Hoagland Howard “Hoagy” Carmichael was an American composer, pianist, singer, actor, and bandleader. He is best known for writing “Stardust”, “Georgia On My Mind”, “The Nearness of You”, and “Heart and Soul”, four of the most-recorded American songs of all time.
Alec Wilder, in his study of the American popular song, concluded that Hoagy Carmichael was the “most talented, inventive, sophisticated and jazz-oriented” of the hundreds of writers composing pop songs in the first half of the 20th century.
Born in Bloomington, Indiana, Carmichael was the only son of Howard Clyde Carmichael and Lida Robison. He was named Hoagland after a circus troupe “The Hoaglands” who stayed at the Carmichael house during his mother’s pregnancy. Howard was a horse-drawn taxi driver and electrician, and Lida a versatile pianist who played accompaniment at silent movies and for parties. The family moved frequently, as Howard sought better employment for his growing family. At six, Carmichael started to sing and play the piano, absorbing easily his mother’s keyboard skills. By high school, the piano was the focus of his after-school life, and for inspiration he would listen to ragtime pianists Hank Wells and Hube Hanna. At eighteen, the small, wiry, pale Carmichael was living in Indianapolis, trying to help his family?s income working in manual jobs in construction, a bicycle chain factory, and a slaughterhouse. The bleak time was partly spelled by four-handed piano duets with his mother and by his strong friendship with Reg DuValle, black bandleader and pianist known as “the elder statesman of Indiana jazz” and “the Rhythm King”, who taught him piano jazz improvization.
The death of his three-year-old sister in 1918 affected him deeply, and he wrote “My sister Joanne?the victim of poverty. We couldn?t afford a good doctor or good attention, and that?s when I vowed I would never be broke again in my lifetime.” She may have died from influenza, which had swept the world that year. Carmichael earned his first money as a musician playing at a fraternity dance that year and began his musical career.