Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Hoagy Carmichael (1899 – 1981): “Stardust,” but no closer to heaven, #4

The Later Years of Carmichael

Moving into the 1960s, HC’s song “Georgia on My Mind,” sung by Ray Charles, won a Grammy for the Best Male Vocal and the Best Popular Single. In 1961 he appeared on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show and (as a parody of himself) in The Flintstones. Carmichael was smoking hot but clouds were on the horizon. Rock and role appeared in the mid-50s and his audience was graying and the recording industry was noticing the change in color. A foretaste of things to come was the fact that his music for the 1962 John Wayne film, Hatari!, was dumped in favor of the music of Henry Mancini.. By the end of the l960s Carmichael had moved from Hollywood back to New York City and was writing music that no one was playing. In l965 he wrote the second autobiography (with Stephen Longstreet), Sometimes I Wonder. Neither biography tells much about HC or is very illuminating, except in what they don’t say. He wrote two complex orchestra pieces (“Brown County in Autumn” and “Johnny Appleseed”) in the l960s which were duds.

In l971 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame along with Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin, Alan Lerner, Dorothy Field, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer and a couple of others. The SHF had its first inductees just the year before in l970 and hundreds of composers and lyricists have since been inducted. The significance of those early inductees is that they help set the standard for admittance. Primitive cataract surgery in the early 1970s diminished his eyesight and confined his activities. He had many opportunities to perform and teach but rejected them all in the late 1970s. His drinking increased and his health decreased so he could not even attend his 75th birthday party in l976. However, in June 1979 he rallied and he did attend his grand 80th birthday party at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
In April l981 CBS had a special “Country Comes Home” starring various country music stars, including a segment with the popular country diva Crystal Gayle singing Carmichael’s songs and talking with him about his career. He was sick and in pain at the time with prostate cancer. It was his last public appearance. He died of a heart attack in December, 1981, in Palm Springs at the age of 82.

My favorite Carmichael songs: “Stardust,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” “Two Sleepy People,” “Heart and Soul,” “Skylark,” “The Nearness of You,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

His worldview:

Carmichael was a long-standing Republican, perhaps owing to the poverty of his growing up years and perhaps the fact that he was a neighbor of Wendell Wilkie in Indianapolis. That put him at odds with most of his Hollywood friends and colleagues. He and Humphrey Bogart almost got into a fight in the early 50s. As HC tells it: “The left wing boys were pretty much in power and somehow I was always tangling with them.” He wrote, “Humphrey Bogart was a bit confused politically in my opinion. He had a tendency at parties to be on the pink side in those days when it seemed to be fashionable to follow the left line in Hollywood society. He shouted a tirade of abuse at my Republican stand one night at a big party. I invited him outside, coats off; fists up. I weighed 135, he 150. My wife, Ruthy, broke it up.”

In l951 a 51-year-old Hoagy Carmichael had a brief and public affair with the beautiful 22-year-old English actress, Jean Simmons. In l955 a gossip columnist in Uncensored magazine wrote, “Hoagy’s 55 but has been sowing wild oats like a colt in his teens for the past year – from the elegant gin mills of Manhattan’s East Side to the loud and brassy nighteries along movieland’s famed Sunset Strip; And what Hoagland used to get out of a piano, he’s been getting from time to time out of a bourbon bottle.” He was also exceedingly cheap and tight with his money and Ruth had no freedom to spend money, even for a lunch out (1 Timothy 5:8). This is no doubt a result of the grinding poverty of his childhood. Still, it was all too much for her and she divorced HC in September l955 after a messy, public and uncomfortable proceeding.

He had many affairs and brief sexual encounters (Exodus 20:14; Matthew 5:28) and finally married Dorothy Ellen Quackenbush (who briefly acted under the name “Wanda McKay”) in l977. Quackenbush was at his bedside when he died four years later in l981.

He was survived by his second wife, Wanda, and his two sons, Hoagy Bix (1939) and Randy Bob (1940). HC’s sister, Martha, died of suicide in l961. Eventually, first wife Ruth committed suicide in 1966.

Carmichael was born only six months after his parents had married and there is no mention in his two autobiographies or biography of any church affiliation of the immediate family in Bloomington or Indianapolis.

The itinerate nature of Carmichael’s upbringing with his father moving constantly around to find jobs and satisfaction probably led to his lack of church upbringing but I couldn’t find any reference to his church attendance except when he went to “Bucktown,” the black section of Bloomington to listen to music. He wrote, “The Negroes were often pious. The church laments that led to the blues had the most feeling and tenderness, and I’d sit listening in their whitewashed shack churches that smelled of laundry soap and old wood. It got me more than white church music. It wasn’t all sacred music.”

When his young sister died of influenza in l918 he wrote, “Because she died of an infectious disease, there were no services. But my mother played a hymn on the old upright piano.” This is the only reference to family hymn playing that I could find.

Carmichael wrote that the “roots of jazz” came from “the poverty of white people, from the life of the hillmen and the shanty and shack boatmen of the rivers and bayous. It came from the camp meetings and the turkey shoots and it was as real and true to the people who made it as the Negro Music of the same time. Nobody owned this ragtime ringed with jazz because nobody really wanted it. It was the poor man’s tennis and foxhunt.”

Carmichael once wrote, “Change always upset me. My music is often about things lost to me. Simple things like rocking chairs, the weather of my childhood, moods and memories, and landmarks.”

Shortly before his death in l981, he said on his 80th birthday in l979, “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.”


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