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Reconstruction Period Research Forum

Una Mae Carlisle - Pioneer

American National Biography Online

Carlisle, Una Mae (26 Dec. 1915-7 Nov. 1956), jazz pianist,
singer, and composer of popular songs, was born in Zanesville,
Ohio, the daughter of Edward E. Carlisle and Mellie (maiden name
unknown), a schoolteacher. (The assertion that she was born in
Xenia, Ohio, published in many references, does not conform to
family records.) With piano training from her mother, she sang
and played in public at age three in Chillicothe, Ohio. After
participating in musical activities at church and school in Jamestown
and Xenia, Ohio, she began performing regularly on radio station
WHIO in Dayton while still a youngster. In 1932 she came to the
notice of Thomas "Fats" Waller in Cincinnati and quickly became
his protegee and the beneficiary of his counsel. Until the end
of 1933 she worked alongside the well-known entertainer, both
on tour and on his Rhythm Club broadcasts for Cincinnati station
WLW, which boasted the highest wattage of any radio station in
the country. She soon came to emulate his keyboard style as well
as his witty delivery of novelty songs. In a biography of his
father, Waller's son contends that Carlisle came to his father's
attention as a backup singer on the Waller recording of "Mean
Old Bedbug Blues" made in New York in July 1932, during Carlisle's
summer vacation from high school. This special relationship with
Waller, while notably tempestuous, continued on a personal level
until his death in 1943; in her professional life his influence
extended much longer as she made recordings with ensembles patterned
after her mentor's and with instrumentalists associated with him.

After graduation from high school in 1933, Carlisle moved to
Chicago and then New York City. She was employed for a brief
period in 1934 as a showgirl at the Cotton Club. Disenchanted,
she then worked for a short time as a copyist-arranger for music
publisher Irving Mills before joining a touring company of Lew
Leslie's Blackbirds revue for a London run in 1936. (Leslie's
famous Blackbirds series, like many others at this time, featured
songs, dances, and "plantation" skits by an all-black cast for
the benefit of white audiences.) Remaining in Europe between
1937 and 1939, Carlisle accepted club engagements as a soloist
in as many as eighteen countries and was known to sing in seven
languages; her repertoire reflected the crowd-pleasing Waller
approach and included such humorous numbers as "Two Old Maids
in a Folding Bed." In Paris, where she enjoyed a lengthy residency
at the Boeuf sur le Toit, she reportedly studied harmony at the
Sorbonne and operated her own nightclub in Montmartre. In May
1938 her recording career as a leading artist was launched in
London by Leonard Feather with a set of recordings influenced
by the combo style championed by Waller. Carlisle also appeared
in several films in England and France in minor musical roles;
in Crossroads, she introduced the song "Darling, je vous aime
beaucoup" (1935), by Anna Sosenko, to European audiences. During
her stay on the Continent she formed friendships with many celebrities
in show business and high life, such as Josephine Baker, Maurice
Chevalier, and the duke of Kent. In 1937 she was the guest of
the Egyptian royal family in Cairo for three weeks during festivities
surrounding the lavish nuptials of King Farouk and performed
at the royal wedding reception.

Deteriorating conditions in Europe in 1939 hastened Carlisle's
return to the United States, where she established a reputation
in New York City clubs, such as the Village Vanguard, Kelly's
Stables, the Plantation Club, and Hotel Dixie, and made recordings.
She sang on Waller's evergreen hit "I Can't Give You Anything
but Love" (1939) and, more importantly, led her own all-star
combo on the Bluebird label during 1940 and 1941. Among her illustrious collaborators in this endeavor were saxophonists Lester Young and Benny Carter and bass player John Kirby. The most successful
of her fifteen recordings, "Walkin' by the River" (1940) and
"I See a Million People" (1941), were renditions of her own compositions, tuneful ballads with lyrics by Robert Sour, and earned BMI awards; arrangements of both were heard nationally on "Your Hit Parade," the radio program that identified the ten most popular songs
in America each week. Carlisle was the first African-American
woman to achieve such a distinction as a composer of popular
songs. Subsequent recordings of these songs, in particular by
such notable musicians as Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, and
Cab Calloway, contributed to her growing reputation. Carlisle
composed as many as 500 songs before 1952. She appeared in three
full-length musical films devoted to performances by prominent
African-American artists: Stars on Parade (1944), This Joint
Is Jumpin' (1947), and Boarding House Blues (1948). Her celebrity
and stature are also suggested by her inclusion in the short
documentary The Negro in Entertainment (1950), for which she
shared billing with W. C. Handy, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong,
Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller.

