Hoagy Carmichael

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Hoagy Carmichael never lost his yearnings for his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, where he was born on November 22, 1899. In fact, he wrote a tribute to his home state, “Can’t Get Indiana Off My Mind.” Like his frequent collaborator, Johnny Mercer, Carmichael’s whole career was informed by his love for Indiana, the music he heard, and the musicians he met while growing up there.

Like his frequent collaborator, Johnny Mercer, Carmichael’s whole career was informed by his love for Indiana, the music he heard, and the musicians he met while growing up there.

In 1916, Carmichael’s father, an intinerant electrician, and his mother, a pianist in a silent movie house who also played the occasional dance, and their son moved to Indianapolis. Carmichael got his first interest in the piano and lessons from his mother and black pianist (and barber) Reggie Duval (sometimes spelled DuValle). In 1919, back in Bloomington, he heard Louie Jordan’s ensemble who, as Carmichael put it, “exploded in me almost more music than I could consume.” When Carmichael was studying law (what is it with composers and law school?) at Indiana University and founded his first band, the curiously named Carmichael Syringe Band (later renamed Carmichael’s Collegians). In 1924, he met Bix Beiderbecke, then leader of the Wolverines. Cornetist Beiderbecke would prove to be the most important influence on Carmichael’s life both personally and professionally.

Carmichael was urged to try his hand at composition by Beiderbecke and his first piece, “Riverboat Shuffle” was performed by the Wolverines and recorded by them in May, 1924. It was to be Carmichael’s first compostion, first recording, and first published piece of music. In the latter category he was not so lucky, however, in that Jack Mills assigned the writing credits to Dick Voynow, the Wolverine’s pianist and Mills’s brother, the king of the cut-in, Irving Mills. Strange since Irving Mills was usually credited with lyrics he didn’t write but the “Riverboat Shuffle” had no lyrics at this point (Mitchell Parish added them in 1939).

Beiderbecke went on to join Paul Whiteman’s aggregation but didn’t forget his friend Hoagy. In November of 1927, Whiteman recorded, “Washboard Blues” with Carmichael handling the piano chores and singing Fred B. Callahan’s lyric. That same year marked the arrival of Carmichael’s most successful composition, “Star Dust.” The first recording was made with Emil Seidel’s band but using the name Hoagy Carmichael and His Pals. The recording session took place on October 31, 1927. It was published as an instrumental by Mills Music in January of 1929 and Mitchell Paris was called in to supply a lyric in May of that year.

Meanwhile, Carmichael was barely making ends meet as a lawyer in West Palm Beach. The gig was short-lived. In 1929, Carmichael finally moved to New York City to make his fortune in songwriting. Things weren’t working out too well in New York, either as the Depression was in full force. It took until 1930 for “Star Dust” to become famous, largely because of the Isham Jones recording, at the tempo we know now, on the Brunswick label in May of that year.

Now the hits came fast and furious, “Rockin’ Chair” recorded with Louis Armstrong, “Georgia on My Mind” with a lyric by Stuart Gorell, the guy who named “Star Dust,” and “Lazy River.”

In 1931, Beiderbecke died and Carmichael moved further toward mainstream Tin Pan Alley writing and away from his jazz roots. In 1936, he married Ruth Meinardi, and he left New York for Hollywood. Most of Carmichael’s appearances are elaborated cameos, much like Dooley Wilson’s in Casablanca. His most famous appearance is in To Have and Have Not (1944) where he sang “How Little We Know.” He also appeared in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) in a straight role (He also played it straight as a regular on the TV western Laramie in 1959. Carmichael made one stab at success on the Great White Way, 1939’s Walk with Music, which, though it had a marvelous score, failed.

Despite his relatively monotone, nasal singing, his voice had a county twang and a wry quality and Carmichael became a noted performer of his own work and other’s too. His recordings for Decca, his film, radio, and television appearances all made him probably the most recognizable songwriter in the country. But as the 1950s progressed popular music left the great craftsmen behind for the most part and Carmichael’s opportunities diminished as the 1960s grew closer. Carmichael died on December 27, 1981. (KB)

Close to perfect

Shaw to Sam Litzinger of CBS Radio: "If I had to say something was perfect musically, the solo I did on ‘Stardust’ is as close to being perfect as I would have wanted."Stardust

Sitting on the wall

In 1927, Hoagy Carmichael was sitting on the “spooning wall” of Indiana University pining for a girl named Dorothy. He ran to an old upright piano in The Book Nook and finished the song. A great story but apparently not true. Carmichael appears to have been working on the song since 1926. He even wrote a lyric to the tune which contained the words “Star Dust melody.” However and wherever it happened, Carmichael recorded it in 1927 for Gannett Records. Publisher Irving Mills took the song to Mitchell Parish and with its melody slowed down Parish wrote new lyrics for the tune. Carmichael’s friend (and lyricist for “Georgia on My Mind”), Stuart Gorrell, came up with the title, “Star Dust,” as the melody reminded him of “dust from stars drifting down through the summer sky.”

