An early jazz entertainer and songwriter, Una Mae Carlisle had a world of talent and a dazzling stage presence, all of which helped her become a popular star. Unfortunately her career was shortened by health problems, but for two decades she was a very successful part of the music scene. And it in no way diminishes her accomplishments to give a little credit to a couple of people who were important to her along the way, including a mentor who was headed for legendary status himself (and who also died young) and another guy who acted as a catalyst.
Una Mae was another of those artists who got an early start down a musical path, studying piano from age three and singing and playing on radio in Dayton, Ohio, a few years later. By the time she was in her late teens she’d taken her act to Cincinnati, where she performed live and on radio, and it was there that she was discovered by one of the true pioneers of jazz, Fats Waller.
It was 1932, and by then Waller was well on his way to a memorable career of his own. Sources vary, but he either saw the young performer at a club or at the radio station in Cincinnati, but what we do know is that a veteran promoter and publisher named Joe Davis was a close associate of his and might have been involved. Davis was also given credit by many for encouraging the shy Waller to originally break out as a performer, and it turned out to be a good idea because on stage he was a charismatic and much-loved star.
Una Mae’s piano style was already similar to Waller’s and she could spin out the comedic asides in the same way. It wasn’t long before he was helping her in every way he could, including collaborating with her on stage and in the recording studio. (And reportedly in the bedroom, too.) Even after she went on a solo tour in Europe later in the decade they stayed in touch, and she still worked with him from time to time. One good example is their vocal duet on his 1939 recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.”
By the 1940’s Una Mae was blossoming in a number of ways, making records with some of the big names in jazz and starring in New York clubs. She was also beginning to attract a lot more notice for her songwriting abilities, with stars like Cab Calloway and Peggy Lee among those recording her songs. It was during this period that she once again became the focus of Joe Davis, who began promoting her into an even higher profile. Davis took a similar approach in the recording studio, making use of her talents as a songwriter and surrounding her with excellent musicians. Among her best records was “Tain’t Yours”.
Davis was working with her in the making of records and other activities, but he also offered added value. He published many of her best songs as sheet music, and sold thousands of copies to other singers and would-be amateurs. One of her best-sellers was “Walkin’ By The River”.
By the time Fats Waller died in 1943 Una Mae was well-established in her own career, and would continue to do well for the rest of the decade. She was still working with Joe Davis, who had started his own record company by then, and she also had her own radio program. It was followed by her own show on early television, but her health was beginning to suffer and she retired from the music business in the early 1950’s. She was just 40 when she died of pneumonia in 1956.