Music to My Ears

Hoagy Carmichael, Part 2

Back at IU Hoagy was going to class and stopped in at the old Book Nook and sat down at the piano.  He’d been thinking about melody, how there was always a melody inside the chords that would surface eventually with a little patience.  This time it surfaced and wrote itself all at once.  A friend listening said it sounded like washing clothes on a washboard.  Hoagy had a song, a different song he called Washboard Blues.  He called a few friends, including Tommy Dorsey, to record at Gennett as an instrumental.  The pressing was taken to a poet buddy who added a lyric.  I couldn’t find the original recording but here is Hoagy doing it himself.  The dialect is a poor black woman lamenting her life.

Sung in this way it was controversial at the time and downright racist by today’s standards but remember the times and remember Hoagy’s affiliation and love for the black communities he learned in.  We can explore Ethics in History! in another forum.  This recording is important because it represents a real departure for the songwriting idiom itself.

 

By the way.  Was anyone offended by the Irish mom caricature I used in the front of this article?  No, of course not.  It was cute and folksy.  Right?

The song got a lot of attention and Hoagy began thinking he could actually make a go of this whole songwriting thing.  In 1927 he was still working on his studies at Indiana University but continued playing in bands and working on writing.  Once again crossing the campus a melody entered his head and he went to the Book Nook to get it down.  It took a few months of work, but when it was done it was Stardust.

In 1929 Mitchell Paris added the lyric and the damn thing ended up being recorded by everybody, and I mean that almost literally.  It’s arguably the most recorded melody in the 20th century, recorded more than 1500 times by artists as disparate as Bing Crosby, Artie Shaw, Louis Armstrong, George Benson, Eddie Cochran, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.  Originally recorded as an instrumental at Gennett with Hoagy Carmichael and his Pals who included Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.

 

But before all that shit happened there were hard times.  Hoagy tried Hollywood since movies had added sound and needed songwriters but they didn’t think they needed a kid from Indiana.  Carmichael headed for New York, had success writing songs for Tin Pan Alley producer Irving Mills ( who ended up owning the songs and in fact added his name as co-composer of Stardust), and still struggled with the itinerant nature of a musician.  He was in New York in the fall of 1929 when all hell broke loose and everyone’s livelihood was in jeopardy.

Hoagy tried to find work in investment banking but his timing was pretty bad.  He wrote a banking friend back in Indiana but had no luck there either.  Meanwhile every six months, changes and indecision saw Hoagy getting excited, then broken by songwriting, then trying to be a responsible member of society with a weekly paycheck.

In 1931 a series of events made his decision for him.  First Bing Crosby recorded Stardust and it was a major hit.  Walter Winchell loved it and gushed about this fresh new songwriter on his national radio program.  A year later a dozen bands had covered it.  Also that year the Hoagmeister failed the bar exam for the second and last time.

Goodbye law career.  We’re all in.

Still Hoagy lamented at this time that jazz ‘seemed to be waning’.  The reality was the jazz he had loved, ‘hot jazz’, was turning into a new phenomenon to be called Swing.  Dude,  jazz will never die.  Relax.  Fortuitously in 1933 he met a young lyricist named Johnny Mercer and they wrote a tune Lazybones that sold 350,000 copies.  Carmichael and Mercer are close to jazz’s Rogers and Hammerstein, writing iconic songs together like In the Cool Cool Cool of the Evening for which they won an Oscar for Best Original Song, and a little tune to become another jazz standard, Skylark.  Mercer told a great story that Hoagy had given him the music to Skylark and it took him a full year to get the lyric to set right.  It wasn’t until Carmichael stopped pestering him with ideas and forgot the thing that Johnny was able to finish it.

In 1935 Hoagy started writing songs for Warner Brothers and his attachment to Hollywood began.  He played bit roles as the droll cigarette smoking piano player in movies like To Have and Have Not, The Best Years of Our Lives, and one of the great jazz movies of all time, Young Man with a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas as a rendition of Hoagy’s old pal Bix Beiderbecke.  Honestly man.  If you haven’t seen this movie…

The Hoag wrote Georgia On My Mind and never set foot in the place.  It’s now the state’s freakin anthem.

You know this guy, you’ve heard his songs a million times and you’ve seen him in movies, always with a toothpick or cigarette hanging from his mouth, giving advice to the young girl spurned by her man.

He caught a great deal of flak from critics and fans alike for his vocal abilities, which he himself described as sounding “the way a shaggy dog looks”.  I could not disagree more.  I love how he used what he had.  Listen to what he does with Am I Blue that he recorded with a very young Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not.

 

Shiver me timbers.

That’s the movie where Bacall and Bogart met.  Wait..you haven’t seen that film either?..Crimeny..  Where you been?

Trying to cover Hoagy Carmichael in a small column is an impossible task.  He was one of those transitional figures in music that witnessed and blew air into the birth and development of the jazz age.  I guess I’m just trying to pay homage to a man largely forgotten today.  Y’all know his songs and some recognize him from his movies, but even with a name like Hoagy he’s beginning to fade in our memories.

A dear friend, old college roommate, and fellow musician this week told me his band was doing an arrangement of Skylark.  He didn’t know I was doing this article.  That’s pretty cool.

Here is one of a thousand interpretations of one of the greatest jazz standards ever written.  Performed by the unmistakable Paul Desmond and accompanied by Bob James, Ron Carter, Gene Bertoncini (guitar!) and Jack DeJohnette.  Music by Hoagland Howard Carmichael. Skylark.

 

Hoagy, you’re still the man.