Song-stylist and Piano Extraordinaire.
Una Mae Carlisle won hearts of millions in the 1940s and early 1950s with her husky, intimate warm sensual voice whiched proved to be as effective on swing numbers as it was on ballads. Una Mae Carlisle's music was neither jazz, blues it was a mixture of classical, swing, jazz, blues and bebop. Una Mae displayed her art of combining the different genres of music successfully in her stylish, catchy tunes.
Gorgeous babyface Una Mae Carlisle was an immensely gifted pianist, vocalist, arranger, composer and songwriter. Just calling her talented isn't enough. In the 1940s Una Mae Carlisle was one of the top female vocalist. I guess I can say she was the first black woman to have many hits on the hits parade which she wrote. Una Mae Carlisle talent match the ever changing music of the 1940s. Her music was swing with a light jazz mixed with bebop and with her deep, smooth vocal chords she became a popular, distinct, well-known voice in the 1940s. Una Mae Carlisle was rated as one of the most prolific song writers in the music business.
Una Mae was an original, fresh artist of her time which was what the business needed. Una Mae had a vivaciousness personality, wit, and sense of humor which showed in her slick, smooth, cool, jazzy tunes. Una Mae was the queen of sweet, hot n mellow genre which she created.
Una Mae was born December 26, 1915 in Xenia, Ohio. She always had ambitions to be in show business. Child prodigy Una Mae took to music very early, giving her first public performace at the age of 3 in Chillicothe, O., where she played and sang on a musical program for disabled World War 1 veterans. While still in her teens, Duke Ellington heard her play and helped her get a job with a Cleveland radio station. She ran away from home at the age of 12 to try to get a job as a musician in Cleveland, that's where she met Fats Waller who was an important influence on Una Mae's development. When she was 13, Waller called her from Cincinnati and invited her to appear on his radio program during her Christmas vacation. She was allowed to go with her older sister as her chaperon.
The lure of show business proved too powerful for Una Mae to resist. She didn't want to go back home after her stint in Cincinnati. Mature Una Mae not only stayed in Cincinnati for several weeks, but went on to Chicago where she met other girls her age whose great dreams was to go to New York and find dancing jobs. Una Mae and three other girls, one of whom was white passing as Black, put the little money they had together and bought bus tickets to Harlem. They had heard that the famed Cotton Club had issued a call for chorus girls. Una Mae was hired as show girl in 1934 along with one of the other girls, Bea Ellis known as Ivie who became Duke Ellington's mistress. Three weeks later Una Mae quit the Cotton Club. The atmosphere was too much for her, she couldn't take that kind of life. She decided being a chorus girl wasn't the type of career she wanted in Show Business.
After that calamity. She took her music more seriously. Una Mae studied piano and lated studied theory and harmony at Wilberforce University and studied at Ohio State University. Music publisher Irving Mills hired her as a copyist-arranger at $15 a week. For a few months that salary actually paid her room rent and kept her in food. Then Lew Leslie offered her a spot in his famous Lew Leslie Blackbirds of 1936 which opened in Europe. That was the big break she was waiting on. After that success Una Mae became the Toast of London, Cario and Paris. She felt she should stay in Europe...since there wasn't much prejudices there to stop her from succeeding. She stayed in Europe from 1935 to 1940. Una Mae lived the good life and became friends with scores of celebrities. Some of her achievements were...She hobnobbed with the Duke of Kent and Josephine Baker and was invited to play the piano at the wedding reception of Egypt's King Farouk bringing a wealth of showmanship, poise and personality to her audience. Una Mae played and singed in the most prominent supper clubs of London, Paris, Stockholm, Cairo Brussels, Madrid, and the Riviera, where Una Mae played swing and blues with sophisticated class for the high society bunch. Una Mae made films in France and England. In one of these pictures, "Crossroads," Una introduced the hit song "Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup," singing it as a dusky harlot of mixed racial origins. Una performed successfully in 18 European countries.
