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Carmichael, Hoagy (1899-1981)

Carmichael, Hoagy (1899-1981)

Children who play the perennial "Heart and Soul" duet on the family piano might not realize that the tune was written in 1938 by one of America's most prolific popular song composers, Hoagy Carmichael. Carmichael also became one of the century's most iconic pianists, as his distinctive appearance—gaunt and glum, hunched over the upright piano in a smoky nightclub—endures through numerous Hollywood films from the 1940s and 1950s, including classics such as To Have and Have Not and The Best Years of Our Lives (in Night Song he even shares billing with classical concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein). Carmichael's music lives on, too, having thoroughly entered the American musical canon. Of his 250 published songs, "Stardust" (1927) is probably one of the most frequently recorded of all popular songs (with renditions by artists ranging from Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole to Willie Nelson and Carly Simon); "The Lamplighter's Serenade" (1942) proved to be Frank Sinatra's solo recording debut; and "Georgia on My Mind" (1931) has become that state's official song.

Carmichael's roots were in the 1920s Midwest, where traditional Americana intersected with the exciting developments of jazz. Hoagland Howard Carmichael was born on November 22, 1899, in Bloomington, Indiana. His father was an itinerant laborer; his mother, an amateur pianist, played accompaniment for silent films. In 1916, his family moved to Indianapolis, where Carmichael met ragtime pianist Reggie DuValle, who taught him piano and stimulated his interest in jazz. In 1919 Carmichael heard Louis Jordan's band in Indianapolis; as Carmichael relates in his autobiography Sometimes I Wonder, the experience turned him into a "jazz maniac." While studying law at Indiana University, Carmichael formed his own small jazz band, and also met 19-year-old legendary cornetist Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, who became a close friend as well as a strong musical inspiration. Carmichael's earliest surviving composition, the honky-tonk "River-boat Shuffle," was written in 1924 and recorded by the Wolverines, Beiderbecke's jazz band (Carmichael, incidentally, wrote the soundtrack music and played a supporting role in Hollywood's 1950 fictionalized version of Beiderbecke's life, Young Man with a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day).

After receiving his degree, Carmichael practiced law in Palm Beach, Florida, hoping to capture part of the real estate boom market there. Soon deciding to devote his efforts to music, Carmichael moved to New York, but met with little success on Tin Pan Alley. It was not until Isham Jones's orchestra made a recording of "Stardust" in 1930 that Carmichael had his big break. Within a year Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and the Dorsey brothers had recorded their own versions of other Carmichael songs (including "Georgia On My Mind," "Rockin' Chair," and "Lazy River") for the burgeoning radio audience.

During the next decade, Carmichael worked with lyricists Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, and Mitchell Parish, among others. In the late 1930s he joined Paramount Pictures as staff songwriter (his first film song was "Moonburn," introduced in the 1936 Bing Crosby film Anything Goes), and also began appearing in films himself (the first film he sang in was Topper, performing his own "Old Man Moon"). In 1944, "Hong Kong Blues" and "How Little We Know" were featured in the Warner Brothers film To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which also marked Carmichael's debut as an actor. In one year (1946) Carmichael had three of the top four songs on the Hit Parade, and in 1947 his rendition of his own song "Old Buttermilk Sky" (featured in the film Canyon Passage, and nominated for an Academy Award) held first place on the Hit Parade for six consecutive weeks. Carmichael described his own singing as a "native wood-note and flatsy-through-the-nose voice." It was not until 1952, however, that Carmichael and lyricist Mercer won an Academy Award for Best Song with "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," performed by Bing Crosby in Paramount's Here Comes the Groom). Carmichael also made appearances on television during the 1950s, hosting his own variety program, The Saturday Night Revue (a summer replacement for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows), in 1953. In 1959 he took on a straight dramatic role as hired ranch hand Jonesy on the television Western series Laramie.

Carmichael continued composing into the 1960s, but his two orchestral works—"Brown County in Autumn"—and his 20-minute tribute to the Midwest—"Johnny Appleseed"—were not as successful as his song compositions. In 1971, Carmichael's contributions to American popular music were recognized by his election to the Songwriters Hall of Fame as one of the ten initial inductees. He retired to Palm Springs, California, where he died of a heart attack on December 27, 1981.

—Ivan Raykoff

Further Reading:

Carmichael, Hoagy. The Stardust Road. New York, Rinehart, 1946.

Carmichael, Hoagy, with Stephen Longstreet. Sometimes I Wonder: The Story of Hoagy Carmichael. New York, Farrar, Staus, and Giroux, 1965.

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