By Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at




       Unlike other Great American Songwriters Hoagy Carmichael was best known to the public of the 1940s and 50s as a laid back character actor on the big screen: with hat tilted, cigarette dangling, and a look of world-weary wryness, he sat at the piano ready to dispense words of folksy philosophy and tinkle a little piano, a saloon singer with a corn mush-friendly voice, almost like a country singer.

       That role was for “To have and have Not” where Humphrey Bogart And Lauren Bacall were entertained by him as he reprised the piano player in “Casablanca”. Later in “The Best years of our lives’” he taught a handless serviceman to play “Chopsticks.”

Altogether he made 40 screen appearances and composed songs for 120 movies. He won an Academy Award for “In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The evening”, written (with words by his colleague Johnny Mercer) for the 1951 movie “Here Comes The Groom”. But the  “can’t be bothered” cool persona he portrayed on the screen belied the real man- a hardworking perfectionist who never spiritually left his corn-fed Indiana home. A melody man.

       His father pulled horse-drawn taxis in Bloomington and liked to move around; his mother, who played piano in movie houses, introduced him to music. His first obsession was an 1891 sentimental ballad about death in the nursery by parlor composer Ethelbert (“Mighty Lak A Rose”) Nevin. Hearty, rich chords, vaulting tune—are we on the Star Dust road? But the romantic tendency was tempered by ragtime, the rock and roll of the century’s teen years. His mother played him Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and he was sold. Pretty soon, untutored, he was playing the piano. Then just after the end of world War One he got infected by the jazz fever—jazz the crazed sound that made father ragtime seem sedate.

       By this time, still at high school, he was hiring bands for dances. One of them, a black ensemble, moved him to later report: “I got the spirit of jazz like a Congo medicine man, I was half insane”. He just had to start his own band which he did when he was a law student at Indiana University. He listened, head inside the phonograph horn, to any new record that might seem hot, from the Original Dixieland jazz band to Paul Whiteman, the self-styled “king of jazz”. The songs were great too, especially the chords to “Whispering”. He spent a week learning “After You’ve Gone”—whose take-off harmony sequence was to find its way into ”Star dust”.

       In 1924 he fell under the spell of Bix Beiderbecke, the first truly original white jazz horn player. Bix was in town for gigs and Hoagy was mesmerized by the pure and rounded tone of the Bix cornet. The Iowan kid lived for his music and every phrase he played seemed to come out pure and beautiful. The two became close buddies, sitting at the piano in campus hangout “The book Nook”. Bix, a non-reader too, played idiosyncratic piano, and shared his love of Ravel and Debussy with Hoagy. The latter demonstrated a few of his own doodlings and Bix suggested he try writing them down.  Hoagy had a tune in his head and Bix liked it so much he recorded the instrumental — “Riverboat Shuffle”, an up-tempo workout with some melodic nods to Jelly Roll Morton.

       This established him as a comer in the world of jazz. Next he produced a number that with its various movements and changes of mood was like a dramatic program piece. “Washboard

Blues" (with words by a friend), is the lament of an over-worked colored woman, the first of several Carmichael songs dealing with aspects of African-American society. Paul Whiteman recorded it, with the composer contributing piano and vocal. Bix was on cornet. The piano solo contains a good deal of the tune that was to become a smash hit called “Lazybones”.

       Meanwhile the “Little Boy Blue” romantic side of Carmichael was brewing. Since 1926 he’d been fiddling with a melody structured on lovely arpeggios and starting on the same subdominant chord as “After You’ve Gone’. The rolling tune sounded like a Bix solo; a friend dubbed it “star dust’ and an up tempo recording was made with the composer inserting an impressionistic improvisation in the middle. Nothing much happened until Carmichael hooked up with big New York publisher Mills music where lyrics concerning purple twilight and garden walls were aptly set by staff writer Mitchell Parish. A superb recording, with a splendid arrangement by Victor Young, and performed by the Isham Jones orchestra slowed the tempo to acceptable ballad time. Soon there were lots of versions including one by the new crooning sensation Bing Crosby. “Star dust” has gone on to be recorded almost 2,000 times, placing it as the most recorded song of all time.  Frank Sinatra was happy to leave out the chorus and concentrate simply on the verse.

       Curiously, when Carmichael cut a solo piano version in 1933 he jazzed it up, with dollops of improvization. Curious, because by this time he had forsaken jazz as a way of life, moving to New York, giving up a career as an attorney and deciding to apply himself to becoming a songwriter on the market.” This was not a place for a jazz composer to be trapped in. “I was tiring of jazz. No more hot licks. No more thrills”. He had shown that he was no slouch as a lyric writer: “Rockin’ Chair”, a languid bluesy tune with the same shape as “How Long blues”, returns to the southern black world of “Washboard Blues”—a stoic senior waiting for deliverance from a tough life while having to deal with pesky flies and a lack of gin. Whiteman’s vocalist Mildred Bailey adopted it as her signature tune, while Louis Armstrong was to treat it as a quasi-minstrel specialty. Moving or comic, the song has become a standard.

