Carmichael, Hoagy (actually, Hoagland Howard)

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Carmichael, Hoagy (actually, Hoagland Howard)

Carmichael, Hoagy (actually, Hoagland Howard) rustic American composer, singer, and actor; b. Bloomington, Ind., Nov. 22, 1899; d. Rancho Mirage, Calif., Dec. 27, 1981. Carmichael differed from many of his songwriting contemporaries in that his work was imbued with jazz and blues; he rarely wrote for the theater or composed whole film scores, preferring to compose mostly individual songs for Tin Pan Alley and the movies; he never formed a permanent partnership with a lyricist, although he worked frequently with Johnny Mercer and Frank Loesser and sometimes wrote his own lyrics; and he pursued a parallel career as a performer that included work as a singer, pianist, bandleader, character actor, and radio and TV host. Thus in several ways he was a prototype for later generations of singer-songwriters, although he was atypical of his own time. His songs, with their long melodic lines containing few repeated notes, were equally at home on Hollywood sound stages, on the hit parade, and in jazz clubs. Among his many hits were “Star Dust” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Heart and Soul.”

Carmichael was the son of Howard Clyde and Lida Robison Carmichael; his mother was the pianist at a silent-movie theater, and he learned the piano at her side. When he was 16, the family moved to Indianapolis, where he studied with ragtime and jazz pianist Reginald Du Valle. He began playing professionally in dance bands while still in high school, but he entered Ind. Univ. to become a lawyer. Nevertheless, he financed his education by working as a musician, becoming pianist and director of Carmichael’s Collegians in 1923. He also booked bands, including the Wolverine Orch., which featured his friend, cornetist Bix Beider-becke. Encouraged by Beiderbecke, he wrote his first composition, “Riverboat Shuffle/7 and the Wolverines recorded it for Gennett Records on May 6, 1924. That brought the tune to the attention of N.Y. publisher Mills Music, which published it in 1925 with Irving Mills and Wolverines pianist Dick Voynow cut in as co-composers. The song was then recorded by Isham Jones and His Orch., who scored a hit with it in July 1925. Meanwhile, Carmichael had launched his own recording career with his “Washboard Blues” which he cut for Gennett as the pianist with Curtis Hitch’s Happy Harmonists on May 19, 1925.

Despite these efforts, Carmichael maintained his ambition to become a lawyer, and when he earned his LL.B. degree in 1926, he moved to Fla. to practice law. The same year, however, Mills Music published “Washboard Blues” (again appending Irving Mills’s name), and it was recorded by Red Nichols and His Five Pennies for a hit in April 1927. This second recording success convinced Carmichael to become a professional composer and musician. He moved back to Blooming-ton in the summer of 1927, where he wrote “Star Dust,” which he recorded at dance tempo with a five-piece band on Oct. 31. Meanwhile, “Riverboat Shuffle” had been given a new recording by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orch., including Beiderbecke, on May 9, and it became a hit again in September, with yet another successful recording by Nichols in January 1928. There was also a hit revival of “Washboard Blues,” recorded Nov. 18, 1927, by Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orch., with Carmichael sitting in on piano and vocals (a lyric had been added by Fred B. Callahan), that became popular in March 1928.

”Star Dust” was published by Mills as an instrumental in January 1929, when it was spelled “Stardust”; the two spellings have been used interchangeably ever since. As “Star Dust,” it was republished with a lyric added by Mitchell Parish in May. Carmichael moved to N.Y. and played piano on the first successful recording of the song—an instrumental credited to Irving Mills and His Hotsy Totsy Band that became popular in January 1930. This version was again up-tempo, but Isham Jones next recorded the tune at what is now its familiar slow ballad pace, and his version established “Star Dust” as a major hit, becoming a best-seller in April 1931 and inspiring many cover records. Bing Crosby had the most successful vocal recording.

Carmichael’s next hit was “Georgia on My Mind” (lyrics by Stuart Gorrell). He had recorded the song himself in September 1930, but it was made into a popular recording for the first time by Frankie Trumbauer in August 1931. The second time came soon after: Mildred Bailey scored her first hit recording with the song in January 1932. Another Carmichael song with which Bailey became associated was “Rockin’ Chair” (lyrics by Carmichael), but it was the Mills Brothers’ recording that made it a hit in May 1932, leading to the successful reissue of an earlier recording by Louis Armstrong and His Orch. from December 1929 on which Armstrong and Carmichael duetted. This was followed by the belated issue of Carmichael’s November 1930 recording of “Lazy River” (music and lyrics by Carmichael and Sidney Arodin), which became a hit in June 1932. “Lazybones,” Carmichael’s next hit, was his first with lyricist Johnny Mercer; it became a best-seller for Ted Lewis and His Band in July 1933. In September the Dorsey Brothers Orch. had an instrumental hit with “Old Man Harlem” (music and lyrics by Carmichael and Rudy Vallée).

