Written by Alexandros Kozák
Not only will public awareness of singers wax and wane with the passing of time, but even their greatness, once established, will be defined according to varying emphases on different parts of their catalogue of songs. It is no different with Elsie Carlisle, whose fame receded with the dwindling popularity of British dance band music and resurged again shortly after her death in 1977. In this essay I aim to contrast what we might call the Elsie playlist of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries with some notably successful recordings of hers that enjoyed considerable attention during her lifetime, in particular two 1934 comedy waltzes, “No, No, a Thousand Times No!” (⦿ Decca F. 5318) and “Home, James, and Don’t Spare the Horses” (⦿ Decca F. 5371).
From 1926 to the end of the Second World War, Elsie Carlisle dominated the British airwaves with her singing, and by 1936 she had achieved the status of favorite female radio singer (according to a poll conducted by Melody Maker). She was prolific in recording music and had turned out 334 record sides by 1941, after which time she continued to broadcast and appear on stage for a few years, but after the war she quickly turned to quietly managing hospitality businesses. For three decades the only new issues of her recordings were the occasional vinyl compilation of Ambrose and His Orchestra and other such things.
The revival of interest in Elsie Carlisle’s music roughly coincides with the airing of Dennis Potter’s BBC television series Pennies from Heaven in 1978, the year after Elsie’s death. Younger generations who did not remember the heyday of Elsie’s public acclaim were introduced, in the form of a quirky but compelling drama, to a wide variety of 1930s British dance band songs, and two of hers were particularly prominent.
In Pennies from Heaven the characters act out an original Dennis Potter teleplay involving a complex romance and a crime story, but they regularly break out into song, not by singing vintage tunes themselves, but by lip-syncing to original recordings of period artists. The first such instance of miming to dance band music occurs when protagonist Arthur Parker, played by the late Bob Hoskins, implausibly channels the voice of Elsie Carlisle. He mimes Elsie’s rendition of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” (from the 1932 Ambrose version) in order to cheer up his wife, to whom he is making his usual, unsuccessful sexual advances. The song resurfaces again in another episode. An Elsie-Ambrose tune is featured when Cheryl Campbell, playing a schoolteacher in the Forest of Dean, begins to read a presumably mournful psalm of David to an assembly of students but immediately begins to mime the 1933 song “You’ve Got Me Crying Again,” also by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocals by Elsie. We have, then, in this television series an extremely limited song selection that reveals to the newcomer to Elsie’s music her melancholy side and her ability to project romantic pathos. It is not a bad introduction to her music, but admittedly it is only two songs.
In 1981 MGM released a movie adaptation of Pennies from Heaven. The story and the song selection are markedly changed, the format being shorter and tighter and the presumed audience more international – the story is now set, in fact, in Chicago, not England. While a fair amount of miming to old music occurs, no one attempts to impersonate Elsie – apparently only Bob Hoskins was deemed sufficiently like her! – whereas the Hollywood production used American comedian Steve Martin to play the protagonist. Elsie’s “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” must have seemed importantly representative of the spirit of the drama to Dennis Potter, however, as we hear it, not only during the title sequence, but also later in the movie at a critical point in the plot development.
The general public was treated the following year to a generous helping of songs from the first third of Elsie’s recording career (1926-1931) in the form of the Academy of Sound and Vision’s (ASV’s) vinyl compilation That’s Love. Just about every variety of Jazz Age ditty is represented, from light romantic stuff (“Pardon Me, Pretty Baby”; “I Like to Do Things for You”; “He’s My Secret Passion”; “I Love My Baby”) to torch songs (e.g. “Crying Myself to Sleep”) to favorite bawdy numbers (“My Handy Man” and the Filmophone version of “My Man O’ War”) 1 to show tunes (“Body and Soul” and “Exactly Like You,” the latter being for me the gateway drug that got me hooked on all things Elsie). There is even an instance of that long-neglected genre, the train song, in the form of “My Cutie’s Due at Two-to-Two.” Someone with a copy of this ASV album could get an idea of the topics of Elsie’s early, pre-Ambrose period and of her dramatic talent of projecting a persona to suit a particular song – she never abandoned her first career of singing on the stage, and her thespian talent is evident in the variety of the characters she impersonates.
In 1984 ASV issued the collection, Listen to the Banned – 20 Risqué Songs of the ‘20s, which has only one Elsie Carlisle song on it, but it is a good one: her recording of “Pu-leeze! Mister Hemingway” (with Ambrose) – in which Elsie pretends to be the object of vexatious amorous pestering. It is only one item in a generous compilation of bawdy songs, and yet I am sure that its inclusion was and continues to be influential. The album is still sold in digital form, and I have had many people mention it to me as the only Elsie Carlisle song they knew, and yet they had a high opinion of it. Even her mere inclusion on a collection of “banned,” risqué songs fixed in the public mind Elsie’s status as an occasionally ribald singer.
