Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael

Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael

by Richard M. Sudhalter




Georgia on My Mind, Rockin' Chair, Skylark, Lazybones, and of course the incomparable Star Dust—who else could have composed these classic American songs but Hoagy Carmichael? He remains, for millions, the voice of heartland America, eternal counterpoint to the urban sensibility of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Now, trumpeter and historian Richard M. Sudhalter has penned the first book-length biography of the man Alec Wilder hailed as "the most talented, inventive, sophisticated and jazz-oriented of all the great songwriters—the greatest of the great craftsmen."
Stardust Melody follows Carmichael from his roaring-twenties Indiana youth to bandstands and recording studios across the nation, playing piano and singing alongside jazz greats Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and close friends Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong. It illuminates his peak Hollywood years, starring in such films as To Have and Have Not and The Best Years of Our Lives, and on radio, records and TV. With compassionate insight Sudhalter depicts Hoagy's triumphs and tragedies, and his mounting despair as rock-and-roll drowns out and lays waste to the last days of a brilliant career.
With an insider's clarity Sudhalter explores the songs themselves, still fresh and appealing while reminding us of our innocent American yesterdays. Drawing on Carmichael's private papers and on interviews with family, friends and colleagues, he reveals that "The Old Music Master" was almost as gifted a wordsmith as a shaper of melodies. In all, Stardust Melody offers a richly textured portrait of one of our greatest musical figures, an inspiring American icon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195131208
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 03/01/1902
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 9.56(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Richard M. Sudhalter is a widely respected jazz trumpet player and noted critic, broadcaster and Grammy-winning historian, who has performed and recorded Hoagy Carmichael's music all over the world. His Lost Chords (OUP) won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Special Citation for Excellence, and was voted a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He was co-author of the National Book Award-nominated Bix: Man and Legend, still cited as the definitive Beiderbecke biography. A Challenge Records recording artist, he lives on Long Island's North Fork.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Sonny—ain't but one thing to remember when you gets to be a man: You saves your money, and does the best you can.

—HOAGY CARMICHAEL (Undated, unused lyric)

Anyone wanting to drive from Indianapolis to Richmond, Indiana, these days simply picks up Interstate 70, which bisects the city, heads east, and steps on the gas. Provided the traffic is relatively light, the weather reasonable, and the police not too attentive, a driver can cover the seventy-three miles in little more than an hour.

    That's the way most people in this adrenalized age do it. Driving an interstate in central Indiana, after all, is much like driving one anywhere: self-contained, insular, passing by but never through; experiencing but never partaking. Penetrating, even—but never touching.

    At certain points along I-70 it's possible to look south and see, off in the middle distance, another road, running parallel. The map identifies it as Route 40, though most folks in this part of Indiana still call it the "National."

    Built in 1827 as a stagecoach route, it cuts right across the middle of the state, from Terre Haute, over by the Illinois line, through Indianapolis, then wanders east toward Ohio; the names of Dunreith, Straughn, Dublin, and East Germantown trace settlement patterns, waves of immigrants moving west, naming new places for those they'd left in search of lives better than what they'd journeyed all those miles, crossed oceans, to escape.

   Indiana achieved statehood in 1816, but even before that it was a crossroads place. Anyone wanting to get from New York, Philadelphia, or Boston to Chicago or Kansas City, St. Louis or Omaha, Des Moines, Minneapolis, or points further west, had to go right through Indiana Territory, on either the train or the National Road. As nineteenth-century America grew, that came to mean meat and grain heading one way, people and supplies moving the other, a burgeoning economy flooding across the heartland.

    Few were surprised when the 1890 census placed the statistical center of the U.S. population on Lewis Wells's farm outside Greensburg, some fifty miles southeast of Indianapolis. By 1900 it had marched thirty miles west to another farm, that of Henry Marr, near Columbus, Indiana. B. M. Hutchins, whose firm cut gravestones for just about every family thereabouts, carved a monument for the spot, and the Indianapolis News remarked on December 16, 1902, that "farmers for miles around watched the work with interest. Quite a number of Columbus people drove to Marr's farm during the day."

