Hoagland Howard "Hoagy" Carmichael was an American singer, songwriter, and actor. American composer and author Alec Wilder described Carmichael as the "most talented, inventive, sophisticated and jazz-oriented of all the great craftsmen" of pop songs in the first half of the 20th century. Carmichael was one of the most successful Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the 1930s and was among the first singer-songwriters in the age of mass media to utilize new communication technologies, such as television and the use of electronic microphones and sound recordings.
Carmichael composed several hundred songs, including 50 that achieved hit record status. He is best known for composing the music for "Stardust", "Georgia on My Mind", "The Nearness of You", and "Heart and Soul", four of the most-recorded American songs of all time. He also collaborated with lyricist Johnny Mercer on "Lazybones" and "Skylark." Carmichael's "Ole Buttermilk Sky" was an Academy Award nominee in 1946, from Canyon Passage, in which he co-starred as a musician riding a mule. "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," with lyrics by Mercer, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1951. Carmichael also appeared as a character actor and musical performer in 14 films, hosted three musical-variety radio programs, performed on television, and wrote two autobiographies.
Early life and educationBorn in Bloomington, Indiana, on November 22, 1899, Hoagland Howard "Hoagy" Carmichael was the first child and only son of Howard Clyde and Lida Mary Carmichael. His parents named him after a circus troupe called the "Hoaglands" that had stayed at the Carmichael house during his mother's pregnancy. Howard Carmichael worked as a horse-drawn taxi driver and later as an electrician, while Lida Carmichael, a versatile pianist, played accompaniment at movie theaters for silent movies and at private parties to earn extra income. Hoagy had two younger sisters, Georgia and Joanne. Because of Howard's unstable job history, the family moved frequently. Hoagy spent most of his early years in Bloomington and in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1910, the Carmichaels were living in Missoula, Montana.
Carmichael's mother taught him to sing and play the piano at an early age. With the exception of some piano lessons in Indianapolis with Reginald DuValle, a bandleader and pianist known as "the elder statesman of Indiana jazz" and billed as "the Rhythm King", Carmichael had no other musical training.
The family moved to Indianapolis in 1916, but Carmichael returned to Bloomington in 1919 to complete high school. For musical inspiration Carmichael would listen to ragtime pianists Hank Wells and Hube Hanna. At 18, Carmichael helped supplement his family's meager income by working manual jobs in construction, at a bicycle-chain factory, and in a slaughterhouse. The bleak time was partly relieved by piano duets with his mother and by his friendship with DuValle, who taught him piano-jazz improvisation. Carmichael earned his first money as a musician playing at a fraternity dance in 1918, marking the beginning of his musical career.
The death of Carmichael's three-year-old sister in 1918 affected him deeply. He later wrote "My sister Joanne—the victim of poverty. We couldn’t afford a good doctor or good attention, and that’s when I vowed I would never be broke again in my lifetime." Joanne may have died of influenza, which swept the world that year.
Carmichael attended Indiana University in Bloomington, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1925 and a law degree in 1926. He was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, and played the piano around Indiana and Ohio with his band, Carmichael's Collegians.
Around 1922 Carmichael first met Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, a cornetist and sometime pianist from Iowa. The two became friends and played music together. Around 1923, during a visit to Chicago, Beiderbecke introduced Carmichael to Louis Armstrong, with whom Carmichael would later collaborate, while Armstrong was playing with Chicago-based King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Armstrong would continue to influence Carmichael's compositions; Carmichael reflected in a letter to his wife in the early 1930s that he was going to see Armstrong to learn about the "purty notes." Under Beiderbecke’s influence Carmichael began playing the cornet, but found he didn't have the lips for it and soon quit. He was also inspired by Beiderbecke's impressionistic and classical music ideas. Carmichael’s first recorded song, initially titled "Free Wheeling," was written for Beiderbecke, whose band, The Wolverines, recorded it as "Riverboat Shuffle" in 1924 for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana. The song became a jazz staple. Carmichael's other early musical compositions included "Washboard Blues" and "Boneyard Shuffle", which Curtis Hitch and his band, Hitch's Happy Harmonists, recorded at the Gennett studios. The band's instrumental rendition of "Washboard Blues", recorded on May 19, 1925, was the earliest recording in which Carmichael performed his own songs, including an improvised piano solo.
After graduating from IU's law school in 1926, Carmichael moved to Florida, where he worked as a law clerk in a West Palm Beach legal firm, but he returned to Indiana in 1927 after failing the Florida bar exam. He joined an Indianapolis law firm and passed the Indiana bar, but devoted most of his energies to music. Carmichael had discovered his method of songwriting, which he described later: "You don't write melodies, you find them…If you find the beginning of a good song, and if your fingers do not stray, the melody should come out of hiding in a short time."
CareerCarmichael composed several hundred songs, including fifty that achieved hit-record status during his long career. In his early days as a songwriter in Indiana, Carmichael wrote and performed in the "hot" jazz improvisational style popular with jazz dance bands. While Carmichael was living in New York City, he wrote songs that were intended to stand alone, independent of any other production, such as a theatrical performance or a motion picture. His songs from this period continued to include jazz influences. During his later years in California, Carmichael's songs were predominately instrumentals. Nearly four dozen were written expressly for, or were incorporated into, motion pictures.
Carmichael made hundreds of recordings between 1925 and his death in 1981. He also appeared on radio and television and in motion pictures and live performances, where he demonstrated his versatility. Because Carmichael lacked the vocal strength to sing without amplification on stage, as well as the unusual tone of his voice, which he described as "flatsy through the nose," he took advantage of new technologies, especially the electrical microphone, sound amplification, and advances in recording. As a singer-pianist, Carmichael was adept at selling his songs to lyricists, music publishers, film producers, and promoting them to the public via microphones on stage and in mass media.
Early yearsOn October 31, 1927, Carmichael recorded "Star Dust," one of his most famous songs, at the Gennett Records studio in Richmond, Indiana, playing the piano solo himself. Carmichael recruited Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke, along with members of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra that included the Dorsey brothers, to play at the late October recording session with him; it is not known which of the orchestra's musicians were at the October 31 session when "Star Dust" was initially recorded. New York's Mills Music published the song as an upbeat piano solo in January 1929 and renamed it "Stardust." "Stardust" attracted little attention until 1930, when Isham Jones and his orchestra recorded it as a sentimental ballad with a slower tempo, the re-timing often credited to the band's arranger, Victor Young. It became a hit song, the first of many for Carmichael. Its idiosyncratic melody in medium tempo–a song about a song–later became an American standard, recorded by hundreds of artists, including Artie Shaw, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, and Wynton Marsalis.
Carmichael received more recognition after Paul Whiteman and his orchestra recorded "Washboard Blues" on Victor Records in Chicago in November 1927, with Carmichael singing and playing the piano. Carmichael's "March of the Hoodlums" and Sheldon Brooks's "Walkin' the Dog" were produced from Carmichael's last recording session at the Gennett Records studio on May 2, 1928, with a band he had hand-selected.
In 1929, after realizing that he preferred making music and had no aptitude for or interest in becoming a lawyer, Carmichael moved to New York City, where he worked for a brokerage firm during the weekdays and spent his evenings composing music, including some songs for Hollywood musicals. In New York, Carmichael met Duke Ellington's agent and sheet music publisher, Irving Mills, and hired him to set up recording dates. Carmichael's first major song with his own lyrics was "Rockin' Chair," recorded by Louis Armstrong and Mildred Bailey, and eventually with his own hand-picked studio band on May 21, 1930.
1930sAfter the October 1929 stock market crash, Carmichael's hard-earned savings declined substantially. Fortunately, Louis Armstrong had recorded "Rockin' Chair" at Okeh studios in 1929, giving Carmichael a badly needed financial and career boost. The song became one of Carmichael's jazz standards. Carmichael composed and recorded "Georgia on My Mind" in 1930. The song became another jazz staple, as well as a pop standard, especially after World War II. Carmichael also arranged and recorded "Up a Lazy River" in 1930, a tune by Sidney Arodin. Although Carmichael and the band he assembled had first recorded "Stardust" as an instrumental in 1927, Bing Crosby recorded the tune with Mitchell Parish's lyrics in 1931.
Carmichael joined ASCAP in 1931. The following year he began working as a songwriter for Ralph Peer's Southern Music Company, the first music firm to occupy the new Brill Building, which became a famous New York songwriting mecca. The Great Depression rapidly put an end to the jazz scene of the Roaring Twenties. People were no longer attending clubs or buying music, forcing many musicians out of work. Carmichael was fortunate to retain his low-paying but stable job as a songwriter with Southern Music. Beiderbecke's early death in 1931 also darkened Carmichael's mood. Of that time, he wrote later: "I was tiring of jazz and I could see that other musicians were tiring as well. The boys were losing their enthusiasm for the hot stuff…. No more hot licks, no more thrills."
Carmichael's eulogy for "hot" jazz, however, was premature. Big-band swing was just around the corner, and jazz soon turned in another direction with new bandleaders, such as the Dorseys and Benny Goodman, and new singers, such as Bing Crosby, leading the way. Carmichael's output followed the changing trend. In 1933 he began a long-lasting collaboration with lyricist Johnny Mercer, newly arrived in New York, on "Lazybones", which became a hit. Southern Music published the sheet music in 1933; more than 350,000 copies were sold in three months. Carmichael collaborated with Mercer on nearly three dozen songs, including "Thanksgiving," "Moon Country," and the 1951 Academy Award-winner for best song, "In the Cool, Cool, Cool, of the Evening."
Carmichael also began to emerge as a solo singer-performer, first at parties, then professionally. He described his unique, laconic voice as sounding "the way a shaggy dog looks.… I have Wabash fog and sycamore twigs in my throat." Some fans were dismayed as he steadily veered away from "hot" jazz, but Armstrong's recordings continued to "jazz up" Carmichael's popular songs. In 1935 Carmichael left Southern Music Company and began composing songs for a division of Warner Brothers, establishing his connection with Hollywood. "Moonburn," the first song Carmichael wrote for a motion picture, was sung by Bing Crosby in the Warner Brothers film Anything Goes in 1936.
Following his marriage to Ruth Mary Meinardi, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, on March 14, 1936, the couple moved to California, where Carmichael hoped to find more work in the film industry. In 1937, the year before the birth of the couple's first son, Hoaglund Jr., Carmichael accepted a contract with Paramount Pictures for $1,000 a week, joining other songwriters working for the Hollywood studios, including Harry Warren at Warner Brothers, E. Y. Harburg at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin at Paramount.
Carmichael found work as a character actor in Hollywood. His on-screen debut occurred in 1937 in Topper, with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. Carmichael portrayed a piano player and performed his song "Old Man Moon" in the film. The effort led to other character actor roles in the 1940s.
Carmichael also continued to write individual songs. His song "Chimes of Indiana" was presented to Indiana University, Carmichael's alma mater, in 1937 as a gift from the class of 1935. In 1938 Carmichael collaborated with Paramount lyricist Frank Loesser on "Heart and Soul," "Two Sleepy People," and "Small Fry." "Heart and Soul" was included in Paramount's motion picture A Song Is Born, performed by Larry Clinton and his orchestra. Dick Powell premiered Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well " in a national radio broadcast in 1938.
"Little Old Lady," included in The Show Is On, was Carmichael's first song to appear in a Broadway musical and became a hit, but Carmichael's score for the Broadway production Walk With Music, which he did with Mercer, was unsuccessful. The musical opened in 1940 and ran only three weeks, producing no hit songs. Carmichael never attempted another musical, resuming his career as a singer-songwriter and character actor in Hollywood.
1940sThe growing Carmichael family, which included Hoagy, Ruth, and their sons, Hoagy Bix and Randy Bob, moved into the former mansion of chewing-gum heir William P. Wrigley, Jr. in Los Angeles in 1942, when the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His contribution to the war effort was similar to other patriotic efforts by Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Frank Loesser. Carmichael's wartime songs included "My Christmas Song for You," "Don't Forget to Say 'No' Baby," "Billy-a-Dick," "The Army of Hippocrates," "Cranky Old Yank," "Eager Beaver," "No More Toujours l'Amour," "Morning Glory," and the never completed "Hitler Blues."
Throughout the 1940s Carmichael maintained a strong personal and professional relationship with Mercer. In later 1941 their continuing collaboration led to "Skylark", considered one of Carmichael's greatest songs. Bing Crosby recorded it almost immediately in January 1942. Since then many others have recorded the song, including Glenn Miller, Dinah Shore, and Helen Forrest.
Carmichael's 1942 song "I'm a Cranky Old Yank" was listed in the 1967 edition of the Guinness Book of Records under the title "I'm a Cranky Old Yank in a Clanky Old Tank on the Streets of Yokohama with My Honolulu Mama Doin' Those Beat-o, Beat-o Flat-On-My-Seat-o, Hirohito Blues" as the longest song title.
play a duet in The Best Years of Our Lives as Fredric March watches
Carmichael appeared as an actor in 14 motion pictures, performing at least one of his songs in each. He described his on-screen persona as the "hound-dog-faced old musical philosopher noodling on the honky-tonk piano, saying to a tart with a heart of gold: 'He'll be back, honey. He's all man.'" In 1944 Carmichael played Cricket in the screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, opposite Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. He sang "Hong Kong Blues" and "The Rhumba Jumps", and played piano as Bacall sang "How Little We Know". In the multi-Academy Award-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives with Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy and Fredric March, Carmichael's character teaches a disabled veteran with metal prostheses to play "Chopsticks", and also performs "Lazy River". Carmichael played Hi Linnett in Canyon Passage, a Universal Pictures western that starred Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy. He also composed several songs for the film, including "Ole Buttermilk Sky," an Academy Award nominee.
Carmichael's career as a recording artist peaked in the mid-1940s when he recorded exclusively for Decca Records and V-Disc, acted and performed in motion pictures, and hosted variety shows on the radio. He also sang in live shows across the United States and debuted in Great Britain at the London Casino in 1948. According to his son Randy, Carmichael was an incessant composer, working on a song for days or even weeks until it was perfect. His perfectionism extended to his clothes, grooming, and eating. Once the work was done, however, Carmichael would cut loose—relax, play golf, drink, and indulge in the Hollywood high life. Carmichael also found time to write his first autobiography, The Stardust Road, published in 1946. In addition, Carmichael composed an orchestral work, Brown County in Autumn, in 1948, but it was not well received by critics.
Between 1944 and 1948, Carmichael became a well-known radio personality and hosted three musical-variety programs. In 1944–45, the 30-minute Tonight at Hoagy's aired on Mutual radio on Sunday nights at 8:30 p.m., sponsored by Safeway supermarkets. Produced by Walter Snow, the show featured Carmichael as host and vocalist. Musicians included Pee Wee Hunt and Joe Venuti. Fans were rather blunt about Carmichael's singing, providing comments such as "you cannot sing for your soul" and "your singing is so delightfully awful that it is really funny".
1950sDuring the 1950s the public's musical preferences shifted toward rhythm and blues and rock and roll, ending the careers of most older artists. Carmichael's songwriting career also slowed down, but he continued to perform.
In the early 1950s variety shows were particularly popular on television. Carmichael's most notable appearance was as the host of Saturday Night Review in June 1953, a summer replacement series for Your Show of Shows. He was also a regular cast member, playing the character role of Jonesy the ranch hand in the first season of NBC's western TV series Laramie.
As his songwriting career started to fade, Carmichael's marriage also dissolved. He and his wife Ruth divorced in 1955.
The Johnny Appleseed Suite, Carmichael's second classical work for orchestra, suffered the same ill fate as his earlier attempt, Brown County Autumn. The suite received little notice and only limited success, but Carmichael remained financially secure due to the royalties from his past hits. During the 1940s and 1950s Carmichael also wrote more than a dozen songs for children, including "The Whale Song," "Merry-Go-Round," and "Rocket Ship".
Later years's classic rendition of "Georgia on My Mind," released on August 19, 1960, was a major hit. in 1961 he was featured in an episode of The Flintstones entitled "The Hit Songwriters". Jerry Lee Lewis recorded "Hong Kong Blues" during his final Sun sessions in 1963, but it was never released. In 1964, while The Beatles were exploding on the scene, Carmichael lamented, "I'll betcha I have 25 songs lying in my trunk" and no one was calling to say "have you got a real good song for such-and such an artist". Royalties on his standards were earning Carmichael over $300,000 a year.
Carmichael's second memoir, Sometimes I Wonder: The Story of Hoagy Carmichael, was published in 1965. By 1967 he was spending time in New York, but his new songs were unsuccessful and his musical career came to a close. Carmichael took up other interests in retirement such as golf, coin collecting, and enjoying his two homes, one on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and the other in Rancho Mirage, California.
As he passed his 70th birthday, Carmichael's star continued to wane and was nearly forgotten in a world dominated by rock music. With the help and encouragement of his son, Hoagy Bix, Carmichael participated in the PBS television show Hoagy Carmichael's Music Shop that featured jazz-rock versions of his hits. He appeared on Fred Rogers's PBS show Old Friends, New Friends in 1978. With more time on his hands, Carmichael resumed painting, and after a long courtship he married Dorothy Wanda McKay, an actress, in 1977.
Carmichael received several honors from the music industry in his later years. He was inducted into the USA's Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971 along with Duke Ellington. In 1972 Indiana University awarded Carmichael an honorary doctorate in music. On June 27, 1979, the Newport Jazz Festival honored Carmichael's 80th birthday with a concert titled "The Stardust Road: A Hoagy Carmichael Jubilee" in Carnegie Hall. The tribute concert was hosted by former bandleader Bob Crosby and included performances by many major musical performers, such as singers Kay Starr, Jackie Cain, Dave Frishberg, and Max Morath, and musicians Billy Butterfield, Bob Wilber, Yank Lawson, Vic Dickenson, and Bob Haggart. National Public Radio broadcast the concert later that summer. "Piano Pedal Rag", a new Carmichael tune, was performed during the concert. Afterward, Carmichael said that he wrote it because he admired Beiderbecke's writing "so much that I didn't want to quit until I wrote something that was a little bit like something Bix might have liked."
On his 80th birthday, Carmichael was reflective, observing, "I'm a bit disappointed in myself. I know I could have accomplished a hell of a lot more... I could write anything any time I wanted to. But I let other things get in the way.... I've been floating around in the breeze." He spent his final years at home in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs, California, where he continued to play golf and remained an avid coin collector.
Shortly before his death in 1981, Carmichael appeared on a United Kingdom-recorded tribute album In Hoagland with Annie Ross and Georgie Fame. Carmichael sang and played "Rockin' Chair" on the piano. His last public appearance occurred in early 1981, when he filmed Country Comes Home with country music performer Crystal Gayle for CBS.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Hoagy Carmichael among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
Political viewsCarmichael supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 United States presidential election.
Death and legacyOn December 27, 1981, at age 82, Carmichael died of Heart attack at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California. His remains are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Bloomington, Indiana. He had married Wanda McKay in 1977.
Carmichael's family in 1986 donated his archives, piano, and memorabilia to his alma mater, Indiana University, which established a Hoagy Carmichael Collection in its Archives of Traditional Music and the Hoagy Carmichael Room to permanently display selections from the collection.
Carmichael is considered to be among the most successful of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the 1930s, and was among the first singer-songwriters in the age of mass media to exploit new communication technologies, such as television and the use of electronic microphones and sound recordings. American composer and author Alec Wilder described Carmichael as the "most talented, inventive, sophisticated and jazz-oriented of all the great craftsmen" of pop songs in the first half of the 20th century. Carmichael was an industry trailblazer, who recorded varied interpretations of his own songs and provided material for many other musicians to interpret. His creative work includes several hundred compositions, some of them enduring classics, as well as numerous sound recordings and appearances on radio and television and in motion pictures.
Music historian Ivan Raykoff described Carmichael as "one of America's most prolific songwriters" and an "iconic pianist" whose work appeared in more than a dozen Hollywood films, including his performances in classic films such as To Have and To Have Not and The Best Years of Our Lives. Among the hundreds of Carmichael's published songs, "Stardust" is one of the most frequently recorded. Carmichael's greatest strength was as a melodist, but he also became known as an "experimental" and "innovative" songwriter, whose "catchy, often jazz-infused, melodies" and "nostalgic, down-home lyrics" were memorable and had wide public appeal, especially with mass media promotion and through the efforts of numerous entertainers who performed his songs.
Honors and tributesCarmichael and lyricist Johnny Mercer received an Academy Award for Best Music, Song, for "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," which was featured in the 1951 film Here Comes the Groom. "Ole Buttermilk Sky" received an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Song, of 1946, but it was not the winner. Carmichael's recording of "Star Dust" in 1927 at the Gennett Records studio that includes him playing the piano solo was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In addition, it was selected for inclusion in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress in 2004.
Carmichael was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. In 1971 Carmichael was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame as one of its initial ten inductees. In 2007 Carmichael was inducted into the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana. Bronze and ceramic medallions, one for each of the inductees, have been placed near the location of the Starr Piano Company's manufacturing complex.
Carmichael is memorialized with an Indiana state historical marker, installed in 2007 in front of the former Book Nook on South Indiana Avenue, near the corner of Kirkwood and Indiana Streets in Bloomington. The marker is located across the street from the heart of the Indiana University campus. In 2008 the bronze Hoagy Carmichael Landmark Sculpture by artist Michael McAuley was installed at the northeast corner of the IU Auditorium on IU's Bloomington campus.
On June 27, 1979, the Newport Jazz Festival honored Carmichael with a tribute concert, "The Star Dust Road: A Hoagy Carmichael Jubilee", at New York City's Carnegie Hall.
"Georgia On My Mind", composed by Carmichael with lyrics by Stuart Gorrell, is the U.S. state of Georgia's official song.
Carmichael also appeared as a stone age version of himself in The Flintstones, in which he sings "The Yabba Dabba Doo Song," written by Barney, and based on an idea from Fred. Fred, Barney, Wilma, and Betty also contribute to the lyrics.
In popular cultureIn Casino Royale, novelist Ian Fleming has René Mathis, one of James Bond's fictional fellow secret agents, make a remark about Bond looking like Hoagy Carmichael. Later in the novel, after looking at his reflection in a mirror, Bond disagreed. However, Fleming and Carmichael also shared a resemblance. Ian Fleming would repeat the comparison to Carmichael in his third James Bond novel, Moonraker.
- 1944–45 V-Disc Sessions
- At Home with Hoagy
- Hoagy Carmichael
- Hoagy Carmichael: Old Buttermilk Sky
- Hoagy Sings Carmichael
- Star Dust, 1927–32
- The Stardust Road
- Stardust and Much More
- Stardust Melody: Carmichael and Friends
- The Classic Hoagy Carmichael
- The Hoagy Carmichael Songbook
- Stardust: The Jazz Giants Play Hoagy Carmichael
- Mr. Music Master
- Hoagy Carmichael in Person 1925–1955
- The First of the Singer Songwriters
Other published works
- The Stardust Road
- Sometimes I Wonder: The Story of Hoagy Carmichael