Hoagy Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana on November 22, 1899. And even though he died in California in 1981, he was transported back to Bloomington where he now rests next to his mother in Rose Hill Cemetery. My friend, songwriter Tom Roznowski likes to point out how he always visits Hoagy’s grave on his birthday and leaves some change stuck in the gravestone for him. As a matter of fact, this is a unique parallel to Cole Porter who also was born in Indiana, died in California and is buried back in Indiana next to his mother.
I’m planning on a birthday tribute party on Tuesday, November 10 at the Venue Fine Arts Gallery in Bloomington on 114 S Grant St. We’ll take a journey back to Bloomington during the early years of the 20th Century when the new music genre called jazz was making its way up from New Orleans and many musicians traveled to Indiana to produce recordings at Gennett Studios in Richmond.
Hoagland (named after a circus troupe traveling through Bloomington during his mother’s pregnancy) was the son of Howard Carmichael, a horse-drawn taxi driver and electrician, and Lida Robison, a versatile pianist who played for silent movies and parties. The family moved frequently as Howard kept searching for better opportunities to take care of his family. Hoagy started to sing and play piano early on but never took formal lessons.
At 18, he worked in a slaughterhouse and construction jobs in Indianapolis to help out his family’s bleak income and formed a close relationship with pianist Reginald DuValle who taught him the principles of early jazz. His three-year older sister Joanne passed away from influenza the following year because the family couldn’t get the care needed in time and he vowed to never be broke again in his lifetime.
He finished his law degree at Indiana University in 1926 where he was a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity and performed with his band The Collegians and his good friend Bix Beiderbecke throughout the State in order to support his studies. Upon graduation he took a job with a law firm in Florida but when hearing a recording of his own Washboard Blues decided to rather pursue his love for songwriting. He quickly found his recipe for creating good melodies: “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.” (from Richard Sudhalter: Stardust Melody, Oxford University Press, 2002).
He started working for the New York publishing houses, first Irving Mills, then Ralph Peer’s Southern Music Company, and Warner Brothers moving up from scheduling recording sessions to staff writer, thus navigating the devastating economic effects of the Great Depression. Recordings of his music by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra (Washboard Blues), Louis Armstrong (Rockin’ Chair), and Bing Crosby (Stardust) established his reputation and created a steady stream of royalty income. During his New York time he was hobnobbing with the Gershwins and Duke Ellington and started his successful collaboration with lyricist Johnny Mercer, i.e. Lazybones sold over 350,000 copies in 3 months.
Soon after his marriage to Ruth Menardi, a preacher’s daughter, the couple moved to Hollywood where Hoagy worked as a songwriter for Paramount Studios for $1,000 a week. In addition to writing music he appeared as an actor in over 14 movies always performing one of his songs. He described his unique, laconic voice as being “the way a shaggy dog looks.… I have Wabash fog and sycamore twigs in my throat.” Here he is singing Stardust – judge for yourself. In 1937 he wrote the song “Chimes of Indiana”, which was presented to Indiana University as a gift by the class of 1935. Between 1944 -48, Hoagy hosted three musical variety programs with guests such as Pee Wee Hunt and Joe Venuti. Fans were rather blunt about his singing, with comments like “you can’t sing for sour owl” and “your singing is so delightfully awful that it is really funny”.
His movie and TV career continued to thrive throughout the 50s but with the advent of Rock’n Roll and the Beatles in the 60s his star along with many songwriters known for their contributions to the Great American Songbook faded against the British Invasion. Ray Charles’ recording of Georgia strengthened the steady income stream from royalties and Indiana University awarded Hozzzagy an honorary doctorate in music in 1972. He was also honored at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1979 for his 80th Birthday with a concert entitled “The Stardust Road: A Hoagy Carmichael Jubilee” in Carnegie Hall. In 1986, the Carmichael family 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.
Here is my rendition of Georgia on his piano that is now housed at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis. Hope you can join Tuesday, November 10, 5.30pm at the Venue for music, stories, and a birthday cake!