“I Have No Words” (1930)

“I Have No Words.” Composed by W. Desmond Carter (words) and Arthur Schwartz (music) for the London stage musical Little Tommy Tucker (1930). Recorded in London on October 23, 1930 by Percival Mackey and His Band with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Columbia CB-168 mx. WA-10819-2.

Personnel: Percival Mackey dir. Jack Jackson-Andy Richardson-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Chester Smith-another?-cl-as / George Smith-ts / Dave Fish-vn / Pat Dodd-p / Bob Martin-bj-g / Jim Bellamy-bb-sb / Bill Harty-d / Maurice Elwin-v

Percival Mackey and His Band – “I Have No Words” (1930)
(Transfer by Henry Parsons)

Percival Mackey’s “I Have No Words,” like its reverse side (“Let’s Be Sentimental”), derives from the London stage show Little Tommy Tucker, a comedy of errors that was not particularly successful. The song did not make it into the movie version (Out of the Blue), so I have no way of telling which character sang it or what the context was, but no matter. “I Have No Words” is a musically compelling love song with light, witty lyrics by Desmond Carter that have been called “nonchalantly sophisticated” and “flippantly unsentimental.”[1]Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. New York: Oxford University Press.

Percival Mackey’s version of the song has a very stylish arrangement, quick and upbeat. Maurice Elwin delivers the vocal refrain in a somewhat deadpan way, as if not in on the fact that the lyrics are incredibly silly. As in so many other comical vocals, Elwin plays the straight man; his seriousness or earnestness is the source of the humor. There is, perhaps, also a level on which Elwin’s smooth, sweet delivery rescues the lyric from being merely comical. I do not think that would have been possible if other excerpts from the original lyrics had been included:

I would beg for you,
Break a leg for you,
Lay an egg for you...[2]Ibid.

As usual, producing a first-rate recording of this sort is the work not only of a band and its vocalist but of the arranger, who, among other things, decides which short excerpt from a song to use as the vocal refrain.

The other British dance band treatments of “I Have No Words” occur only in medleys. The New Mayfair Dance Orchestra had recorded a purely instrumental medley (it literally had no words) three days before the Percival Mackey recording. On November 1, The Million-Airs (under Arthur Lally’s direction) would release one that had Maurice Elwin once again singing a snippet of “I Have No Words.”

While there are very few recordings, then, of “I Have No Words” per se, there are many of its basic melody. Immediately after working with Desmond Carter to set the lyrics of “I Have No Words” to music, composer Arthur Schwartz would turn to Howard Dietz to write new lyrics, producing the song “Something to Remember You By,” which was introduced on Broadway by Libby Holman in Three’s a Crowd (1930). Both Holman and Helen Morgan committed memorable versions of the song to shellac that year, and it has continued to be recorded every few years since and been featured in many movies.

It is interesting to note that “I Have No Words” had little staying power, while “Something to Remember You By” — fundamentally the same tune — has been so favored by musicians and audiences over the course of nearly a century. Composer and musicologist Alec Wilder was unaware of the melody’s origin in Little Tommy Tucker but had heard what he thought was an “unsubstantiated story” that an original version of “Something to Remember You By” had been sung “at least twice as fast as its later version.”[3]Alec Wilder. American Popular Song: The Great Innovators (1900-1950). Kindle location 4031. Wilder praised the decision to slow it down as having been “fortunate for all lovers of good song.”[4]Ibid., Kindle location 4035.

This is a rare case where I cannot agree with Wilder or, apparently, popular taste. To me, the slow pace of “Something to Remember You By” makes it treacly, and its lyrics seem hackneyed. Percival Mackey’s “I Have No Words” with its Maurice Elwin vocal will always stand out as an excellent example of how the original concept could be executed successfully.

References

References
1 Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. New York: Oxford University Press.
2 Ibid.
3 Alec Wilder. American Popular Song: The Great Innovators (1900-1950). Kindle location 4031.
4 Ibid., Kindle location 4035.

“Let’s Be Sentimental” (1930)

“Let’s Be Sentimental.” Lyrics by Desmond Carter, music by Vivian Ellis (1930). Recorded in London on October 23, 1930 by Percival Mackey and His Band with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Columbia CB-168 mx. WA-10818-2.

