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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, #2

The lyrics of his life

The Early Years of Carmichael

Hoagland Howard Carmichael was born the same year as Duke Ellington – 1899 – his only equal in American jazz songwriters. He was born in Bloomington, Indiana, to an itinerate electrician and horse-drawn taxi driver (Howard Clyde “Cyclone” Carmichael) and a piano-playing mother (Lida Mary Carmichael). Momma played for dances, fraternity parties, silent movies, and even bordellos. Young Hoagy tagged along with her when she played, took it all in and began “noodling” on the keys himself when he was six. It was the new era of ragtime and Scott Joplin. Late in his life, Carmichael said that his family was “poor, white trash.” One story has Hoagy being named after a circus troupe, “The Hoaglands,” who stayed at the Carmichael house when Momma was pregnant with him. Another story has Hoagy being named for a railroad surveyor, Harry Hoagland, who boarded with the Carmichael family while she was pregnant. When he was 17, the family moved to Lockerbie Street in downtown Indianapolis. (He was a teenage laborer on the expansion of the historic Union Station in Indianapolis.) A personal note: as a young boy, my father read me the poems of James Whitcomb Riley, especially “Little Orphant Annie,” “The Old Swimming Hole” and “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin.” The older Riley and younger Carmichael knew each other because they were neighbors. While living in Indianapolis, the piano playing teenager came under the tutelage of black orchestra leader and jazz pianist, Reginald DuValle (“elder statesman of Indiana jazz”). While in Indianapolis, HCs three-year old sister Joanne, died of influenza or diphtheria (1918). Carmichael wrote on the back of a picture of Joanne which he kept all his life: “My sister, the victim of poverty. We couldn’t afford a good doctor or good attention, and that’s when I vowed I would never be broke again in my lifetime.” Moving back to Bloomington in 1919, HC booked the Louisville-based jazz band of Howard Jordan for his fraternity dance and the experience made him a jazz maniac. He travelled around the region playing piano at dances and in one visit to Chicago he heard a young Louie Armstrong playing with the great King Oliver Creole Jazz Band. This brief encounter resulted in a life-long friendship between the two musical greats. In 1970 Carmichael would be the master of ceremonies at a gigantic Hollywood party for Armstrong’s 70th birthday attended by 6700 fans.

Carmichael dropped out of high school to play in a dance band but then returned and graduated in l920 and entered the University of Indiana (pledging Kappa Sigma fraternity) planning to be a lawyer. While at U of I as an undergraduate he started his own band (first called “Carmichael’s Syringe Band,” then called “Carmichael’s Collegians”) which travelled around the region playing at dances. He played a good piano and a bad cornet. In 1924 the great and troubled jazz cornetist Leon “Bix” Biederbecke visited the university with his band (“The Wolverines”) and happened to meet HC. They became fast friends and HC dedicated his first song –“Riverboat Shuffle” – to Bix. Carmichael graduated in l925 and entered U of I law school and continued to perform and write music. He graduated from law school in l926 and moved to West Palm Beach to practice law but didn’t pass the bar exam. He was too distracted by music. While in Florida he heard the great Red Nichols and his Five Pennies on the radio and they were playing his song, “Washboard Blues,” and he didn’t even know it had been recorded! Moving back to Bloomington in l927, Carmichael passed the Indiana bar exam and began lawyering during the day but his heart belonged to Momma’s passion – music – at night. It was in l927, in a studio in Richmond, Indiana, that he recorded his most famous tune, “Stardust.” (The lyrics to be written by Mitchell Parish in New York in l929.) While still a Bloomington lawyer (1927), he recorded his own tune, “Washboard Blues,” with the great Paul Whiteman orchestra (“The King of Jazz”). Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Bix Beiderbecke were also in the Whiteman orchestra at the time (as were many of the pioneering jazz greats). The story is that Whiteman decided Carmichael should be both the vocalist and pianist for the recording. But just to be on the safe side, Whiteman privately assigned one of his band’s new singers, a then unknown baritone from Spokane, Washington, Bing Crosby, to learn the song and be ready to step in if Carmichael’s version didn’t go well. Crosby never got to make that particular recording because the twangy, wry, raspy sound of Carmichael was a hit. In fact, Carmichael’s singing made him the most recognizable and popular songwriter/singer in America for three decades. Being self taught, HC could not sight read or notate music so he was hampered. In 1929 he moved to New York City, to take composition lessons. There he published his first tune/lyrics in l930, “Rockin’ Chair.” Carmichael famously brought together Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke, Tommy Dorsey, Bud Freeman, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti and Gene Krupa, among others for this particular recording. What a session that must have been.

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