Through the intercession of Bing Crosby, Carmichael was invited to make his first contribution to a motion picture in 1935, interpolating “Moonburn” (lyrics by Edward Heyman) into Paramount’s film version of Cole Porter’s musical Anything Goes, which starred Crosby and was released in February 1936. On March 14, 1936, Carmichael married Ruth Mary Meinardi, a model. They had two sons and divorced in 1955.

Carmichael next wrote several songs for the Broadway revue The Show Is On, including the title song and “Little Old Lady” (lyrics by Stanley Adams), which reached the hit parade for the Abe Lyman Orch. in March 1937. Paramount offered Carmichael a contract, and he moved to Hollywood. He made his first film appearance in Topper, which opened in July 1937, and had a song in that production as well as in Every Day’s a Holiday, released at the end of the year. For the unproduced Romance in the Rough, he wrote “The Nearness of You” (lyrics by Ned Washington), which would become a hit later.

Carmichael contributed music to five Paramount features released in 1938, and two of the songs from those films made the hit parade in the fall: “Small Fry” (lyrics by Frank Loesser), from the Bing Crosby film Sing, You Sinners, as recorded by Crosby and Johnny Mercer; and “Two Sleepy People” (lyrics by Mercer) from the Bob Hope film Thanks for the Memory, recorded by Fats Waller’s Orch. But Carmichael’s most successful composition of the period was the independently published “Heart and Soul” (lyrics by Loesser), recorded by the Larry Clinton Orch., which also played it in a Paramount short, A Song Is Born; it went on to become a favorite of piano students everywhere.

Although Carmichael contributed to such Paramount features as St. Louis Blues and Some Like It Hot in 1939 and even appeared in a short, Paramount Presents Hoagy Carmichael, his major song successes of the year were independent efforts. “I Get Along without You Very Well” (lyrics by Carmichael, based on a poem by Jane Brown Thompson), recorded by the Red Norvo Orch., was in the hit parade in March and April 1939, and “Blue Orchids” (lyrics by Carmichael) topped the hit parade for the Glenn Miller Orch. in November. The year 1939 was also when Carmichael published the novelty song “Hong Kong Blues” (lyrics by Carmichael), although it did not become a hit for him until later.

Carmichael and Mercer wrote the songs for the Broadway musical Walk with Music in 1940, but it flopped, running only 55 performances. Nevertheless, Carmichael continued to score hits with his back catalog. In August, Glenn Miller finally made a Top Ten hit of ’The Nearness of You/7 and on Oct. 7, Artie Shaw and His Orch. recorded an instrumental version of “Star Dust” that turned it into one of the century’s most popular songs. The Shaw recording made the Top Ten in January 1941 and sold over a million copies; thereafter, “Star Dust” was recorded well over a thousand times, making it one of the most successful songs of the century.

Carmichael earned his first credits for scoring complete motion pictures in 1941, placing five songs in United Artists’ Road Show in February and three in Paramount^ animated feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town in December. Among Carmichael’s notable songs of 1942 were the wistful “Baltimore Oriole” and “The Lamplighter’s Serenade,” both with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, but his major hit of the year was “Skylark” (lyrics by Mercer), which had four chart recordings, the most successful of which was Glenn Miller’s, a Top Ten hit in May.

Carmichael scored Paramount’s True to Life, released in August 1943, contributing four songs with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. But he gained much more recognition for his next film assignment, To Have and Have Not (1944), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacali. In his second acting role, Carmichael performed “Hong Kong Blues” and his subsequent recording became a Top Ten hit in October 1945. The same month, his song “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” (lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) was sung by Betty Hutton in the film The Stork Club. Hutton’s recording topped the charts in February 1946 in competition with other renditions, including Carmichael’s, which was popular too.

Carmichael continued to appear in films. In 1945 he had been in Johnny Angel; in 1946 he was in The Best Years of Our Lives and Canyon Passage, for which he also wrote the songs, among them “Ole Buttermilk Sky” (music and lyrics by Carmichael and Jack Brooks), which attracted six chart recordings (one, of course, by Carmichael), the most popular of which was by Kay Kyser, who topped the charts with it in December. The song earned Carmichael his first Academy Award nomination.

Carmichael marked other milestones in 1946. He published the first of his two books of memoirs, The Stardust Road, and he scored his first hit with a song he had not written himself. Released in November, his version of the novelty song “Huggin’ and Chalkin’” (music and lyrics by Clancy Hayes and Kermit Goell) outdistanced three others to reach the top of the charts in February 1947.

