Whilst there are many thousands of songs in the jazz repertoire, a much smaller selection achieve ‘legendary’ status, being reinterpreted by countless musicians both old and new.
The subject of this article – Hoagy Carmichael – wrote a whole host of songs that can count themselves part of this exclusive club and we’ve picked 10 of them to dive into today.
Jazz musicians have always enjoyed interpreting and improvising over numbers from The Great American Songbook.
This is despite the fact that songs like “Body and Soul”, “All The Things You Are” and “Embraceable You” were originally written for musical theatre shows, films or as stand-alone pop songs, rather than as jazz compositions.
That said, the golden age of American popular songwriting roughly overlapped with what many consider to be jazz’s golden age, and some of the major composers of Songbook standards had closer relationships with jazz than others.
For example, jazz musicians love the pure melodies and sophisticated harmonies found in songs by Jerome Kern, but there is nothing especially “jazzy”-sounding about the songs themselves, and, famously, he hated jazz interpretations of them.
On the other hand, George Gerswhin and Harold Arlen wrote with a more overtly American sound that was deeply influenced by jazz and blues.
Hoagy Carmichael, however, was unusual amongst the Tin Pan Alley songwriters in that he actually worked as a jazz musician himself.
As well as writing some of America’s best-loved and most-recorded songs, the composer of “Georgia on my Mind” and “Stardust” worked as a pianist and singer with the likes of Bix Beiderbecke and Paul Whiteman.
Hoagy Carmichael was also good friends with Louis Armstrong, the majestic soloing of whom influenced his work considerably, and later in his career he would record his own material with some of Los Angeles’ finest jazz musicians.
In this article we’ll take a look at ten of the very best Hoagy Carmichael songs, as well as recommending a classic recording and a more modern version for each one…
1. Riverboat Shuffle
Hoagland Howard “Hoagy” Carmichael was born in 1899 in Bloomington, Indiana.
His mother, Lida Mary, was a talented pianist, and she encouraged Hoagy to play and sing from an early age. Aside from some lessons from the jazz pianist Reginald DuValle, he was otherwise musically self-taught.
In the early 1920s Carmichael became friends with the great cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who introduced him to Louis Armstrong: both men would become important influences upon the composer’s musical outlook.
Beiderbecke’s band The Wolverines recorded Carmichael’s earliest-known composition “Riverboat Shuffle” in 1924, and the cornettist would play it again three years later with the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer.
The piece was originally a purely instrumental composition, but was given words 15 years later by the lyricist Mitchell Parish.
It sounds very much like a 1920s jazz composition, rather than a (perhaps more stylistically malleable) theatre song that Cole Porter or Irving Berlin might have written. This perhaps explains why it is now rarely played as a jazz standard, except by vintage jazz specialists.
Carmichael was on the path to a career in law, having studied the subject at university, passed the bar and joined a law firm, but – thankfully – he decided, ultimately, that music was his calling.
- Classic Riverboat Shuffle version: Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer
- Modern Riverboat Shuffle version: Judy Carmichael
2. Georgia on my Mind
Hoagy Carmichael often wrote odes to places: “New Orleans”, “Memphis in June”, “Can’t Get Indiana Off My Mind” and, of course, “Georgia On My Mind”.
There are Carmichael compositions that are played more often by jazz musicians, but this might be the song of his that is most familiar to modern audiences, largely due to Ray Charles’ soulful 1960 recording of the song.
It has also been covered by artists including Annie Lennox, Willie Nelson and Michael Buble.
Hoagy had a younger sister called Georgia, which led to speculation that the song might have been written for her: the lyrics are ambiguous enough that they could refer to a place or a person.
However, Carmichael later wrote that the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer suggested he write a song about the U.S. state because “Nobody lost much writing about the South.”
The version by Ray Charles, a native of the state himself, became Georgia’s official state song in 1979.