Una was admired by Kings and Dukes, and invited to dinner parties where she was the only commoner, One of her best friends was the late Duke of Kent who sometimes flew from London to Paris just to hear her play his favorite tunes at Le Boeuf Sur le Toit, a famous Paris cabaret where she played for nearly three years, she formed lasting friendships with Josephine Baker, Jean Gabin and Maurice Chevalier. For a few months in 1939, Una Mae operated her own club in Montmartre. She also found time while in Paris to study advanced harmony at the Sorbonne. One of the memorable events of her European experience was an invitation to attend the wedding of King Farouk of Egypt in 1937, where the mother of the King and family was honored to have Una played at their lavish wedding and reception. In London, on May 20, 1938, she recorded three discs that were released on the Vocalion label, including a favorite "Don't Try Your Jive On Me." Her backing band for that session included the expert West Indian musicians Dave Wilkins (trumpet) and Bertie King (clarinet and tenor sax). She became highly successful in England, Germany and France, where she worked at the Boeuf sur le Toit ("The Ox on the Roof"), a cabaret in the Rue du Colisée in Paris. While in Paris in 1939, she was one of two pianists in a combo headed by clarinetist Danny Polo which recorded four sides for Decca.
Una Mae returned to the states in 1940s because of the war situation but she returned with confidence and many talents up her sleeve which she knew she couldn't fail with. She felt America was ready for her and she was right. Una was determined to make her name as big and bright as it was in Europe. The song "Walking by the River" expressed her joy after a delightful day on the banks of the River Thames in England made Una Mae famous. Before it became a hit she was merely a gifted girl known mainly to a small circle of habitues of class spots on New York's East side many of whom had known her in London and Paris before World War 2. She started writing the song in England, worked at it on the ship returning to the U.S., and finished in New York early in 1940. It lacked a title, however. Over drinks in a night club, Una Mae told John Steinbeck, the novelist, of her difficulty of coming up with a title. They went to an after hours nightclub where they was a piano and she sanged and played over and over again and Steinbeck started doodling possible titles on a menu then said "Why don't you call it "Walking by the River." The words fascinated Una and after a few changes she recorded the song on waxs and the song became a colossal hit. A standard. Was on the hit parade for almost 2 years. "Walking by the River" made Una Mae a household name many hits trailed after but "Walking by the River" showed her talent of making the simpliest words sound beautiful. The superb melodies, lyrics, and her husky but vibrant voice... were just a few of the versatilities of Una Mae's talent. Una's voice became one of the loved voice of the 1940s. Una Mae was hailed as the "Princess of Piano." The regining Black star of television, radio, stage, and nightclubs. She worked constantly which made her the hardest working woman in the 1940s.
In the early 1940s, Una Mae undertook several successful engagements and record dates, the first of which was a session with Fats Waller in November 1939 for Bluebird in which she and Fats combined to sing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." She began recording on her own for Bluebird in the summer of 1940. She soon had several hits on the Hit Parade, including "Walkin' By The River" with Benny Carter; "Blitzkrieg Baby" with Lester Young; and "I See a Million People" with Charlie Shavers and John Kirby. In 1941 she recorded with John Kirby and was nominal leader of several small bands, which featured such leading jazzmen as Russell Procope, Charlie Shavers, Ray Nance, Lester Young and Benny Carter. As early as 1938 Una Mae began suffering with mastoid trouble and in 1941 she was hospitalized for several weeks to treat this condition. Mastoid was a illness that halted her throughout her career.
Una Mae sung her songs with such great personality, sex appeal while her fingers danced gracefully on the ivories with her honey glazed voice crooning hits and favorites like "My Wish," "I See A Million People," "Hangover Blues," "Don't Try Your Jive On Me," "Coffee and Cake," "Mad About Love," "I Brought Myself a Book," "That's the Stuff You Gotta Watch," "The Rest of My Life," "Throw it out your mind," "You and Your Heart of Stone," "Without You Baby," "Tain't Yours," "You Gotta Take Your Time," "Teasin' Me," "It Ain't Like That," "Yank in the Army," "O, Please," "I Do," "It Ain't Like That," "I'm a Good Good woman," "I Like cause I Love It" among other tunes showed Una Mae jive word phrasings, her scintillating finesse and clever lyrics which made her America's top notch composer and pianist. She almost sung her songs from a male's perspective. Una Mae's music was unlike any woman of her time. Her music was sexy but not blatant. She didn't sing sadly of her man doing her wrong and treating her bad. Her songs were fun, slick, smooth, poetic. Her music stood out more then any other. One of Una's talents was taking the popular slang of the time and mixing it with common words putting them together with a spice of jazz, boogie woogie and bebop was dazzling and fitted her easy-going, appealing voice. She knew how to make the simpliest words sound brilliant. Una Mae was among the popular songbirds Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald but because of her noted songwriting, composing and arrangements she stood above them.