Personnel: Percival Mackey dir. Jack Jackson-Andy Richardson-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Chester Smith-another?-cl-as / George Smith-ts / Dave Fish-vn / Pat Dodd-p / Bob Martin-bj-g / Jim Bellamy-bb-sb / Billy Harty-d / Maurice Elwin-v

Percival Mackey and His Band – “Let’s Be Sentimental” (1930)
(Transfer by Henry Parsons)

“Let’s Be Sentimental” is, like many British dance band tunes, a delightful by-product of a not very successful London show. Little Tommy Tucker is the story of one Thomasina (“Tommy”) Tucker, the daughter of an impoverished baronet, who has to — you guessed it — “sing for her supper.” The man she has fallen in love with is betrothed to her sister. He does not love the sister, but his best friend does. Trying to get away from it all, Tommy ends up in Biarritz, impersonating a singer who has herself been pretending to be an exiled Russian princess. This is a comedy of errors reminiscent of the P. G. Wodehouse Blandings novels, insofar as several of the characters are always confused as to the others’ identities.

Little Tommy Tucker toured for six weeks, was partially recast and rewritten, and then lasted only two and a half months on the London stage.[1]London Musicals (1930-1934). Over the Footlights. In spite of this lackluster performance, Pathé would release a film version the next year, although it used only two of the songs and renamed it Out of the Blue, after one of the songs. “Let’s Be Sentimental” is the other, and it is sung by Gene Gerard and Jessie Matthews.

The lyrics concern the supposed necessity of going through commonplace romantic gestures if romance is to succeed. There is some clever wordplay, but it is the tune that is truly daring. In each verse the melody gradually rises, then falls a fifth abruptly, rises a fifth, falls a fifth, and then rises and falls a third time. That pattern is likely to throw off a less than competent singer, and even then, there is the risk of sounding like a police siren. Composer Vivian Ellis must have liked the effect, as he used a toned-down version of it in “I’m on a See-Saw” in Jill Darling (1934).[2]My thanks to Julian Dyer for pointing out the resemblance.

Percival Mackey must have felt bullish about Maurice Elwin, as it is the latter who introduces the unusual melody, and not the instrumentalists. By contrast, in the Jack Hylton version of “Let’s Be Sentimental,” first-rate vocalist Pat O’Malley comes in comparatively late in the recording.[3]The third British dance band appearance of “Let’s Be Sentimental” is in a New Mayfair Dance Orchestra medley, which may be heard on John Wright’s British Dance Band Show No. … Continue reading It is my overall impression that Elwin leads with the vocals somewhat more often than other singers — I shall have to substantiate that claim over time — and I suspect that, if I am right, it is because he is reliably interesting without upstaging the band. There is little risk of doing that here, though: Percival Mackey’s band is at its most elegant in this piece, successfully executing the clever arrangement that puts foregrounded saxophones and violins in antiphonal conversation with muted brass.[4]My thanks to Terry Brown and Henry Parsons for their comments on the arrangement.

References

References
1 London Musicals (1930-1934). Over the Footlights.
2 My thanks to Julian Dyer for pointing out the resemblance.
3 The third British dance band appearance of “Let’s Be Sentimental” is in a New Mayfair Dance Orchestra medley, which may be heard on John Wright’s British Dance Band Show No. 274.
4 My thanks to Terry Brown and Henry Parsons for their comments on the arrangement.

“I’ll Be the Same” (1930)

“I’ll Be the Same.” Composed by Jack Strachey. Recorded in London on June 5, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1814 mx. MB-1458-2.

Personnel: Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar dir. probably Norman Payne-Bill Shakespeare-t / Jock Fleming or Ted Heath-tb / Danny Polo-cl-as / Joe Jeanette-cl-ts / Claude Ivy-p / Joe Brannely-bj / Spike Hughes-sb / Bill Harty-d / Rudy Starita-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-v

The Rhythm Maniacs (v. Maurice Elwin) – “I’ll Be the Same” (1930)

I like to delve into songs’ origins, whether they be in London theater, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood, or elsewhere. Decca F-1814 presents a bit of a puzzle in this regard. The songwriter “Strachey” mentioned on its label would appear to be Jack Strachey, who wrote music for the theater and the music hall. His compositions would eventually see a fair amount of success; in later years he collaborated on the hits “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” And yet Decca F-1814 seems to have the only known recordings of “I’ll Be the Same” and “Tell Me Over Again.” This one record is the sole testament that I can find to the songs’ ever having been written, which is strange, as they are both rather beautiful.