    The land was arable, and between 1860 and 1900 the number of Indiana farms increased from 132,000 to 222,000. Newcomers from Germany, from Ireland and Scotland, Scandinavia and Holland, brought a love of the soil and knowledge of what riches it could yield. Indiana forests provided timber. Men quarried limestone from the vast shelf on which much of the state rested.

    If modern-day Indianapolis resembles most other medium-sized American conurbations in its ever more cluttered skyline, traffic jams, and labyrinthine one-way systems, its restaurants, motels, and shopping malls, the similarity ends abruptly at the city limits. The National Road may parallel the interstate, but the difference between them—in appearance, tempo, meaning—betokens a gulf of time and culture.

    Driving the National eastward, the visitor traverses a gently rolling landscape dotted by old wood-frame houses, stately brick school buildings, churches and Moose lodges, Shell stations and savings banks. Discreet signs extol the Riley Family Restaurant or Suzy's Cafe (no fancy French accent aigu here, please), where the Sunday fried chicken dinners are still the best around. Barbershops and "beauty parlors," Jim's Hardware and John Deere dealerships, line the main streets.

    As William Least Heat-Moon (in Blue Highways, 1982) and other peripatetics have discovered, these towns still speckle the U.S. landscape, their people living out daily lives not so much in spite of as simply alongside and apart from the hurry-up cities. "You enjoy your beepers and cell phones and too-busy-to-bother existence," they seem to say, "and we'll just carry on here, at our own pace, the way we always have."

* * *

Abraham Lincoln, born in neighboring Kentucky, spent his boyhood in southern Indiana's Spencer County; when he ran for president in 1860, Hoosiers (the origin of the term is unclear) helped vote him in, remaining loyal to the Union throughout the Civil War. Apart from a raid in 1863 by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, Indiana kept out of the war—making it a prime, 36,000-square-mile postbellum destination for waves of southern blacks moving north to the promise of better lives.

    They and other groups at society's margins left their cultural mark—not least on an audience eager for entertainment. In the words of historian Duncan Schiedt, turn-of-the-century Indiana

was a favored place for touring musical shows of all kinds. The circus, the opera, musical comedy, burlesque, and even the lowly medicine show ... all regarded the Hoosier state as fertile ground. A major circus, the Hagenbeck Wallace organization, was but one of several which wintered at the town of Peru. In Indianapolis, black stage producers got an early start as they sent companies on the road.

    Among the visitors were musicians, many of them members of town and traveling tent show bands, representing myriad backgrounds and traditions. As Schiedt puts it, the Germans brought their choral legacy, the Anglo-Saxons their folk melodies, the blacks their rhythmic vitality—and the unique, compelling accents of the blues.

    By the late nineteenth century, Indiana folk were living a rich, varied, ever-expanding musical life. It erupted into the national consciousness on the very eve of the twentieth century, when Paul Dresser, brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser, published "On the Banks of the Wabash," his sentimental ode to his home state. Not long after came James Hanley and Ballard MacDonald's "(Back Home Again in) Indiana," reverentially borrowing several key phrases from Dresser's tune.

    It didn't take long for songs celebrating Indiana to become staples of the popular repertoire—even if they did run a distant second to Tin Pan Alley's eternal fascination with a romanticized (and largely fictitious) antebellum South. The first decades of the twentieth century brought nationwide popularity to "Indiana Moon," "You're My Little Indiana Rose," "Wabash Moon," "Dreaming of My Indiana Sweetheart," the punningly titled "Hoosier Sweetheart," and even Dresser's own "Way Down in Old Indiana." Songwriter Harry Von Tilzer, who as Harold Gumm had lived several boyhood years in Indianapolis, expressed fond longing for home in his 1920 "A-B-C-D Blues."

    It's perhaps no coincidence, moreover, that Richmond, the last major town on the National Road before it crosses into Ohio, should have been the site of a small pioneer company whose phonograph records chronicled, and in turn helped shape, the history of American twentieth-century music, in particular the unique hybrid form ultimately to be known as jazz.