Few achieved Una Mae's success...black or white. Another accomplishment of Una Mae's was she signed a lucrative contract with NBC. Throughout the 1940s she was a popular vocalist on radio and, before the decade was out, she had successfully transferred to television. Bluebird dropped her from its roster during the 1942-1944 American Federation of Musicians ban on recording (the "Petrillo Ban"), so she signed with Joe Davis for whom she recorded more than a dozen tracks, one of which was 'Tain't Yours with ace trumpeter Ray Nance, who had just left Duke Ellington's band. In between bouts of ill health she played clubs and hotels and appeared on radio shows, including a week-long salute to her good friend Fats Waller on WNEW in New York in February of 1945, approximately a year after his death. Una Mae had her own radio program in the late 1940s which broadcast every Monday night. For a while Una Mae career was at a halt. After a long series of reverses which included bad bookings, new songs that did not sell, a short-lived TV program and an illness that forced her into temporary retirement. The illness she suffered for many years was the reason for her many absences in show business but always the trooper Una Mae never was down long because her mind was full of songs and was a public favorite.
In 1950, Una Mae was only the only Black musician in America with a coast to coast radio program. The singing song writer whose 15 minute radio show was carried by 100 stations of the American Broadcasting Company's network was enjoyed each Saturday evening at 6:15pm by some 7,500,000 listeners. Singing oldtime favorites, many of which she herself wrote, as well as newer song hits, the veteran entertainer had won a large audience in all sections of the country as her growing fan mail indicated. ABC first offered her a network spot when one of their producers was impressed by her husky voice so frequently heard in past years in nightclubs and stage shows. Before siring her first program, however, the company queried Southern stations to discover if there would be any racial objections to carrying the program of a Black artist. There were none. Since her initial broadcast in September 1950, an increasing volume of fan mail that followed was evidence of her popularity. Her usual opening theme song was her famous "Walking by the River" and her closing signature tune, "I See a Million People," were both written by Una Mae during her heyday in the 1940s. These songs which first skyrocketed her to fame are only two of some 500 original songs she draws upon for her current radio show.
Her last studio session was for Columbia in New York on May 8, 1950. Una Mae kept on working successfuly on radio, tv, and nightclubs but her illness became too much to bare to continue so she retired in 1954. She called it quits hoping to return again in the future but that was one wish Una or fans didn't get. She died in New York on November 7, 1956.
Why isn't Una Mae Carlisle regarded as a influential figure of Jazz and Bebop? Why have so-called Jazz historians and researchers overlooked this extrodinary talent? Una Mae surely in her time was a legend because of her creative artistry, why isn't she looked at as a bigger figure in Jazz History? Why isn't she hailed for her original remarkable jazz creations and contributions. If Ella Fitzgerald is remembered because of her uniqueness and exbuerant song styling, Una Mae should be as well because Una Mae's music represented Jazz and Bebop if anyone did its her. It seems the women who independently wrote, arranged, composed their own songs and did their own thing aren't remembered as much as ladies who "stayed in their place" and sung the work of men or is it because Jazz historians want Jazz to be looked at as male dominated or a male creation then to showcase talented ladies of jazz who contributed as much? Una Mae Carlisle is another unsung Legend who isn't talked about enough. Alicia Keys is known today as a singing, songwriting, pianist talent, she's considered a phenomenal, well Una Mae Carlisle was a Alicia Keys some 65 years ago or should I say Alicia Keys is the Una Mae Carlisle of today.
Una's music is available all over. Pick up some of her records, cds, movies you will instantly fall in love with her cool crooning voice and piano.