Howard Hoagland "Hoagy" Carmichael (22 November 1899, Bloomington, Ind. – 27 December 1981, Rancho Mirage, Calif.) was an American composer, pianist, singer, actor, and bandleader. 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.
Carmichael was named Hoagland after a circus troupe "The Hoaglands" who stayed at the Carmichael house during his mother's pregnancy. Howard was a horse-drawn taxi driver and electrician, and Lida a versatile pianist who played accompaniment at silent movies and for parties. At six, Carmichael started to sing and play the piano, easily absorbing his mother's keyboard skills. He never had formal piano lessons. By high school, the piano was the focus of his after-school life, and for inspiration he would listen to ragtime pianists Hank Wells and Hube Hanna. At eighteen, the small, wiry, pale Carmichael was living in Indianapolis, trying to help his family’s income working in manual jobs in construction, a bicycle chain factory, and a slaughterhouse. The bleak time was partly spelled by four-handed piano duets with his mother and by his strong friendship with Reg DuValle, a black bandleader and pianist known as "the elder statesman of Indiana jazz" and "the Rhythm King", who taught him piano jazz improvisation. Carmichael earned his first money ($5.00) as a musician playing at a fraternity dance in 1918 and began his musical career.
Carmichael attended Indiana University and the Indiana University School of Law, where he received his Bachelor's degree in 1925 and a law degree in 1926. He was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity and played the piano all around the state with his "Collegians" to support his studies. He met, befriended, and played with Bix Beiderbecke, the cornetist, sometime pianist and fellow mid-westerner. He was also influenced by Beiderbecke's impressionistic and classical musical ideas. On a visit to Chicago, Carmichael was introduced by Beiderbecke to Louis Armstrong, who was then playing with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and with whom he would collaborate later. He began to compose songs, Washboard Blues and Boneyard Shuffle for Curtis Hitch, and also Riverboat Shuffle, recorded by Beiderbecke, which became a staple of jazz and Carmichael’s first recorded song.
After graduating in 1926, he joined an Indiana law firm and passed the state bar, but devoted most of his energies to music, arranging band dates, and "writing tunes". He 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." Later in 1927, Carmichael finished and recorded one of his most famous songs, Star Dust (later renamed Stardust, with Mitchell Parish's lyrics added in 1929), at the Gennett Records studio in Richmond, Indiana, with Carmichael doing the piano solo. The song, an idiosyncratic melody in medium tempo – actually a song about a song – later became an American standard, recorded by hundreds of artists. Shortly thereafter, Carmichael received more recognition when Paul Whiteman recorded Washboard Blues, with Carmichael playing and singing, and the Dorsey brothers and Bix Beiderbecke in the orchestra. Despite his growing prominence, at this stage Carmichael was still held back by his inability to sight-read and notate music properly, although he was innovative for the time. With coaching, he became more proficient at arranging his own music.
Moving to New York in 1929, Carmichael met Duke Ellington's agent and publisher Irving Mills and hired him to set up recording dates. In October 1929 the stock market crashed and Carmichael's hard-earned savings declined substantially. Fortunately, Louis Armstrong then recorded Rockin' Chair at Okeh studios, giving Carmichael a badly needed boost. He had begun to work at an investment house and was considering a switch in career when he composed Georgia on My Mind (lyrics by Stuart Gorrell), perhaps most famous in the Ray Charles rendition recorded many years later.
Carmichael joined ASCAP in 1931 and began working for Ralph Peer’s Southern Music Company in 1932 as a songwriter. Many musicians were out of work, so Carmichael was fortunate to retain this low-paying, but stable job.
Hot jazz was declining, but big-band swing was just around the corner and jazz would soon turn 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 soon would be heading in that direction. In 1933 he began his collaboration with newly arrived lyricist Johnny Mercer, and his financial condition improved dramatically. He was able to associate George Gershwin, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, and other music giants in the New York scene.
Carmichael started to emerge as a solo singer-performer, first at parties, then professionally. He described his unique, laconic voice as being "the way a shaggy dog looks.… I have Wabash fog and sycamore twigs in my throat."
In 1935 Carmichael moved to California and accepted a contract with Paramount for $1,000 a week, joining other songwriters working for the Hollywood studios, including Harry Warren (Warners), E. Y. Harburg (MGM),Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin at Paramount. Soon, the Carmichaels were accepted members of the affluent Hollywood community. In 1937 Carmichael appeared in the movie Topper, serenading Cary Grant and Constance Bennett with his song Old Man Moon.
In 1943, Carmichael returned to the movies and played "Cricket" in the screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, opposite Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, where he sang Hong Kong Blues and The Rhumba Jumps, and played piano as Bacall sang How Little We Know.
Carmichael appeared as an actor in a total of 14 motion pictures, always performing at least one of his songs. He described his 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'."
Between 1944 and 1948, Carmichael was the host of three musical variety radio programs.
In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, featured in 1951's Here Comes the Groom, won Carmichael his first Academy Award for Best Original Song, and Mercer his second of four.
In the early 1950s, variety shows were particularly popular on television. Among his numerous television roles, Carmichael guest-starred with Keenan Wynn, Anthony George, and Olive Carey in the 1956 episode Death in the Snow of the NBC anthology series, The Joseph Cotten Show. He was thereafter a regular on NBC's Laramie western series (1959–1963), co-starred in The Helen Morgan Story on CBS's Playhouse 90 (1957) and provided the voice for a stone age parody of himself, Stoney Carmichael. in an episode of ABC's The Flintstones, which aired in September 1961. On June 15, 1961, he appeared in one of the final episodes of NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.
The advent of rock-and-roll in the mid-50s quickly put an end to the careers of most older artists. As his songwriting career started to ebb, Carmichael's marriage dissolved. Secure with royalties from his past hits, he wrote some songs for children.
Carmichael was inducted into the USA's Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971 along with Duke Ellington. As he passed his 70th birthday, Carmichael participated in the PBS television show Hoagy Carmichael's Music Shop, which featured jazz-rock versions of his hits. He appeared on Fred Rogers PBS show Old Friends, New Friends. With time on his hands, he resumed painting.
American composer and author Alec Wilder wrote of Carmichael in American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950 that he was the "most talented, inventive, sophisticated and jazz-oriented" of the hundreds of writers composing pop songs in the first half of the 20th century.
Works for Winds
- Georgia on My Mind (arr. Norman)
- Georgia on My Mind (arr. Higgins) (1930/1989)
- Georgia on My Mind (arr. Smith) (1930/1980)
- Heart and Soul
- Hoagy Carmichael (arr. Kessler) (1999)
- Hoagy Carmichael in Concert (arr. Barker)
- Lazy River
- Nearness of You, The
- Star Dust (arr. Barker) (2001)
- Star Dust (arr Walczyk) (arr. Walczyk) (2013)
- Star Dust (arr Yoder) (arr. Yoder) (1929)
- Two Sleepy People