Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Melody Haunts My Reverie

by Jay Sherman-Godfrey

On October 31, 1927, a group of former Indiana University fraternity brothers and remnants of the recently-defunct Jean Goldkette Orchestra convened at the offices of the Gennett Recording Company in Richmond, Indiana to cut a few sides. The ringleader was Hoagland Howard "Hoagy" Carmichael, a newly-minted lawyer, semi-professional piano player, and fledgling songwriter. He was at a crossroads of sorts, just back from a half-hearted attempt at practicing law full time in Florida and now residing with his parents in Indianapolis. He was a little deflated at having slunk back home, and at 28, feeling long in the tooth for a fresh start, he was determined to make another go at music.

The Halloween date was apropos, because a haunting was involved. Not the ghostly kind, mind you. The haunter was an odd little tune. It had first crept into his mind some time ago, and nestled there, nagging at him. It was as much a feeling as a tune, but he knew it was special, and so he nurtured and refined it on any nearby piano whenever he had a moment or two. And now, even though it still felt half finished, he coaxed together a band to cut a rather tentative version that nonetheless showed the promise of a greatness. When quizzed by one of the musicians for a title, Carmichael replied, “Just call it Stardust.” Years later, Carmichael would craft a predictable, Hollywood-buffed story for the origins of "Star Dust" (the title was changed to two words in 1929 when the lyric was added). In it, he received the tune whole-hog from the heavens one steamy summer night, lovelorn, gazing into the sky from atop the campus spooning wall. In truth, the song was the creation of four men (three directly, one in spirit), and transformed into the song we know today by a keen-eared bandleader and fast-rising jazz singer from Tacoma, Washington by the name of Crosby.

In May 1928, Carmichael and His Collegians were back in the studio and took another crack at Stardust (sadly, the recording does not survive). This time it had a lyric, and Star Dust’s peculiar life as a song about a song (indeed about itself) began with Hoagy’s self-penned opening line, “Stardust melody, you hold a charm throughout the years.” I’d like to imagine the power of the tune itself suggested this. "I've been up here in your head so long, Hoagy, what else could I be about?" And a powerful tune it was. Wally Wilson, a saxophonist and fellow IU alum, couldn’t get it out of his head either. He took the Stardust chart with him to med school at USC. The SoCal kids dug it hard, and he found himself playing it half a dozen times at dances by request. Awakened one one night by a nightmare, he jotted down a lyric. His woozy scribblings included these now familiar lines: “I sometimes wonder why I spend my time dreaming of a song. A melody haunts my reverie.”

By 1929, Hoagy was getting established in New York working for publisher Ralph Peer. The original Gennett side hadn't sold much, but it was widely admired by musicians and had begun to spread. Sensing further commercial potential, Peer commissioned veteran Tin Pan Alley lyricist Mitchell Parrish ("Deep Purple," "Sophisticated Lady," "Sleigh Ride," among others) for a proper lyric. He took Hoagy's moonlight-on-campus setting and song-about-a-song concept, kept Wilson’s key lines, and ran with it. He artfully massaged Wilson’s refrain-opening line, extending the pickup from one beat to three, creating the instantly recognizable, rising three-note figure that has become as crucial to the song as Hoagy's rangy, rhythmically supple tune. “Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights dreaming of a song,” has got to be among the greatest opening lines in pop music. It distills not only the bittersweet detritus of love lost, but also the universal, haunted condition of the songwriter. Indeed, we ask ourselves this question as the notes simultaneously cloud and focus the mind, sending us to our instruments, like Carmichael over those two searching years, to try in vain to purge them through our fingers and out to the world.

In 1930, bandleader Isham Jones made the now-seemingly-obvious choice of refiguring Star Dust as a ballad and took it to #1. Picking up on Jones, Bing Crosby cut the benchmark vocal version the song the next year, amping up the melodrama and taking it another step further from its hot-jazz roots. Swing was in the wind, and the hot and sweet bands would soon be a memory, but "Star Dust" would last.

As Hoagy would tell you, the fourth mind behind Star Dust was Bix Beiderbecke, his close friend and musical idol. And as trumpeter Richard Suldhalter observes in his book Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael, "Star Dust" is infused with Bix’s structural approach to melody and his musical spirit. In many ways, "Star Dust" could be a transcribed Bix solo. Perhaps that's where the haunting fragment was born. Several years in decline, Bix would die at 28 in Sunnyside, Queens on August 6, 1931, just 13 days before an ascendant Crosby would record his definitive version a few miles away in midtown Manhattan, certifying Carmichael as a bona fide hit songwriter. "Star Dust" was on her own now, but the ghost of Bix would haunt Hoagy for the rest of his life.


