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Carlisle, Una Mae

Una Mae Carlisle was a talented singer and pianist whose career was defined largely by her associations to Fats Waller, with whom she had both romantic and professional links. She was the star of a series of Waller-inspired recordings which contain fine work by some of the Swing Era's best soloists, including tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

Carlisle was also a successful songwriter, responsible for tunes such as “I See A Million People” and “Walkin’ By The River,” which attained semi-standard status.

Carlisle was the first important singer to follow in the footsteps of Cleo Brown, who directly challenged Fats' popularity in 1935. She was also the only one of The Fat Man’s emulators who was his direct protégée and disciple.

Waller first heard Carlisle sing in 1932, the story goes, when he was doing a radio series entitled Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club out of station WLW Cincinnati. She was 17 at the time, and had been born in nearby Xenia, Ohio. Waller took an immediate interest in the attractive and talented youngster, and persuaded her mother to let Una (she pronounced it “You-na”) Mae to let her daughter perform regularly on his program.



                                Una Mae Carlisle

When Waller launched his big band at New York’s world-famous Apollo Theater in 1935, Carlisle fronted the band as his girl singer. By 1937, like several other black female entertainers, she had found work in Europe -apparently under her own power, without Waller’s help. Carlisle was working at The Boeuf sur le Toit in Paris when she had the great fortune to be heard by the British critic-composer-producer Leonard Feather, who wrote about her enthusiastically for Melody Maker magazine.

Feather was inspired enough to produce Carlisle’s first recording date, in London for British Vocalion in May of 1938. Her first cut was Feather’s own agreeable rhythm tune “Don't Try Your Jive on Me.” Feather later recorded the same song with both American clarinetist Danny Polo and Waller himself, when he came to London a few months later.

On this well-balanced date, Feather also had her do one straight-up blues, “Hangover Blues," for which the two shared composer credit, one jived-up standard, “Mean To Me,” one relatively new song, the first-rate “Love Walked In” by the Gershwin Brothers, and, appropriately, one Fats Waller favorite, “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby.”

These five tunes are easily Carlisle’s greatest: she sings and plays with an ebullience and energy which is sorely missing from most of her subsequent recordings. On “Mean To Me,” she verbally encourages her British sidemen to “swing it on out there,” and, amongst other Wallerian asides, she closes the tune with an affirmative “Yes! Yes!” If all of UMC’s recordings were of this caliber, she would have had a much bigger place in music history.

Later that year, she reunited with Waller, who was then touring Europe; Carlisle was sick at the time, and he visited her at a London hospital. In typical Fats fashion, he had such a good time hanging out with her that he missed an important performance.

Carlisle next recorded as guest pianist with Danny Polo on a Feather-produced date, which included the legendary Argentine guitarist Oscar Alemán in Paris, January 1939. At the end of the year, she was back in the U.S., and made what would probably be her most famous appearance on a record, singing a duet with Waller on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” as part of the Waller “Rhythm” series on Bluebird.

She made the right decision not to sing in the Waller style when dueting with the man himself – after all, there was no need for two Fats Wallers on the same side. She also knew that it wouldn’t pay to attempt to be funny in Waller’s presence, and so she sings the Fields-McHugh standard relatively straight. As a result, she comes off as something of a wet blanket, it’s Waller that supplies all the fun here. Still, it’s a classic side.

Did Waller have a hand in seeing that Carlisle began to record regularly as a featured star for Victor’s subsidiary Bluebird Records? One never knows, do one. Her first date, perhaps not coincidentally, featured the musicians from Waller’s own band, though not the Fat one himself, as her accompaniment.

Her first three American dates come closest to the 1938 London session in quality and spirit, even though Carlisle only plays piano on the first two. After the date with Waller’s Rhythm band, her next session featured the remarkable Benny Carter, undoubtedly also a friend from Europe, playing trumpet obligatos behind her.

