Hoagy Carmichael

“Never play anything that don’t sound right. You might not make any money, but at least you won’t get hostile with yourself.” –Hoagy Carmichael

Hoagy Carmichael was a beloved American composer, songwriter, actor, and lawyer. In addition to appearing in films and on television, he composed numerous hit songs, including “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “The Nearness of You,” “Heart and Soul,” “Skylark,” “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” and many more.

Hoagland Howard “Hoagy” Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana, on November 22, 1899, to Howard and Lida Carmichael. He was named after a circus troupe dubbed “The Hoaglands,” as the group boarded at the Carmichael home during Lida’s pregnancy. Howard worked as a horse-drawn taxi driver and electrician, while Lida was a piano accompanist at movie theaters during the Silent Era and performed at private parties. Howard and Lida also had two daughters named Georgia and Joanne.

As Howard pursued various job opportunities, the family moved on many occasions. Carmichael spent his early years in Bloomington; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Missoula, Montana. During these years, Carmichael’s mother taught him to play the piano. Though the family lived in Indianapolis in 1916, Carmichael returned to Bloomington three years later to finish high school. He also assisted his family by working jobs in construction, at bike shops, and in a slaughterhouse. During these difficult years, Carmichael found solace in enjoying ragtime music, performing duets with his mother, and a friendship with bandleader Reginald DuValle. His professional career in music began in 1918 when he was paid $5 to play piano at a fraternity dance.

Tragically, Carmichael’s three-year-old sister passed away from influenza in the same year. Carmichael reflected upon her as a “victim of poverty,” stating that his family could not afford a doctor. As a result, Carmichael vowed to never be broke again.

Carmichael progressed as a musician, soon meeting and becoming close friends with cornetist Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke. Beiderbecke later introduced Carmichael to Louis Armstrong in Chicago, Illinois, eventually leading to collaboration. Carmichael’s first recorded song was first called “Free Wheeling” and written for Beiderbecke, but was recorded as “Riverboat Shuffle” in 1924 at Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana. His recording of “Washboard Blues” from 1925 would mark the earliest recording in which Carmichael is featured playing his own songs, as well as an improvised piano solo.

Carmichael continued his educational career at Indiana University in Bloomington, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 1925 and a law degree one year later. He was active in the Kappa Sigma fraternity and toured with his band, “Carmichael’s Collegians,” throughout Indiana and Ohio. Following his graduation, Carmichael relocated to Florida and worked as a legal clerk at a legal firm in West Palm Beach, Florida. He returned to Indiana in 1927 after failing to pass the Florida bar exam. Instead, he joined the Bingham, Mendenhall, and Bingham law firm in Indianapolis, passing the Indiana bar exam, but ultimately focused more on his music. No longer interested in law, he moved to New York City. There, he worked for a brokerage firm during the weekdays and spent his evenings composing.

In 1927, Carmichael recorded “Stardust,” which would become one of his most famous pieces. He recorded it at Gennett Records while singing and playing the piano. When Isham Jones and his orchestra recorded the song in a slower, more sentimental style in 1930, it became a major hit and would be recorded by many notable artists.

Throughout his career, Carmichael composed hundreds of songs, fifty of which became major hits. Early on, he played in an improvisational hot jazz style, ideal for the latest dances. Once he moved to New York City in 1929, he crafted songs that stood alone, though still had a jazz influence. His later years in California led him to compose instrumental pieces, several of them written specifically for films.

As fate would have it, Carmichael met Duke Ellington’s agent, Irving Mills, who was also a sheet music publisher. Mills and Carmichael coordinated recording dates and Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” was recorded by Armstrong and Mildred Bailey. As the stock market crashed and Carmichael’s savings declined, the success of “Rockin’ Chair” helped support Carmichael through this period and became a jazz standard. He would go on to record “Georgia on My Mind” and “Up a Lazy River” before joining the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1931.