In 1950 Carlisle's popularity earned her a radio series in her
own name originating in New York City and syndicated coast-to-coast
by the American Broadcasting Corporation; she hosted a similar
radio program from 1951 until 1953. Her work in radio was of
historic significance as she was the first African-American musician
to be featured on her own nationally syndicated radio program.
In 1950 she began to record on the Columbia label with saxophonists
Don Redman and Bob Chester. Forced by chronic illness to retire
in 1954, she returned to her family in Ohio but died in Harlem.
At the time of her death, she was married to John Bradford, a one-time dancer.

Carlisle, known for her striking appearance and feisty personality,
possessed a clear, vibrant, rich voice and was equally adept
in performing love ballads and up-tempo dance songs. In spite
of her collaboration with seasoned jazz musicians of the first
order, her recorded performances do not identify her as a dynamic
improviser in the jazz tradition. Gunther Schuller assesses her
work as a jazz artist as "second-rate." In his autobiography,
however, jazz critic Leonard Feather, who produced her earliest
recordings, remembered Carlisle as an "uncommonly capable" pianist
and singer. Periodically there are suggestions of the poignancy
of Billie Holiday and of those inflections that characterize
the African-American tradition, but in general the interpretative
style and the emotional content of her singing are more influenced
by the commercialized mainstream of popular music of the day.
Her keyboard playing is grounded in the "bouncy" stride style;
her instrumental solos demonstrate an easy command of conventional
material without calling much attention to her ingenuity. Long
after Carlisle's death, Feather lamented her failure to realize
the full extent of her promise as a musician: "Perhaps because
of a lifestyle as self-indulgent as Fats' own, Una Mae never
reached the plateau of fame to which her talent and beauty might
have been expected to bring her" (p. 128). Nevertheless, in a
career that stopped rather suddenly in her prime, Carlisle distinguished herself as a nightclub entertainer, a recording artist, a song composer, and a radio personality.

Bibliography

A folder of newspaper clippings and memorabilia compiled under
the supervision of Carlisle's sister and nephew is in the Greene
County Room of the Greene County Public Library in Xenia, Ohio.
Her relationship with Fats Waller is described in Maurice Waller
and Anthony Calabrese, Fats Waller (1977), and Joel Vance, Fats
Waller: His Life and Times (1977). Information about her recording
career is found in H. Smith, "Una Mae Carlisle Takes Final Bow,"
Record Research 11, no. 5 (1957): 24; Leonard Feather, The Jazz
Years: Earwitness to an Era (1987); Bruce Bastin, Never Sell
a Copyright: Joe Davis and His Role in the New York Music Scene,
1916-1978 (1990); and Bruce Bastin, liner notes to Una Mae Carlisle,
Maxine Sullivan & Savannah Churchill, 1942-1944 (Harlequin CD
19 [1992]). The greatest detail about her recording sessions
appears in the writings of Bastin. A useful discography is in
Roger D. Kinkle, The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and
Jazz, 1900-1950 (1974). Carlisle is treated in a broader context
in "Women in Music: 71 of the Key Creators," BMI: The Many Worlds
of Music (1977), pp. 9-10; Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface:
A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows (1980); D. Antoinette
Handy, Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras (1981); Sally
Placksin, American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present: Their
Words, Lives, and Music (1982); Linda Dahl, Stormy Weather: The
Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen (1984); Gunther Schuller,
The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (1989); and
Virginia L. Grattan, American Women Songwriters (1993).

Michael J. Budds

Citation:
Michael J. Budds. "Carlisle, Una Mae";
http://www.anb.org/articles/18/18-02748.html;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Access Date:
Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published
by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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