The image of Hoagy Carmichael is one of the most
indelible in show business. Hunched over a rinkydink
piano, Hoagy's unsmiling face peers out at the
camera, his brow wrinkled, fedora pushed up high
on his forehead, sleeves rolled up, with an everpresent
cigarette dangling from his mouth. His
casual, laconic visage implies an 'I've-seen-it-all'
attitude; cool and knowing, dry as the Indiana
heartland he came from. The songs associated with
Carmichael were just as lackadaisical; "Star Dust,"
"Lazy River", "Georgia On My Mind", "Lazy
Bones", and "Rockin' Chair" all helped define his
lonesome saloon singer image. Although these are
his most famous compositions, there was a lot
more to Hoagy Carmichael's songwriting brilliance,
as this disc will endeavour to show.
Hoagland Howard Carmichael (1899-1981)
was one of the most gifted songwriters America
has ever produced. His life story was encapsulated
in the notes to Volume 1 in this series (Mr Music
Master - Naxos 8.120574) and detailed in Richard
Sudhalter's biography, Stardust Melody (Oxford
University Press, 2002). Whereas Volume 1
stressed Hoagy's genius as a songwriter, on this
disc we hear Carmichael the jazz icon, palling
around with the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Joe
Venuti, and Eddie Lang, playing piano, and
recording with his own orchestra.
The 1929 recording by Irving Mills' Hotsy
Totsy Gang of Carmichael's immortal Star Dust is
a sprightly dance tune interrupted only by Hoagy's
wistful piano interlude. The song's famous lyrics,
crafted by Mitchell Parish, one of Irving Mills' staff
writers, had not yet been added and Mills'
musicians were still thinking of it in terms of its jazz
origins rather than as the sentimental favourite it
would soon become.
Originally issued on a 12-inch 78, Washboard
Blues is a study in weariness, a common theme in
Carmichael compositions. The lyrics were written
in vernacular dialect by Fred Callaghan, a
gravestone cutter and part-time poet who painted
a portrait of despondency from the point of view of
a weary black woman washing clothes. With its
complex structure and constantly changing
tempos, Paul Whiteman's version of "Washboard
Blues" was far ahead of its time, a sophisticated
mini-suite in the midst of an era steeped in
traditional Tin Pan Alley platitudes. Carmichael
makes his only appearance with the Whiteman
orchestra in this version, which was the first
arranged by Bill Challis. This is also Bix
Beiderbecke's debut with Whiteman, leading a hot
quartet break featuring Tommy (trombone) and
Jimmy (clarinet) Dorsey and Steve Brown (bass).
Rampart Street Blues is by the Cotton Pickers,
a New York pickup group featuring stalwarts from
Red Nichols' stable of standout jazz soloists,
including the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Arthur
Schutt, Perry Botkin, Joe Tarto, and Stan King.
Hoagy sings a rare duet with dance band mainstay
Harold "Scrappy" Lambert.
March of the Hoodlums, based on the
changes to "Tiger Rag," is a manic dixieland march
played by Hoagy's fellow Indiana University friends,
and is highlighted by a spirited alto sax chorus
played by nineteen-year-old Kerval Goodwin.
It has been suggested that the zany session
that produced Jet Black Blues was a 'just-forlaughs'
afterthought featuring Hoagy on
'percussion' (possibly beating on an empty packing
crate) and scat vocal à la "West End Blues". But
since he was supposedly en route from Indianapolis
to Hollywood at this time, his presence remains
cloudy. Nevertheless, this whacked-out track is
highlighted by the eighteen strings of Lonnie
Johnson (twelve) and Eddie Lang (six), with the
label crediting Lang as 'Blind Willie Dunn' in an
attempt to attract race record buyers.
Another Irving Mills track features Hoagy
doubling on piano and celeste. The subject of
Harvey is a parent's 'pride and joy', a predecessor
to 'Leave it to Beaver's' Eddie Haskell, polite
around grown-ups but when they weren't looking,
'always tight, in a fight, shooting craps and out all
night'. Hoagy apparently had a soft spot for
"Harvey", later naming a pet canary Harvey II and
a monkey Harvey III.
The version of Rockin' Chair we have included
is not the earliest one of the song, but it is one of
the best, with Carmichael leading a hand-picked
group that includes such luminaries as Tommy
Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Joe Venuti, a recovering
Bix Beiderbecke, and trumpeter Bubber Miley,
exiled from Duke Ellington's orchestra the previous
year. Hoagy carries on a pseudo-Amos & Andy
dialogue with Irving Brodsky.
