Cliff Carlisle Biography

Clifford Raymond Carlisle, 6 May 1904, near Mount Eden, Spencer County, Kentucky, USA, d. 2 April 1983, Lexington, Kentucky, USA. Born in a log cabin on a tobacco farm, Carlisle developed an early affinity for yodelling blues music and the Hawaiian guitar, which led to him becoming one of the best steel guitarists to play in country music. He is also considered a pioneer of the dobro and a fine yodeller and singer of most types of country songs, comedy and blues. In 1920, he first performed locally as a duo with his guitar-playing cousin Lillian Truax. During the 20s, he and singer/guitarist Wilbur Ball toured with vaudeville shows and in 1930 appeared on WHAS Louisville as the Lullaby Larkers. Mainly because of Carlisle’s yodelling abilities, they first recorded for Gennett Records in 1930 and, in June 1931, with Carlisle playing steel guitar, they accompanied Jimmy Rodgers on two recordings in Louisville. During the 30s, Carlisle most likely made more recordings than any other artist with his yodels and vocals, in a style similar to Rodgers, being found on numerous labels including Bluebird Records, ARC, Decca Records and King Records. Between 1933 and 1936 he recorded several risqué ballads, including his self-penned ‘Mouse’s Ear Blues’, sometimes using for these a pseudonym such as Bob Clifford or Amos Greene. He also popularised ‘The Girl In The Blue Velvet Band’.

Around 1930, Carlisle began to appear with his younger brother Bill Carlisle as the Carlisles. They toured extensively throughout the Midwest and for some years were based at Charlotte or Knoxville. They also had their own barn dance stage show on WLAP Louisville. Cliff’s son Tommy first performed with them when he was three years old and later recorded as Sonny Boy Tommy singing songs such as ‘My Lovin’ Cathleen’ and ‘Lonely Little Orphan Child’. He performed with them until he joined the US Army in World War II. (Later he worked in television). They recorded for RCA - Victor Records in 1936 but during their time together recorded for several major labels. Their song content changed over the years and they began to include gospel material in lieu of the risqué numbers. In 1946, their King recording of ‘Rainbow At Midnight’ became a number 5 hit on the US country charts. The brothers split amicably, around 1947, when Cliff basically retired. He continued to write and briefly came out of retirement in 1951 to appear with his brothers’ group the Carlisles. In the 60s, he made some concert appearances with his brother and made some recordings for independent labels. In 1971, after a gap of 40 years, he even appeared with Wilbur Ball at the San Diego Folk Festival. In the late 70s, his health began to deteriorate and he died following a heart attack on 2 April 1983.

Some examples of Carlisle’s excellent recordings may also be found on various compilation albums of old time music. Eminent authority Charles K. Wolfe summed up the career of both Carlisles by stating ‘They were among Kentucky’s first successful full-time country musicians, and their accomplishments are impressive by any standard.’

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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