What Hoosier wrote one of the most-recorded songs in history, became America’s first great composer-performer, passed the Indiana bar exam, and closely resembled one of cinema’s most dashing and popular fictional characters?
The answer, of course, is Hoagy Carmichael. Born Hoagland Howard Carmichael in Bloomington in 1899, he was the son of an electrician father and a piano-playing mother. He regularly performed at local fraternity dances and films.
Though never formally trained, Carmichael grew up with a love of music. When the family moved to Indianapolis in 1916, he came under the influence of a local ragtime pianist—giving him a musical pedigree very different from many of his classically trained contemporaries.
Carmichael studied at Indiana University, earning his bachelor’s in 1925 and his law degree in 1926. He seems to have spent as much time performing music around the state as he did on his schoolwork. Soon after graduating, he began to compose songs.
After hearing one of his songs on the radio, Carmichael abandoned his legal career and devoted himself to music. In 1927, he composed an instrumental version of “Stardust,” to which Mitchell Parish added lyrics in 1929. The song has since been recorded nearly 2,000 times.
Carmichael left Indiana in 1929 for New York. By day, he worked for a brokerage firm, but by night he composed and made connections with other musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and lyricist Johnny Mercer.
In 1930, he composed “Georgia on My Mind,” a song that became a number-one hit and Grammy winner three decades later for Ray Charles. Over a five-year period, he created more than 30 recordings for the nation’s leading record label, including a number of jazz standards.
In 1936, he married Ruth Menardi, a preacher’s daughter from Winona Lake, a marriage that produced two sons before the couple divorced. That same year, the couple moved to California, where, working for Paramount, Carmichael produced another classic, “Heart and Soul.”
Beginning in the late 1930s, Carmichael began appearing in films. By the 1940s, he was one of the nation’s most popular entertainers, writing and recording his own songs, acting in movies, and hosting his own radio series. He also wrote the first of two successful memoirs, “The Stardust Road.”
In 1951, one of Carmichael’s collaborations with Mercer, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” garnered the Academy Award for best song. Carmichael even secured a recurring role as an actor on a popular television western, “Laramie.”
In describing secret agent James Bond, novelist Ian Fleming twice likens him to Carmichael. In “Casino Royale,” a character states, “He is very good-looking. He reminds me of Hoagy Carmichael.” Another character makes the same observation in “Moonraker.”
With the advent of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s, America’s musical tastes began to change, and Carmichael had no more hits. In 1977, he married his longtime sweetheart, Dorothy McKay, and in 1979 he was honored with a jubilee in Carnegie Hall.
Carmichael died in 1981 and is buried in Bloomington, where Indiana University established the Hoagy Carmichael Collection and the Hoagy Carmichael Room. A bronze sculpture of Carmichael at the piano is a fixture on the Bloomington campus, and a bronze plaque in Richmond marks the site where he first recorded “Stardust” for Gennett Records.
Today, Carmichael is remembered as a musical genius who brought a heartland sensibility to popular music. The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame salutes him as “one of the most inventive and adventurous of the great American songwriters.”•
Hoosier Beacons pays tribute to Indiana’s bicentennial by telling the stories of famous Hoosiers. It appears every other week. Gunderman is chancellor’s professor at Indiana University.