About this Recording
8.120767 - CARMICHAEL, Hoagy: Riverboat Shuffle (1927-1938)

‘Riverboat Shuffle’ Original Recordings 1927-1938

The image of Hoagy Carmichael is one of the most indelible in show business. Hunched over a rinkydink piano, Hoagy’s unsmiling face peers out at the camera, his brow wrinkled, fedora pushed up high on his forehead, sleeves rolled up, with an everpresent cigarette dangling from his mouth. His casual, laconic visage implies an ‘I’ve-seen-it-all’ attitude; cool and knowing, dry as the Indiana heartland he came from. The songs associated with Carmichael were just as lackadaisical; “Star Dust,” “Lazy River”, “Georgia On My Mind”, “Lazy Bones”, and “Rockin’ Chair” all helped define his lonesome saloon singer image. Although these are his most famous compositions, there was a lot more to Hoagy Carmichael’s songwriting brilliance, as this disc will endeavour to show.

Hoagland Howard Carmichael (1899-1981) was one of the most gifted songwriters America has ever produced. His life story was encapsulated in the notes to Volume 1 in this series (Mr Music Master – Naxos 8.120574) and detailed in Richard Sudhalter’s biography, Stardust Melody (Oxford University Press, 2002). Whereas Volume 1 stressed Hoagy’s genius as a songwriter, on this disc we hear Carmichael the jazz icon, palling around with the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang, playing piano, and recording with his own orchestra.

The 1929 recording by Irving Mills’ Hotsy Totsy Gang of Carmichael’s immortal Star Dust is a sprightly dance tune interrupted only by Hoagy’s wistful piano interlude. The song’s famous lyrics, crafted by Mitchell Parish, one of Irving Mills’ staff writers, had not yet been added and Mills’ musicians were still thinking of it in terms of its jazz origins rather than as the sentimental favourite it would soon become.

Originally issued on a 12-inch 78, Washboard Blues is a study in weariness, a common theme in Carmichael compositions. The lyrics were written in vernacular dialect by Fred Callaghan, a gravestone cutter and part-time poet who painted a portrait of despondency from the point of view of a weary black woman washing clothes. With its complex structure and constantly changing tempos, Paul Whiteman’s version of “Washboard Blues” was far ahead of its time, a sophisticated mini-suite in the midst of an era steeped in traditional Tin Pan Alley platitudes. Carmichael makes his only appearance with the Whiteman orchestra in this version, which was the first arranged by Bill Challis. This is also Bix Beiderbecke’s debut with Whiteman, leading a hot quartet break featuring Tommy (trombone) and Jimmy (clarinet) Dorsey and Steve Brown (bass).

Rampart Street Blues is by the Cotton Pickers, a New York pickup group featuring stalwarts from Red Nichols’ stable of standout jazz soloists, including the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Arthur Schutt, Perry Botkin, Joe Tarto, and Stan King. Hoagy sings a rare duet with dance band mainstay Harold “Scrappy” Lambert.

March of the Hoodlums, based on the changes to “Tiger Rag,” is a manic dixieland march played by Hoagy’s fellow Indiana University friends, and is highlighted by a spirited alto sax chorus played by nineteen-year-old Kerval Goodwin.

It has been suggested that the zany session that produced Jet Black Blues was a ‘just-forlaughs’ afterthought featuring Hoagy on ‘percussion’ (possibly beating on an empty packing crate) and scat vocal à la “West End Blues”. But since he was supposedly en route from Indianapolis to Hollywood at this time, his presence remains cloudy. Nevertheless, this whacked-out track is highlighted by the eighteen strings of Lonnie Johnson (twelve) and Eddie Lang (six), with the label crediting Lang as ‘Blind Willie Dunn’ in an attempt to attract race record buyers.

Another Irving Mills track features Hoagy doubling on piano and celeste. The subject of Harvey is a parent’s ‘pride and joy’, a predecessor to ‘Leave it to Beaver’s’ Eddie Haskell, polite around grown-ups but when they weren’t looking, ‘always tight, in a fight, shooting craps and out all night’. Hoagy apparently had a soft spot for “Harvey”, later naming a pet canary Harvey II and a monkey Harvey III.

The version of Rockin’ Chair we have included is not the earliest one of the song, but it is one of the best, with Carmichael leading a hand-picked group that includes such luminaries as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Joe Venuti, a recovering Bix Beiderbecke, and trumpeter Bubber Miley, exiled from Duke Ellington’s orchestra the previous year. Hoagy carries on a pseudo-Amos & Andy dialogue with Irving Brodsky.

