All posts by A. G. Kozak

“Nobody’s Using It Now” (1930)

“Nobody’s Using It Now.” Words by Clifford Grey, music by Victor Schertzinger. Composed for the film The Love Parade (1929). Recorded in London on March 31, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1716 mx. MB-1136-2.

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

The Rhythm Maniacs (v. Maurice Elwin) – “Nobody’s Using It Now” (1930)

“Nobody’s Using It Now” is but one of several memorable numbers from the musical comedy The Love Parade, Ernst Lubitsch’s first sound film. In the movie, Maurice Chevalier plays a military officer in Sylvania, a Ruritanian state located somewhere in Europe. He becomes prince consort to the queen — “a husband, and nothing else” — his nights busy and his days empty. Bereft of self-respect, the boyish, sexy Chevalier sings to the queen’s dog about how he would like a position of greater responsibility, although comically he keeps appealing to his talents in the bedroom as relevant qualifications. “[He’s] just wasting [his] youth,” he complains, “’cause nobody’s using it now.” As is the case with many Broadway and Hollywood tunes, if you take “Nobody’s Using It Now” out of its original context, its lyrics constitute a generic love song — the singer sounds merely lonely, not bored and disrespected like Chevalier.

In the Rhythm Maniacs’ version of “Nobody’s Using It Now,” Maurice Elwin gets a mere 25 seconds to sing the vocal refrain, but it is nonetheless memorable for its boldness. Particularly noteworthy is his ascent into his upper register with “no, no, no, NO!” It puts Elwin’s performance into the same comical territory as Chevalier’s original (the latter goes implausibly low in his intro). Elwin’s quickly delivered vocal at the beginning of the recording sets the fast pace for this up-tempo and loud early Decca recording, whose arrangement is infectiously catchy.

There were many medleys inspired by The Love Parade and Maurice Chevalier’s singing in general, and the Rhythm Maniacs themselves would do a reprise of “Nobody’s Doing it Now” later in 1930 in “Maurice Chevalier — Selection” (v. Fred Douglas). There were other British dance band versions of “Nobody’s Doing It Now” in 1930 by Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (who recorded a full version with Sam Browne on the vocals, and an instrumental excerpt in a medley), Cecil Norman’s Savoy Plaza Band (v. Cavan O’Connor), Bidgood’s Symphonic Dance Band (in a medley with vocals by Patrick Waddington, followed soon after by a full version — under the band name Al Benny’s Broadway Boys — with vocalist Sam Browne), Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra (who did an instrumental treatment in a medley), Nat Star (v. Tom Barratt), the Midnight Minstrels (dir. Stan Greening; as an instrumental in a medley), the Debroy Somers Band (v. Tom Barratt), and Jack Leon’s band (as an instrumental in a medley).

“Figaro” (1930)

“Figaro.” Words by Sidney D. Mitchell, music by Otto Motzan (1928). Recorded in Chelsea, London on May 20, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocals by Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1799.

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 Brannelly-bj / Bill Harty-d / Rudy Starita-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-v / ?Jack Jackson-sc

The Rhythm Maniacs – “Figaro” (1930)
Transfer by Henry Parsons

Did the Rhythm Maniacs just reference the Figaro of Rossini’s Barber of Seville? They did, but only obliquely, as it turns out. The original lyrics of Mitchell and Motzan’s “Figaro” refer not to a Barber of Seville, but rather to a barber of Greenwich Village who likes to sing “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” 1 (whereas the Bidgood’s Broadcasters version relocates its “Figaro” to Saffron Hill, a London street housing Italian immigrants). In the Rhythm Maniacs version of “Figaro,” then, Maurice Elwin is not singing about the opera character Figaro, but about someone who thinks that he can sing opera.

The vocal refrain that Elwin is given is so short, at thirty-three seconds, that he does not get to specify who his “Figaro” is or where he lives and works. The lyrical excerpt has been torn from its context in the Mitchell-Motzan “Figaro,” so the repetition of “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” and the general spirit of boasting that Elwin projects might actually lead us to recall the opening scenes of Rossini’s opera rather than the barber in New York or London. Elwin sings some generalities about “Figaro’s” attractiveness to the opposite sex and states that he is “the king of all.”