Jo Stafford had a minor hit with “Ivy” (lyrics by Carmichael), written as a promotional song for the Universal film of the same name, in May 1947, and Carmichael appeared and placed a song in RKO’s Night Song in November. “Bubble-Loo Bubble-Loo” (lyrics by Webster) was a minor hit for Peggy Lee in August 1948. For the most part, however, Carmichael turned his attention to orchestral works in the late 1940s, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orch. performed his “tone picture” Brown County Autumn in 1949. His other notable work of the period was the Johnny Appleseed Suite. He returned to film work with Johnny Holiday, appearing in the Christmas 1949 release and contributing a song. He also appeared, without singing, in Young Man with a Horn (1950), a film loosely based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke.

Carmichael spent part of 1950 writing a score for The Keystone Girl, a proposed film biography of silent-film director Mack Sennett, and although it was never produced, he was able to salvage several of the songs for later use, including “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (lyrics by Mercer), which was featured in the Bing Crosby film Here Comes the Groom in September 1951 after it had already become a hit for Crosby and co-star Jane Wyman; it won the 1951 Academy Award for Best Song.

Meanwhile, Carmichael himself had returned to the charts in May 1950 with “The Old Piano Roll Blues” (music and lyrics by Cy Coben) in a duet with Cass Daley. Carmichael and Daley had a second hit in April 1951 with a revival of the 1914 song “The Aba Daba Honeymoon” (music and lyrics by Arthur Fields and Walter Donovan), inspired by its use in the Debbie Reynolds film Two Weeks with Love.

Carmichael provided the songs and appeared in RKO’s The Las Vegas Story in early 1952. He also appeared in Belles on Our Toes in April. The duo of Perry Como and Eddie Fisher had the most popular version of his “Watermelon Weather” (lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) in June, and in October the Four Aces scored a hit revival of “Heart and Soul.” Bob Manning brought “The Nearness of You” back into the charts in April 1953.

Carmichael and lyricist Harold Adamson wrote nine songs for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but only two remained when the film was released in July 1953. In September one of Carmichael’s discarded songs from The Keystone Girl turned up in Those Redheads from Seattle. Meanwhile, Carmichael had launched a career as a TV host with Saturday Night Revue, a 90-minute variety show on NBC that ran during the summer of 1953 and was supposedly broadcast from Carmichael’s penthouse apartment.

Carmichael was less active, especially as a songwriter, after the mid-1950s. He placed a song in Three for the Show (1954) and scored Timberjack (1955), in which he also appeared. Billy Ward and His Dominoes had a gold-selling revival of “Star Dust” in 1957. Carmichael was a regular on the Western TV series Laramie during the 1959–60 season.

The songwriter’s most popular songs enjoyed further revivals in the early 1960s. Ray Charles topped the charts in 1960 with a definitive version of “Georgia on My Mind.” (Michael Bolton confirmed the power of Charles’s interpretation by taking a virtual carbon-copy performance into the Top 40 in 1990.) In 1961 the Cleftones and Jan and Dean each had Top 40 records with “Heart and Soul,” and Bobby Darin and Si Zentner and His Orch. each scored with “Lazy River.” Nino Tempo and April Stevens reached the Top 40 in 1964 with “Star Dust.” Carmichael himself took on one last film assignment, writing a couple of songs for the 1962 film Hataril, the soundtrack for which reached the Top Ten. Willie Nelson, a singer whose delivery was similar to Carmichaers self-described “flatsy through the nose” approach, scored his biggest success with his 1978 album of standards, Star Dust, which sold four million copies and contained his country-chart-topping rendition of “Georgia on My Mind.”

Carmichael died of a heart attack at the age of 82, survived by his sons and his second wife, Dorothy Wanda McKay, whom he had married in 1977.


(only those works for which Carmichael was the primary, credited composer are listed): musicals/ revues:Walk with Music (N.Y., June 4, 1940). films:Road Show (1941); Mr. Bug Goes to Town (a.k.a. Hoppity Goes to Town; 1941); True to Life (1943); To Have and Have Not (1944); Canyon Passage (1946); The Las Vegas Story (1952); Timberjack (1955).


The Stardust Road (N.Y., 1946); with Stephen Longstreet, Sometimes I Wonder: The Story of H.C.(N.Y., 1965).


Old Rockin’ Chair (1955); Hoagy Sings Carmichael (1956); Stardust Road (1958); Legend of Hoagy Carmichael (1961); I Can Dream, Can’t I? (1963); Stardust (1929).


J. Hasse, The Works of H. C.(Cincinnati, 1983); R. Schiff, éd., H. C: The Star Dust Melodies of...(Melville, N.Y., 1983).

—William Ruhlmann

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Carmichael, Hoagy (actually, Hoagland Howard)

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