Bix delivers a jaunty jazz interlude in the midst of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, which is otherwise noteworthy for the famous ‘did-he-or-didn’t-he’ prank played by Joe Venuti in not exactly singing the proper words in the band’s vocal answers in the second chorus. Hoagy shares the vocal duties with the song’s co-writer, country music’s crusty curmudgeon Carson Robison.

Bessie Couldn’t Help It, recorded 15 September 1930, is noteworthy for being the last recording ever made by Bix Beiderbecke. Carmichael idolized Bix’s innate genius; their friendship would influence Carmichael’s songwriting for the rest of his life. He would later name his oldest son Hoagy Bix Carmichael after his late tormented friend and even carried Bix’s mouthpiece in his pocket until he died. In 1979, Carmichael told biographer Richard Sudhalter that he wished he had given Bix more to play on the track other than a lively opening and leading the rideout chorus.

Lazy River is a perfect example of the prototypical Carmichael lyric; an idealized view of small-town America, the innocent world in which Hoagy grew up. The Dorsey Brothers introduce the song, followed by Hoagy’s languid vocal, followed by Joe Venuti’s violin break, imitating the breeze wafting through the trees.

Snowball had made its debut on record at the hands of Louis Armstrong earlier in the year, but Hoagy’s September 1933 solo recording is one of his most charming. Carmichael was never a great singer, but was at his best in interpreting his own material in intimate circumstances. It’s unfortunate this song isn’t performed today, due to the now politically incorrect comparison of the black child in Johnny Mercer’s lyrics to food items (chocolate bars and apple dumplins).

Recorded the same day is Lazy Bones, one of Carmichael’s masterpieces, and the high point of his brief collaboration with lyricist Johnny Mercer. Carmichael and Mercer understood each other, and their songs show a shared affinity for writing musical still-lifes of an idealized American South. Again, food images play a big role in the lyrics: chicken gravy on rice, watermelon, and ’taters all being mentioned. The song became one of the biggest hits of the Depression. Also by Carmichael and Mercer is Moon Country, which exhibits feelings of pastoral nostalgia for home and ‘cooking things that melt in your mouth’, prompting Meredith Willson to call it ‘our folk music of tomorrow’.

Like Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael wrote vividly of the South, although he spent very little time there during his life. New Orleans was another example of a southern locale Carmichael had no personal knowledge of; the jazz-flavoured version from 1938 features Hoagy sharing the vocals with Scottish-born Broadway star Ella Logan. From the same session comes Hoagy’s first success, Riverboat Shuffle, first published in 1925 as an instrumental but, by 1938, featuring a rarely heard lyric written by Mitchell Parish (the wordy lyrics anachronistically referring to tenor great Coleman Hawkins, not one normally associated with New Orleans jazz or riverboats for that matter!)

One Morning in May was Carmichael’s personal favourite of all his compositions, and featured a lyric by “Star Dust” co-writer Mitchell Parish. The lively 1933 recording, made as an instrumental, featured a quintet of Hoagy’s Indiana pals including an inebriated Fred ‘Yah’ Murray on trumpet.

The effect of Carmichael’s Judy has had greater consequences than the song itself. It helped prompt a young girl named Frances Gumm to change her name to Judy Garland and it was also the song Ella Fitzgerald sang in the infamous talent contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre that launched her own career. The lyric is by Sammy Lerner (“Is It True What They Say About Dixie?”).

Cosmics, originally titled “Phrases” and then “Bolero”, is Carmichael’s attempt at ‘serious’ composition. The song, built around syncopated octaves in the left hand, was, according to Hoagy, ‘my attempt at a new style of jazz. No set melody – just a group of phrases and a heavy background rhythm such as in the Bolero’. Scheduled to be introduced at Carnegie Hall by Paul Whiteman in 1933, “Cosmics” was dropped at the last minute and performed instead at the Biltmore Hotel, of substantial disappointment to its composer.

Hoagy Carmichael’s exquisite 1933 rendering of Star Dust, written six years before, shows the song’s full development in place. Utilizing a jazz sensibility inspired by Bixian compositions such as “In a Mist” (especially in the bridge), Hoagy plays the song rubato all the way through, in direct contrast to the Irving Mills jazz-flavored recording cut in 1929. By 1933, “Star Dust” had emerged with a life all its own, not just another dance band tune or a slow song to separate fox trots, but a monument to Carmichael himself: complex yet sentimental, jazz-tinged, and introspective; a song that requires listening and ruminating – just what Bix would have loved.

Cary Ginell – a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/Deems
Taylor Award for music journalism

Close the window