Stuart Gorrell, the song’s lyricist and Carmichael’s sometime room mate, said:
“Georgia on my mind” was composed more than a quarter of a century ago on a cold and stormy evening in 1930 in New York City. Hoagy Carmichael and I, in a third floor apartment overlooking 52nd street, with cold feet and warm hearts, looked out the window and, not liking what we saw, turned our thoughts to the pleasant southland. Thus was born a hauntingly sweet song.”
- Classic Georgia on my Mind version: Billie Holiday
- Modern Georgia on my Mind version: John Scofield
Hoagy Carmichael recorded “Star Dust” (it was initially titled as two separate words, before later being re-stylised as “Stardust”) in 1927 as a medium tempo instrumental number with his own piano playing featured front and centre.
But two years later wistful lyrics were added by Mitchell Paris (who put words to a number of instrumental compositions by various composers), and it was as a sentimental ballad that the song started to become a huge hit.
Many standard songs begin with an introductory verse, but the majority of these are now all but forgotten and rarely heard as part of jazz performances.
The verse of “Stardust”, however, is integral to the song and is frequently heard on both instrumental and vocal renditions. In fact, Frank Sinatra once made a recording of just the verse, omitting the chorus entirely!
Bix Beiderbecke’s heavenly improvising is said to have inspired the ballad’s beautiful, winding tune, which Ted Gioia described as “arguably the most melodically complex hit song in the history of American music” in his book The Jazz Standards.
One of the best loved songs of the 20th Century, it has been recorded more than 1500 times, by everyone from Nat King Cole, to John Coltrane, to Rod Stewart.
“And then it happened, this 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 Carmichael
“It is one of the most bittersweet examples of ‘lost love’ ever written. I will sing it until the day I die”. Mel Tormé
- Classic Stardust version: Louis Armstrong
- Modern Stardust version: Joshua Redman
Although he lived in New York City for a time, and later Los Angeles, Hoagy Carmichael is often characterised as something of a rural songwriter, and his songs are full of pastoral images: “Ole Buttermilk Sky”, “Up a Lazy River”, “Baltimore Oriole”, and that’s just the titles.
One particularly lovely example is “Skylark”, which, like “Stardust”, has a melody that was inspired by a Beiderbecke solo.
It’s one of a selection of songs that Hoagy wrote with the great wordsmith Johnny Mercer, whose yearning lyrics were allegedly inspired by an affair he had had with Judy Garland.
The song remains a favourite with improvising jazz musicians, although the chord sequence that has now become standard for the song is quite different to the harmony that we hear on early recordings from the 1940s.
- Classic Skylark recording: Ella Fitzgerald
- Modern Skylark version: Mark Turner
5. Heart and Soul
Another collaboration with a famous lyricist, “Heart and Soul” was written with Frank Loesser, who would later go on to write both the music and lyrics to the music in the shows Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
A simplified version of this charming song has become popular as a duet piece for beginner piano students, and it is in this form that it is best known today.
However, the chord sequence can be an enjoyable one to improvise over, especially when it is given a bebop makeover on interpretations by Bud Powell and Barry Harris.
The song was included in the 1938 Paramount film A Song is Born.
- Classic Heart And Soul version: Bud Powell
- Modern Heart And Soul version: Sam Braysher Trio
6. Two Sleepy People
“Two Sleepy People”, another collaboration with lyricist Frank Loesser, tells the sweet story of a married couple – a “foggy little fella” and a “drowsy little dame” – who are “too much in love to say goodnight”.
The 1938 recording by Fats Waller might be the most famous version, but Carmichael also recorded this one himself on Hoagy Sings Carmichael.
The 1956 album sees him accompanied by an 11-piece band featuring top L.A. jazzers including alto saxophonist Art Pepper, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Jimmy Rowles, with excellent arrangements provided by Johnny Mandel.
Jason Moran includes the song on his Waller homage All Rise: a Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller, with vocals provided by trumpeter Leron Thomas.
7. I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)
There is an interesting story behind this melancholy number.