These song selections, whether made by writers or movie producers or record publishers, were necessarily limited by format or occasion, and yet the Elsie I see reflected in them is one arguably most attractive to the late-twentieth-century palate: the blonde flapper of the late but all the same “roaring” twenties with her syncopated songs and the crooner of the early Ambrose years. It would be hard to sum up the work of someone who recorded 334 record sides (along with a handful of short musical films) in a selection of say, two songs, but it would be hard to blame Dennis Potter for going with “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” and “You’ve Got Me Crying Again.” And yet two very different songs were chosen for a very momentous occasion of commemorating Elsie Carlisle only seven months before the first episode of Pennies from Heaven aired, in her obituaries:
Elsie Carlisle, who was a notable crooner of the 1930s, has died. Born in Manchester she was an established name by the time she was 16. She appeared in many Royal Command performances, among her song title hits being “No, no, a Thousand Times, No!” and “Little Drummer Boy”. For four years she was partnered by Sam Brown [sic] but they split up in 1935.
The Times, London, September 9, 1977
That her Royal Command Performances should have been mentioned seems fitting, insofar as they were an official recognition of her musical excellence. But of all of the presumably successful songs she recorded, to mention just a farcical comedy waltz and an offbeat martial lullaby might seem perverse. The Times ran its obituary four days after Elsie Carlisle’s apparently very quiet and private passing away in the Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea, but the Glasgow Herald had printed theirs the day after, with very similar career highlights and an identical song choice; no doubt both drew on the same source, perhaps an older editor who remembered the two songs quite fondly.
Now I am not suggesting that they are bad songs; to the contrary, they are very good songs which were recorded by other good singers with some amount of success (“No! No! a Thousand Times No!” having been also recorded by Phyllis Robins and Pat O’Malley and by Leslie Sarony and a female counterpart, and “Little Drummer Boy” having been interpreted also by Phyllis Robins and by Al Bowlly). What am I saying is that the choice of those two songs to represent the musical legacy of Elsie Carlisle gives an utterly different impression of her as a singer than that given by Dennis Potter’s dramas and the ASV albums. The question is whether the obituaries’ playlist is simply oddball, representing antiquated tastes, or whether there is something informatively “authentic” about it.
By the 1930s, the practice of including stiff cards with collectible images on them in packs of cigarettes (to reinforce the packs, but also to encourage buying more packs with the aim of acquiring a full set of cards) was already well established. The heroes and heroines of the British dance band scene, both singers and bandleaders, were mainstay themes of the companies’ artists, and Elsie appeared often. Two noteworthy appearances on cigarette cards were in 1934 and 1935. We should imagine how great a star she was by this point. She was already a popular actress when she started radio broadcasts in 1926. She made television appearances from 1930 onwards, for they had television then, although the innovative but crude Baird systems, with their whirring discs and quivering luminous vertical lines, would not have done justice to Elsie’s beauty. In 1931 she appeared on film for British Pathé, and again in 1933 in “Radio Parade.” By 1934 Elsie was not just the sweetheart of BBC radio listeners but a singer on the first commercial radio station – I should not say “in Britain,” for it was most decidedly not in Britain, but rather outside the BBC’s monopoly but within the reach of radio waves – Radio Luxembourg, in some ways the precursor to the famed pirate radio of later decades.
A Wills’s cigarette card dating from late 1934 says on its reverse:
Elsie Carlisle is a Lancashire girl. She was singing and dancing at concerts in Manchester when she was six, and at twelve was a box office draw in her first revue. Four years later she was a “topliner” in advertisements – to-day she is one of the best known radio celebrities.
Her first appearance “on the air” was in a variety programme in 1927. It is said that a B.B.C. official heard her speak at a luncheon and, struck by her voice, asked her to sing before the microphone; she has been broadcasting ever since. Her greatest successes are probably No, No, a Thousand Times, No! and Home, James and Don’t Spare the Horses.
The writer is wrong about the date 1927, but is he wrong about her greatest successes? Two comedy waltzes recorded with Ambrose and His Orchestra, one of them the favorite of the future obituary writers.
In 1935 another fetching picture of Elsie appeared on an Ardath cigarette card, this time really heaping on the praise:
“The girl with the marvellous microphone voice” – that is how the critics describe Elsie Carlisle; they also say that she has more “IT” in her voice than any other radio star. Long before she was twenty she was a “top-liner” and a box-office draw, and is now one of the most popular of wireless entertainers. All her songs catch the public’s imagination, but she thinks the most popular are No, No, a Thousand Times, No! and Home, James, and don’t spare the horses!
This time the assertion that the two songs were particularly popular is attributed to Elsie herself! It is quite possible that she said something of the sort to a member of the press; she had recorded both near the end of 1934 with Ambrose and they doubtless enjoyed great success.