The title phrase “I’ll Be the Same” might at first appear to be an impossible pledge on the part of the singer never to change, advance, or decline (“You may alter; / I’ll be the same”). We gradually learn that he is actually promising fidelity in the face of inconstancy on the part of the song’s addressee. The song’s bittersweet theme is nicely expressed by the contrast between Maurice Elwin’s almost solemn interpretation of the lyrics and the exuberant instrumentals, which seem almost modern in their sensibility (and perhaps even in their volume level).

We should expect to see contrasts of this sort frequently when bandleader Arthur Lally uses Elwin as his vocalist. Elwin had the lion’s share of Lally vocals from 1929-1932, and sometimes his ability to sound serious and old-fashioned is comically juxtaposed with something silly and modern, such as Jack Jackson’s scatting. But in “I’ll Be the Same,” a tone of sincerity is actually called for thematically, and Elwin’s delivery of the vocal refrain makes this stylishly elegant recording surprisingly moving as well.

“How’s Your Uncle?” (1931)

“How’s Your Uncle?” Lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Jimmy McHugh; composed for Shoot the Works (1931). Recorded in the Kingsway Hall, London c. October 23, 1931 by the Orpheus Dance Band under the musical direction of John Firman with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Zonophone 5987.

Personnel: John Firman dir. Max Goldberg-t / cl-as / cl-as-bar / cl-ts / ?Bert Read-p-cel / pac / Joe Brannelly-bj-g / Billy Bell-bb / Rudy Starita-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-v / Charles Saxby-or

Orpheus Dance Band – “How’s Your Uncle?” (1931) (Andy LeMaitre)

“How’s Your Uncle?” is a song deriving from the 1931 American revue Shoot the Works! (a slang expression referring to placing all of one’s money on a single bet). The show had been arranged as a way of providing temporary work for actors unemployed due to the Great Depression. The illustrious contributors to the revue (including “How’s Your Uncle?” songwriters Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh) did not charge royalties for their work; instead, as much money as possible went to the cast.

Now, a revue involves singing, dancing, and sketch comedy, and the individual acts are held together by minimal, flimsy, or even no unifying narrative; the audience, including the reviewers, would not have expected much of a plot. In spite of those low expectations, apparently Shoot the Works! still lacked something important. New Yorker reviewer S. Finney wrote that it “had been put together with string,” and in spite of constant rewriting, it closed after only nine weeks.[1]Dan Dietz, The Complete Book of 1930s Broadway Musicals, Washington, DC: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, 138-140.

Fortunately, the failure of a revue does not vitiate its constituent parts, and “How’s Your Uncle?” saw great success with recording artists. The song’s lyrics consist of the sort of small talk (e.g. “How’s your uncle? How’s your auntie?”) that might lead up to a more important question (“And incidentally, baby, how are you?”). The questions about the more pedestrian aspects of life always precede the theme of love:

How's the cooking
And the washing
And the plumbing coming along?
Is the coffee
That you're making
Just as strong as your love for me?

The sing-song tune is catchy and perfectly suited to up-beat dance band arrangements.

The arrangement used by the Zonophone house orchestra, the Orpheus Dance Band, is particularly delightful, especially considering the interplay between the band and the organ played by Charles W. Saxby. There is also a wonderful sense of space in this recording. The echo that can be heard in Zonophone recordings made in Kingsway Hall is the polar opposite of the acoustically dead studios used by Decca in its otherwise excellent early recordings.

Maurice Elwin had been the Zonophone bands’ main vocalist since late 1927, so we should not be surprised to find him singing the refrain in “How’s Your Uncle?” He does seem perfectly suited for this song about the pedestrian sort of banter that people bury their real feelings in. Elwin’s approach to interpreting lyrics is famously understated, so to the extent that the song is a joke, Elwin could be said to be delivering it deadpan. He does alter his tone slightly when alluding to his love for the song’s addressee (and while asking after “the brother [he] could smother”), but for the most part he sounds like any one of us does when beating around the bush. The vocal refrain is subtly comical and contributes to the success of the whole recording.

