"What Is This Thing Called Love?" featured image. Dominion A. 125 label.

“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.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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