If he had composed only "Stardust," Hoagy Carmichael would go down in music history as a gifted songwriter.
However, he also wrote "Georgia on My Mind," "The Nearness of You," "Rockin' Chair," "Skylark" and a host of other musical evergreens - and he still isn't satisfied with his output.
"I'm a bit disappointed in myself," he said before last night's grand tribute to him at the Newport Jazz Festival.
"I know that I could've accomplished a hell of a lot more," said Carmichael, who will be 80 Nov. 22. "There's no question about that. I could write anything, anytime I wanted to. But I let other things get in the way.
"I was interested in tennis and I got interested in golf," he said, "nice living, coming to New York, going to Europe, living well. For a long time I lived high on the hog. I'm not complaining."
Also, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets and Chuck Berry made a difference.
"Rock 'n' roll just knocked me out," Carmichael said, his twangy voice taking on a trace of bitterness. "I just quit almost on account of rock 'n' roll. It's true that starting in the 50's, if you didn't write rock 'n' roll you just weren't anyplace - unless you were writing good Broadway shows.
"I haven't had a hit since 'In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,' and that was in '52. I've just been floating around in the breeze, I guess."
In the '50s, Carmichael became a television and movie actor, playing mostly pianists or singers in "To Have and Have Not," "Johnny Angel," "Canyon Passage" and The Best Years of Our Lives." His favorite part was the piano player in "Young Man With a Horn," the move based on a novel inspired by the tragic death of his friend, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.
He was also a regular in the "Laramie" series and for a while had his own TV show, "Saturday Night Revue."
Carmichael leaned back on his bed in the Plaza Hotel. His 5-foot-7 frame at 130 pounds is as gaunt today as it was 40 years ago. His dress is still casually elegant. But he has a bladder problem, stiff joints and cataracts.
"My vision is poor," he said. "It makes life disagreeable. It's very frustrating. Denies me of many of the pleasures I had in early years, even playing golf. Not just because I couldn't hit the ball or that others would have to hunt the ball, but because I couldn't see how far the ball went!"
But Carmichael sees well enough to keep his hair carefully combed. Just before posing for photographs, he ambled to the bathroom mirror for a last-minute once-over. He wore a houndstooth Eisenhower-style jacket with an ascot and slacks.
"I've always been rather meticulous about myself and my clothers," said Carmichael, who cut his own hair for 45 years before his eyesight went.
"I finally got fed up with telling barbers how I wanted my hair cut. After a couple days of practice, I was able to switch the scissors. I could really cut my hair good. I used two mirrors and thinned my hair with scissors.
"I learned how to shingle my hair in the back. I enjoyed doing it. I cut my boys' hair for years and they hated me for it. I was very meticulous with them. But they'd always cry, 'Aw, Dad!'"
Haircutting, like piano playing, came easy for Carmichael. He never took lessons for either.
"I never studied music at all," he said proudly. "I can't sight-read quickly, but I can arrange. I know how to write music.
"My mother taught me some chord structures. She played all the ragtime tunes. She got a little booklet that came every month. But she didn't push me at all.
"The first time I touched the piano I was 12. It was right after I heard the chimes at Indiana University play the alma mater.
"The piano was handy. I took one finger and tried to copy the tune, and I did. And I yelled. I said, 'Hey, grandmother, listen to this.' That was the beginning of my piano playing career - and I went from there and loved every minute of it."
For a long time he was torn between his law studies at Indiana and playing piano in college jazz bands. His college years came at the height of the Jazz Age.
As a Hoosier, he thought the Ivy League types were staid and somber. "Instead of buttermilk and Blackstone, we were nurtured on bathtub gin and rhythm," he wrote in his second autobiography, "Sometimes I Wonder."
In 1923, he organized a band, The Collegians, that played dances in the Midwest. But in 1924 he heard Beiderbecke playing with the Wolverines at a party at Nortwestern, and brought them to Indiana.
"When they started off with "Tiger Rag,' I froze to a spot in front of the band," he said. "That's when I realized that jazz could be musical."
Carmichael got up to fix himself a scotch, but dropped the bootle top. "That's good anyway," he said. "I wanted to get rid of that thing anyway. It gets in my drink."
He continued: "I was one of the foremost jazz pianists in the country at the time. I wasn't very good, but I had the ideas and knew what to play in order to be different and bluesy and jazzy."
Nevertheless, he tried law after graduation in 1926. He worked for the Equitable Trust Company in New York and tried unsuccessfully to start a practice in Florida. But then he took an offer to join Jean Goldkette's Orchestra. Soon afterward, he wrote "Stardust."
He played tennis with George Gershwin and hung out with Beiderbecke.
"Gershwin came to my wedding reception. He played some excepts from 'Porgy and Bess' before it had been staged. Then my father asked my mother to play 'Maple Leaf Rag' for him. He said, 'Now you'll hear some real piano.'"
Carmichael doesn't play music much these days. "I don't play the piano nearly as much as I should," he said. "I don't keep my fingers in shape. I should be kicked you-know-where.
"Once in a while I'll sit down and improvise, which is a singular pleasure - to make the proper progressions on melodic structures. I get more kick out of that then playing my own songs."
He lives in Palm Springs with his second wife, Dorothy. His sons, Hoagy Bix and Randy Bob, are grown. He invested early - and wisely - in California real estate, the stock market and the silver and gold markets.
"I ain't going to die poor," he said, tugging at his chin.
His musical reputation is secure. In his book "American Popular Song," Alec Wilder writes that "Carmichael has proven himself to be the most talented, inventive, sophisticated, and jazz-oriented of all the great craftsmen."
I consider myself a first-rate melody writer along with Gershwin, (Jerome) Kern and (Irving) Berlin," Carmichael said. "A good melodic structure is as easy as pie for me to write, and that requires more than just talent."
Carmichael wrote only one musical - and that one didn't make it.
"It seems that the theater owners didn't like me," he said. "I wrote the one show ('Walk with Music') that flopped, and I just never got another invitation to write for them. I was very nonplussed about that."
But as a songwriter under contract to Paramount Pictures from 1936 into the 1950s, he poured out the hit songs - "Two Sleepy People," "Small Fry," "Heart and Soul," "I Get Along Without You Very Well," "Blue Orchids," "Baltimore Oriole." 'Ole Buttermillk Sky," "My Resistance Is Low" . . .
And most of them remain popular. Generations of high-school students have thumped out "Heart and Soul" in eight-to-the-bar style.
"I love to hear the kids play it that way," said Carmichael.
He hasn't written a song in four or five years and can't remember the last time he had one published. But several months ago he wrote "a jazz ditty" for the festival tribute. "And I like it," he said.
How does he feel about the tribute? "It's a great send-off to what's going to happen in a few years," he said. But then he chuckled. CAPTION: Picture; Hoagy Carmiched; by Dan Goodrich for The Washington Post; Picture 2, Hoagy Carmichael; by Dan Goodrich