Legends of Songwriting: Hoagy Carmichael
Inside the Stardust
By PAUL ZOLLO
Hoagy Carmichael once said that he didn’t write “Stardust,” he found it. “[I felt] that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t write it at all.“ This quality – that a song is not an invention but a discovery – is a sensation many songwriters of recent generations, such as Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, have described. But it’s not the general thinking of those from Hoagy’s time, those Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths who shared Sammy Cahn’s famous sentiment that inspiration comes not from a muse, but from a phone call. Songs in that era were written on assignment; contrived, crafted and delivered in quick order. Hoagy didn’t do it like that. And for that reason the miraculous melodies that he “found,” such as “Stardust,” flow with a natural, unfettered, organic beauty that few other songwriters have ever captured.
Hoagy wrote music, and left the writing of the words to some of the greatest lyricists America has known, such as Frank Loesser and Johnny Mercer. But while the wordsmiths were mostly content to stay in the background, Hoagy always had the urge to perform his own songs. Though popular music then divided singers and songwriters into two separate camps, Hoagy was the first to belong to both groups, a true singer-songwriter long before American had ever experienced such a phenomenon.
He described his singing style, which is not unlike that of a father singing gently to a child, as “flatsy through the nose.” It’s an apt description, and one of the reasons people loved him. As Smithsonian music curator John Edward Hasse said, “His singing style made him seem like one of the people… His songs appealed to all sections of American society — from the Wall Street broker to the sharecropper farmer. He was a musical democrat.”
That dynamic also can be found in the universal quality of his musical expression, which generated tunes so ingrained in the American memory that it seems they have simply always been with us. “Heart and Soul,” for example, which every beginning piano student learns right around “Chopsticks” time, was written by him, as were so many other classics of the American songbook, including “Rockin’ Chair,” “The Nearness of You,” “Skylark,” “Georgia On My Mind, ” “Two Sleepy People,” and his most popular song ever, “Stardust,” which has been recorded more than a thousand times, by singers as diverse as Pat Boone, Willie Nelson, Louie Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Liberace, Barry Manilow, Ringo Starr, Frank Sinatra, and Los Hombres Calientes, to name only a handful.
Hoagy’s music fused the timeless aspects of American folk and jazz to create a new kind of American song which had never been heard before. “No one would mistake his songs for those of Gershwin or Porter or any other songwriter,” wrote Hasse. “While there is no single Carmichael `sound,’ his songs nonetheless sound like him. His melodies are strong and distinctive, they move to unusual intervals, cover a wide range, and display the instrumental influence of jazz. Most have few repeated notes, and travel an unpredictable path… And that’s one reason why so many of them have remained with us for decades.”
The legendary Johnny Mercer, with whom Hoagy wrote 36 songs, miraculously managed to match with words the simple complexities of the American folksy jazz intrinsic to Hoagy’s tunes. So immediate and charged was their creative connection that the first song they attempted together, “Lazybones,” took all of twenty minutes to complete.
“[His] music is… American,” Mercer said. “It’s home-stuff. It sounds like the South. Like Indiana. Like any other place we used to know. Hoagy is self-taught, and his chords and melodies are unique. He doesn’t borrow except from himself. Rhythm is a part of him, which is more than a lot of us can claim.”
He was born Hoagland Howard Carmichael in Bloomington, Indiana on November 22, 1899. His dad was an electrician, and his mom played piano at parties and for silent movies. It’s from her that Hoagy inherited his love of the instrument, which she encouraged, but certainly never as a profession. She hoped her son could have a better life than that of a lowly musician, and urged him to become a lawyer. She mastered Scott Joplin’s famous “Maple Leaf Rag,” which was written the same year Hoagy was born, providing the context for his famous quote, “Ragtime was my lullaby.” Well-aware of his professional inclinations, she told him, “Music is fun, Hoagland, but it don’t buy you cornpone.”
But there was no stopping him. His had an almost insatiable hunger to hear and play music of all kinds, and he would go anywhere, places both sacred and profane, to find it. His Sunday mornings, for example, would begin in a series of churches, where he’d happily bask in the rich soul of down-home gospel music for hours. From there he’d head to a local carnival or circus, if one was in town – to hear the ragtime and jazz bands there. By sunset he could usually be found sitting in with bands at little restaurants, bars and brothels.
When his family moved to Indianapolis in 1916, his mother changed Hoagy’s life forever by allowing him to get piano lessons from ragtime virtuoso Reginald DuValle, whose instruction gave Hoagy a foundation in stride and jazz that forever seasoned his own music. “Never play anything that ain’t right,” Duvalle told him. “You may not make a lot of money. But you’ll never get hostile with yourself.”
