Historical records matching Hoagy Carmichael
About Hoagy Carmichael
A giant among composers of American popular music, Hoagy Carmichael wrote "Stardust," the song that has according to many reckonings been recorded more often than any other in the history of music. Several other songs - "Georgia on My Mind" and the infectious "Heart and Soul" - have been hardly less popular, reaching nearly universal familiarity among listeners born decades after they were written. Likewise successful as an actor and as a musical performer, he did much to establish the image of the songwriter in the American mind.
He was born Hoagland Howard Carmichael on November 22, 1899 in Bloomington, Indiana, the only son of Howard Clyde Carmichael and Lida Robison. He was named Hoagland after a circus troupe "The Hoaglands" who stayed at the Carmichael house during his mother's pregnancy. Howard was a horse-drawn taxi driver and electrician, and Lida a versatile pianist who played accompaniment at silent movies and for parties. The family moved frequently, as Howard sought better employment for his growing family. At six, Carmichael started to sing and play the piano, absorbing easily his mother's keyboard skills. By high school, the piano was the focus of his after-school life, and for inspiration he would listen to ragtime pianists Hank Wells and Hube Hanna. At eighteen, the small, wiry, pale Carmichael was living in Indianapolis, trying to help his family’s income working in manual jobs in construction, a bicycle chain factory, and a slaughterhouse. The bleak time was partly spelled by four-handed piano duets with his mother and by his strong friendship with Reg DuValle, black bandleader and pianist known as "the elder statesman of Indiana jazz" and "the Rhythm King", who taught him piano jazz improvization.
The death of his three-year-old sister in 1918 affected him deeply, and he wrote "My sister Joanne—the victim of poverty. We couldn’t afford a good doctor or good attention, and that’s when I vowed I would never be broke again in my lifetime." She may have died from influenza, which had swept the world that year. One positive side to the family's shaky financial straits was that Carmichael's mother, a talented ragtime pianist, took jobs entertaining partygoers at Indiana University fraternities in Bloomington; Carmichael grew up hearing music and sometimes dozed on two pushed-together chairs as his mother played. Sometimes the family lived in racially integrated Bloomington neighborhoods, and Carmichael was exposed to the sounds of African-American gospel music. Carmichael earned his first money ($5.00) as a musician playing at a fraternity dance.
Though he assumed he would go into a professional career, there were forces pushing Carmichael toward the arts as well. The family knew the nationally prominent Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley. And when they moved to Indianapolis in 1916, the teenaged Carmichael found himself in a large city that was an important popular-music crossroads. He took piano lessons from an African-American barber and ragtime pianist named Reginald DuValle, and aside from some childhood studies with his mother that was the only structured musical training he ever received. That set him apart from other songwriters, the vast majority of whom had classical training of some sort. Soon Carmichael had dropped out of high school and was playing piano in Indianapolis nightspots high and low, paying the bills by driving a cement truck and working in a slaugh-terhouse during the day. DuValle's son recalled (according to a New York Review of Books article reproduced on the Official Hoagy Carmichael website maintained by his family) that "In our neighborhood we seldom had any white people. So he kind of stood out, if you know what I mean."
Carmichael's mother Lida warned him (as has often been reported, for example by Daniel Okrent in Forbes) that "Music is fun, Hoagland, but it don't buy you cornpone." His financial ambitions reasserted themselves, and he returned to Bloomington to finish high school. Getting wind of the new jazz music of the day, however, he booked a Louisville Band led by a musician named Louie Jordan (not the later singer of "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens") to play a party. Jazz hit Carmichael full force. As quoted on the Hoagy Carmichael website maintained by his family, he recalled that hearing this band "exploded in me almost more music than I could consume." Enrolling at Indiana University, Carmichael took law classes but also formed a jazz band called the Carmichael Syringe Orchestra and Carmichael's Collegians.
A second strong shot of jazz influence came when Carmichael heard a performance by Iowa-born cornetist Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, often regarded as the first great white jazz musician. Booked by Carmichael for a series of ten fraternity dances, Beiderbecke befriended Carmichael and suggested that he try his hand at songwriting. Carmichael complied with a pair of songs, "Free Wheeling" and "Washboard Blues" (the latter a depiction of an African-American washerwoman), that, thanks to Beiderbecke, began to spread around the Midwestern jazz world. Carmichael bought a cornet and began to play it so obsessively that his friends eventually hid the instrument. He recalled (according to Washington Post writer Martin Weil) that "Bix showed me that jazz could be musical and beautiful as well as hot."
Carmichael received his bachelor's degree in 1925 and his law degree the following year. He moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, hoping to cash in on the Florida land boom. Those plans quickly changed when one day he heard a jazz band called Red Nichols & His Five Pennies playing "Washboard Blues" in a local store. He returned north to Indiana and started writing music seriously, making a series of recordings for the Gennett label in Richmond, Indiana, in 1927. Among them was an instrumental called "Star Dust" - originally spelled with two words. The African-American jazz band McKinney's Cotton Pickers performed "Star Dust" and recorded it in 1928, but both their version and Carmichael's own were up-tempo renditions that seemed to smother the melody's delicate filigree. In 1929 he headed for New York City to try to make it in the music business.
