“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)
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.
“Deep in a Dream.” Words by Eddie De Lange, music by Jimmy Van Heusen (1938). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of George Scott-Wood at Studio 1, Abbey Road, London on February 1, 1939. HMV B.D. 663 mx. OEA7519-1.
In “Deep in a Dream,” the singer depicts herself sitting in a dark room, smoking and getting drowsy as she remembers a lover who is now inaccessible — whether through distance, dissolution of the romance, or death, we do not really know. The lost lover’s descent on a smoke staircase (as described in the lyrics) might suggest a quirky sort of descent from heaven. At any rate, the genuinely dreamy music swells as the memories of happier times are revived (“Awake or asleep, every memory I’ll keep / Deep in a dream of you”). The reverie ends when the cigarette burns the singer’s fingers and wakes her. To my knowledge, while this is one of three Jimmy Van Heusen songs written in 1938-1939 involving dreams1, it is the only one that uses the absence of fire safety as a plot point.
The lyrics of “Deep in a Dream” leave us in the dark as to what has happened between the two lovers. Elsie Carlisle’s interpretation is successful because she evokes the melancholy of the dark, smoky room, only to imbue her dream with a truly ecstatic spirit. She seems content to express alternating strong emotions, rather than to establish some sort of vocal character, as she often does. The anonymous studio band (led by director George Scott-Wood) complements Elsie’s singing nicely, contributing to this decidedly atmospheric piece.
“Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire.” Words by Nixon Grey, music by Nixon Grey and Reg Connelly (1936). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on January 31, 1936. Decca F. 5877 mx. GB7661-1.
Elsie Carlisle – "Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire" (1936)
“Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” was composed by the relatively minor British lyricist Nixon Grey and the great songwriter and producer Reg Connelly (of Campbell and Connelly publishing fame). The title alludes to a childhood nickname for bedtime. As the song explains,
The old wooden hill was the old wooden stair,
And Bedfordshire, a cot, where I knelt to say my pray’r.
Climbing up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,
They were happy, happy days for me.
The lyrics are an adult’s memory of an idyllic childhood, and especially of the joys of riding on “Dad’s” shoulders upstairs to go to sleep; in short, they are perfect treacle, but perhaps suited to the sentimental tastes of their day. One might compare them to “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” but that earlier song is more melodically compelling and has the added bonus of possibly not really being about childhood.
Elsie Carlisle recorded “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” at this her last session with Decca (she would not begin recording with HMV until late 1937, but is clear that she was more than busy broadcasting during that hiatus). She breathes a fair amount of life into the flawed composition, palliating its saccharinity with the appearance of sincerity. Vera Lynn also recorded this song, but her organ accompaniment makes the whole affair seem unnecessarily solemn. Elsie’s studio band can be applauded for their more playful approach to the melody; the overall effect is sweet and light.
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:
In December 1933, the Daily Herald newspaper announced a holiday season contest for its readers: The Daily Herald Dance Tunes Contest. Readers were to pick out 12 dance songs from a list of 28 as their “best programme of dance music.” A group of “experts” would arrive at their own ideal line-up of tunes, and whoever had mailed in a list closest to that of the experts would win a staggering £2,500 (in the event of a tie, the money would be divided evenly among the winners).
As a commercial tie-in, two records were released with selections from each of the 28 songs, one recorded by George Scott-Wood and His Orchestra (“Dance Parade”; Regal Zonophone M.R. 1170), the other dubbed by Decca from records by its various artists (“The Daily Herald Dance Medley”).
I include the second record on my website because of the dub of Elsie Carlise’s “Snowball” (Decca F. 3696). The titles of all the songs are announced before each selection. The artists are not individually credited by the announcer, but their names are listed in a general sort of way on the label. Jack Hylton, Roy Fox, and Lew Stone are on both sides of the label, with the addition of Elsie Carlisle on side A and of Alfredo Campoli, Olive Groves, and the Britannica Piano-Accordion Band on side B. Members of the Facebook Golden Age of British Dance Bands group were kind enough to help me identify the source of each song excerpt:
Isn’t It Heavenly? – Lew Stone and His Band (Decca F. 3630)
Scorecard: 3-8, 10-21, and 23-28 identified by Terry Brown; 1-2 by John Wright; and 9 by Peter Wallace.
The original £2,500 prize was claimed and split in February 1934 by five winners whose ideal dance band programs matched those of the Daily Herald‘s panel of experts. The winning combination?
3. Night and Day 5. The Wedding of Mister Mickey Mouse 6. Lazybones 9. Reflections in the Water 11. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? 12. Dinner at Eight 14. Hold Me 17. We’re in the Money 18. The Last Round-Up 20. Shadow Waltz 22. The Saint Louis Blues 27. Thanks1
The Daily Herald. Friday, February 16, 1934, p. 9. ↩
"The Idol of the Radio." British dance band singer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.