But Elwin ends up seeming like the straight man in a joke, as he is upstaged by another vocalist engaging in purposely comical scat. Rust and Forbes do not mention Jack Jackson’s presence at this session, but it sounds like him. One of the reasons that the scat sounds so awkward is that there is an additional joke of some sort embedded in it. Tim Machin of the Facebook Golden Age of British Dance Bands group is right, I think, to make out something like “Napoleon…one arm…could have been Nelson” embedded in amongst all the nonsensical vocalizations, and Nick Dellow suggests that there could even be a reference to the 1920s song “Why Sell Kippers in Pairs?” which has the line “Lord Nelson only had one eye and one arm, / So why sell kippers in pairs?” 2

Other British dance bands who recorded “Figaro” in 1930 were the Savoy Orpheans (directed at the time by Ben Loban; v. Cavan O’Connor and chorus), Arthur Roseberry and His Dance Band (v. Leslie Holmes and chorus), the Debroy Somers Band (v. Tom Barratt), Jack Leon’s Dance Band (v. Jimmy Allen), Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (as Selwyn’s Dance Orchestra; v. Tom Barratt), The Rhythmic Eight (directed by John Firman), the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra (dir. Ray Noble; v. Leonard Henry and Wally Vernon), Hal Swain and His Band (v. Fred Douglas), and (as mentioned above) Bidgood’s Broadcasters (as Ted Summer’s Dance Devils; v. Leslie Rome).

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

“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).

Notes:

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

“I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” (1930)

Surely two of the strangest recordings made by Maurice Elwin are his versions of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues,” a song written for Is Everybody Happy? (a Warner Brothers star vehicle for bandleader Ted Lewis). In order to understand what Elwin is doing with this song, it is important first to understand who Ted Lewis was. A self-styled “high-hatted tragedian of song,” Lewis led a commercially successful jazz band while wearing a battered top hat and playing a clarinet — badly. To his credit, he employed, at various times, first-rate instrumentalists such as Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, and Frank Teschemacher. On the other hand, though a non-singer, he insisted on doing vocals much of the time; the result was a lot of awkward speeches intoned over the music. He even had a way of making established song lyrics sound impromptu, and the result is highly irritating. A self-promoting, larger-than-life extrovert (perhaps comparable in some ways to Al Jolson), Lewis does not now enjoy the following he once had.

Is Everybody Happy? has been lost, although five minutes of it do survive; it is is worth watching the surviving footage if you want to understand his schtick (encountering real pirates, Lewis and his band claim to be pirates — for jazz). Lewis did make a record of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues,” and he does talk his way through this curious song praising the psychological benefits of music. Which brings us to Elwin.

“I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues.” Composed by Grant Clarke (words) and Harry Akst (music) for the Warner Brothers film Is Everybody Happy? (1929). Recorded in Studio A, Hayes, Middlesex on February 20, 1930 by Maurice Elwin under the musical direction of John Firman. Zonophone 5555.

Personnel: Sylvester Ahola-t / ?Arthur Lally-Danny Polo-as / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g / bb

Maurice Elwin – “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” (1930) (Transfer by John Wright)

Elwin’s Zonophone recording of “I’m a Medicine Man for the Blues” is a solo recording, which is to say that it foregrounds his singing, with the studio band backing him, and the record label has Elwin’s name, not the band’s, on it. What is so funny about this song is that Elwin, an excellent singer known for sounding unaffected, makes all sorts of gestures of tribute to Ted Lewis, who cannot sing and who comes across as schmaltzy and decidedly insincere. You can tell that Elwin has seen the sheet music, because he sings plenty of real notes, but he keeps veering off into an approximation of Ted Lewis’s loud declaiming.

“I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” (Clarke-Akst; 1929). Recorded in Chelsea, London on March 5, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1677.

Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar dir. Sylvester Ahola-Dennis Ratcliffe-t / Ted Heath-tb / Danny Polo-cl-as / Joe Jeanette-cl-ts / Claude Ivy-p / Joe Brannelly-bj / Spike Hughes-sb / Max Bacon-d / Rudy Starita-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-v

The Rhythm Maniacs (v. Maurice Elwin) – “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” (1930)
(Transfer by Mick Johnson)

You will note that, while made at a different studio with a different musical director, the Rhythm Maniacs version of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” has a lot of the same instrumentalists. The sound engineers are a very different story, however: this recording is blaringly loud in that familiar, early Decca way. The arrangement is truly inspired, and someone is either tap-dancing or doing a very good approximation of the sound. Maurice Elwin’s briefer vocal on this record also acknowledges Ted Lewis; Elwin talks his way through some of the lyrics, although he cannot help singing others nicely. He fully embraces the spirit of boasting derived from the lyrics and from Lewis’s interpretation of them.