Carmichael later worked for the Southern Music Company as big band and swing music grew in popularity. During this period, he befriended lyricist Johnny Mercer, with whom he would collaborate on songs such as “Lazybones,” “Thanksgiving,” “Moon Country,” “Skylark,” and the Academy Award-winning “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”

Carmichael left the Southern Music Company to compose songs for Warner Brothers, beginning his connection to the film industry. His first song written for a film was “Moonburn,” performed by Bing Crosby in Anything Goes (1936).

In 1936, Carmichael married Ruth Mary Meinardi and the couple relocated to California. They would have two children—Hoagy Bix and Randy Bob—before divorcing in 1955. Carmichael signed a contract with Paramount Pictures as a songwriter but also worked as a character actor. His screen debut was in Topper (1937), starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, in which Carmichael played a pianist and performed “Old Man Moon.” This opened the door to other screen roles in which Carmichael tended to appear as a pianist and would play his own music. Carmichael appeared in 14 films, including To Have and Have Not (1944), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Canyon Passage (1946).

Outside of his studio obligations, Carmichael continued to write prolifically. He wrote “Chimes of Indiana” and presented it to Indiana University in 1937. Additionally, he collaborated with Frank Loesser to create “Heart and Soul,” “Two Sleepy People,” and “Small Fry.”

As Carmichael’s family grew, he, Ruth, and the children moved to the former William P. Wrigley, Jr. (of Wrigley chewing gum) home in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. soon entered World War II and Carmichael wrote many wartime songs, including “My Christmas Song for You,” “Cranky Old Yank,” “Don’t Forget to Say ‘No,’ Baby,” and more.

Carmichael again paid homage to his Bloomington hometown by composing Brown County in Autumn in 1948. The orchestral work was, unfortunately, not praised by critics.

In the 1940s, Carmichael also worked as a radio personality, hosting variety programs such as Tonight at Hoagy’s. Though his career slowed in the 1950s, he continued to perform and transitioned to television, hosting Saturday Night Review. After writing another orchestral piece—The Johnny Appleseed Suite—which was also unsuccessful, Carmichael wrote over a dozen songs for children, such as “The Whale Song” and “Rocket Ship.”

In his later years, Carmichael published memoirs and was receiving over $300,000 per year in royalties. He enjoyed golf, painting, and coin-collecting during his retirement, splitting his time between residences in Los Angeles and Rancho Mirage, California. He made occasional television appearances, including being the first celebrity to provide a voice on The Flintstones. He appeared as himself, working for the fictitious Rockwell Music Publishers and playing a Stoneway piano, and debuted a song called “Yabba-Dabba Doo!” on the show. He also participated in the PBS television show Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop, which featured jazz-rock versions of his songs, as well as the Fred Rogers PBS show Old Friends, New Friends. Carmichael married again in 1977, to actress Dorothy Wanda McKay.

Carmichael received many awards in his later years, including induction to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honorary doctorate in music from Indiana University, and a birthday tribute at the Newport Jazz Festival. His last public appearance was in 1981 as part of Country Comes Home with country performer Crystal Gale.

Carmichael passed away on December 27, 1981, at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage from a heart attack. He was 82 years old. He was buried in his family’s plot at Rose Hill Cemetery in Bloomington, Indiana.

To this day, Carmichael’s legacy is celebrated in several locations and is particularly beloved in Bloomington, Indiana.

In 1900, Carmichael resided at 325 E. 10th St., Bloomington, Indiana, which no longer stands. His residence at 214 N. Dunn St., Bloomington, Indiana, still remains.

In 1910, he lived at 706 W. Pine St., Missoula, Montana, which no longer stands.

By 1917, Carmichael was living at 130 Neal Ave., Indianapolis, Indiana, which stands today.

In the 1920s, Carmichael resided at 536 S. Washington St., Bloomington, Indiana. Parts of “Stardust” were written in this home. Though the home sustained fire damage in 2013, it has since been restored and is habitable again, with tributes to Carmichael adorning the entrance.

