wore my hat on the back of my head and no tie, with a cigarette
drooping from my lips, and I lazied through the entire performance,"
Hoagy said, describing his historic, record-breaking performance
at the London Palladium in 1951. That was the image Hoagy created
and the world embraced. Behind it, invisible, was someone else--the
passionate and poetic young man he'd once been, the poor kid from
Indiana with a fierce ache to succeed.
Howard Carmichael was born in 1899 in Bloomington. His father
was an itinerant laborer who moved his family throughout the Midwest
looking for steady work, always returning to Indiana. "Home"
was back in Bloomington, where they'd left his wife Lida's golden
oak piano. She helped support the family by playing at the local
movie house and for university dances. "Ragtime was my lullaby,"
Hoagy said, and though his mother was thrilled when he picked
out a tune on the golden oak, she warned him: "Music is fun,
Hoagland, but it don't buy you cornpone."
Carmichael thought her son might grow up to be president of a
railroad. He might have, too, because ambition burned hot in him,
but in 1919 he heard Louie Jordan's band (not to be confused with
Louis Jordan who had a popular band in the thirties) in Indianapolis
and this black ensemble of early jazz players "exploded in
me almost more music than I could consume." Hoagy went on
to study law at Indiana University but he was already a "jazz
maniac" and his own band, The Carmichael Syringe Orchestra,
was made up of a gang of loose cannons whose spiritual leader
was a Dada-inspired poet named Monk. "There are other things
in this world besides hot music," Monk advised Hoagy in a
serious moment, "I forget what they are--but they're around."
Those 'other things' were named Dorothy Kelly, and to Hoagy she
was more than first love. Dorothy was a secure respectable life
in one of those big houses up on the hill in Bloomington he'd
dreamt of as a boy, and when he held her in his arms, that was
what he wanted more than anything else.
Hoagy heard a young white cornetist named Bix Beiderbecke and,
"it threw my judgment out of kilter." This was a sound
like nothing he'd heard before and when Hoagy played an improvised
tune for Bix, the strange young man with a magical horn said,
"Whyn't you write music, Hoagy?" The rest of his life
was the answer to Bix's question.
years later, when an audience saw the mature Hoagy sitting at
the piano singing "Lazybones" or "Ole Buttermilk
Sky" in what he called his 'native wood-note and flatsy-
through-the-nose voice,' it looked so natural and relaxed that
it was easy to assume he'd led a charmed life. But Hoagy's road
to success was just as bumpy and lurching as his friend Bix's
was smooth and quick.After
a modest but deceptive early success with "Washboard Blues"
and "Riverboat Shuffle," Hoagy packed a bag and went
to New York. But he soon found himself scuffling around the cold,
lonely town, not selling anything but bonds in a bottom-end job
at a Wall St. brokerage house. "I'm singing the music publisher's
theme song-it ain't a commercial," he wrote back to Monk.
He tried to give up--more than once--but the words of another
old friend kept him going. Reggie Duval, a black barber and dance
hall pianist in Indianapolis, was the only teacher Hoagy ever
had besides his mother. Reggie had taught Hoagy how to make music
'jump' and also gave him a creed to live by: "Never play
anything that don't sound right. You might not make any money--but
at least you won't get hostile with yourself."
kept writing what sounded 'right' and in 1930 made recordings
of "Georgia On My Mind," "Rockin' Chair,"
and "Lazy River." Other artists heard the new songs
and within a year Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and the Dorsey
brothers had recorded their own versions and were performing them
on the new hot medium, radio. Hoagy Carmichael himself was still
barely known to the public, but they were hearing and singing
his songs, and in 1936 Hoagy went to Hollywood where "the
rainbow hits the ground for composers."
the next decade, Hoagy moved from backstage into the spotlight.
He worked with lyricists Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser and Mitchell
Parish. He became a star performer on records, radio and stage
with a signature style, and began appearing in movies, most memorably
in "To Have and Have Not" and "The Best Years of
Our Lives". He got married and fathered two sons. In one
year, 1946, he had three of the top four songs on the Hit Parade,
and in 1951 he and Mercer won an Oscar for "In the Cool,
Cool, Cool of the Evening." He hosted his own television
show, "The Saturday Night Review."
was no longer a peculiar name, he was a star, even an American
icon. He was also someone you knew, a guy you wished you could
have a drink and share a laugh with. He had the same joys and
desires, disappointments and fears you had, and some of his songs--"Lazy
River," "Heart and Soul"-- became so familiar they
sounded as if no one had written them, they'd just always been
Hoagy's folksiness, humor and accessibility, there was also something
emotionally deep and complex in him. Perhaps it was because he
never got that house back in Bloomington, even if he got one in
Hollywood instead. Or maybe it was because behind that knowing
look and wryly cocked eyebrow there were a whole lot of things
that baffled him too. Like how you could want more than anything
"the solid, warm, endearing things of life" and also
be a "jazz maniac" whose judgment was "thrown out
of kilter" by hearing a horn. These were the twin passions
which wove through Hoagy's life in strands, and one night when
he was alone at the piano, they combined in a song.
described his surprise the first time he heard a recording of
"Stardust": "And then it happened--that queer sensation
that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn't written it
at all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened
became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters of the
studio. I wanted to shout back at it, 'maybe I didn't write you,
but I found you.'"
found a lot of songs during his storybook life, and maybe his
personal journey began the night a hungry young kid heard Louis
Jordan's band and went crazy for jazz. In The Stardust Road, Hoagy
describes what he said to himself the next day mowing his Grandmother's
lawn: "No, gramma, I don't think I'll ever be president of
anything. I know Mother named me after a railroad man, but it's
too late now, I'm afraid. Much, much too late.