Composer and musician Howard Hoagland ("Hoagy") Carmichael was born in 1899 in Bloomington, Indiana to a working class family. They moved around the American midwest during Hoagy's childhood and teen years, his itinerant father looking for work where he could find it, his mother playing piano at parties and silent movie houses.
They eventually settled in Indianapolis in 1916, and Hoagy began to take piano lessons from Reginald DuValle, as well as from his mother. DuValle (who was black; the Carmichaels were white, and that racial difference meant even more in those days than it does now) taught him ragtime and the relatively new jazz; this latter totally obsessed the young teen. He would sit in and play at clubs wherever he was allowed and even travelled to Chicago to see a young Louis Armstrong perform in person.
Hoagy - actually still Howard at this point - studied law at Indiana University, but also led a college band called "Carmichael's Collegeans". They covered jazz tunes, with Hoagy - he gained the nickname from a college sweetheart, of which he apparently had many - singing and playing piano, cornet, and trumpet. He began to devote more time to music and less to law, and was encouraged to do so by his new friend Bix Beiderbecke, who he met in 1922. The great cornet player encouraged him to compose, and in 1924 recorded Hoagy's "Riverboat Shuffle" with his band, the Wolverines; it became a dixieland standard.
Hoagy earned his bachelor's degree in 1925 and his law degree the following year; he accepted a job in his field in Florida, but, the story goes, he heard a Red Nichols recording of his own song, "Washboard Blues", and was so inspired that he left law for good. He moved back to Indiana for a time, then decided to go to New York. At first he struggled a bit, working days in a Wall Street firm, but in 1929 his song "Stardust" was published. In 1930 he recorded a bunch of his compositions himself, catching the attention of many the great musicians of the time, among them Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, and Johnny Mercer. He hung out and played with them, and they recorded his tunes.
The earliest hit was "Lazy Bones", a collaboration with Mercer (Hoagy worked with many lyricists over the years). Hoagy's other compositions include such classics as "Georgia on my Mind", "The Nearness of You", "Heart and Soul", "Rockin' Chair", "Lazy River", and many many more. His melodies are strong and distinctive, revealing a well-developed jazz sensibility that has helped them stand the test of time. His singing style was informal, almost folksy, and he cultivated a relaxed laid-back air on stage. And it was the fact that he was accomplished at both singing and songwriting that helped him stand out from his peers, for such a crossover was not as common in his day as it is now.
In 1936 he married Ruth Meinardi; they had two sons, Hoagy Bix and Randy, but the marriage broke up in 1955. In 1936 too Hoagy moved to Hollywood, where he worked on music for movies. The '40s were really the peak of his career. He had great success with some of his songs - including a 1946 Academy Award nomination for Old Buttermilk Sky and a 1951 Oscar win for "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening". He appeared as an actor in fourteen films, where he usually played a character much like himself: a well-travelled piano player. He recorded as a singer on three different labels and also had his own radio show.
He wasn't as popular in the 50s, though he did host a TV show, "The Saturday Night Revue", and appeared in the western series Laramie. He wrote two autobiographies, The Stardust Road in 1946 and Sometimes I Wonder in 1965. In 1977 he married actress Wanda McKay; he continued to compose and also became an avid golfer and coin collector. He received an honorary doctorate from Indiana University in 1972; in 1979, Carnegie Hall held a tribute concert in his honour.
Hoagy Carmichael died in 1981 of a heart attack. After his death, his family donated his effects to Indiana University; they are housed in a room named for him. A 1988 posthumous release sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute, "The Classic Hoagy Carmichael", earned Grammy nominations for Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album. In the wake of the renewed interest in this great American musician, and in recognition of the centennial of his birth, his two autobiographies were re-released under one cover in 1999. In 2002 the first biography of Carmichael, Stardust Melody, was released; it's penned by the jazz musician and writer Richard M. Sudhalter.
For an exhaustive compendium of Carmichael information, including photos and a complete list of his compositions - which is far too long for me to reproduce here - visit Indiana University's "The Hoagy Carmichael Collection" online at