Then came the most-reissued of UMC’s recordings, a March 1941 Bluebird date in which her accompaniment was another major jazz legend, the tenor sax colossus Lester Young. This date includes a famous topical blues that begins the following couplet, designed to zing both Hitler and Stalin nine months before Pearl Harbor: “Blitzkrieg Baby you can’t bomb me / Because I’m pleading neutrality.” It’s a funny line, although UMC doesn’t seem to be having much in the way of fun with it – or the song in general.

All 21 of Carlisle's early sides, including the duet with Waller, are included on the Classics CD release Una Mae Carlisle, 1938-1941, which contains all of her essential recordings.

Perhaps by 1941, Carlisle wanted to develop an identity of her own, rather than just serve as Fats’s female emissary and occasional playmate. She recorded another 50 or so sides between 1941 and 1950 (which are on two more Classics volumes, 1941-1944 and 1944-1950) but few of these are as anywhere near as interesting as her sides of 1940 and earlier. UMC stopped playing piano on most of her dates, and she stopped the jivey, Wallerian asides – in general, her output became overwhelmingly tepid.

Based on the bulk of her ‘40s work, Carlisle is not nearly in a class with Cleo Brown, Julia Lee, Hdda Brooks, and especially Nellie Lutcher. Unlike them, it’s hard to listen to a whole CD of UMC uninterrupted, despite the high caliber of her sidemen and back-up bands. These included, on 16 titles from 1941-1942, the entire John Kirby Sextet; even here, Carlisle does not compare with Maxine Sullivan or Mildred Bailey, who both recorded classic sides with the JK6.

One area where Carlisle, like Lil Hardin Armstrong, made an important contribution was as a composer. Her name is on two very successful songs from 1941, “Walkin’ By The River” (also recorded by the Harry James – Dick Haymes combination, and, in 1952, by Ella Fitzgerald) and “I See A Million People” (also recorded by the Benny Goodman – Peggy Lee combination, and, in the millennium, by Carol Sloane).

Carlisle’s gifts as a songwriter were probably what attracted the attention of publisher and producer Joe Davis, who was the primary publisher for Waller’s closest composing collaborator, lyricist Andy Razaf. (Razaf’s biographer, Barry Singer, depicts Davis as one of the scummier figures in the music business, a conniving culprit who exploited black talent so ruthlessly that he made Irving Mills look like Mother Theresa.)

After the AFM ban, Carlisle began recording for the Joe Davis label, and later there were dates for Savoy, National, and even Columbia (two dates in which she was backed by pioneer arranger Don Redman and white bandleader Bob Chester). Most of these are fairly tepid affairs; perhaps because Carlisle looked like a cover girl – not a party cherub, like Lutcher, Lee, or Brown – someone decided it wouldn’t do for her to perform like a pixie, and she works pretty much as a straight pop singer – she just doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with her voice, and doesn’t bring any particular meaning or shades and nuances to her interpretations.

Carlisle’s final recording session, included at the end of the last Classics volume, is an out-and-out mystery: six singles tracks, apparently done for a privately-released three-disc album pressed by RCA. Each track consists of three short original solo piano instrumentals, bearing titles like “A Rhythm Mood,” “Escape to Nowhere,” and “Jumpin' With the Stars,” each lasting about a minute each, introduced vocally by “Youna Mae” as she refers to herself. More than this I cannot tell you.

The health issues that plagued her back in Europe were still, unfortunately, in the picture. “Perhaps because of a lifestyle as self-indulgent as Fats’s own, Una Mae never reached the plateau of fame to which her talent and beauty might have been expected to bring her,” Leonard Feather wrote. “She was only thirty-seven, when, inactive and forgotten, she died in Ohio, where she was born.” There’s some confusion regarding these details: Feather and Ira Gitler’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz tells us she was born in 1915 and died in 1956 in New York. Assuming these latter dates are correct, Una Mae Carlisle was actually 40, just a few months older than Waller was at the time of his death in 1943.

Contributor: Will Friedwald