A Renaissance Composer Who Captured the Heartland
In 1899, when composer Hoagy Carmichael was born, his native Indiana was a place of steamboats, washboards, and gin-guzzling codgers; all around him were the wide-open spaces of the Midwest. No wonder so many of his songs are snapshots of the heartlands: "Rockin' Chair," "(Up a) Lazy River," "Ole Buttermilk Sky," "Lazybones," and most famously "Stardust." Carmichael's music, said Johnny Mercer, his foremost lyricist, "is just American. It sounds like the South, like Indiana." His tunes zigzag and soar like jazz solos; the words imbue nature with human qualities. "Skylark," with lyrics by Mercer, portrays a singing bird as a soaring symbol of hope. In "Georgia on My Mind," written with his onetime roommate, Stuart Gorrell, the octave leap on "Georgia" is like an exclamation point in a song that bursts with longing for the warm embrace of home.
Carmichael left his influence all over the show-business map. He was there at the dawn of jazz, contributing songs, vocals, and piano to essential recordings by Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, the Dorsey Brothers, and Paul Whiteman. During the swing era, Carmichael's love songs, such as "The Nearness of You" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well," became universal expressions of romance and loss.
He was almost as well-known as a character actor. Onscreen he perfected a Hollywood archetype: the weathered, world-weary saloon pianist, staring up from the keyboard through a cloud of cigarette smoke. That's how he appears in To Have and Have Not, where he accompanies Lauren Bacall as she sings his song, "How Little We Know." The same film features "Baltimore Oriole," a dark, brooding, film noir-like story-song about tortured love. Carmichael was also a radio and recording star; his wry, offhanded singing style has inspired a long line of male jazz vocalists, notably Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, and John Pizzarelli.
Carmichael left his influence all over the show-business map.
Born in the college town of Bloomington, Hoagland Howard Carmichael grew up loving ragtime piano, a burgeoning musical sensation. Playing helped him support his impoverished family. Carmichael was smart and serious enough to earn a law degree from Indiana University; but in the early twenties, jazz took over his life. Carmichael developed a friendship with Bix Beiderbecke, the pioneering cornetist, for whom he was inspired to write a song, "Free Wheeling." Beiderbecke introduced him to Louis Armstrong, who began recording Carmichael's tunes. So did Bing Crosby. In 1930, "Stardust" exploded on the charts, and he abandoned law for good.
In 1932, Carmichael became one of the first songwriters to work out of Manhattan's legendary Brill Building, which would replace Tin Pan Alley as the headquarters of America's hottest songwriters. Four years later he moved to Los Angeles, where Hollywood snapped him up. His collaborations with Mercer, Frank Loesser, Ned Washington, and others made him a very wealthy man. Yet he shrewdly maintained his down-home persona even as he hobnobbed with celebrity friends, collected an Oscar (for "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," written with Mercer for the 1951 film Here Comes the Groom), and acquired a Beverly Hills home. "A nice shack," he declared, "but nowhere near as nice as I remember Grandma's place back home in Bloomington."
As the '50s wore on, pop music had seemingly left him behind. He ends his 1965 memoir on an uneasy note: "How appropriate Mitchell Parish's opening words [to "Stardust"] seem as I sit here trying to 'dig' the future: 'Sometimes I wonder….'" Yet by the time he died in 1981, Carmichael had seen his greatest songs come back to life, era after era. Ray Charles had made "Georgia on My Mind" an R&B hit in 1960; Willie Nelson took it to No. 1 on the 1978 Billboard country chart. "Skylark" opens Bette Midler's second album. On the Rolling Stones' Live Licks, Keith Richards performs "The Nearness of You." In recent years, Annie Lennox has recorded "Memphis in June"; Marianne Faithfull's latest CD includes "I Get Along Without You Very Well." On his 2017 collection Triplicate, Bob Dylan sings "Stardust."
Carmichael's songs made a deep impression on Matt Ray, a Brooklyn-based, award-winning jazz pianist and musical director for many cutting-edge figures in downtown cabaret. For his American Songbook performance on January 27, Ray will sing as well as play Hoagy's songs. Joining him is Kat Edmonson: a Sony Masterworks recording artist, a singing partner of Lyle Lovett, and a featured vocalist in Woody Allen's Café Society (2016). Once more, Carmichael's work is finding new life.
—Copyright © 2018 by James Gavin
James Gavin's books include biographies of Peggy Lee, Chet Baker, and Lena Horne. He is a two-time recipient of ASCAP's Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for excellence in music journalism.
Learn more at jamesgavin.com.