Some American versions of “How’s Your Uncle” that were recorded while Shoot the Works! was still on stage were those of the Jesse Stafford Orchestra (v. Paul Small), the Troubadours (directed by Nat Shilkret, with vocalist Chick Bullock), and Fred “Sugar” Hall and His Sugar Babies (v. Arthur Fields).

Other British dance bands who recorded “How’s Your Uncle” in 1931 were Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (v. Cavan O’Connor), Jerry Hoey and His Band (v. Les Allen and unknown person), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), the Filmophone House Band (v. Sam Browne), and Bidgood’s Good Boys (v. Tom Barratt).

References

References
1 Dan Dietz, The Complete Book of 1930s Broadway Musicals, Washington, DC: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, 138-140.

Jonathan Holmes Interview

People who read my website are likely to be familiar with my good friend Jonathan Holmes, whose journalism, general music advocacy, and YouTube channel have made him almost synonymous with British dance band music:

Jonathan Holmes
Jonathan Holmes

Jonathan interviewed me yesterday for his “British Dance Music Programme.” We played Elsie Carlisle songs, discussed her art, life, and career, and chatted about the elsiecarlisle.com website that I’ve been running for the past seven years. We also talked a little about Maurice Elwin and my plans for this website. The interview will be broadcast several times tomorrow, Friday, February 26, on Phonotone Classic. Check  out their website to tune in; I should be on at

2 a.m. (PST)6 a.m. (PST)10 a.m. (PST)2 p.m. (PST)6 p.m. (PST)10 p.m. (PST)
phonotoneclassic.com
British Dance Band Programme 116 (Interview With Alex Kozak)

“You’re Mine, You” (1933)

“You’re Mine, You.” Words by Edward Heyman, music by Johnny Green (1933). Recorded in London on May 25, 1933 by Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans with vocals by Maurice Elwin. Columbia CB-620.

Personnel: Carroll Gibbons-p dir. Bill Shakespeare-Billy Higgs-t / Arthur Fenoulhet-t-tb / Paul Fenoulhet-tb / Sam Acres-tb / George Melachrino-cl-as-vn / Laurie Payne-cl-as-bar / George Smith-ts / Ben Frankel-vn / Sid Bright-2nd p / Harry Sherman-g / Jack Evetts-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-v / Stanley Andrews-a

Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (v. Maurice Elwin)
“You’re Mine, You” (1933)
(Transfer by Charles Hippisley-Cox)

I usually think of Maurice Elwin’s vocal personas as being so wholesome that I am almost surprised to hear him sing the lyrics of “You’re Mine, You”:

I own you:
I don't need to buy love;
You're a slave to my love.
In every way, you're mine.

Elwin sings these words with a surprising intensity. I am also struck by how well he sings the higher notes. He has some of the smoothness that I associate with his friend Jack Plant, but Elwin’s voice is less stylized and thus potentially more relatable. I have to admit that the first time I heard his voice, I thought he sounded like a bemused Sunday school teacher, but here he proves that he can evoke a sense of romantic passion and make it sound genuine.

One cannot write about “You’re Mine, You” without mentioning Al Bowlly’s recording of it with Ray Noble and His Orchestra. There is not much reason to think of Elwin’s version as having influenced Al Bowlly; the latter is unlikely to have heard it before recording the song himself. I find absolutely nothing lacking in Al Bowlly’s rendition of “You’re Mine, You”; it is one of his best songs. I think it is therefore great praise to say that, compared to Bowlly, Elwin holds his own. We know that Elwin himself had the highest regard for Bowlly’s talent and praised him publicly in the most admirable terms.[1]Maurice Elwin, “We Should Not Let Al Bowlly Go!” Rhythm, October 1934. Many thanks to Terry Brown for sharing this article with me.

“You’re Mine, You” was recorded in America in 1933 by Gertrude Niesen and by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians (v. Carmen Lombardo). In Britain, in addition to the Ray Noble/Al Bowlly recording, versions were made by Howard Flynn and His Orchestra (v. Bobby Sanders), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Pat O’Malley), and Syd Lipton’s New Grosvenor House Band (v. Cyril Grantham).