* * *

A visitor driving along the National Road today still glimpses bits of earlier Indiana life. A ten-mile stretch between the towns of Cleveland and Charlottesville, say, remains much as it must have been: solid old Victorian houses, set well back on open farmland, frowning at the passage of years like slightly disapproving village elders. Stop along here for a moment, and it's easy to imagine the chill predawn hours of Monday, January 26, 1925, and an open Ford bumping eastward along the two-lane road, two young men scattering the darkness with their laughter.

We were halfway to Richmond ... when we stopped and for some reason Bix took out his horn. He cut loose with a blast to warn the farmers and start the dogs homing ... Clean wonderful banners of melody filled the air, carved the countryside. Split the still night. The trees and the ground and the sky made the tones so right.

    That's Hoagy Carmichael talking. When we find him, out there on the National, he's twenty-five, long-faced and solemn; stands a skinny five-eight; plays piano and a little cornet, and is allegedly studying law at Indiana University in his hometown of Bloomington, about fifty miles southwest of here. He's never going to be a lawyer: that much he knows in his heart, though at this point he's nowhere near ready to admit it to himself or anyone else.

    Hoagland Howard Carmichael, born in Bloomington on an overcast Wednesday, November 22, 1899, has music on his mind—music, in fact, as embodied in his companion of this night, a quiet, huskily good-looking guy from Iowa, three years his junior, named Leon Beiderbecke. No one ever calls him Leon, of course, except the occasional schoolmarm or maiden aunt. To the rest—parents, friends, an ever-widening circle of admirers-he's "Bix."

    His instrument of choice is the cornet, though he's also quite good at the piano. He's already emerged as a minor celebrity in the underground fraternity dedicated to playing "hot music." Enjoying themselves together on this coldly moonlit night, the two friends are bound for quite different destinies: Beiderbecke, impelled by dark inner forces, will burn briefly and brightly, and barely survive the decade. His friend Hoagland, the sometime law student, will walk another path; throughout a long and productive life, he'll bear the imprint of these nights, of the trees and the ground and the sky that "made the tones so right." His friendship with this star-crossed young man, and the music that cascaded so effortlessly out of his horn, will go on shaping the aspiring lawyer's life, ringing bright and forever in the stillness of memory.

* * *

A first child, Hoagland Carmichael was born at home, in a four-room cottage on Bloomington's Grant Street, only boy in what ultimately became a family of girls. Sometime during his mother's pregnancy, said boyhood friend Harry Orchard, "there was a traveling troupe of circus people stranded in Bloomington and the Carmichaels took in the Hoaglands." The guests went their way, and the name remained.

    Howard Clyde Carmichael made a steady if uncertain living running horse-drawn taxis. "He had courted my mother, Lida, while banging a whip into the rump of a fast-pacing horse," the son later recalled, and she "promised to marry him if he'd only slow up."

    One of seven children born on Michael Taylor Carmichael's livestock farm near Harrodsburg, twelve miles south of Bloomington, Howard had been a high-spirited boy, especially good with horses. In the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, he'd won the nickname "Cyclone" for his uninhibited style in regimental middleweight boxing championships.

    A newspaper announcement of his marriage to Mary Lida Robison on May 24, 1899, describes him neutrally as "a young man of character and promise." His sister Florence remembered him as "the family comedian," entertaining social gatherings with "mimicry and soft-shoe dances ... a jolly friend of everyone."

    Howard Carmichael's photographs show a stocky, stiff, rather solemn man, clearly uncomfortable in front of the camera. A bit rough-and-ready, even intimidating (said his son), but overall "a great guy, an easy mark, a soft touch ... who was always being bamboozled into something yet not getting riled up about it." Not that he didn't get "riled" once in a while: sudden outbursts of temper could reveal "a primitive instinct that made him a fighter when he was enraged."

    Howard's wife, by contrast, was "a shy, poetic young girl" barely five feet tall. Her hairdo and manner of dress emulated those of the "Gibson Girl" ideal created by turn-of-the-century magazine illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, those "classical-faced beauties, smart under their piled-up hair, with studied, superior smiles ready to trap a male."