Hoagy attended Indiana University to study law. But like Cole Porter, who also studied law before devoting himself to songwriting, Hoagy discovered that his hunger to make music was only intensifying. Befriending the legendary jazz cornetistBix Beiderbecke in 1922, Hoagy saw first-hand that a life in music could be a lot more exciting and lucrative than his mother ever dreamed. He took a shot that paid off – writing a song targeted directly for Bix and the band he played with, The Wolverines. “Riverboat Shuffle” was one of the first songs Hoagy ever wrote, as rhythmically propulsive as it was sweetly melodic, and the group loved it. Within a month it was recorded, released, and on the radio, and it became the Hoagy’s first hit. The first of many.
His next recorded song was “Washboard Blues,” cut by Red Nichols in 1927. Though Hoagy was still studying law at the time, hearing that song the first time on the radio was the impetus he needed to devote himself totally to songwriting. It proved to be a good choice, as one of the next melodies that Hoagy “found” became one of America’s most famous and beloved songs, “Stardust.”
In his autobiography, The Stardust Road (which proved he could be as melodious with a pen as with a piano), Hoagy preserved for all time the genesis of this special song:
“It was a hot night, sweet with the death of summer andthe hint and promise of fall. A waiting night, a night marking time, the end of a season. The stars were bright, close to me, and the North Star hung over the trees… The town and the university and the friends I had there flooded through my mind… All the girls young and lovely…
But most of them had gone their ways.Gone as I’d gone mine.
I looked up at the sky and whistled `Stardust.’”
From The Stardust Road
By Hoagy Carmichael
On Halloween of 1927, Hoagy became the first of more than a thousand artists to record “Stardust.” His was an uptempo solo piano rendition. It was songwriter/bandleader Isham Jones who first recorded it in a much slower ballad tempo, which is the way it’s usually performed. The words by Mitchell Parish were added after both of these records were released, and yet matched the arc of the melody so perfectly it seems as if both were conceived simultaneously. Though Parish wrote many other famous songs, he said, “`Stardust’ is in a class by itself.”
Hoagy moved to Manhattan in 1929, quickly inserting himself into a thriving jazz scene that also included Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Beiderbecke, and Glenn Miller. Not only did they enjoy his company, they also started cutting his songs, including “Rockin’ Chair,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Lazy River,” and “Lazybones.”
Hoagy drifted away from the jazz community after Bix’s death, and started spending more time in the Broadway corridors of Tin Pan Alley, collaborating with a score of gifted wordsmiths, including Mercer, Loesser, Ned Washington , and Paul Francis Webster. It was then that Hollywood came calling, and in the forties Hoagy not only became a staff songwriter at Paramount, but also began appearing in a string of movies. Starting with his sweetly laconic appearance playing the keys for Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not, which also starred Bogie, Hoagy soon became an iconic fixture at the piano in films such as Johnny Angel (1945), The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), and Young Man With A Horn (1950) and others. “He was everybody’s favorite sidekick,” Owen McNally wrote, “…as much in the American grain as Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper.”
Despite the international renown that came his way, Hoagy always remained the folksy, unassuming guy from Indiana. “When we were growing up in our house on Sunset Boulevard,” said Hoagy’s son, Hoagy Bix Carmichael, “we had absolutely no frame of reference for being famous. My dad and mom were from the Midwest. We considered ourselves to be `homegrown.’ My dad’s phone number was still listed in the book when he died in 1981.”
Throughout the forties and into the fifties Hoagy continued writing the beautifully-crafted songs that made him famous, and in ’51 created yet another classic with Mercer, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” By the sixties, though, he felt cast aside, as did most songwriters of his era, by rock and roll, and turned away from popular music to write two orchestral works, “Brown County In Autumn,” and “Johnny Appleseed.” But with little enthusiasm from the public for this music, he started spending less time at the piano and more on the golf course. The last years of his life were spent in Palm Springs, where he died on December 27, 1981.
His ongoing significance as an American songwriter was already a given during his lifetime, and has continued to expand exponentially. In 1999, the centennial of his birth, retrospectives of his life coincided with retrospectives of the century, an era enriched immeasurably by his work. When Paul McCartney was asked to list his top ten favorite songs of the 20th century, he put “Stardust” near the top of a list that also included two songs by John Lennon, and one by George Harrison.
New and old collections of Hoagy’s songs have been recently released, including The Great Jazz Vocalists Sing Hoagy Carmichael (Capitol Jazz), which features Nat King Cole’s timeless rendition of “Stardust,” and also singers from Dinah Shore to Cassandra Wilson. Hoagy Sings Carmichael With the Pacific Jazzmen (Pacific Jazz) was recorded in 1956, and features Hoagy’s poignantly off-key vocals set against a great jazz backdrop arranged by Johnny Mandel, and featuring classic players such as Art Pepper and Harry “Sweets” Edison. Both are ideal avenues into the timeless songs of Hoagy Carmichael, songs which have never stopped celebrating and enriching the real heart and soul of America.