References

References
1 Maurice Elwin, “We Should Not Let Al Bowlly Go!” Rhythm, October 1934. Many thanks to Terry Brown for sharing this article with me.

“Short an’ Sweet” (1927)

“Short an’ Sweet.” Words by Billy Tracey and Sam Ehrlich, music by Dan Dougherty (1926). Recorded in Studio B, Hayes, Middlesex on October 20, 1927 by the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band under the musical direction of Bert Firman with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Zonophone 5033.

Personnel: Bert Firman-vn dir. Frank Guarente-another-t / ?Ben Oakley-tb / ?Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar / as / ?Bill Barton-ts / John Firman-p-cel / Jack Simmons-bj / ?Billy Bell-bb / Jack Trebble-d / Maurice Elwin-v

The Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band (dir. Bert Firman; v. Maurice Elwin)
“Short an’ Sweet” (1927)
(Transfer by John Wright)

In the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band version of “Short an’ Sweet,” Maurice Elwin gushes about a diminutive woman that he is in love with. The lyrics themselves are about as cute as their “eeny-meeny-teeny-weeny” subject, and Elwin effervesces with enthusiasm that almost seems to give rise to the hot instrumental segment. I was happy to see that Rust lists this song not only in his dance band discography, but also in his jazz book.[1]Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes, British Dance Bands on Record, 1911 to 1945, and Supplement, Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, Ltd., 1989, 230; Brian Rust, Jazz and Ragtime Records 1897-1942, Sixth … Continue reading

Near the end of the song, Elwin returns abruptly to reveal something more about his motivation in pursuing his love interest:

Lovely ma,
Wealthy pa,
Bank account and a great big car,
She's as sweet as she can be.

It turns out that the little lady is wealthy. Elwin rattles off these lines quickly and does not sing the rest of the verse, highlighting the joke.

“Short an’ Sweet” is thus a predecessor to the Coon-Sanders song “Got a Great Big Date with a Little Bitta Girl” (1929), in which Joe Sanders expresses excitement about a “little bitty[2]He never does say “bitta,” does he? And yet that is what is on the label. girl,” only to reveal that he finds her ugly — but she is rich. At least “Short an’ Sweet” has Elwin merely expressing two different reasons to be attracted to a woman. The song is funny, and Elwin’s vocals complement the band nicely.

I am so used to seeing a bewildering number of band names attached to what appears to have been one Zonophone studio band directed at various times by Bert or John Firman that I had written off the individual band names as mere marketing gimmicks, but it turns out that in 1926-1927, Bert Firman really did direct music at the Devonshire Restaurant in Piccadilly (and so presumably had acquired the legal right to use its name commercially).[3]John A. B. Wright. “Short ’n Sweet.” The British Dance Band Show 377 (May 25, 2018 – June 8, 2018). It would appear that the restaurant band’s personnel overlapped quite a bit with the studio personnel in this recording.[4]Chris Hayes, Dance Band Diaries from the Melody Maker 2 (1927): 2.

The only other version I could find of “Short an’ Sweet” was one by American Jay C. Flippen and His Gang. The composer, Dan Dougherty, would go on to write the music for the song “Moanin’ for You” (1929).

References

References
1 Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes, British Dance Bands on Record, 1911 to 1945, and Supplement, Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, Ltd., 1989, 230; Brian Rust, Jazz and Ragtime Records 1897-1942, Sixth Edition, Free Personal-Use Edition, Littleton, Colorado: Mainspring Press, 2016, 442, https://78records.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/rust_jazz-records_free-edition-6.pdf.
2 He never does say “bitta,” does he? And yet that is what is on the label.
3 John A. B. Wright. “Short ’n Sweet.” The British Dance Band Show 377 (May 25, 2018 – June 8, 2018).
4 Chris Hayes, Dance Band Diaries from the Melody Maker 2 (1927): 2.

“I Fell for You” (1930)

“I Fell for You.” Composed by Rowland Leigh (words) and William Walker (music) for Charlot’s Masquerade (1930). Recorded in London on October 4, 1930 by Percival Mackey and His Band with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Columbia CB-145 mx. WA-10736-2.

