Singer and Pianist - Una Mae Carlisle
Written By by Nigel Bewley
On 8 October 1932, Jack Bland and his Rhythmakers, recording under the name of Billy Banks and his Rhythmakers, were cutting some sides in a studio in New York. Amongst the musicians were Tommy Dorsey and Pee Wee Russell. Fats Waller was also present but didn't contribute to the recordings. When pressings of the discs began to circulate it was rumoured that Fats had brought along to the studio a sixteen year old pianist and singer by the name of Una Mae Carlisle and that she had been the vocalist on some of the songs.
It turns out that those vocals had been laid down by guitarist Jack Bland himself, who was an accomplished and noted female impersonator! The suggestion that she had been at the session arose from an association that she began with Fats Waller later that year when he invited her to play on his radio show at station WLW Cincinnati. This was over the Christmas week when Una Mae turned seventeen, on 26 December.
She was still at High School and her mother had approved her Christmas vacation in Cincinnati as she was to stay with an elder sister. The teenage rebel in her bubbled to the surface having had a taste of mixing with jazz musicians for the week and when her Christmas vacation was over she refused to return home and to school. She preferred to become a professional musician working with Fats Waller at WLW Cincinnati.
Over the next two years her relationship with Fats became strained and when Fats' contract with WLW expired in 1934 he left for New York on his own. Una Mae and Fats remained in touch and occasionally worked together. She sang with Fats Waller and his Rhythm on his recording of I Can't Give You Anything But Love cut in New York for Bluebird on 3 November 1939.
Una Mae left America in 1936 to tour Europe with the revue Blackbirds of 1936 and spent the next three years there, mostly in London and Paris. In London, on 20 May 1938, she recorded three discs that were published on the Vocalion label, including the excellent Don't Try Your Jive On Me and Mean To Me. Her backing band for that session included top notch West Indian musicians Dave Wilkins (trumpet) and Bertie King (clarinet and tenor sax). Fats Waller used the same band when he too recorded in London later that summer.
It was on her return to New York in 1939 that Una Mae began to record her best known cuts, continuing to record for Bluebird after the Fats Waller I Can't Give You Anything But Love session. She had several hits, including Walkin' By The River recorded with Benny Carter; Blitzkrieg Baby with Lester Young; I See a Million People with Charlie Shavers and John Kirby; and 'Tain't Yours with ace trumpeter Ray Nance who had just left Duke Ellington's band.
As early as 1938 Una Mae began suffering with mastoid trouble and in 1941 she spent some weeks in hospital. In-between bouts of ill health she played in clubs and hotels as well as appearing on radio shows. Despite Fats Waller death in 1943, Una Mae's links with him continued by recording with some of his old sidesmen.
Her career kept going into the 1950s when she became involved in films and her own radio and television shows. Her last studio session was for Columbia in New York on 8 May 1950. Her illness forced her to retire in 1954 and she died in New York on 7 November 1956.
So, which Una Mae Carlisle records are great for dancing? Ask the dee-jay for any of these and then take position on the floor before it begins to fill: Don't Try Your Jive On Me, Mean To Me and I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby from 1938; Montparnasse Jump from 1939, Papa's in Bed With His Britches On, 1940; Blitzkrieg Baby, Oh, I'm Evil, Booglie Wooglie Piggy, It Ain't Like That from 1941; 'Tain't Yours and That Glory Day from 1944