In the months leading up to their recording, Elsie had committed to shellac a great number of striking songs: a version of “Deep Water” with Oscar Rabin, “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” with Ambrose, “A Place in Your Heart,” the beautiful and gut-wrenching “The Spring Don’t Mean a Thing” – I’m being quite selective and subjective in my choice of examples here.
I have called “No, No, a Thousand Times, No” a comedy waltz, and it is precisely that, but it is also a farcical melodrama recalling productions of the late nineteenth century, with their mustachioed villains tying young women to railroad tracks. The comedy derives largely from Sam Browne and Elsie’s overacting, their ridiculously excessive enunciation in silly voices, and their mock-inept declaiming of their lines. Indeed, they often seem to be shouting rather than singing; the effect is comically dramatic but not very musical. But there is the waltz rhythm and the repetition; one can see how the song could mesmerizingly linger in the public memory and how easy it would be to quote its title in all manner of contexts. Indeed, a quick search of newspaper archives will turn up countless obvious allusions to its title in the decade after its recording.
In the mid ‘30s half of the references involve Sam and Elsie – never the other recording artists known to have performed it, not even Betty Boop, who sings it in a May 1934 short film – and the other citations do not refer to any specific performers.
“No, No” was recorded at a time when Sam Browne and Elsie Carlisle duets were particularly popular, and I would note that others are occasionally more dramatic and less musical than one would expect from two sublime singers. Their delightful “Mr. Magician,” recorded in June 1934, involves Sam as a carnival magician booming out – not singing – prophetic pretensions, while Elsie fetchingly sings the refrain “But hocus pocus, Mr. Magician – Won’t you bring my honey back to me?”, “No, No a Thousand Times, No”and as its flip side “I’m Gonna Wash My Hands of you,” which involves as many snarled accusations as it does sung notes; it is a foxtrot of vituperation.
The other song mentioned by the two cigarette cards, “Home, James, and Don’t Spare the Horses,” is another “Comedy Valse,” as the record label has it. The title is a hackneyed expression of urgency that appears to date back to the mid-nineteenth century, but written occurrences of it skyrocketed after Elsie’s recording it with Ambrose and His Orchestra in December 1934 (Decca, etc.). Like “No, No” this song is set in an earlier era, “in the gay ‘nineties.” Elsie basically tells a funny story about a classy lady rebuffing a lover who has paid too much attention to other women. “Home, James, and Don’t Spare the Horses!” she declares at various points as she dashes off in anger. Elsie’s recitative is delivered in a posh accent and many r’s are trilled as she explains that her heroine and her driver (“James,” presumably) took turns giving the penurious former lover “a boot in the rear”; she reflects on the aftereffects of that treatment in a very funny way.
This sort of high-society narrative appears to have been a popular musical form the next year, and Elsie would go on to sing Cole Porter’s “Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby,” which is the recitation of a travesty thank-you letter from one member of the smart set to another, and “Algernon Whifflesnoop John,” in which Elsie describes the life of someone ridiculously blue-blooded in a hilariously pretentious way. There must have been a market for this sort of song that year, and “Home, James,” with its waltz rhythm, catch title phrase, and Elsie’s delightful singing, had no reason not to be a success, and indeed, it must have been, as it appears again in a December 1937 “Carlisle Medley” (⦿ HMV BD 476) along with “No, No, a Thousand Times, No!” and a number of other hit songs of that period in Elsie’s career.
This alternate collection of songs that were once very popular but which are perhaps less attractive to many twenty-first- century listeners includes numbers in which drama, particularly of the parodic and farcical variety, is the dominant element. We must never rule out the role that radio, rather than records, played in forming the public estimation of Elsie’s musical excellence.
People would not have heard “Pu-leeze! Mister Hemingway!” on the radio, for it was too risqué to be played on the BBC under the prudish Lord Reith. The comedy waltzes, on the other hand, have a more innocent, screwball quality about them, and it is clear that they were played on the radio often.
What I have attempted to do is to discern in the obituaries, but even more in the reverse sides of the cigarette cards, what we might think of as a different sort of Elsie Carlisle playlist. As someone who writes frequently about Elsie, I find it both edifying and aesthetically liberating to discover not just tunes that I have not heard before but also different criteria with which to judge her music. There is nothing necessarily more valid about old assertions about her top hits, but it is historically interesting to consider why a particular sort of song was so popular eighty years ago, and I find that my own criteria for a “good” Elsie song become more nuanced in the process. That said, I’ll be surprised if anyone ever convinces me to like “Calliope Jane.” “Ploop, ploop!” indeed!
1 See, the Discographer Magazine; Number 6 – June 2014; Page 8 for an essay on Elsie Carlisle’s recording of “My Man o’ War”
“No, No, a Thousand Times, No!” – http://www.elsiecarlisle.com/no-no-a-thousand-times-no-1934
KEY: ⦿ 78rpm