December 27, 1981 – Howard ‘Hoagy’ Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana on November 22, 1899. If for nothing else, his song “Georgia on my Mind” would have landed him in the Annals of Superstardom.
He was named Hoagland after a circus troupe “The Hoaglands” who stayed at the Carmichael house during his mother’s pregnancy. His dad Howard was a horse-drawn taxi driver and electrician, and mom Lida a versatile pianist who played accompaniment at silent movies and for parties. The family moved frequently, as Howard sought better employment for his growing family.
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.
The death of his three-year-old sister in 1918 affected him deeply, and he wrote “My sister Joanne—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.”
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. 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.
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 financial boost. He had begun to work at an investment house and was considering a switch in career when he composed “Georgia on My Mind” with lyrics by Stuart Gorrell, perhaps most famously turned into an evergreen by the Ray Charles rendition recorded many years later(1960).
Hoagy 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.”
During 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.”
‘Hoagy’ 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 there.
Despite 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.
Hoagy 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.'”
Hoagy 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.
He appeared as an actor in a total of 14 motion pictures died from a heart attack on Dec 27, 1981 at the age of 82.