    How close Lida (pronounced "Lye-dah") Robison Carmichael actually came to such perfection is hard to tell. But she possessed at least one striking attribute, owing nothing to Gibson's idealized sophisticates: she was an adept and dynamic pianist. When silent movies came to Bloomington early in the new century, theatre owners hired Lida to improvise piano accompaniments; among her regular places of employment were the Vaudette Nickelodeon, on South College, and the Wonderland Air Dome, on East Sixth Street. When fraternity and sorority houses at Indiana University held weekend dances, Lida was usually at the keyboard, often accompanied on the traps by a man remembered only as Mr. Woodward, who worked days as a clerk in Whitaker's Grocery Store.

    She could give a respectable account of "classical" favorites, cobble together impromptu Gilbert and Sullivan medleys, draw on familiar themes from opera and operetta—and toss off such favorites of the day as "The Stars and Stripes Forever" or Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," written in the year of young Hoagland's birth. Reportedly she also wrote verse and short stories, though no examples have survived.

    Lida lost her heart to "Cyclone" Carmichael from the start. Quick comparison of the dates of their May wedding and the boy's birth six months later indicates that romance bloomed early and ardently. But Cyclone's jobs somehow never seemed to last very long, and when "horseless carriages" began to replace the horse-drawn rigs of his taxi service, he tried his hand awhile as an electrician. Admitting to friends that he was "no Tom Edison," he soon started looking for better-paying work to support his new family.

    That meant moving around, going where the jobs were. Sometimes he'd be gone weeks at a time, leaving Lida, her mother, and various aunts to run the home and care for the boy. Feast or famine, with the emphasis too often on the latter. "We were poor white trash," Hoagy Carmichael declared during a 1972 interview, in a surprisingly harsh assessment of the family's economic and social circumstances—and contrasting sharply with the more affectionate tone he usually adopted. But that careless utterance was far from the only hint that life for the Carmichaels had a hardscrabble side, and young Hoagland soon learned to be canny with what little money he had.

    Boyhood friend Harry Orchard, later a respected Bloomington banker, recalled Hoagland watching carefully from the sidelines as he and some high school fraternity boys shot craps. "I was up and down and up and down and finally lost every cent I had," Orchard said in a 1983 letter. "I approached [Hoagy] when I had lost all my money and asked for a loan. He wanted to know what I would give him for security and I pulled out my prize Christmas billfold and told him I would give him that as security for a $5 loan. The billfold had cost my mother $10. Hoagy said it wasn't worth $10 but he would lend me $2 if I put it up for security. I gave the billfold to him and he gave me $2, which I later paid back and got the billfold back."

    In 1904, his cab business a failure and work as an electrician not forthcoming, Cyclone packed up his little family—including his now-pregnant wife—and headed up Route 22 for Indianapolis. They found an apartment at the corner of East and Lockerbie streets, where, on the second day of November, Lida gave birth to a second child, a daughter they called Georgia.

    Three houses down Lockerbie Street lived the rotund, beloved "Hoosier poet" James Whitcomb Riley. By then in his mid-fifties, he'd written such sentimental children's classics as "Little Orphant [sic] Annie" and "The Runaway Boy." Hoagland, no runaway, remembered the poet as "a fine, fat figure of a man," often wobbling around the neighborhood on a bicycle.

He used to carry me on his shoulders to the grocery store, and when the fire engines passed, he counted them for me. There were always fifty. I don't care how many fire engines there are in Indianapolis today, there were always fifty then.

    The Indianapolis sojourn didn't last long. By January 29, 1906, Cyclone, his wife, and their two children were back in Bloomington, living at 214 South Dunn Street, a short walk from both the Indiana University campus and its football practice field.

    For the lad who later wrote that "change always upset me," it was a time of happiness and—most important to him—stability: "Bloomington offered everything," he wrote. "Creeks, ponds, rabbits, circuses and wide open spaces. I could cross a dusty street here in my bare feet without the aid of a traffic cop."


Excerpted from STARDUST MELODY by Richard M. Sudhalter. Copyright © 2002 by Richard M. Sudhalter. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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