Hoagy Carmichael Biography

Hoagland Howard Carmichael, 22 November 1899, Bloomington, Indiana, USA, d. 27 December 1981, Rancho Mirage, California, USA. An important composer, pianist and singer from the 30s through to the 50s, Carmichael grew up in a poor rural community, and was encouraged to play piano by his mother, who accompanied silent films at a local movie theatre. Largely self taught, he continued to play in spite of having ambitions towards a career in law. In 1916, the Carmichaels moved to Indianapolis where Hoagy took lessons from Reginald DuValle, a ragtime pianist. While still at high school he formed a band and continued to lead various groups during his time at Indiana University. In 1922, he met and became friendly with Bix Beiderbecke, then with the Wolverines, for whom Carmichael composed ‘Riverboat Shuffle’ (with Dick Voynow, Mitchell Parish, Irving Mills), one of his first works. During the mid-20s he wrote occasionally, his music being published while he continued with his law studies. In 1927, he happened to hear a recording by Red Nichols of one of his tunes, ‘Washboard Blues’ (lyric later, with Fred B. Callahan and Irving Mills). This convinced Carmichael that he should abandon law school and make a career in music. Also in 1927, he composed ‘Star Dust’, which, with a subsequent lyric by Mitchell Parish, became his biggest seller, and one of the most recorded songs of all time.

Based in New York from 1929, the year ‘Star Dust’ was published, Carmichael mixed with the jazz community, playing piano, singing and simply hanging out. For their part, the musicians, who included Louis Armstrong, Henry ‘Red’ Allen, Benny Goodman, Beiderbecke, Bud Freeman, Red Norvo, Glenn Miller, Joe Venuti, Gene Krupa, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden and many others, were happy to have him around and they recorded several of his compositions including ‘Rockin’ Chair’, ‘Georgia On My Mind’ (lyric by Stuart Gorrell), ‘Lazy River’ (with Sidney Arodin) and ‘Lazybones’ (lyric by Johnny Mercer).

After Beiderbecke’s death in 1931, Carmichael’s interest in jazz waned although he never lost his affection for the music’s early form and its performers. He began to concentrate on songwriting, redirecting his musical thought towards the mainstream of popular songs, many of which were introduced in films. Occasionally he wrote both words and music, but generally he collaborated with some of the leading lyricists of the day. During the 30s his compositions included ‘Old Man Harlem’ (with Rudy Vallee), ‘Judy’ (Sammy Lerner), ‘Moon Country’ (Mercer), ‘One Morning In May’ (Parish), ‘Moonburn’ (Edward Heyman), ‘Little Old Lady’ (from the 1937 Broadway musical The Show Is On, Stanley Adams), ‘Small Fry’ (Frank Loesser), ‘Two Sleepy People’ (Loesser), ‘Kinda Lonesome’ (Leo Robin, Sam Coslow), ‘Heart And Soul’ (Loesser), ‘Blue Orchids’ (Carmichael), ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ (Carmichael) and ‘Hong Kong Blues’ (Carmichael). From 1937 onwards, Carmichael also appeared as an actor/performer in films such as Topper (1937), To Have And Have Not (1944), Johnny Angel (1945), Canyon Passage (1946), The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), Johnny Holiday (1949), Young Man With A Horn (1950), The Las Vegas Story (1952), Belles On Their Toes (1952), and Timberjack (1955). He also had a featured role (Jonesy) in the popular television western series Laramie from 1959-62.

In 1940, Carmichael wrote ‘The Nearness Of You’ (Ned Washington), his most frequently recorded song after ‘Star Dust’, as well as ‘The Rhumba Jumps’ (from the Broadway musical Walk With Music) and ‘Can’t Get Indiana Off My Mind’. Among his other songs during the 40s were the tender ‘Skylark’ (Mercer), ‘The Lamplighter’s Serenade’, ‘Memphis In June’, ‘Baltimore Oriole’, ‘Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief’ (last four, Paul Francis Webster), ‘The Old Music Master’ (Carmichael), ‘How Little We Know’ (Mercer), ‘Ole Buttermilk Sky’ (Jack Brooks), ‘Ivy’ (Carmichael), ‘Casanova Cricket’ (Larry Markes, Dick Charles), ‘Put Yourself In My Place, Baby’ (Frankie Laine), and ‘Don’t Forget To Say ‘No’, Baby’ (Cee Pee Johnson, Lou Victor). In 1951, Carmichael collaborated with Mercer on ‘In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening’, which won an Academy Award after it was sung by Bing Crosby in the movie Here Comes The Groom. Two years later he and Harold Adamson added two new songs, ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?’ and ‘When Love Goes Wrong’, to Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s score for the film adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Carmichael also worked with Adamson on ‘Winter Moon’ and ‘My Resistance Is Low’. The latter song was revived successfully in the UK by Robin Sarstedt in 1976.

Shifts in musical tastes gently shunted Carmichael onto the sidelines of contemporary popular music in the 60s, and after the failure of two orchestral works, ‘Brown County In Autumn’ and ‘Johnny Appleseed’, he never resumed his role as an active composer. Nevertheless, his place as a major contributor to American popular song had long since become secure. As a singer, Carmichael’s intonation was uncertain and his vocal range decidedly limited (he referred to his frequently off-key voice as ‘flatsy through the nose’). Nevertheless, as albums of his performances show, he sang with engaging simplicity and a delightful rhythmic gaiety. Carmichael spent the 70s in contented retirement, playing golf near his Palm Springs home. Several artists as diverse as Matt Monro and George Melly have devoted albums to his work, and in the early 90s, two tribute recordings, presenting a ‘well-rounded sound picture’ of Carmichael’s work, were released: Hoagy’s Children (performed by Bob Dorough, Barbara Lea and Dick Sudhalter) and Malcolm McNeill’s Skylark. Few people have approached songwriting and singing with such a laid-back approach.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.