Correspondence: On Hoagy

Mark Stryker, the music critic of The Detroit Free Press writes about yesterday’s Rifftides entry:

Your Hoagy post reminded of this piece I wrote when “Star Dust” turned 75 in 2002. Feel free to post if the spirit so moves.

It does. Thank you, Mark.

75 years of ‘Star Dust’
By Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press Music Writer

Hoagy Carmichael and his pals headed east from Indianapolis after their gig, driving all night to Richmond, Ind., home of the Gennett studio, a center of hot-jazz recording. It was Halloween; Oct. 31, 1927. Carmichael was 28, a secure pianist, budding composer, committed jazzman and doomed lawyer. The band began recording at the unseemly hour of 6 a.m. The first tune was a punchy Carmichael original titled “Friday Night,” which was soon to fall into oblivion. But the second song on the docket had legs. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Carmichael called it “Star Dust.”

Now celebrating its 75th anniversary, “Star Dust” has lodged itself deeper in Americans’ subconscious than any other popular song. It is the most-recorded pop tune in history, with at least 1,800 versions; some estimates reach 2,300. And it is surely the only song that can claim interpreters as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Liberace, Billy Ward and His Dominoes, Artie Shaw, Arthur Fiedler, John Coltrane, the London Symphony and Fred Flintstone. “Star Dust” has become the apotheosis of the great American songbook, trumping not only anthems by Berlin, Rodgers, Porter, Gershwin and Kern, but also stiff competition in Carmichael’s own portfolio — “Skylark,” “Lazy River,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “The Nearness of You,” “Heart and Soul” (the ditty Tom Hanks plays on a mammoth keyboard in “Big”) and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

You can request “Star Dust” in any piano bar in the United States — maybe in the world — and 99 out of 100 pianists will deliver a recognizable version. The song has permeated the culture so thoroughly that it shows up in a wry picture by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein: a comic-book chanteuse singing “The melody haunts my reverie.”

The diamond anniversary of “Star Dust” arrives with a germinating Carmichael zeitgeist. Richard Sudhalter’s newly published “Stardust Melody” (Oxford, $35) is the first full-length biography of the composer. And recordings of “Star Dust” continue to land in stores at a breathtaking rate. Just since 1995, Peer LTD, which owns the majority of the publishing rights to the song, has dispersed 533 licenses for new and reissued recordings, including one arriving this week by jazz pianist Bill Charlap, part of an all-Carmichael CD titled — what else? — “Stardust.”

Yet a chord of mystery has always underscored Americans’ love affair with “Star Dust.” The tune is an unlikely candidate for pop immortality, with a complex structure and rambling melodic line, thick with the jazzy perfume of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, that would seem too hip for the room. Its hairpin turns are difficult to sing, even to hum. Composer Alec Wilder once called it a “very far-out” song for any era and “absolutely phenomenal” for its time.

“Star Dust” was not an instant hit, and a listen to Carmichael’s original record of it tells you why. A peppy instrumental, the loose performance never quite liberates the lyricism in the notes. Only later — afterMitchell Parish (pictured) contributed his elegant lyric in 1929 and subsequent interpreters slowed the tempo and reconceived the tune as a dreamy serenade — did it begin to march into history. So many elements conspired to elevate “Star Dust” that sorting them out after 75 years is dangerously reductive. Certainly, Carmichael’s sublime melody holds the ultimate key to the song’s transcendence. But Parish’s rich imagery offered the public another window into “Star Dust,” recasting it as a memorable love song about a love song: “Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night/Dreaming of a song.”