“Stardust” was also partly composed at one of Carmichael’s favorite haunts, the Book Nook. The location is now BuffaLouie’s and is decorated with Carmichael memorabilia. BuffaLouie’s stands at 114 S. Indiana Ave., Bloomington, Indiana, and a historic marker honoring Carmichael stands in front of the building.

Carmichael attended Bloomington High School South, which has since named its school auditorium Carmichael Hall. The school stands at 1965 S. Walnut St., Bloomington, Indiana.

The Monroe County History Center also has a small display honoring Carmichael. Visitors can listen to samples of his music while learning more about him and other Indiana composers. The Monroe County History Center is located at 202 E. 6th St., Bloomington, Indiana.

Additionally, there are many tributes to Carmichael on the Indiana University Campus. My favorite tribute to him is the statue, located in front of IU Cinema. IU Cinema stands at 1213 E. 7th St., Bloomington, Indiana.

In 1986, Carmichael’s family donated his archives, piano, and memorabilia to his alma mater, Indiana University. The university established the Hoagy Carmichael Collection in its Archives of Traditional Music and the Hoagy Carmichael Room to permanently display selections from the collection. The room is able to be viewed by private appointment. My favorite pieces were Carmichael’s piano, desk, and Oscar. Aside from very special occasions, the piano is played once a year to celebrate Hoagy’s birthday. The Hoagy Carmichael Room is located in the Archives of Traditional Music, Morrison Hall, Room 006, Bloomington, Indiana.

Within the Indiana Memorial Union, visitors might stumble upon a painting of the “Constitution Elm.” This painting happens to have been painted by Carmichael himself and is on display. The Indiana Memorial Union is located at 900 E. 7th St., Bloomington., Indiana.

Near campus, visitors can stay at the Showers Inn, which has a Composer House. The various suites here are named after songs written by Indiana composers, with a few named after Carmichael’s work. I happened to stay in the “Stardust” suite. The inn is located at 430 N. Washington St., Bloomington, Indiana.

Outside of Bloomington, Richmond, Indiana has the Gennett Records Walk of Fame. Carmichael is honored with artwork and a plaque. There is also a mural in town in his honor. The Gennett Records Walk of Fame is located at 201 S. 1st St., Richmond, Indiana.

Gennett Records comes to life at the Indiana Historical Society, with a living history exhibit that allows visitors the opportunity to engage with docents who are in character as the Gennett Records team. (When I visited, Hoagland was due to arrive for his recording session later that afternoon–wink, wink.) The basement of the museum also features the Stardust Cafe, named after Carmichael’s hit composition. The Indiana Historical Society stands at 450 W. Ohio St., Indianapolis, Indiana.

In 1936, Carmichael resided at 121 E. 52nd St., New York, New York, which does not remain today. Likewise, Carmichael lived at 626 N. Foothill, Beverly Hills, California, which has since been razed.

Carmichael’s Rancho Mirage home exists today, albeit renovated, at 40267 Club View Dr., Rancho Mirage, California. Some parts of the home remain as Carmichael would have recognized them; the wood ceiling in most of the living room is original, as is the 1950s KitchenAid stove, river rock fireplace, and an etched glass piece in the wine room. Carmichael purchased the glass piece on Sunset Boulevard in the 1960s from his daughter-in-law, Mur Doherty.

Carmichael has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 1720 Vine St., Los Angeles, California.

Rose Hill Cemetery is located at 1100 W. 4th St., Bloomington, Indiana.

On a personal note, if it isn’t terribly obvious, I’m a big fan of Carmichael. In 2020, I got a Pomeranian that I named Hoagy! His formal name is Hoagland Furmichael–please note the bowtie comparison. 🙂

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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3 Responses to Hoagy Carmichael

  1. Thanks for that wonderful and extensive review of Hoagy’s life. He’s a character in my trilogy of novels set in and around Warner Bros during WWII. I didn’t know much about him until I started to research him, and your blog fills in quite a few blanks.

  2. What a great write-up on Hoagy! I greatly enjoyed learning all about his life and career — I consider myself a fan, but never knew anything about him.

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