In 1926 a young lawyer paused in his clerking at a West Palm Beach, Fla., firm to listen to some radio music floating on the sultry air. When he recognized the song, Washboard Blues, as one he had written, Hoagland Howard Carmichael forgot about the bar and set about becoming the old music master.
It was a smart choice. Within a few years, he had written the songs that made his reputation--instant standards like Star Dust, Lazy River, Georgia on My Mind that insinuated themselves into the universal ear and made a home there. Hoagy recorded these jazzy ballads and boppers in classic sessions with some decent sidemen: Bix Beiderbecke (his idol), Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Spike Jones. At a time when the tag "singer-songwriter" was about as common as "lady surgeon," Carmichael's warm, croaking delivery often vaulted him up the charts; he had three of the four top discs of 1946.
That Indiana nonchalance--the cool-cool-cool of a cat-house piano player--made him a natural for films (To Have and Have Not, The Best Years of Our Lives) and radio and TV hosting. In the great age of the pop composer, he was the one everybody knew and liked. Maybe they didn't know how elegantly complex his musicianship was, though they heard it in the long, loping lines of Skylark, soaring with sorrow, and in the verse to Star Dust, so gorgeous on its own that Frank Sinatra once recorded it without the famous chorus.
His tunes never disappeared. They have been covered by Ella and Ellington, Ethel Waters and Willie Nelson, John Coltrane and Jan and Dean. Ray Charles still can't get offstage without singing Georgia. If you don't hear Heart and Soul when your kid sits at the piano, you can catch it in a Quaker Oats TV spot.
But lately the composer has been getting the full revival treatment. It has a little to do with his centenary (he was born Nov. 22, 1899), more to do with the itch to memorialize the best songs that keep replaying in the listener's private juke box. Music by Hoagy Carmichael (Peermusic) features 25 cuts with some rococo gems, like George Harrison's opium-scented Hong Kong Blues and Chet Baker's fabulously androgynous vocals on I Get Along Without You Very Well. Another disc, Crystal Gayle's The Heart and Soul of Hoagy Carmichael (Platinum), is a lavish, meticulous set with the rarely performed verses to many of the songs.
Best of all, The Hoagy Carmichael Centennial Celebration brings the music back to life onstage. The narrated concert, with Tom Fay's solid 14-piece band and seven singers, has played sold-out venues across the country, climaxing this week in Manhattan. At the end of a recent gig near Pittsburgh, Pa., the packed house of 1,500 crooned dreamily along to Star Dust: "leaving me a song that will not die." The old music master left dozens of those deathless ditties.
--By Richard Corliss