The popularity of the song eventually took on a life of its own, a self-sustaining legacy built on the ever-growing mountain of recordings and public performances. Music criticism and cultural history can explain only so much; magic and metaphysics cannot be discounted in art. How does one explain the Mona Lisa? The iconic status of “Star Dust” even baffled Carmichael. “Dad knew he had written a great song but was always semi-flabbergasted that this song he put together in 1927 become America’s favorite,” says Hoagy Bix Carmichael, the composer’s son, from his home in New York. “It’s like Michael Jordan in that game when he was making everything, and he looks over to press row and kind of shrugs as if to say, ‘I can’t explain it.’ ”

The story behind “Star Dust” begins with the self-invented genius that was Carmichael. He was the most jazz-oriented of all the great tunesmiths, but also the most democratic. His appeal was so broad because his music partook of so much of America. Carmichael’s aesthetic bridged a striking number of schisms in American popular culture: jazz and pop, black and white, urban and rural, composer and performer, tradition and innovation. Carmichael was born into a family of modest means in Bloomington, Ind., in 1899. A child of the heartland, he inscribed his songs with a folksy sentimentality that hearkened back to Stephen Foster. Carmichael, to paraphrase critic Gary Giddins, wrote of lazy rivers and lazybones, of buttermilk skies and small-fry, of washboard blues and blue orchids, of daybreak and cool evenings, of skylarks and stardust.

But Carmichael was also a bona fide jazzman, who came of age as jazz was morphing into the soundtrack of an urban America. He led his own dance bands at Indiana University in the ’20s; soaked up the sounds of emerging blackmusicians like Louis Armstrong, and fell under the sway of Beiderbecke, another Midwesterner. The Iowa-born cornetist, the first great white jazzmusician, became his friend, colleague and mentor. Beiderbecke’s exalted sense of melody and harmony colored much of Carmichael’s finest work, especially “Star Dust.” In his biography, Sudhalter points out that the essence of the song is Beiderbecke’s “correlated phrasing” — an initial phrase is followed by a companion idea, and then both are summed up in a third phrase.

The result is a self-regenerating melody with few obvious repetitions but many subtle allusions and rhymes. The overall form is a 16-bar verse followed by a 32-bar chorus that unfolds in an unconventional A-B-A-C structure. The yo-yo melody outlines major and minor triads, spiced with unpredictable passing tones and piquant harmony. The impact of the whole is spontaneous, ever-fresh: a frozen improvisation.

Carmichael wrote two entertaining autobiographies, but when it comes to the origins of “Star Dust,” his story recalls John Ford’s aphorism: When legend becomes fact, print the legend. Carmichael sets the tale on the lovely wooded campus of Indiana University in 1927. “It was a hot night, sweet with the death of summer and the hint and promise of fall,” Carmichael wrote in “The Stardust Road” (1946). “A waiting night, a night marking time, the end of a season. The stars were bright, close to me, and the North Star hung low over the trees.” Carmichael looks to the sky, and the nascent melody begins to haunt his reverie. He rushes to the Book Nook, a campus hangout, where he hammers out the details of the tune on the battered upright piano.

The truth is rather more mundane. Sudhalter reports that Carmichael tinkered with what he called his “jam tune” for at least a year and admitted in a private memo that he finished “Star Dust” on a rickety grand piano in an unspecified location.

If the public didn’t immediately embrace the song, musicians took note. At the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit, Carmichael gave a copy of “Star Dust” to Don Redman, who led the influential McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Redmanrecorded it in 1928. Mills Music published the song in early 1929 as a piano solo titled “Stardust” and assigned the task of writing a lyric to Parish, who would contribute the words to such songs as “Sweet Lorraine,” “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “Sleigh Ride.”

Bandleader Isham Jones, who had heard McKinney’s Cotton Pickers play “Star Dust,” made a landmark recording in 1930. It was still done as an instrumental, but it was the first recording to approach the song as a nostalgic ballad. From there things moved swiftly. Bands began playing stock arrangements of “Star Dust”; Walter Winchell trumpeted the song on radio and in print. And 27-year-old crooner Bing Crosby recorded the first vocal version of the verse and chorus in 1931. Carmichael scholar John Edward Hasse reports that, by 1942, 50 jazz-oriented recordings of the song had been made, along with dozens of versions by dance bands and singers.

Pinpointing the total number of recordings that have been made is impossible, because the publisher’s records are buried in warehouses, but Carmichael’s son says a Pennsylvania record collector amassed 1,800 versions. A few years ago, the collector’s widow sent the records to Hoagy Bix, who donated them to his father’s archives at Indiana University. The Guinness Book of World Records gives the title of most-recorded song to Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday,” with 1,600 versions, but the evidence favors “Star Dust.”