In 1936 RCA pressed what must certainly be one of the most unique records of all time—“Star Dust” on both the A and B sides of a 78 with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra on one side and Tommy Dorsey’s on the flip.Stardust

Couldn't cash the check

Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael won $1,250 each from ASCAP for the song. Red Norvo recalled, “Mildred [Bailey] and I were living in Queens at the time. Johnny phoned me on a Friday. He said he’d just got this check from ASCAP and couldn’t cash it. We told him to come out to our apartment. When he got there, Mildred told him to call Ginger and tell her to take a cab. She said we’d pay for it. Ginger came and we spent the weekend with them and on Monday morning, Mildred went to her bank and got the check cashed for him.”Lazybones

Mighty logical

Hoagy Carmichael: "[Johnny Mercer] walked in one day and I was sitting in the chair, the door was open, summertime. He knocked, and I said, “Come in!” And I’m sitting in the chair, half-dozing. This is the absolute truth. I said, “What’s on your mind?” He said, “Well, I thought we might try to write a song.” I said, “Have you got any idea?” He said, “I thought I’d like to write a song called ‘Lazy Bones.’ What do you think of that title?” I said, “With this kind of summer we’re having in New York, and what with the Depression, and nobody working, it sounds mightly logical.”Lazybones

Old joke, not a funny one

Hoagy Carmichael: As I was driving down the highway, coming into Palm Springs, to join Johnny [Mercer] to write this score, I happened to think of an old old joke, not a very funny joke. But it was about a jackass. And it seemed that the king of the jungle, the lion, sent an emissary to the jackass to say, “Jackass, are you coming to the king’s big party?” And the jackass, sitting with a pipe in his mouth and his legs crossed, said, “Tell the king in the cool, cool, cool of the evening, I’ll be there.” Well, I told this joke to Johnny Mercer and in two days we had the song.In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening

Sing between the cracks

George Gershwin loved this song. He loved the way that Carmichael wrote the tune for the melody line to be sung between the cracks. Gershwin played at Carmichael’s wedding reception.Hong Kong Blues

Poetry in music

Though lyric writing and poetry are two distinct arts, some lyrics have derived from poems. Hoagy Carmichael took a poem by Jane Brown Thompson as the inspiration for “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometime).” Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” was based on a poem by Bob Fletcher. Porter intended the song to be a parody but, like his “Wunderbar,” it was taken seriously. The song was written in 1944 for an unproduced film. It wasn’t until Roy Rogers sang it in Hollywood Canteen that the song was introduced to the public.

While Carmichael was attending Indiana University, a friend gave him a poem to set to music. Carmichael wrote out a tune and promptly forgot about it until a few years later when he came across the manuscript. However, he couldn’t identify the author of the poem. He turned to columnist Walter Winchell, who broadcast the first few lines on his radio show. Forty-eight pretenders to the lyric responded before it was discovered that the poem had been published in the original Life magazine. Dick Powell premiered the song on January 19, 1940, one day after Mrs. Thompson died.I Get Along Without You Very Well

From an interview with Dick Sudhalter

“My Dad thought Hoagy was above everyone. He had this natural thing, very intuitive, that placed him above the others as far as Dad was concerned. They both had fast minds; things would go through with my Dad click-click. That fast, and if he thought of something he’d get on the phone and call Hoagy right away. They both had these fast minds. He got such a kick out of Hoagy. He’d say, ‘How can a boy from Indiana write about the South?’”Amanda Mercer

One of my closest friends

One of my favorite collaborators, and one of my closest friends, is Hoagy Carmichael. I admired him as a singer when he sang “Washboard Blues” and some things with Paul Whiteman.Johnny Mercer

He knew I knew

Johnny and I could have flooded the market with hit songs. We were atune and he “knew” and he knew I “knew.” But the chips didn’t fall right. Probably my fault because I didn’t handle them gently.Hoagy Carmichael

Big and small

“Hoagy was a very big talent but a very small man.”Johnny Mercer

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Recordings
Stardust
Hoagy Carmichael at the piano
Stardust (Intro for The Fabled 24 September 1940 San Francisco Concerts)
Intro for Hoagy Carmichael
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD