A Baker's Dozen of Hoagy Carmichael
He wrote his most famous song, one of the greatest songs in the American songbook, on the pages of his law textbooks. He'd escaped to law school because it didn't seem music was going to make him any money. After graduating, he moved to Palm Beach because he assumed there would be work for "a good lawyer there, because of all that selling and reselling going on." And there was. But by his own assessment, he wasn't a very good lawyer. "A note to me was something that belonged on a musical staff".
Hoagy Carmichael knew his musical staff. Without any formal training, but with an intuitive sense of melody, a compunction to experiment, and an incredible passion for jazz, Hoagy went on to become the most inventive, and arguably greatest songwriter in the history of American popular music.
He composed hundreds of songs, of which over 50 were hits. One of his earliest songs, "Washboard Blues", is indicative of his genius. The long melody seems continuous, even though the structure of verse, chorus and bridge, are all present. Sharp and dramatic tempo shifting gives it texture, and the music perfectly illustrates the hard, repetitious work described in the lyric.
His most famous collaborator, and one of the greatest lyricists in popular music, Johnny Mercer, was relatively unknown until Hoagy took a liking to his work. Louis Armstrong, whom he met through friend and mentor Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornetist, would record many of his songs during a lifelong friendship and association.
And because of his laconic style, he found success as a role player in many films, which helped cement his personality into the public mind. But it was the music that was always at the core of Hoagy Carmichael.
His music was always around for me, and I knew him (though I didn't know him) from those film appearances, where like most everyone I was taken by his personality.
But it wasn't until I kept reading my musical heroes regularly name him as one of their favorite songwriters, that I really stopped and took note. Dylan, Davies, Richards, and the mighty triumvirate of Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, all tipped him as top of the heap. Richards and and Harrison even covered his songs.
With hundreds of songs to his credit, there is plenty of Hoagy to explore. But here is a baker's dozen to give you a starter. A deeper look will pay rich dividends. I've added a Spotify playlist, which includes a couple of extra songs, for you to take away with you. Comments are welcome at the end.
Once again, I'm very honored to have the talented Johnnie Scoutten adding her fantastic sketches, inspired by the songs of Hoagy Carmichael. Click on the image for an enlarged view. You can find Johnny, and her work, at her website, and on Instagram.
1. STARDUST - 1927
Might as well start at the top, with one of the most famous American songs. While booking him for a series of fraternity dances, Hoagy's became friends with cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who suggested he try his hand at songwriting. But the Carmichael family had been chased by poverty all of Hoagy's young life, and Hoagy was determined to always have enough money. So he gave up music, and went to law school. However, the music didn't abandon him. The idea of "Stardust" came while he was in law school. He just started whistling the tune one day, which was based on a rehearsal exercise of Beiderbecke's. He first started scribbling it on the pages of his law book. Over months he worked at it on various scraps of paper until it was complete. He took it back to New York, as an instrumental, but it took a couple of years before it was recorded - and it then garnered little attention. But when Mitchell Parish added lyrics, from original ideas of Hoagy's - "a song about a song about love" - that proved the ticket. "Stardust", with its unique melody and unorthodox structure, is one of the most recorded songs in American music history, with many excellent versions : jazz great Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, all took swings at it. Doo wop greats Billy Ward and the Dominos, did a great version that made it into Goodfellas. John Coltrane and Jackie Wilson each gave it their own signature, and of course Hoagy had his own original take. Paul McCartney has named it one of his favorite songs, so it's no wonder he turned in a stellar arrangement for Ringo's version. It's appearance in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, gives the film its title. Bob Dylan recently gave it a country feel on his Triplicate, but Willie Nelson got there first.
2. GEORGIA ON MY MIND - 1930
For me, and most people, this song is forever synonymous with Ray Charles, whose version reached #1. And it does sound as if the song was written for the Georgia native - but it wasn't. With sensuous lyrics that could well be about a lover or woman, some thought Hoagy wrote this for his sister Georgia. But he said himself that it was written at the suggestion of bandleader Frank Trumbauer (who had the first hit with it) that he write a song about the state of Georgia. Jazz had some controversy early on because its origins were with African-American musicians, but it was then picked up and popularized by white musicians. Hoagy grew up in poverty, and the family regularly lived in largely black neighborhoods. His first piano teacher was a black bandleader, and personal friend, in Indianapolis named Reginald DuValle. Musicians, black and white, were drawn to his music, and Hoagy understood jazz, and its possibilities in a way few others did. "Georgia" is also one of those most recorded songs in history that were written by Hoagy. His music had a "down home feel" that inspired many versions by country artists - Willie Nelson had a #1 hit with this one. it was a regular with Ronnie Hawkins' band in the 50s, and the Band, Ronnie's backing band, covered it later with a phenomenal vocal by Richard Manuel. So did a stylistically wide array of artists which included - Van Morrison, the Godfather James Brown, Jerry Reed, Ella Fitzgerald, Spencer Davis Group featuring a young Stevie Winwood, and of course Hoagy with Bix on cornet, in his last recording before dying of alcoholism at 28. Ray Charles brings every bit of emotion to the song, and surprisingly he was not thinking of a woman, or even his home state, when he recorded it. “It was just a beautiful, romantic melody,” he said. And many millions have agreed.
3. HONG KONG BLUES - 1939
On a fishing trip with Ernest Hemingway, Howard Hawks bet the writer he could make a successful movie of his worst book. Hemingway offered up To Have and Have Not. So Hawks called writer William Faulkner, and Humphrey Bogart, and made a classic. He also gave Hoagy Carmichael his second screen appearance as Cricket, the hotel bar pianist. doing this song. Hoagy's laconic style played well in the film, and if you haven't seen it, it's worth taking a look at a couple of clips. He does a short bit with Lauren Bacall playing her a piece of "How Little We Know", a song he is ostensibly writing. In reality the song was one of several that came from a golden partnership between Hoagy and lyricist Johnny Mercer. A favorite of mine is a song Hoagy didn't write, but does a great vocal rendition of with Bacall - Am I Blue. He was such a popular onscreen presence that he would make many more appearances in film and TV in the years ahead. Hoagy wrote the lyric as well as the music, and the Buddha's gong in the song's lyric refers to opium addiction. There is a great jazz feel, with an unusual mix of instruments in Hoagy's version - banjo, mandolin, the piano, drums and even a violin - that create a unique blend. When he was making his 1981 album Somewhere In England, George Harrison turned back to his past for inspiration, and recorded two Hoagy songs. He remembered "Hong Kong Blues" as the first song he heard on the radio, sitting around the wireless with his family at the age of five. Bob Dylan has covered it live, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot did it on record. Jerry Lee Lewis' version is a perfect piece of Killer magic.
4, SKYLARK - 1941
There is a lot going on behind the scenes of this song, which has had over 1500 different recordings. Hoagy's friend, and jazz legend, Bix Beiderbecke, was an incredibly gifted musician, his recordings considered sacred text among jazz purists. Along with his friend Louis Amstrong, he is the greatest and most influential soloist of the 20s. He had a gift for improvisation, and classical music arrangement. Hoagy learned from both, making improvisation a cornerstone of his own limber songwriting style. When Bix died, young, Hoagy was hit hard. "Skylark" was a melody he wrote, imitating Bix's improvisational style, as a remembrance of his friend. He then passed the song on to another friend. As Sammy Cahn said, Shakespeare was a poet, but he wasn't Johnny Mercer. Mercer was considered the gold standard for lyrics even through the coming Lennon/McCartney era, revered by no less then the modern day bard, Bob Dylan. The laid back Georgian was sought out by Hoagy (an equally relaxed Indianian), and he gave him this melody. It was such a great melody that Mercer took a year to write the lyric to his satisfaction. It was based on his longing for the much younger Judy Garland, with whom he was involved in an affair (his "One For My Baby, One For the Road" was about the end of that affair). It was a hit within a week of its release. The young Mercer's fortunes turned on its success, and he and Hoagy would collaborate on many more great songs, including one of my favorites (later in the post). One of the best recordings of the song is by Bing Crosby, who was also deeply influenced by Bix Beiderbecke, giving his version an extra degree of connection. But with so many covers, its hard to pick a preference. The underrated, genre jumping Bobby Darin, did a fantastic cover, as did Aretha Franklin. One of the loveliest versions is by Ella FItzgerald and I'm always a sucker for Hoagy's.
5. OLD MUSIC MASTER - 1942
The Carmichaels were always on the doorstep of poverty. The death of his younger sister at age 3, which Hoagy blamed on the family's inability to afford a doctor, affected him deeply. But, incredibly, there were positive benefits of poverty as well. His mother began playing ragtime piano to make money on the side, and took young Hoagy to her shows. They lived often in predominately black neighborhoods, where the Hoagy went crazy for jazz. He later claimed he listened to the jazz pianists constantly, and spent lots of time in Bucktown, the black neighborhood where all the great jazz stars would play. Reading his words on the topic he sounds like a rock obsessed kid of the 50s and 60s. "Old Music Master" is not one of his most famous songs, but its one of my favorites. The rollicky melody and cadence remind of ragtime, jazz, and all that was new then. It's a generational divide when a little black prophet comes to tell Beethoven to play those chords faster because jazz is coming on the scene, and nothing's going to be the same. The first time I heard it I couldn't help thinking Chuck Berry had given it a few listens before writing "Roll Over Beethoven". Its been said the song isn't "politically correct", which I don't understand - it prophesies, accurately, rock's overwhelming dominance, when a chord was hit "that rocked the spinet, and disappeared into the infinite". Might that be the power chord? Nat King Cole did a great version, but for me Hoagy's is the gold standard. Its bears a great lyric by Johnny Mercer., which is worth reading (here). Mercer's lyrics are a riot and could have been written as presciently about rock or hip hop, as they were about jazz).
6. THE NEARNESS OF YOU - 1940
When he was a kid Keith Richards sat on the landing of the steps in his house playing Chuck Berry songs over and over again, until the founder's work settled deep into his bones, and became a part of him. He did the same thing with Hoagy Carmichael. Greatness has a blueprint. One of Hoagy's most popular songs, "The Nearness of You", has been covered numerous times, The first version I heard, and still one of my favorites, is Keith Richards version from a session prior to Tattoo You, It's him, alone at a piano, his fractured voice bringing a fragile emotion to the naked lyric. Those lyrics were written Ned Washington, winner of two Academy Awards, including one for "When You Wish Upon a Star". He wrote quite a few other lyrics, including a favorite of mine which was a hit for Gene Pitney, "Town Without Pity". Ella Fitzgerald sang many Carmichaels songs, and Louis Armstrong was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator, so their version has something extra special besides just two jazz giants. Ricky Nelson brings a unique flavor to the song, a hint of country and early rockabilly, and Frank Sinatra liked it so much, he recorded it three times. More recently, Nora Jones made some waves with a lovely cover. But talk about making a song your own - the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, brings raw soul power to his version. Hoagy somehow heard Keith Richards' version and called the Stone when he was alone at home. He told Keef how much he liked it. A big thrill for Keith, but not much more came of the call as Hoagy was dead 6 months later.
7. LAZYBONES - 1933
Written in 20 minutes after Johnny Mercer came to Hoagy's apartment one afternoon only to find the writer asleep on the couch. He announced his intent to write a song about him called "Lazybones". Hoagy jumped to the piano and Mercer would write a line, then Hoagy play the melody on the piano, until they had it done. The Mills Brothers did one of the earliest versions, and its perfect. Hank Snow brought the inherent southern attitude, with a country twist. And Dr. John brought the New Orleans. There's a clip of Hoagy doing the song, and it features the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge showing off some unusual dance moves.
