“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
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.
“Somebody Mighty Like You” originated in the partially Technicolor 1929 musical film Paris, whose plot concerns an upper-crust American man who causes a scandal by falling in love with a French cabaret girl. Less than two minutes of the actual movie still exist, although the soundtrack survives on Vitaphone discs. Paris was based on the 1928 Broadway play of the same name, whose songs were all by Cole Porter. Strangely, very little Cole Porter material made it into the movie (some of it, such as “Let’s Do It [Let’s Fall in Love],” may have been deemed too racy). Instead, other songwriters, including Alfred Bryan and Eddie Ward, were brought in to write entirely new songs. Bryan and Ward’s “Somebody Mighty Like You” was introduced in the film by Irène Bordoni and Jack Buchanan (in his talking-picture debut).
I have not seen the full lyrics as they were used in the movie, but it is easy to get a sense of their contents by comparing different vocal refrain excerpts. There are two themes. First, the singer invokes the idea of an ideal lover that he has found in dreams, one who is “somebody mighty like [i.e., very much like]” the real-world lover that he is addressing. 1 Second, the singer appears to be highly frustrated by the beloved’s lack of reciprocation; this theme seems to have been edited out of many arrangements of the song. As it happens, Maurice Elwin ended up singing two vocal refrains of “Somebody Might Like You,” one without and one with the element of discontent.
“Somebody Mighty Like You.” Words by Alfred Bryan, music by Eddie Ward (1929). Recorded in London on January 16, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1586 mx. MB-855-2.
Personnel: Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar dir. 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
Maurice Elwin’s usually restrained vocals sometimes contrast with the hotness of the bands he accompanies, but that is not so much the case in the Rhythm Maniacs’ version of “Somebody Mighty Like You.” This version is smooth and mellow by their standards, contrasting greatly with the flip side, the booming and slightly bizarre “Jus’ Keepin’ On.” The song is arranged in such a way that Maurice Elwin uses the higher end of his range; his voice sounds gentle and appropriately dreamy. The B part uses the lyrics
If I fell in your arms, dear, would you complain?
And would you smile and coax me to fall again?
The theme of frustration is absent, and Elwin is able to make a 35-second vocal refrain memorable for its sweetness.
“Paris — Selection” (Intro. “Miss Wonderful” / “Paris” / My Lover” / “Somebody Mighty Like You”). Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London on May 13, 1930 by the London Orchestra (dir. John Firman) with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Zonophone 5637.
Personnel: John Firman dir. Max Goldberg-another-t / Danny Polo-cl-as-bar / ?E. O. Pogson-cl-as / Johnny Helfer-cl-ts / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-bj / Billy Bell-bb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x / Charles W. Saxby-or / Maurice Elwin-v
Later in 1930, the London Orchestra, one of Zonophone’s studio bands under the direction of John Firman, recorded a medley of tunes from the movie Paris, all but one of which had been written by Alfred Bryan and Eddie Ward (“My Lover” is a Yellen-Ager composition). The recording session took place in the echoey Kingsway Hall, and the band was accompanied by an organ — overall the sound is very different from the comparatively dead acoustics of the Rhythm Maniacs’ Decca recording. The medley begins with a brief instrumental snatch of “Somebody Mighty Like You” and ends with Maurice Elwin actually singing it. Interestingly, this time his B part lyrics are
Why don't she try to coax me? I'll answer yes.
Fooling around provokes me. Why can't she guess?
One would expect Elwin to sound impatient singing these lines, and so he does. He does not sound as if he is happily drifting into a dream; rather, he seems mildly annoyed. I say mildly because the difference between the two vocals is subtle. A reserved singer, Elwin seldom overacts, but when he does, he makes quite an impression.
“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
“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.
“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
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
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.
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
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.
“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
“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.
Daily Mirror, January 1, 1930, 4, British Newspaper Archive. ↩
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
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 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.
“Sitting on a Haystack.” Composed by Julian Wright, Carol Bourne, and Harry Castling. Recorded in Chelsea, London on November 13, 1930 by the Savana Players under the musical direction of Arthur Lally, with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-2057 mx. GB-2268-2.
Personnel: Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar dir. Jack Jackson-Andy Richardson-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Peter Rush-as-vn / Harry Berly-ts-oc-vl / Pat Dodd-p / Jack Hill-bj-g / Spike Hughes-sb / Bill Harty-d
The Savana Players’ version of “Sitting on a Haystack” with Maurice Elwin appears to be the only recording of that song. The original composition may not, therefore, have been a commercial success, but this Decca issue is a comedy gem and a good example of the hot music being produced under Arthur Lally’s supervision in 1930. The song begins with a curious snoring or even snorting sound and a small child crying, “Daddy, daddy!” At this point we hear Lally’s voice snarling, “That’s not your father, child — them’s pigs!” “Oooh!” the child exclaims. The grunting is incorporated into the first bars of the song, establishing its comical, rustic setting.
The tune is introduced first instrumentally. Then comes Maurice Elwin’s vocal refrain, which describes a haystack that once served as a trysting place until a pipe-smoking vagrant accidentally lit it on fire. Elwin sings the lyrics quietly, as if sharing a dirty joke, and one can hear his amusement at the ridiculous scenario.
After Elwin’s part concludes, there is a series of interesting, hot variations on the tune, played with a great deal of pep. In many ways, the pleasure of listening to “Sitting on a Haystack” derives from the contrast between the understated vocals and the more extroverted instrumental music. Elwin contributes to the overall sound of this recording without in any way dominating it; the result is a collaboration that is delightfully silly yet elegant.
"The Monarch of the Microphone." British dance band singer of the 1920s and 1930s.