HOAGLAND HOWARD Carmichael chucked a career in law, fortunately, to start writing songs in the 1920s. Today, the whole world hums, whistles, sings and otherwise recalls with fondness the remarkable results of those musical labors--the wonderful songs of Hoagy Carmichael, who died Sunday in California at the age of 82. And what movie buff can forget this homey, honky-tonk piano player with the Hoosier drawl-and-twang, tickling the ivories and singing--if that's what you could call that lazy rasp--his "Hong Kong Blues" in "To Have and Have Not"?
So many evergreen hits and a successful acting and television career to boot--none of which Mr. Carmichael could, or did, attribute to anything resembling drive or energy. He was gifted, lucky and one-of-a-kind: a distinctly American composer, character actor and song-and-patter man. He never studied music, he just made it to last. And as for the singing, "I do it the way a shaggy dog looks," he once commented, noting the presence of "Wabash frogs and sycamore twigs" in his throat when he would reel off the words to the music.
String those hits end to end, and you have a medley that stretched ear-to-ear: "Star Dust" for starters; "The Nearness of You," "How Little We Know," "Lazy Bones," "Georgia on My Mind," "Two Sleepy People," "Heart and Soul," "I Get Along Without You Very Well," "Memories of You," "Lazy River," "Rockin' Chair," "Ol' Buttermilk Sky" and the Academy Award winner, "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening."
All this--and yet, shortly before his 80th birthday and a grand tribute to him at the 1979 Newport Jazz Festival, Mr. Carmichael was lamenting his lack of productivity in the later years: "I know that I could've accomplished a hell of a lot more," he said. "There's no question about that. . . But I let other things get in the way. . . I've just been floating around in the breeze, I guess." What a lovely breeze!