Still working days for a stockbroker, he circulated among jazz clubs at night and met Louis Armstrong, whom he had heard and admired in Chicago earlier in the decade, as well as several future swing titans: clarinetist Benny Goodman and bandleader brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. The young lyricist Johnny Mercer became one of his favorite collaborators. Things picked up when he sold "Star Dust" to the Mills Music Company. The song went nowhere when it was issued as a sheet-music instrumental in early 1929, and even a poetic set of lyrics added by songwriter Mitchell Parrish did little to help. Jazz bands continued to be attracted to "Stardust," however, and the Isham Jones Orchestra tried out a slower tempo on a 1930 recording. A flood of other recordings followed, and Bing Crosby had a hit with his vocal version in 1931. Within a few years "Stardust" - a lost-love song about love songs - had achieved the status of standard that it still holds today. Carmichael (as quoted on his family's website) recalled feeling a "queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me" the first time he heard a recording of the song. "Maybe I hadn't written it at all…. I wanted to shout back at it, 'maybe I didn't write you, but I found you.'"
Carmichael was hitting his peak creatively and turned out numerous hits in the early 1930s, many of them sharing the relaxed but jazzy groove of "Stardust." "Rockin' Chair," released in 1930, harked back to the African-American spiritual cadences of Carmichael's youth (he wrote the lyrics himself) in its depiction - quite unusual for a popular song - of an old woman "chained to my rockin' chair" and awaiting her Judgment Day. Carmichael recorded "Georgia on My Mind" in 1930 and published it the following year. The lyrics were by Carmichael's Indiana classmate Stuart Gorrell.
Beiderbecke's death at age 28 from alcohol-related complications hit Carmichael hard emotionally, and his music, whether for that reason or simply because of larger changes in the language of popular song, gradually became less jazzy. In 1936, the year he married Indianan Ruth Meinardi, Carmichael headed for Hollywood. The pair had two sons, Hoagy Bix and Randy, before divorcing in 1955. Carmichael, often working with lyricist Frank Loesser, had lost none of his melodic gift; his late 1930s hits included "Small Fry," "Two Sleepy People" and, in 1938, "Heart and Soul," a tune so simple that children and other musical novices quickly learn to pick it out on the piano, yet so ingeniously structured as to be instantly memorable for a lifetime. The latter two hits were among the comparatively small number of love songs in Carmichael's oeuvre.
Carmichael's career in the movies began in 1937 with a bit part in Topper. He performed his own material in many films, playing a nightclub pianist in the 1942 hit To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Carmichael's biographer Richard Sudhalter has credited him with fostering the growth of the singer-songwriter profession in American music; certainly he was in the minority among songwriters of his time in becoming well known for his own renditions of his songs. The year 1942 brought Carmichael another major song hit with "Skylark," written to a lyric by Johnny Mercer. He sang his own "Ole Buttermilk Sky" in the 1945 Canyon Passage, helping that song along to standard status as well.
As vocalists came to the fore after World War II, a spate of new recordings of Carmichael's songs appeared; during the year 1946, Carmichael songs held three of the top four places on the national Hit Parade ranking at one point. Carmichael continued to write new material, and in 1951 "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," with Mercer once again as lyricist, won an Academy Award for Best Song. He appeared in various films including the Beiderbecke biography Young Man with a Horn, hosted a television show called The Saturday Night Review, and even had a nonmusical role in the late 1950s in the Western television series Laramie.
With the coming of rock and roll, Carmichael's string of hits seemed to be at an end. In the 1960s he wrote two classical orchestral works, Johnny Appleseed and Brown County in Autumn, but they gained little attention. Yet his songbook became ever more securely ensconced in the American musical mind. If "Stardust" became a trifle less pervasive (at least until Willie Nelson's hit recording of 1978), "Georgia on My Mind" gained new life through Ray Charles's recording in 1960, on the album The Genius Hits the Road. It became one of the songs most identified with the great rhythm-and-blues legend.
An enthusiastic golfer and coin collector, Carmichael lived the high life in California in his old age. He married actress Wanda McKay in 1977. Carmichael lived long enough to attend ceremonies for several major awards bestowed upon his body of work; in 1972 he received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of Indiana, which established an archive of Carmichael materials in 1986. After suffering a heart attack, he died in Rancho Mirage, California, on December 27, 1981. The awards rolled on, and a Hoagy Carmichael U.S. postage stamp was issued in 1997. Jazz chanteuse Norah Jones's recording of Carmichael's "The Nearness of You" in 2002 testified to the continuing vitality of his work in the new millennium.
Hoagy Carmichael's Timeline
November 22, 1899
Bloomington, Monroe, Indiana, USA
December 27, 1981
Rancho Mirage, Riverside, California, USA
January 4, 1982
Bloomington, Monroe, Indiana, USA