Whilst studying law at Indiana University, Carmichael was given a poem, credited only to “J.B.”, on a page torn out of Life magazine.
Years later, in 1938, Carmichael rediscovered the poem in a drawer and wrote this song around it (with a few alterations).
Wanting to give credit where it was due, he put out a nationwide call to try to identify the author, enlisting the help of the radio presenter Walter Winchell, and eventually tracking down Jane Brown Thompson, who was by that point a 71 year old widow.
Brown Thompson signed a contract to receive royalties from the song but, sadly, she died just before it became a hit.
Structurally, the composition is a little unusual.
It has a 64-bar ‘AABA’ form, which is not uncommon in itself (although it is quite long for a song that is usually taken at a fairly slow pace), but the lengths of the individual sections are slightly surprising.
Rather than four even 16-bar sections, we instead have a 20-bar initial A section, a 14-bar second A section, a 16 bar bridge, and a 14 bar final A section.
The opening melodic phrase appears to have been inspired by the slow section of Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu in C sharp minor.
Chet Baker recorded a heartbreaking rendition of the song on his Chet Baker Sings album.
- Classic version: Chet Baker
- Modern version: Callum Au & Claire Martin
8. One Morning in May
In his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950, the composer and writer Alec Wilder says that “One Morning in May” is uncharacteristic of Carmichael’s usual style, comparing it instead to a Jerome Kern song.
Certainly its melody is less overtly jazzy, and more flowing and hymn-like in a way that is perhaps reminiscent of Kern songs like “Long Ago and Far Away” or “The Way You Look Tonight”.
Mel Tormé accompanied by the arrangements of Marty Paitch always makes for a winning combination, and the pair recorded it on Prelude to a Kiss, a concept album that charts the course of a relationship.
9. Little Old Lady
Unlike, say, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael was not really a musical theatre composer, but this song was included in a 1936 musical called The Show is On.
Along with lyricist Johnny Mercer, he would later write a score for the Broadway show Walk With Music, but, perhaps surprisingly, the production failed and did not leave behind any hit songs.
John Coltrane plays “Little Old Lady” on the album Coltrane Jazz, in a fabulously swinging version that includes the verse played after the initial melody of the chorus.
The year before, in 1960, Ahmad Jamal had put his own unmistakable spin on the tune.
- Classic Little Old Lady version: John Coltrane
- Modern Little Old Lady version: Ruby Braff
10. The Nearness of You
The lyrics to this 1938 ballad were written by Ned Washington, who also penned the words to “Stella By Starlight”, “My Foolish Heart” (both with music by Victor Young) and Bronislau Kaper’s “On Green Dolphin Street”.
One classic version is the 1956 recording by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, on which the pair are accompanied by the Oscar Peterson Trio.
Most of Carmichael’s songs were written as stand-alone pop songs, but this one was introduced in the 1938 film Romance in the Dark, although it did not become a hit until Glenn Miller recorded it two years later.
- Classic Version of The Nearness of You: Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
- Modern Version of The Nearness of You: Michael Brecker & James Taylor
In addition to his songwriting career, Carmichael also took on a number of Hollywood roles as a character actor, starting with Topper in 1937, in which he played a pianist.
He also composed two classical pieces for orchestra, as well as finding time to write two autobiographies.
He died in 1981, aged 82, leaving a legacy as one of the all-time greats of 20th Century songwriting, and with a unique relationship to jazz amongst the major Tin Pan alley composers.
“I think it unquestionable that Hoagy Carmichael has proven himself to be the most talented, inventive , sophisticated, and jazz-oriented of all the great craftsmen”. Alec Wilder
Looking for more about the greatest songwriters in jazz? We highlighted 10 of them here.
For more on the great songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, you can learn more – and see some great photos – on the official website run by his son here: www.hoagy.com
Sam Braysher is an alto saxophonist based in London. His debut album was a critically acclaimed duo recording with New York pianist Michael Kanan. A new trio album, with bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Jorge Rossy, is due for release soon.