Bix delivers a jaunty jazz interlude in the midst
of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, which is otherwise
noteworthy for the famous 'did-he-or-didn't-he'
prank played by Joe Venuti in not exactly singing
the proper words in the band's vocal answers in
the second chorus. Hoagy shares the vocal duties
with the song's co-writer, country music's crusty
curmudgeon Carson Robison.
Bessie Couldn't Help It, recorded
15 September 1930, is noteworthy for being the
last recording ever made by Bix Beiderbecke.
Carmichael idolized Bix's innate genius; their
friendship would influence Carmichael's
songwriting for the rest of his life. He would later
name his oldest son Hoagy Bix Carmichael after his
late tormented friend and even carried Bix's
mouthpiece in his pocket until he died. In 1979,
Carmichael told biographer Richard Sudhalter that
he wished he had given Bix more to play on the
track other than a lively opening and leading the
Lazy River is a perfect example of the
prototypical Carmichael lyric; an idealized view of
small-town America, the innocent world in which
Hoagy grew up. The Dorsey Brothers introduce the
song, followed by Hoagy's languid vocal, followed
by Joe Venuti's violin break, imitating the breeze
wafting through the trees.
Snowball had made its debut on record at the
hands of Louis Armstrong earlier in the year, but
Hoagy's September 1933 solo recording is one of
his most charming. Carmichael was never a great
singer, but was at his best in interpreting his own
material in intimate circumstances. It's unfortunate
this song isn't performed today, due to the now
politically incorrect comparison of the black child
in Johnny Mercer's lyrics to food items (chocolate
bars and apple dumplins).
Recorded the same day is Lazy Bones, one of
Carmichael's masterpieces, and the high point of
his brief collaboration with lyricist Johnny Mercer.
Carmichael and Mercer understood each other,
and their songs show a shared affinity for writing
musical still-lifes of an idealized American South.
Again, food images play a big role in the lyrics:
chicken gravy on rice, watermelon, and 'taters all
being mentioned. The song became one of the
biggest hits of the Depression. Also by Carmichael
and Mercer is Moon Country, which exhibits
feelings of pastoral nostalgia for home and
'cooking things that melt in your mouth',
prompting Meredith Willson to call it 'our folk
music of tomorrow'.
Like Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael wrote
vividly of the South, although he spent very little
time there during his life. New Orleans was
another example of a southern locale Carmichael
had no personal knowledge of; the jazz-flavoured
version from 1938 features Hoagy sharing the
vocals with Scottish-born Broadway star Ella
Logan. From the same session comes Hoagy's first
success, Riverboat Shuffle, first published in 1925
as an instrumental but, by 1938, featuring a rarely
heard lyric written by Mitchell Parish (the wordy
lyrics anachronistically referring to tenor great
Coleman Hawkins, not one normally associated
with New Orleans jazz or riverboats for that
One Morning in May was Carmichael's
personal favourite of all his compositions, and
featured a lyric by "Star Dust" co-writer Mitchell
Parish. The lively 1933 recording, made as an
instrumental, featured a quintet of Hoagy's Indiana
pals including an inebriated Fred 'Yah' Murray on
The effect of Carmichael's Judy has had greater
consequences than the song itself. It helped
prompt a young girl named Frances Gumm to
change her name to Judy Garland and it was also
the song Ella Fitzgerald sang in the infamous talent
contest at Harlem's Apollo Theatre that launched
her own career. The lyric is by Sammy Lerner ("Is It
True What They Say About Dixie?").
Cosmics, originally titled "Phrases" and then
"Bolero", is Carmichael's attempt at 'serious'
composition. The song, built around syncopated
octaves in the left hand, was, according to Hoagy,
'my attempt at a new style of jazz. No set melody -
just a group of phrases and a heavy background
rhythm such as in the Bolero'. Scheduled to be
introduced at Carnegie Hall by Paul Whiteman in
1933, "Cosmics" was dropped at the last minute
and performed instead at the Biltmore Hotel, of
substantial disappointment to its composer.
Hoagy Carmichael's exquisite 1933 rendering
of Star Dust, written six years before, shows the
song's full development in place. Utilizing a jazz
sensibility inspired by Bixian compositions such as
"In a Mist" (especially in the bridge), Hoagy plays
the song rubato all the way through, in direct
contrast to the Irving Mills jazz-flavored recording
cut in 1929. By 1933, "Star Dust" had emerged
with a life all its own, not just another dance band
tune or a slow song to separate fox trots, but a
monument to Carmichael himself: complex yet
sentimental, jazz-tinged, and introspective; a song
that requires listening and ruminating - just what
Bix would have loved.