       Although he only touched up the tune to “Lazy River” (by New Orleans jazz clarinetist Sidney Arodin), he added words that evoke a sultry sweet afternoon in an idyllic setting where nature is humanized when you linger in the shade of a kind old tree. The tree has metamorphosed into a good person. The snaky tune, arpeggiated like “Star Dust”, has a chord sequence similar to “Shine On Harvest moon and “Sweet Georgia Brown”. The song has lived into the rock era via a finger-popping version by Bobby Darin. Carmichael could have, like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, been his own wordsman.

       “Georgia On My Mind” has words painted by his old friend Stuart Gorrell. Is it a tribute to the state or a lost love? Certainly the music, almost hymnal, brings up a sorrow for lost and treasured times- an elegy. And, like many Carmichael tunes, there’s a brilliant middle part, a contrast that skillfully, brings us back to the main melody. This song too has lasted into the rock era and beyond–Ray Charles made a soulful hit recording—although did take liberties with the unusual chording.

       In New York Carmichael teamed up with Johnny Mercer, a lyricist and fellow heartlander, a southern gentleman from Savannah, Georgia. They came up with a smash hit in “Lazybones”, a description of a perhaps the too easy life of a black kid. Mercer knew this world and in no sense was dissing—it was affectionate and was typical coin of the day. Black performers loved Hoagy and Johnny’s work and were always asking for more. The Mills Brothers sang “Lazybones” in a Jean Harlow picture.

       Carmichael responded to the siren of Hollywood. It was, he said, “where the rainbow hits the ground for composers”. He became a staff writer for Paramount, working with superb fellows like Stanley Adams, Ned Washington and Frank Loesser. The latter, a testy fellow, joined him for “Heart And Soul”, beloved of child pianists: a nursery tune and a chord structure that saw yeoman service for doo-wop groups in the I950s rock scene.

       Loesser wrote, to Hoagy’s tune, ogy’s tun,about “Two sleepy People”, up till dawn, and out of cigarettes- so in love but it’s morally safe because they’re married to each other. Bob Hope sang it with Shirley Ross in “Thanks For the Memory”. The movie hits kept on coming and Hoagy took to the movie life —swimming pool, horse racing, golf. Soon he was recognized as a relaxed homespun character by director Howard Hawks who utilized that face of world knowledge as the singing pianist in “To Have And Have Not” (1944). For this he contributed “How Little We Know”, with his old colleague Johnny Mercer. For the war effort he contributed  “Cranky Old Yank (in a Clanky Old Tank)”, a far cry from “God Bless America”, but classic Carmichael whimsicality just the same.

       Simple soul he may have seemed but there was complexity beneath the careless front. He never lost, in spirit, his Indiana roots. “Ole Buttermilk Sky”, from one of his many films of the 1940s, is full of a tunefulness that makes you believe he just discovered it out one day on the plains, that it had always been there for the taking. His screen persona jelled with the public. He was the straightforward man that they would like to be, trusty to the end.

       He continued to have hits into the 1950s. He played a key role in “Young Man With A Horn”, centering on a hero based on his musical idol Bix. In 1951 he and Johnny Mercer won an Academy Award for the casually swinging “In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening”, which Bing Crosby sang in “Here Comes The Groom”. He wasn’t afraid of new media—he had his own television show and even guest-starred in the “Laramie” western series.

       But the juggernaut of Rock & Roll and changing demographic tastes destroyed, as it did to most of the golden age craftsmen writers, his run of hits. Not that his old songs were neglected: a black doo-wop group, Billy Ward & the Dominos scored big with  “Star Dust”.

       He devoted himself to Los Angeles and Palm Springs life, collecting coins and writing songs for children. He also published two volumes of memoirs. In the 1970s I was involved with a television documentary on the history of popular music. The director went to see him in his apartment. He noodled at the piano and told of how his fountain of creation was in the 1920s when the music was young-- jazz and an air of excited improvisation. “You know”, he confessed, “There really haven’t been any improvements, any breakthroughs, since 1929”.  Youth is when we are at our most impressionable: Hoagy had been fired to ballad romanticism by “Little Boy Blue” and to the pulse of jazz by Bix and the kid jazzers of his college days. And all’s well for that.

       As the boom of Disco faded in 1981, Hoagy Carmichael died peacefully in Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs. At his bidding he was interred in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. The local boy, a pied piper of melody was back. But then he’d never really gone away.      



Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at