These offbeat recordings give us an idea of how unlike himself Elwin was willing to be. They are outliers, but they were clearly done in good fun by an artist who did not mind seeming a bit ridiculous. It is hard to think of two men from this era with singing personas more different than Lewis’s and Elwin’s, and it is funny to think of what the latter must have looked like when he committed these somewhat bizarre songs to shellac.

Another British version of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” was recorded in 1930 by Tommy Kinsman’s Florida Band (v. Harry Bentley, who gives the song a fairly straight interpretation). In America in 1929-1930, in addition to Ted Lewis’s own record, there were versions done by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra (v. Johnny Marvin) and by the Campus Cut-Ups.

“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

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 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 It would appear that the restaurant band’s personnel overlapped quite a bit with the studio personnel in this recording. 4

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).

Notes:

  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.

“She’s My Slip of a Girl” (1930)

“She’s My Slip of a Girl.” Composed by Cyril Watters for the Melody Maker “All British Song Competition” (first prize, 1929). Recorded in Chelsea, London on January 31, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1630 mx. MB-914-2A.

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

The Rhythm Maniacs (v. Maurice Elwin) – “She’s My Slip of a Girl” (1930)
(Transfer by Henry Parsons)

“She’s My Slip of a Girl” was the winning entry in the 1929 Melody Maker magazine “All British Song Competition,” whose goal was to identify a foxtrot “considered worthy of holding its own with foreign importations.” 1 The judges included C. B. Cochran, Noel Coward, and Jack Hylton, and there were 500 competitors. The prize was taken by Cyril Watters, a twenty-two year old pianist and musical clerk who would go on to compose over 250 songs and win many more prizes in the coming decades.

“She’s My Slip of a Girl” is inherently catchy, infectious even, with its dactylic patter and rapid-fire rhyme scheme. The singer speaks of his elation (verging on ecstasy) at somehow having been so fortunate as to have a certain slender or otherwise diminutive type of woman in his life. The B part is particularly precious:

Maybe she's not a beauty,
But beauty's only skin deep.
She's the kind of a cutie
Knocks 'em all of a heap.

I know of no other lyrics that express so well the idea of a visceral attraction that transcends conventional standards for good looks.

Of the four British versions recorded of “She’s My Slip of a Girl,” the Rhythm Maniacs’ version is best at realizing the trance-inducing qualities of the tune, which is very repetitive without being in any way boring. As with many early Decca recordings, the sound engineers set the gain very high, and the song is blaringly loud. The result is that it almost pulsates, bringing out the nearly primal appeal of the Lew Stone arrangement.

One of the side effects of the overall volume being so loud is that it creates contrast between the blaring instrumental parts and Maurice Elwin’s vocal. The latter sounds deeply earnest — who would expect otherwise from Elwin? — but he is also enthusiastic, almost impassioned. There is considerable warmth in his voice. At a couple of points the melody goes rather high, and the baritone follows it upwards deftly, allowing himself to sound momentarily more vulnerable, as men sometimes do when they successfully sing above their usual range.

“She’s My Slip of a Girl” encapsulates for me one of the things that I love generally about Elwin: he is a fundamentally calm, mellow singer with a wholesome-sounding voice who found himself working with some of Britain’s hottest bands (I think particularly of the Firman bands along with Lally’s studio orchestras). To a certain extent he introduces a pleasant contrast with his comparatively composed vocal refrains, but at no time does he sound out of place.

To appreciate the brilliance of the Rhythm Maniac’s version of “She’s My Slip of a Girl” requires us to compare the other contemporary interpretations of the song, which happen to be all very good in their own ways. Eddie Hardie and His Night Club Boys recorded a December 1929 version on Piccadilly with a Harry Bentley vocal that is slow and bluesy. The same month, Ray Noble’s New Mayfair Dance Orchestra made a booming but elegant one, also comparatively slow, with touching vocals by Pat O’Malley, who scats gently at the end of the recording. In March 1930, Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra did a purely instrumental interpretation of the tune that must be at least as fast as the Rhythm Maniacs and whose arrangement is marked by amusing variations on the underlying tune that keep it from seeming overly repetitious. Finally, there is an interesting French version that I think may be a response to the Rhythm Maniacs.

Notes:

  1. Daily Mirror, January 1, 1930, 4, British Newspaper Archive.

“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.