Friday, June 11, 2021

'Truly a Most Unusual Song'

My former colleague at the Palladium-Item in Richmond, Ind., Rick Kennedy, published Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz (Indiana University Press) in 1994. We were reporters together ten years earlier and often visited the remains of the Gennett Record Co., then a heap of rubble on the east bank of the Whitewater River. The company was founded in 1917 as a subsidiary of the Starr Piano Co. In the following decade, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Earl Hines and Charley Patton were among the musicians who recorded there. Best of all, on April 6, 1923, Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band boarded a train in Chicago and rode to Richmond to record nine songs, among them “Chimes Blues,” featuring Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo. A year later, Beiderbecke and his band recorded “Riverboat Shuffle” at Gennett, making it the first recording of a song written by Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981). Alec Wilder writes in American Popular Song (1972): 

“I think it is unquestionable that Hoagy Carmichael has proven himself to be the most talented, inventive, sophisticated, and jazz-oriented of all the great craftsmen.”


By calling him a “craftsman,” Wilder is not denigrating Carmichael’s gift. The first section of his book is devoted to the first-generation heart of the Great American Songbook: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen. The next section is titled “The Great Craftsmen” and, among Carmichael’s neighbors are Duke Ellington, Harry Warren and Jimmy McHugh. Consider a sliver of Carmichael’s production: “Georgia on My Mind,” “The Nearness of You,” “Heart and Soul,” “Lazybones,” “Skylark,” “Ole Buttermilk Sky” and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”


I have a friend with whom I share many musical enthusiasms. In the spring we engaged in “Dueling Divas,” an exchange of recordings by some of out favorite female singers – Ella Fitzgerald, Mabel Mercer, Blossom Dearie. We swapped songs with a spring theme, including performances by Bill Evans and Clifford Brown. On Wednesday he wrote: “I've heard countless renditions of ‘Stardust.’ All the great vocalists have recorded it. Hands down, Cole’s recording is the best.” Go here for Nat Cole’s 1957 recording of Carmichael’s “Stardust,” written in 1929, with lyrics by Mitchell Parish. And here for Cole’s performance of the song on The Nat King Cole Show, broadcast October 1, 1957. After his analysis of what he calls “the most recorded of all popular songs,” Alec Wilder writes:


Star Dust is truly a most unusual song and absolutely phenomenal for 1929. As well, the public deserves great credit for having accepted it so enthusiastically and for so many years.”


Abraca said...

Surprisingly, I can’t find any recording by Billie Holiday. I believe I found evidence that she performed it live at times but not one actual piece of audio! From past posts, I know you aren’t a big Holiday fan, and this will perhaps just reconfirm that for you. Still, I think one can appreciate that she has been loved by virtually every great blues and jazz musicians—particularly for a quality that would have had a wonderful effect on this lovely song. That truly a loss.

Don said...

Three comments:
1. Hoagy Carmichael's memoir of his early days, called Stardust Memories, is quirky and entertaining -- a quick and enjoyable read.
2. The Smithsonian put together a collection of Carmichael songs in the 1980s. It's great if you can find it.
3. My favorite version of the song is Louis Armstrong's from the early 1930s. Unconventional but fantastic.