A "STARDUST" a day keeps the blues away--at least that's what WEAM seems to feel. Since last Jan. 4, the station has been playing a different version of the late Hoagy Carmichael classic Mondays through Fridays about 2:30 p.m. Don't expect them to stop anytime soon--they've already got enough versions to last into June and the song's publisher, Belwin-Mills, estimates that there are 1,500 versions available.
"Stardust," of course, is one of the classic favorite American songs, so much so that one of Carmichael's friends suggested he rename it "Gold Dust." The composer did call his autobiography "Stardust Trail." Like many songs, it went through a difficult birthing process before settling into its now-familiar form. After an early fascination with music, and jazz in particular, Carmichael had given up music for to practice law in Florida, New York (where he turned down a staff composer's job with Mills Music Publishing) and eventually back in his hometown, Bloomington, Ind. However, it soon became obvious that Carmichael preferred practicing piano and composing, so he gave up law, substituting the bench for the bar. He was further inspired when Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverine Orchestra recorded his "Riverboat Shuffle," and when Red Nichols recorded "Washboard Blues."
One night in 1927, Carmichael was walking across the Indiana University campus when he started whistling a haunting strain. He'd been thinking about an old flame who had deserted him for a new beau. A bit depressed, Carmichael found himself looking up at the star-studded Indiana sky and forming a melody in his mind.
"It's a nice tune," he told an interviewer years later , recalling that night's struggle to put the tune on paper. "I love it. I keep whistling it--the opening bars of 'Stardust.' I love it--but I need a piano. Whistling, I can forget it; whistling, it can disappear. I have to see it on the keys to remember it. I hurry to the Book Nook, whistling like all hell. The Book Nook a campus restaurant where jazz buffs hung out is closed. I root out old Pete Costas owner of an off-campus Greek restaurant with a battered upright in the back . I'm still whistling, I'm hanging on to the tune. I make him open the place and I finally play it on the piano. I see it on the keys, the way I need to see it. Nice, uh? Crazy?" The melody was scratched onto the flyleaf of a law book.
The original "Stardust"--named by a Carmichael roommate, Stuart Gorrell, who thought the melody sounded like dust from stars drifting down through a summer sky--was strictly a piano piece; that's how it was first published as sheet music by Mills Music in January 1929. On its first recording, by the Emile Seidel Orchestra, it was played fast, ragtime style. Mills' staff arranger Jimmy Dale suggested to Carmichael that he slow the song down, ease the tempo . . . and add some lyrics. Victor Young, an arranger for the Isham Jones Orchestra, was the first to turn "Stardust" into a ballad, even before it had lyrics. Still, the song had little impact. "Nothing happened," Carmichael recalled. "Couldn't sell myself to anybody." He flew to Hollywood with three songs, including "Stardust," but couldn't get in to see anyone about buying his tunes. Disappointed, Carmichael hitched a ride to New York with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
In May 1929, lyrics finally materialized, courtesy of another Mills staffer, Mitchell Parish; it was Parish's first major hit. " 'Stardust' did all right its first year," Carmichael remembered. "I earned perhaps $3,000. Second year, perhaps $500. It kind of disappeared the next two years. Then some of the wonderful Negro bands picked it up. Little by little it began to grow. And grow and grow and grow and grow. Like a slow, wonderful, beautiful, unbelievable miracle."
By the mid-'30s, "Stardust" had worked itself into the American psyche via recordings by Artie Shaw (2 million 78s sold), Louis Armstrong, the Boswell Sisters, the Mills Brothers and Eddy Duchin. "Stardust's" success was a bit surprising to one authority on the art form, the late Alec Wilder. "One has heard the song so often and for so many years that it is difficult to view it with a fresh eye," he wrote in the book "American Popular Song." "Its instrumental beginnings are obvious; the melodic line is not, in the pure sense of the word, vocal. And this fact makes its huge success as a song all the more remarkable. And besides, it's no trifle to sing or whistle. Oh, by now after 40 years, it may be, but it's very far out for a pop song of any era. 'Stardust' 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."