Carmichael eventually outgrew his infatuation with the jazz life, moving to New York and later Hollywood. Along the way, he all but invented the idea of the singer-songwriter in pop music, parlaying his persona into movie stardom. But “Star Dust” remains his crowning achievement. You could argue, perhaps, that “Skylark” and “Georgia on My Mind” were equally inspired melodic or harmonic creations. And Johnny Mercer’s poetic lyric to “Skylark” gives Parish a run for his money. But after 75 years, “Star Dust” is still “Star Dust,” and there’s no higher praise in American music.

15 Notable Recordings of ‘Star Dust”

Hoagy Carmichael (1927). The composer’s band cut the first version as a peppy, loose instrumental dance number.

Isham Jones (1930). The dance-band leader transformed the song into a dreamy ballad, setting the tone for most future recordings.

Bing Crosby (1931). The first recording with Mitchell Parish’s lyrics.

Louis Armstrong (1931). Armstrong’s miraculous vocal performance and trumpet solo picks the tempo up to a trot and rhythmically abstracts Carmichael’s melody into a profound statement of the transcendent power of jazz.

Artie Shaw (1940). The ultimate big-band version suggests the sublime luminosity of a Vermeer painting.

Hoagy Carmichael (1942). Carmichael’s first vocal version: pared down, folksy, charming.

Ella Fitzgerald (1954). A lovely, brilliantly phrased duet with pianist Ellis Larkins.

Nat (King) Cole (1956). One of the most pristine, exquisitely tailored of all vocal versions.

Billy Ward and His Dominoes (1957) and Nino Tempo & April Stevens (1964). The highest-charting versions from the rock era. Ward’s cover peaked at No. 12, Tempo and Stevens’ at No. 32.

Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble (1961). Fred and Barney aspire to songwriting stardom, penning awful lyrics to a melody that happens to be “Star Dust.” Redemption comes when they team with an animated version of Carmichael (voiced by Hoagy).

Frank Sinatra (1961). Beautiful but bizarre arrangement in which Sinatra sings only the verse, leaving the chorus out altogether.

Louis Hayes (1978). The Detroit-born drummer’s quartet gives one of the most adventurous readings, a showcase for the neglected alto saxophonist Frank Strozier.

Willie Nelson (1978). An unadorned reading in which Nelson’s rural twang and direct delivery evoke the perfume of Carmichael.

Bill Charlap (2002). Charlap’s version features vocalist Shirley Horn and one of the slowest tempos ever.


Coda 1: I can’t put my hands on the relevant clip from The Flintstones where Fred and Barney sing their own awful lyrics to the melody of “Star Dust” but I did find this climatic number from that episode with Hoagy.

Coda 2: Hoagy and I share the same hometown, Bloomington, Ind.

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  1. says

    Thanks for this greatly written article by Mark Stryker. Here are my two cents if I may join the club:

    One of the greatest versions of “Star Dust” was done by Clifford Brown and Neal Hefti in 1955. This is the only number which really stands out from the otherwise quite lush album.

    Charlie Spivak’s glorious rendition (with the verse!) of an outstanding Jimmy Mundy arrangement should be mentioned as well:

    There is also a very interesting live interpretation by Glenn Miller from 1941 (some of the many Chesterfield broadcasts if I recall correctly) where Bobby Hackett plays one of the most beautiful solos of his entire career. — Alas, that didn’t help him, ’cause it was broadcasted once, and then vanished in NBC’s vaults where it slept ’till the mid-1970’s when it surfaced on an RCA-twofer with hitherto unreleased GM live recordings.

    Another hidden favorite is also from a live album; it features Booker Little & Booker Ervin as guests with the Teddy Charles Quartet:

    Teddy Charles (vibes); Mal Waldron (p); Booker Little (tpt); Booker Ervin (ts); Addison Farmer (b); Eddie Shaughnessy (dr) – Museum Of Modern Art, NYC, August 25, 1960.

    Not to mention the two versions with Benny Carter (on trumpet!) you would find here :)