Personnel: Percival Mackey dir. Jack Jackson-Andy Richardson-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Chester Smith-another?-cl-as / George Smith-ts / Dave Fish-vn / Pat Dodd-p / Bob Martin-bj-g / Jim Bellamy-bb-sb / Bill Harty-d / Maurice Elwin-v

Percival Mackey and His Band (v. Maurice Elwin) – “I Fell for You” (1930)

Percival Mackey’s version of “I Fell for You,” with its Maurice Elwin vocal refrain, starts out in a most impressive, stately fashion, and until we hear the lyric, it does not sound ridiculous in the slightest. Like “Who Cares?” “I Fell for You” comes from André Charlot’s sophisticated, short-lived Charlot’s Masquerade (1930) and has the same lyricist, Rowland Leigh. The song was introduced on stage by actors Constance Carpenter and Patrick Waddington, and we are fortunate to have a record of Waddington himself singing it to the piano accompaniment of Peggy Cochrane and William Walker (the song’s composer). The complete song is very witty, but I think the funniest lyrics have been fully preserved in the arrangement that Percival Mackey uses:

I fell like an apple from an apple tree,
I fell like a Dutchman in the Zuiderzee,
I fell like a Scotsman falls for £sd
On the day I fell for you.

(As an American, I had to think a little bit when I first heard that verse. “Ell-ess-DEE” refers to the symbols for pounds, shillings, and pence, and not the popular hallucinogenic drug, and Scotsmen were once reputed to be thrifty, if not stingy or miserly. Apparently Maurice Elwin, a Scot himself, was being a good sport that day.)

The lyrics continue in that vein, using bathetic similes involving falling, literally or metaphorically, to describe the act of falling in love. Elwin seems to be doing something comparable to telling a joke with a completely straight face; he sounds earnest, as if he does not know in the slightest how silly he sounds. He is all enthusiasm and warmth.

Another British dance band version recorded of “I Fell For You” in 1930 was that of Jack Leon (v. Jack Plant). Ray Noble had recorded an instrumental version of it in a medley of songs from Charlot’s Masquerade.

“Try a Little Tenderness” (1932)

“Try a Little Tenderness.” Composed by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Harry Woods (1932). Recorded in London on December 1, 1932 by Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans with vocalists Maurice Elwin and the Carlyle Cousins. Columbia CB-546.

Personnel: Carroll Gibbons-p dir. Bill Shakespeare-Billy Higgs-t / Arthur Fenoulhet-t-tb / Paul Fenoulhet-tb / Sam Acres-tb / George Melachrino-cl-as-vn / Laurie Payne-cl-as-bar / George Smith-ts / Ben Frankel-vn / Sid Bright-2nd p / Harry Sherman-g / Jack Evetts-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-The Carlyle Cousins (Cecile Petrie-Pauline Lister-Irene Taylor)-v

Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans – “Try a Little Tenderness” (1932)
(Courtesy of Charles Hippisley-Cox)

Some musical compositions have inherent flaws, while others, as a result of their success, acquire unpleasant associations over time. I would argue that “Try a Little Tenderness” actually falls into both categories. By making overly general psychological observations about women, it risks sounding patronizing and heavy-handed. Moreover, there is something about the tune and the lyrics that encourage saccharine performances.

Some renditions appear to be more than a little aware of the song’s cloying tendencies. I think particularly of the intentionally awkward title sequence of Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, in which a rather syrupy instrumental version of the tune is played over images of a nuclear bomber being fueled by another plane’s flying boom in a manner inviting Freudian interpretation. Then there is the 1958 recording of Dragnet star Jack Webb speaking the lyrics in his trademark stiff, dead way over overproduced orchestral music (by way of a joke, presumably, although it is not clear that Webb himself was in on it). These sorts of offbeat uses of a tune can be very entertaining, but they can also forever ruin our ability to enjoy it unironically.

Carroll Gibbons’s 1932 version of “Try a Little Tenderness” rescues the song for me, serving as a sort of musical palate cleanser and reminding me of what was good about the original composition. The whole recording is imbued with the elegance one expects from the Savoy Hotel Orpheans, and Maurice Elwin is exactly the right singer to deliver the song’s prescriptions for harmonious human behavior. His tone of sincerity and sympathy brings out what is admirable in the lyrics, and the alternation between his voice and those of the Carlyle Cousins is sweet, light, and playful.

