A talent discovery of the great Fats Waller, Una Mae Carlisle achieved much success as both a performer and songwriter. She developed a long-term relationship with publisher, producer, and frequent record-label manager Joe Davis, who sold upwards of 20,000 copies of some of her releases. Carlisle's original songs, such as "I See a Million People" and "Walkin' by the River," were smashes, covered by many popular artists such as Cab Calloway and Peggy Lee. By the late '40s she had both her own radio and television shows, but an unfortunate illness cut her career short, forcing her to retire in 1954. This was about 22 years after Waller first heard her entertaining in Cincinnati, where she was established as a live radio performer.
She was already playing in a piano style modeled after his, and displayed a real flair for the range of material he did, including boogie-woogie and comedy. He took her under his wing (and there was plenty of room there, since they didn't call him Fats Waller for nothing). By 1937 she was off as a solo act, touring Europe and hanging around for long residencies in countries such as France. In England she performed and recorded with a combo once again styled after Waller. At home she continued her collaborations with the master himself, providing the vocal on the 1939 Waller recording of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love."
As early as 1938 Una Mae began suffering with mastoid trouble and in 1941 she was hospitalized for several weeks to treat this condition. 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 (Danny Polo And His Swing Stars) which recorded four sides for Decca.
She then returned to New York where she 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, 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.
She also began working as a solo act in clubs such as New York City's Village Vanguard. Her relationship with Davis, another early associate of Waller's, began after her Bluebird contract lapsed. Davis took a similar approach to recording her, making use of her talents as a prolific songwriter and surrounding her once again with excellent players, including the Duke Ellington star Ray Nance, who doubled on trumpet and violin; Budd Johnson on tenor saxophone; and drummer Shadow Wilson. The tunes included "Tain't Yours," written by Carlisle and her manager, Barney Young, a title that certainly didn't apply to record buyers who snapped up this release in a manner that must have put a grin on Davis' face.
Davis put her tunes into play at many sessions he produced by other artists, and he also issued sheet music of her compositions, including a charming photograph of Carlisle wearing a truly weird hat. Some of the later recording collaborations between Carlisle and Davis didn't go off as well, including an unfortunate session at which one tune was tried some 16 times without ever being played properly.
Her last studio session was for Columbia in New York on May 8, 1950. Later in 1950 she recorded a few "special product" 78's on RCA Victor, which she is believed to have distributed to disc jockeys to keep her name before the public. Una Mae kept on working successfully 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 November7, 1956.
Her discography languished between her death and the mid-'80s, when the first Carlisle reissue came out on the Harlequin label. Subsequently there have been reissues by RCA, which owns the Bluebird catalog, and the French Melodie Jazz label. She can be seen onscreen in the 1948 Boarding House Blues, an all-black production directed by Josh Binney which is made up mostly of performances by various jazz and vaudeville acts. (Info mainly All Music)
It Ain't Like That - Una Mae Carlisle