8. HEART AND SOUL - 1938
Unkown California duo, Jan and Dean, recorded a doo wop version of this song in 1961, and it was intended to be released by Liberty Records. But Liberty didn't see the hit potential and bailed. Singing cowboy Gene Autry's label did, and the song went to #25, On the strength of that, Liberty signed the pair, who changed their sound to a Beach Boys one, and had a slew of hits from "Surf City" to "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena". The Cleftones version, recorded around the same time, is superior, and ended up on the soundtrack for American Graffiti, A simplified version of the song is covered by millions of young (and old) novice pianists, as a four hand duet. Imagine how many people can play a Hoagy Carmichael song, and have no idea they can.
9. BALTIMORE ORIOLE - 1944.
Hoagy's version of Baltimore Oriole is given the full dramatic effect, with his phrasing pushing the lyric. Interestingly, this song drew a fair bit of attention from rock musicians. Chicago's Cryan Shames did an interesting version in the 60s, less dramatic and more chamber pop, with an arrangement that's spiced with strings and shifting cadence. George Harrison released it on the same album he included "Hong Kong Blues" on, Somewhere in England - he likely heard them at the same time as they were paired together on a single. But John Mellencamp did one of my favorite versions.
10. OLD ROCKIN' CHAIR - 1929
This was a song that Louis Armstrong did right until the end of his life. Hoagy first saw Armstrong while young and still living in Indiana, in 1922, at one of the jazz clubs he frequented. They would go on to work together many times, and Armstrong would cover his songs frequently. A fantastic version of "Old Rockin' Chair" by Armstrong and Carmichael isn't up on YouTube, but its worth looking up. As a teaser there is this very good version with Armstrong and Jack Teagarden. And there's a fascinating clip from a 1939 short film of Hoagy and Jack Teagarden doing this song, and "Washboard Blues".Hoagy originally wrote the song for Native American jazz singer Mildred Bailey, and it became her theme song. Hoagy did a version in 1930 with an all-star jazz band (featuring Bix Beiderbecke, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Gene Krupa). If you listen you can hear a clear similarity to Randy Newman's Monsters Inc. theme. My favorite version might be this crips take on the song by Eric Clapton.
11. THE MONKEY SONG - 1951
Hoagy Carmichael had a good bit of charisma along with his musical talent. In fact, movies found out early, and he made quite a few film and TV appearances. He was a well known figure, and did a lot to establish the persona of singer/songwriter in the public's mind. The George Raft film featured him playing a character named Celestial, and he does a bit of his then new song Memphis In June. In the movie Las Vegas Story he plays Happy, who is, among other things, the narrator of the story. As such he delivers this performance of "The Monkey Song", with comic relief perfection, and Jane Russell looking on. It's also a favorite of my daughter.
12. HUGGIN' AND CHALKIN' - 1947
Hoagy's instantly recognizable voice, with its warm, down home Midwestern accent, charmed quite a number of people. As great a success as he was with songwriting, he also had quite a career as a solo recording artist. And many of his vocal hits were covers of songs by other writers. The writers of "Huggin' and Chalkin'", Kermit Goell and Clarence Hayes, may have stolen the idea from a 1906 Hopalong Cassidy novel titled Bar 20. But hugging and chalking is a real thing - the Urban Dictionary says so.
13. OLE BUTTERMILK SKY - 1946
This irresistible song was nominated for an Academy Award for its appearance in Canyon Passage, but didn't win. It's a great place to finish. Bubbling along, on lyrics (which Hoagy had a big hand in) that are filled with images that are romantic, and now a bit nostalgic. It showcases two of Hoagy's great strengths - his down home vocals, and his excellent piano playing. You can also clearly hear the elements that made so many of his songs popular with country artists like Willie Nelson., and the great country swing artist Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. Crystal Gale also covered it, and there is a great clip of an older Hoagy doing a duet with her. But like most Hoagy songs, it was covered by a wide array of artists, including Bing Crosby, to whom it seemed particularly suited. But Hoagy's version is hard to beat.
13 fantastic songs from Hoagy Carmichael, but there are so many more. Below is a Spotify playlist to take with you and delve deeper into the songs in this blog, with a few added songs. Please follow Picnic Tool at Spotify. And below that is the comments section - what Harry songs stand out for you?