Other British dance bands who recorded “Try a Little Tenderness” in 1932-1933 were Jack Payne and His Band (v. Jack Payne), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (v. Val Rosing), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Pat O’Malley), Billy Cotton (rejected by Regal Zonophone), and Syd Roy and His R.K.O.lians (v. Sam Browne), and Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band (v. Sam Browne; on Sterno and 4 in 1).

The Carlyle Cousins (depicted on a Wills’s cigarette card)

“Jus’ Keepin’ On” (1930)

There is a curious relationship between Maurice Elwin, the Rhythm Maniacs, and the odd, forgotten song “Jus’ Keepin’ On.” The Rhythm Maniacs are the only musicians I have identified who recorded it. What is more, they recorded it at three different sessions, each time giving Maurice Elwin more time to vocally express its bizarre, plodding themes of exhaustion and resignation.

“Pantomime Hits — Selection — Part 1” (Intro. “Jericho” / “You’re My Silver Lining of Love” / “Jus’ Keepin’ On”). Recorded in Chelsea, London on November 27, 1929 by Philip Lewis and His Orchestra (a.k.a. the Rhythm Maniacs) under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1585.

Personnel: Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar dir. Sylvester Ahola-Dennis Ratcliffe-t / Ted Heath-tb / Danny Polo-cl-as / Johnny Helfer or Joe Crossman-cl-ts / Claude Ivy-p / Joe Brannelly-bj / Tiny Stock-bb / Max Bacon-d-vib / Maurice Elwin-v

Philip Lewis and His Orchestra (a.k.a the Rhythm Maniacs; v. Maurice Elwin)
“Pantomime Hits — Selection — Part 1” (1929)
(Transfer by John Wright)

The first recording was on November 27, 1929, where “Jus’ Keepin’ On” was the last element in the issued medley “Pantomime Hits — Selection, Part 1.” It is worth noting that Elwin sings the lyric conventionally, sticking to the melody. His voice is soft and he sounds slightly weary, but there is nothing resembling overacting going on.

On December 16, the Rhythm Maniacs would record two rejected takes of the whole song. It is worth noting that in take 1 Maurice Elwin sings a fairly straight version of the tune before launching into a declamation about halfway through the song that is intoned, not sung. The last third of the first take is a fairly uninspired instrumental treatment of the refrain.

“Jus’ Keepin’ On.” Composed by Alexander Phillips (a.k.a. Van Phillips). Recorded in Chelsea, London on January 16, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocals by Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1586 mx. MB-765-3.

Personnel: Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar dir. Sylvester Ahola-Dennis Ratcliffe-t / Danny Polo-cl-as / Joe Jeannette-cl-ts / Claude Ivy-p / Joe Brannelly-bj / Tiny Stock-bb / Max Bacon-d-vib / Maurice Elwin-v

The Rhythm Maniacs – “Jus’ Keepin’ On” (1930)
(Transfer by Henry Parsons)

The issued third take (recorded on January 16, 1930) has Elwin very much in the foreground for almost the entire recording. If he was ever at risk of being a little histrionic, he is here in this remarkable recording (although perhaps we should reserve a place of honor for “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues”). He sings, declaims, and sings again, dominating almost the entire booming, high-gain early Decca recording. I have the feeling that Arthur Lally must have come to the realization that the underlying composition was not really all that good, but that it would be incredibly funny to have a normally subtle vocalist bellow it out. By having Elwin ham it up a bit for comic effect, Lally (presumably) rescued what would otherwise be a rather wearying song about weariness.

I should add that, vis-à-vis declaiming lyrics in place of singing them, there is a reason we might lump Elwin’s performance in the Rhythm Maniacs’ “Jus’ Keepin’ On” together his two interpretations of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues.” It would appear that Elwin went through a phase of imitating Ted Lewis, who introduced the latter song, and who, being a poor singer, was prone simply to speak lyrics, often in an odd, sentimental way, with slight diversions and repetitions. I hear Maurice Elwin doing the same in many of his solo Zonophone and Decca recordings of this period. I look forward to eventually sharing some of them on this website.