"Star Dust" mp3
by Hoagy Carmichael, 1942.
available on Stardust Melody

"Hong Kong Blues" mp3
by Hoagy Carmichael, 1942.
available on Stardust Melody

Here's Hoagy covering himself in 1942, fifteen years on. He lops off the introductory verse – just a short intro and then straight into the refrain, which has become customary. He takes the author's liberty with the melody and puts some blues back into it, channeling Bix for the whistling chorus. The flipside, "Hong Kong Blues" is another beautifully eccentric Carmichael classic.

"Stardust" mp3
by Carmichael’s Collegians, 1927.
(Original Gennett Recording)
available on The First of the Singer Songwriters: Key Cuts 1924-1946

The first tentative take on "Stardust."
Note: Hoagy's modernistic piano chorus.

"Star Dust" mp3
by Isham Jones and His Orchestra, 1930.
available on Swingin' Down the Lane

"Star Dust" mp3
by Bing Crosby with Victor Young and his Orchestra, 1931.
available on The Definitive Collection


"Singing the Blues" mp3
by Frankie Trambauer and his Orchestra, 1927.
featuring Bix Beiderbecke
available on Bix Beiderbecke, Vol. 1: Singin' the Blues

You can hear echoes of Bix's solo here in "Star Dust."

"Hong Kong Blues" mp3
by Laura Cantrell, 2002.
Peel Session
BBC Radio

This arrangement is one Laura, Nancy Lynn Howell, and Robin Goldwasser performed as the Watchbirds. Robin taught it to me when we both played with Laura. That's Jon Graboff counting it in and playing mandolin, Francis MacDonald on drums, Ivor Ottley on fiddle. I can't for the life of me remember the bass player's name. We made this for a Peel session in London in Nov. 2002 at the BBC's Maida Vale studios.


Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael
by Richard Sudhalter
Oxford University Press © 2002

more on Hoagy Carmichael HERE


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post! Stardust has always been my favorite song. In my opinion, it is the greatest song ever written! And, because I am also an IU Alum, it is dear to me in more ways than one.

Anonymous said...

how about posting louis armstrong's 1931 version (both takes), for my money the definitive one, the solo on the alt. is still ahead of it's time

Jay Sherman-Godfrey said...

Commenter #2,

I almost did.

I agree Armstrong's take is a wondrous thing, but in the evolution of Star Dust from hot jazz to standard ballad, it's an anomaly. Its greatness is its own topic, and not one I think I could tackle.

Better yet, Sudhalter's book goes into loving detail about Armstrongs versions, and I highly recommend it.

Thanks for reading.


tonpatti said...

Loved this post. I've been a big Bix and Hoagy fan since I was a kid.

Hoagy shows up occasionally on TCM, though it can take some searching. I highly recommend "The Las Vegas Story" with Jane Russell. "Hoagy Carmichael appears as "Happy," and he provides three songs for the film: "I Get Along Without You Very Well," sung by Russell; the sprightly novelty number "The Monkey Song"; and "My Resistance Is Low," performed by both Jane and Hoagy." - John M Miller's article on the film.

He's also seen in Topper (Old Man Moon) and Johnny Angel (Memphis in June) and of course Casablanca.

My introduction to Stardust was a wonderful version with the the first notes blapped out by a huge baritone sax by a small band led by Gene Krupa some time in the fifties. It was on an LP I stole from the library, and I think we played that disc into dust as young hippies in the 1970s.

Blowing the first notes of Stardust on the baritone sax has been done a few times, I think. But I'm no scholar. I still love the way that sax bangs you over the head. It's like the beginning of Daytripper.

Anonymous said...

Hong Kong Blues- george harrison... worth the listen!

Anonymous said...

Nat King Cole, Ben Webster, Sinatra? Love it all, and Hoagy's original notation very cool...can't forget Willie Nelson's version

Will R. said...

Nice post, Jay! I have the book, but like many books I have, I have only read the first few chapters. I bought it in Bloomington in a bargain rack... I too am under the spell of Hoagy, "Star Dust," and the Hoagy version here in particular. He has a unique voice that is both somewhat polished and non- (not un-) professional.
Let's not leave out the wonderful factoid that Spike Jones is the drummer on that track!

hbrix said...

My favorite version is the 6/8 rendition that Billy Ward and his Dominoes cut in 1958(?). It's on the Goofellas soundtrack, oddly enough.
Speaking of movies, Hoagy's great in an unjustifiably obscure 40's western called Canyon Passage and has a role in Michael Curtiz' bizarro-world Bix biopic YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN starring Kirk Douglas as a character loosely based on Bix.

Paulos said...

there's a wonderful version of "Hong Kong Blues" on a 1969 Spanky & Our Gang album "Without Rhyme or Reason".
There's an mp3 version here :

Richard said...

My favourite version of "Stardust" will always be the unaccompanied rendition by Harpo Marx.

Martin said...

I came to this song through the wonderful Nat King Cole version. I appreciate the original, but - unusually, for me - I really think it has been improved on by Nat's liquid voice and individualistic phrasing