in his ability to project vocally a persona of romance and sophistication. On April 16, 1941, Bowlly returned from giving a performance in High Wycombe and stayed up late reading, in spite of an intense Luftwaffe air raid. On the morning of April 17, a German parachute mine that had fallen outside his building exploded, killing him, amongst others. Bowlly was given a funeral at a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London and buried in Hanwell Cemetery in a mass grave for bombing victims.
Al Bowlly and Elsie Carlisle sang a duet of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” in a medley in 1932:
From John Watt’s “Songs from the Shows” (recorded March 7, 1932. Decca K. 645). “My Baby Just Cares for Me” was composed by Walter Donaldson, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. Eddie Cantor made it famous in the film “Whoopee!”
"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.