If Una Mae Carlisle is known at all today, it is as a jazz footnote and “friend-of”: protege (perhaps mistress) of Fats Waller; singer on the lone and lovely record date that Lester Young’s band did in 1941; composer of WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER, someone recording with Danny Polo, John Kirby, Big Nick Nicholas, Buster Bailey, Ray Nance, Budd Johnson, Walter Thomas. Sadly, her life was very short, made even shorter by illness. I propose that she deserves admiration for her own art, not just for her associations with greater stars.
Una Mae had all the qualities that would have made her a success, and she did get some of the attention she deserved. She had a big embracing voice; she could croon and swing; she was a splendid pianist — more than a Waller clone.
Here are two samples of her genial, casual art, in 1940 and 1941. First, the song she composed (its title suggested by John Steinbeck). The wonderful small group is Benny Carter, trumpet; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Slam Stewart, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums. Una Mae plays piano. Were Ed Berger here with us, he could tell us how Benny came to be in that studio — perhaps a rehearsal for his own Bluebird big-band date a few days later:
Here is one side from the famous session with Lester Young, Shad Collins, Clyde Hart, John Collins, Nick Fenton, Harold “Doc” West in 1941:
I come from that generation of listeners who discovered the sides with Lester through a lp compendium called SWING! — on Victor, with notes by Dan Morgenstern. I think I was not alone in listening around Una Mae, regarded at best as someone interfering with our ability to hear Lester, purring behind her. But if we could have shaken ourselves out of our Prez-worship for three minutes, we would have found much pleasure in Una Mae’s singing for its own sake, not in comparison to Billie. As I do now.
This small reconsideration of Carlisle’s talents springs from a nocturnal prowl through eBay, then on to YouTube, then Google, then here — a familiar path, although the stops are not always in that order.
First, an autographed postcard, 1940-2, when she was recording for Bluebird:
I then visited YouTube to find — to my delight — two brief but very entertaining film clips (from the 1948 BOARDING HOUSE BLUES) where her magnetism comes through:
I savor her ebullience — while trying to ignore the thinness of the song (which, in fairness, might be more sophisticated than GOT A PENNY, BENNY, which Nat Cole was singing a few years earlier) — and her expert piano work, with its small homages to Fats and Tatum.
I write the next sentence with mixed emotions: it cannot have hurt her fame in this period that she was slender and light-skinned. Had she lived, she might have achieved some of the acclaim given other singer-entertainers, although I wonder if her easy accessibility would have hampered her with the jazz purists of the Fifties, while making her a pop star of sorts. Certainly her last recordings (1950) show her being targeted for a large popular audience, which is to say the songs are awful and beyond.
The other song from BOARDING HOUSE BLUES is equally thin, built on RHYTHM changes — but it is not the THROW IT OUT YOUR MIND that Louis and the All-Stars performed in WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS (1965):
Looking for more information on Una Mae, I found that others had — admiringly and sadly — done deep research here and elsewhere. Because the internet encourages such digressions, I now know more about mastoiditis than I would have otherwise. It shortened her life. The disease is now rare.
I present all this as a collage in tribute to someone who should not be forgotten. And I think of Una Mae as one of the talented people who died just short of great fame. I can imagine her, as I can imagine Hot Lips Page, on the television variety shows of my childhood, appearing in the nightclubs I was too young to go to.
Although the lyrics are those of a formulaic love song, the mood is apt for her epitaph. May she live on in our hearts:
May your happiness increase!