Stardust Melody: The Life and Times of Hoagy Carmichael
Richard M. Sudhalter
Oxford Univ Press
I approached Stardust Melody skeptically. With two Carmichael autobiographies recently re-released, did we really need this biography? Could Sudhalter, so steeped in Hoagy Carmichael's music as a trumpteter/bandleader, be objective about the composer's music?
Would the author of the 1999 tome Lost Chords overoad us with detail?
All my doubts were unfounded. Sudhalter's work is balanced and insightful. At 432 pages, there's plenty of detail but rarely too much. Given the length and breadth of Carmichael's life as a pianist, composer, sometime lyricist and actor, the treatment is rather concise. Musical illustrations and analyses are plentiful but brief. Sudhalter includes the best aspects of the autobiographies, in which Hoagy conveyed so well the excitement he and his peers felt at the emergence of "hot" music. More than many musical biographers, Sudhalter includes context, whether it's developments in jazz or the world at large.
The unique quality of much of Carmichael's music is a point well made here. Regarding Hong Kong Blues, written in 1929: "it sounds like nothing else in popular music". Or the bridge to Skylark (1941): "Not a phrase, not a moment, in which it resembles the bridge of any other popular song." But Sudhalter doesn't hold back from calling other songs "mediocre" or "little short of embarassing".
Make no mistake, though Carmichael attained fame in the pop and movie music arenas, his roots were in jazz, particularly from the early '20's to early '30's. As he said in 1948, "None of my songs could have been written without I'd had (sic) a jazz background". Ample space is devoted to the seminal influence on Carmichael of Bix Beiderbecke, but numerous others are credited, including Louis Armstrong and Indianapolis pianist Reg DuValle. Sudhalter also dug deep into primary sources, including 91 year old Bud Dant.
In 1979, New York Times reporter Tom Buckley wrote of Hoagy Carmichael that "at least 20 of his 250 or so published compositions are among the brightest diamonds in the nation's musical treasury".
While Hoagy certainly hasn't been overlooked, Sudhalter's biography should help bring the added attention he deserves.
My one disappointment with Stardust Melody is that its author didn't devote more attention to the song Star Dust, reputed to be the first or second most recorded song ever, with about 1,500 in at least 40 languages.