Hoagy Carmichael

1899 1981

Hoagy Carmichael

Composer • Piano


Hoagy Carmichael was an American song-writing legend of the 20th century. In addition, he was a singer, actor, pianist and bandleader. His songs, which includeStardust, Skylark and Heart and Soul remain closely associated with old America. Carmichael led the way for future singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell.

Hoagland Howard Carmichael was born on 22 November 1899 (the same year as Duke Ellington) in Bloomington, Indiana into a lower middle class family. His father worked sporadically as an electrician while his mother played piano for silent films and at dances and parties. As a boy, Hoagy (as he preferred to be called), took piano lessons with his mother and would tag along to her performances. He was exposed not only to her playing, but also to the circus when it was in town and from the African-American churches and families in his neighbourhood. He was also accustomed to hearing ragtime, particularly Scott Joplin’sMaple Leaf Rag, which was published the year of Hoagy’s birth.

After moving with his family to Indianapolis in 1916, Hoagy met Reginald DuValle, an African-American pianist who greatly influenced the boy. Hoagy Carmichael learned much from DuValle, including how to play ragtime and the new jazz style. He would often seek out performance venues at restaurants, clubs and brothels.

Carmichael was further inspired by jazz, becoming a self-described ‘jazz maniac’ after hearing Louis Jordan’s band in Bloomington in 1919. It was at this point that he began listening to as many LPs as he could get his hands on. In addition, he had the opportunity to hear trumpet player Louis Armstrong perform in Chicago that year.

Carmichael went on to study law at Indiana University, where his interest in jazz also continued to grow. He ended up forming his own band, Carmichael’s Collegians, which performed on campus and throughout Indiana and Ohio.

Another influential event occurred in 1924 when Carmichael met Bix Beiderbecke, the Iowan cornet player, at the university. The two became good friends after Carmichael booked him for a series of concerts. It was for Beiderbecke that Carmichael wrote his first piece,Free Wheeling (retitled Riverboat Shuffle). Beiderbecke recorded the piece with Gennett Records and his seven-piece band, The Wolverines.

After obtaining both his Bachelor and law degrees in 1925 and 1926, respectively, Carmichael set out for West Palm Beach, Florida to practice law. Shortly thereafter, he heard a recording of his songWashboard Blues performed by Red Nichols and gave up law at once to pursue his musical career.

After playing piano for a time with the Jean Goldkette band, Carmichael closed the chapter on his early Indiana years, moving to New York in 1930 to become a songwriter. Times were tough in New York and in order to survive, Carmichael was forced to take a day job at a brokerage house and write songs at night. While in New York, Carmichael became closely acquainted with musicians such as the Dorsey Brothers, clarinettist Benny Goodman, trombonist Jack Teagarden and again Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong. He also met the enthusiastic Georgian lyricist Johnny Mercer, who was ten years his junior. The two formed an unstoppable team, writing songs such as the hitLazy Bones (1933).

Carmichael’s hit Star Dust had a surprisingly unimpressive debut. He had the opportunity to record this piece, also at Gennett studios, in 1927. At this point, the piece was up-tempo and without text; it was also a major flop. In January 1929, the piece was published in the instrumental form before being re-published as a song in May of that year, with lyrics by the New Yorker, Mitchell Parrish. The song was still, however, not popular. It was not until May 1930, when bandleader Isham Jones recorded the song that it became a hit. In Isham’s recording the tempo is much slower, giving the song a much dreamier and more romantic quality, attracting many listeners.

In the early 1930s, Carmichael focused on folk-inspired songs such as Rockin’ Chair(copyright 1930) and Lazy River (1931), which would later become jazz standards. He also made 36 recordings between 1929 and 1934 for Victor. He had the opportunity to record with Louis Armstrong, Henry "Red" Allen, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Mildred Bailey and Jack Teagarden, among others. He was also granted membership into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1931.

Tragedy struck in 1931 with the death of Beiderbecke, who had become a close friend over the years. At this moment, Carmichael turned away from jazz, focusing instead as a mainstream songwriter.

In 1936, Carmichael married Ruth Meinardi (also from Indiana), with whom he had two sons—Hoagy Bix and Randy. That same year, the couple left New York City for Hollywood, where ‘the rainbow hits the ground for composers’, as Carmichael would say.

While in Hollywood, Carmichael worked for Paramount Pictures, collaborating with lyricist Frank Loesser on a number of songs includingTwo Sleepy People, Small Fryand Heart and Soul. He also ventured into Broadway, just one time, in 1939 with the relatively unsuccessful musicalWalk with Music, on which he collaborated with Mercer. He preferred, instead, to focus on songs that could be performed independently of any production. He also wrote songs for films.

Beginning in the late 1930s, Carmichael began acting in films, beginning with a small part as a piano player in the 1937 filmTopper. This was followed by roles inTo Have and Have Not (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Canyon Passage(1945) and Young Man with a Horn (1950). He often portrayed a pianist in the films and in this as was able to promote songs such asHow Little We Know and Ole Buttermilk Sky.

Carmichael was at his peak in the 1940s; he was a successful songwriter, singer, actor and radio star. Not only was he recordings for three different record labels but he also had his own radio show on three different networks. In addition, he published his first memoir,The Stardust Road (1946). His most popular song from this period is most certainlySkylark (1942), which again contains lyrics by Mercer. With the exception of this song, his Hollywood songs do not contain a strong jazz element.

Carmichael and Mercer earned an Academy Award for best song for their film song In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening(1951). Other songs from this period, includingMy Resistance is Low and Winter Moon, were just moderately successful as the musical styles were rapidly changing. Rhythm & blues, along with rock & roll, were taking over. These new styles, which featured much simpler harmonies and heavy beats, were not of interest to Carmichael.

Despite this stylistic change, Carmichael’s songs remained popular and many even believe that a number of them are true folk songs. Ray Charles even earned a Grammy Award with his performance ofGeorgia, introducing Carmichael’s song to modern audiences.Stardust also remained popular in the 1950s and 1960s, leading RCA Victor to release an LP,The Stardust Road, which only featured various performances of the song. 

After a divorce in 1955, Carmichael went on to star in the television Western Laramiefrom 1959 to 1960 before publishing a second book of memoirs, Sometimes I wonder, in 1965.

In addition to golfing and collecting coins, Carmichael continued to write songs, though the majority were never recorded. He also published a collection of songs for children entitledHoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop (1971).

In 1977, Carmichael married actress Wanda McKay, with whom he had enjoyed a long relationship. In his final decade, Carmichael received a number of awards, including an honorary doctorate from Indiana University in 1972. The university’s Lilly Library also honoured him with a curated exhibition in 1974. Carmichael was also honoured in 1979 at Carnegie Hall. The stage production Hoagy, Bix, and Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhauswas also performed in England and the USA.

Hoagy Carmichael died of a heart attack at his home on 27 December 1981.