In this program we pay tribute to the songwriter and jazz legend Hoagy Carmichael, for his birthday on November 22nd. Born in Bloomington, Indiana, Carmichael became one of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th century and also wrote some of America’s most popular songs such as “Your Nearby”, “Skylark”, and “Georgia on my mind.” In this lesson we will take samples from his songbook and hear these songs performed by him Frank Sinatra, Carmen McRae, Norah Jones, and more.
We start with a song he wrote in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, just a few blocks from WFIU Studios, where I produce this show. It was his first major song and has since become his most famous and recorded song, despite the complexity of its melody and harmony. There are over 1000 versions of this song.
Of course I’m talking about “Stardust.” The legendary origin story of “Stardust” has it that one night in 1927, Hoagy was walking the Indiana University campus, gazing up at the stars and thinking about a past love when he remembered the tune. He walked into the downtown coffeehouse known as “The Book Nook,” sat inside at the piano, and out came this song.
The reality is, according to biographer Richard Sudhalter, he probably tinkered with the tune for about a year. And the title “Star Dust” (originally two words) was dreamed up by his buddy and classmate at IU Stu Gorell, not necessarily inspired by Hoagy’s own views of the sky. (Gorrell also wrote the lyrics to Carmichael’s early tune “Georgia on My Mind”– it was his only credit as a songwriter. He later became a banker.)
It’s an instrumental tune—intricate and snake-like—and while Carmichael dabbled in some lyrics early on, he ultimately didn’t see it as a love song with words. In 1929, publisher Irving Mills asked lyricist Mitchell Parish to write some lyrics to “Stardust,” which became the song we know today.
It has been a standard among singers since it was first performed on recordings by both Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong back in 1931.
With other poets
While Hoagy Carmichael occasionally wrote his own lyrics, he’s mostly collaborated with other lyricists over the years. One of his most famous collaborators was a fellow singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer. Mercer was 10 years Carmichael’s junior, but they both had an easy-going charm, and being from Georgia and Indiana respectively, they had a more folksy approach to songwriting than many of the more urban songwriters who worked in Tin Pan Alley.
They first teamed up in 1933 and worked together several times over the decades. In 1941, Carmichael Mercer released a tune called “Bix Lix,” named after his old friend, trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. Together, Carmichael and Mercer turned that tune into a song known today as “Skylark.”
Their collaboration also became a critical success. In 1949 they wrote a song called “In the cool, cool, cool of the evening” for a Betty Hutton film. But that movie ended up not being produced, so it was re-edited for the Bing Crosby movie Here comes the groom in 1951 and later won an Oscar for Best Original Song.
By the 1930s, Carmichael had landed a job as a staff songwriter at the Paramount film studio, and the studio often assigned him a staff lyricist to work with. In 1938, that lyricist was a man named Frank Loesserwho later became a notable composer himself, writing things like the musical boys and dolls. As a duo, Hoagy and Frank wrote few songs in 1938, but each of those songs became enduring classics, including “Heart and soul” and “Two sleepy people.”
One of the stranger collaborations in Carmichael’s catalog came with a song called “I can do very well without you,” a beautiful tune about trying to hold on after a broken heart. Carmichael based the song on a poem he read life Magazine titled Except Sometimes written by a mysterious author who went by the initials JB. He revised her poem to this song. However, when he wanted to publish it, he couldn’t because JB still owned the copyright of the original poem and no one knew where to find that person.
The call went out on Walter Winchell’s radio show and weeks later JB was found. The mysterious poet was Mrs. Jane Brown Thompson, a 71-year-old woman living in Philadelphia who was also in poor health at the time. Copyright has been cleared, but it’s very likely Thompson died before she heard it on the radio in 1939.
Hoagy in Hollywood
During Hoagy Carmichael’s Songs became a Hollywood staple in the 1930s, and in the 1940s the man himself became a fixture on the silver screen actor. He played his first leading role in the 1944 film Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall To have and not to have, where he played the role of pianist Cricket. Carmichael performs some of his original songs in the film and others, like “Baltimore Oriole”, were used as background music.
The lyrics to “Baltimore Oriole” were written by one of his great collaborators, Paul Francis Webster, who co-wrote songs like “Memphis In June” and understood Carmichael’s folksy charm. The tune is bluesy, partly inspired by Jewish cantor tunes, although it was deemed too difficult for Lauren Bacall to sing in the film, so it ended up being background music.
Hoagy in the 21st century
Although most of Hoagy Carmichael’s songs were written in the first half of the 20th century, his songs are still performed today. For example, Kurt Elling recorded “I Get Along Without You Very Well” on his 2001 album Flirting with Twilight and Norah Jones recorded his song “Your nearness” which he wrote with Copywriter Ned Washington 1937 on their Grammy-winning 2002 album come with me.
Still, there are a few entries in the Hoagy Carmichael songbook that are somewhat problematic here in the 21st century. For example, I’m not entirely comfortable playing songs like “Hong Kong Blues” or “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” with the stereotypes they portray. And even like beloved songs “rocking chair” and “slacker,” As catchy as they are, they’re inspired by racist minstrel tropes. This was common in pop tunes of the late 1920s and early 1930s, but was unacceptable a century later.
Even a song like “A woman who likes to be told” premiered by Kay Starr, teetering on the edge of acceptance. This is not about racial politics, but about sexual politics. And it’s not like they are offensive, per se, but they’re just a bit dated. The dated texts here are from Harold Adamsonbut Carmichael’s tune is timeless and infectious.
Hoagy the singer-songwriter
Hoagy Carmichael was more than just a songwriter. Often regarded as one of the original “singer-songwriters” in American popular music, he possesses a charming if untrained voice.
There is a statue of the Lord right in front of our radio studio here at WFIU in Hoagy Carmichael’s hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. I walk past it every day and you’ll often find that someone has freshly picked flowers in one of their hands. The statue is life-size and incredibly lifelike: a gaunt but handsome figure seated at a cast bronze large Steinway grand piano. Hoagy wears a porkpie hat and his jacket strews and strums his original tune constantly on the piano frame “Memphis in June” the sheets of music are in front of him.
Carmichael sang this tune in the 1945 film Johnny Engeland “Memphis In June” was also one of the many songs included on the 1956 album Hoagy sings Carmichaelan album on which he records his own songs and one of his last albums as a performer.
However, why it appeared as his favorite song on the IU statue – rather than the more appropriate ‘Stardust’ he wrote in Bloomington – remains unclear. My colleague David Brent Johnson and I even reached out to Carmichael’s son Hoagy Bix Carmichaelto see if he knew. Hoagy Bix replied: “I’ve asked myself about that often. It was also a song about the south and what it feels like to live there. I don’t recall my father ever discussing this song, and certainly not in a tone that would be at the top of his list. I think someone there at IU decided it was Carmichael-esque and brought the two together.”