Hoagy Carmichael‘s most famous song is Stardust, which he wrote while he was still a struggling young lawyer. He scribbled the song on the front pages of one of his lawbooks in 1927, but he didn’t get it recorded until 1930. Isham Jones and his popular orchestra made the first recording of the tune, with added lyrics by Mitchell Parish. Carmichael earned instant fame and a seemingly endless income in monthly royalty checks.
Stardust is a song about a song about love. It is has an idiosyncratic melody and it can be played in any tempo, but we like it best Andante. It became an ultimate American standard, and one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century, with at at least 2000 recordings. I have versions by John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Jackie Wilson, Jean Sablon, Caetano Veloso, Ringo Starr, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart, and Michael Bublé.
Perhaps my favorite cover is this one sung by Beverly D’Angelo in Neil Jordan‘s underrated 1991 The Miracle (1991).
In 2004, Carmichael’s original 1927 recording of the song was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. I think Stardust is one of the very finest popular songs ever written, perfect really, and full of musical surprises.
Hoagland Howard Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana. He studied to become a lawyer and played the piano for fun, never taking formal piano lessons. He turned his lark turned into a career when, after graduating from law school, he moved to Palm Beach in 1926 to start a law career in the early days of the Florida real estate boom.
”I figured there ought to be work for a good lawyer there because of all that selling and reselling going on. There probably was too, only I wasn’t a good lawyer. A note to me was something that belonged on a musical staff.”
He packed up his dreams and moved to Manhattan to make a go of songwriting. He met with failure, temporarily. He returned to Bloomington and joined a band, determined to make a success in music. He played piano, arranged music and played some of his own tunes. He formed his own band in 1928, featuring his own songs, which gave him a glimmering of success as a composer.
Still, Stardust gathered dust. His first hit song, Riverboat Shuffle was written in 1922 for Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornet player whose life was the basis for the novel and film Young Man With A Horn (1950) starring Kirk Douglas, and featuring Lauren Bacall as a lesbian. Carmichael, played a slightly fictionalized version of himself as the sidekick role.
Carmichael wrote many expressive, jazzy, sophisticated songs. I sang his I Get Along Without You Very Well for auditions and in my own act in the 1980s. I’m also big on his The Nearness Of You.
He won the Academy Award in 1951 for In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening, from Here Comes The Groom (1950), with lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer. Mercer was his best collaborator, they were a perfect match. They wrote their irresistable hit Lazybones (1933) in less than half an hour.
Carmichael had a charming career as a character actor, although I find him hot enough for leading man status. His credits include To Have And Have Not (1944), Johnny Angel (1945), The Best Years Of Our Life (1946).
He made guest appearances on television variety shows and continued to write songs, although none of them approached the popularity of his 1930s and 1940s hits.
He was buddies with The Gershwins, Alec Wilder, Fred Astaire and Duke Ellington. He was elected to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1971, along with Ellington. He wrote a memoir, Stardust Road (1946) and updated it as Sometimes I Wonder (1965). He became stardust himself in 1981, taken by a heart attack at his home in Palm Springs.
Ian Fleming decided that his character James Bond should look like Carmichael. He mentions the likeness in Casino Royale (1953) and Moonraker (1955).