American composer and author Alec Wilder wrote of Carmichael in American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950 that he 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, of Scottish ancestry, and Lida Mary (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. He never had formal piano lessons. 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 improvisation. 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 ($5.00) as a musician playing at a fraternity dance that year and began his musical career.
Carmichael attended Indiana University and the Indiana University School of Law, where he received his Bachelor's degree in 1925 and a law degree in 1926. He was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity and played the piano all around the state with his "Collegians" to support his studies. He met, befriended, and played with Bix Beiderbecke, the cornetist, sometime pianist and fellow Mid-westerner. Under Beiderbecke’s spell, Carmichael started to play the cornet as well, but found that he didn't have the lips for it, and only played it for a short while. He was also influenced by Beiderbecke's impressionistic and classical musical ideas. On a visit to Chicago, Carmichael was introduced by Beiderbecke to Louis Armstrong, who was then playing with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and with whom he would collaborate later.
He began to compose songs, "Washboard Blues" and "Boneyard Shuffle" for Curtis Hitch, and also "Riverboat Shuffle", recorded by Beiderbecke, which became a staple of jazz and Carmichael’s first recorded song. After graduating in 1926, he moved to Miami to join a local law firm but, failing the bar exam, returned to Indiana in 1927. He joined an Indiana law firm and passed the state bar, but devoted most of his energies to music, arranging band dates, and "writing tunes". He had discovered his method of songwriting, which he described later: "You don't write melodies, you find them…If you find the beginning of a good song, and if your fingers do not stray, the melody should come out of hiding in a short time."
Later in 1927, Carmichael’s career started off well. He finished and recorded one of his most famous songs, "Star Dust" (later renamed "Stardust", with Mitchell Parish's lyrics added in 1929), at the Gennett Records studio in Richmond, Indiana, with Carmichael doing the piano solo. The song, an idiosyncratic melody in medium tempo - actually a song about a song - later became an American standard, recorded by hundreds of artists. Shortly thereafter, Carmichael got more recognition when Paul Whiteman recorded "Washboard Blues", with Carmichael playing and singing, and the Dorsey brothers and Bix Beiderbecke in the orchestra. Despite his growing prominence, at this stage Carmichael was still held back by his inability to sight-read and notate music properly, although he was innovative for the time. With coaching, he became more proficient at arranging his own music.
His first major song with his own lyrics was "Rockin' Chair", recorded by Armstrong and Mildred Bailey, and eventually with his own hand-picked studio band (featuring Bix, Bubber Miley, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Bud Freeman, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, and Gene Krupa) on May 15, 1930. In the future, however, most of Carmichael's successful songs would have lyrics provided by collaborators. After realizing that he missed making music and was not cut out to be a lawyer, Carmichael left his law practice for ever and started working with musicals in Hollywood. He stayed with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra for a while but no work came of it and he moved to New York City in the summer of 1929.
In New York, Carmichael met Duke Ellington's agent and publisher Irving Mills and hired him to set up recording dates. In October 1929 the stock market crashed and Carmichael's hard-earned savings declined substantially. Fortunately, Louis Armstrong then recorded "Rockin' Chair" at Okeh studios, giving Carmichael a badly needed boost. He had begun to work at an investment house and was considering a switch in career when he composed "Georgia on My Mind" (lyrics by Stuart Gorrell), perhaps most famous in the Ray Charlesrendition recorded many years later.
Carmichael composed and recorded "Up a Lazy River" in 1930 (lyrics by Sidney Arodin) and the first recorded version of "Stardust" with lyrics (by Mitchell Parish) was recorded byBing Crosby in 1931. He joined ASCAP in 1931 and began working for Ralph Peer’s Southern Music Company in 1932 as a songwriter, the first music firm to occupy the new Brill Building, famous as a New York songwriting mecca. It was a low-paying but steady job at a time when the Depression was having a harsh effect on live jazz performance and many musicians were out of work. Bix Beiderbecke’s early death also darkened Carmichael’s mood. Of that time, he wrote later: "I was tiring of jazz and I could see that other musicians were tiring as well. The boys were losing their enthusiasm for the hot stuff…No more hot licks, no more thrills."
The elegy for hot jazz was premature, but Swing was just around the corner and jazz would soon turn in another direction, with new bandleaders such as the Dorseys and Benny Goodman, and new singers such as Frank Sinatra leading the way. Carmichael’s output soon would be heading in that direction. In 1933 he began his collaboration with newly arrived lyricist Johnny Mercer on "Thanksgiving", "Moon Country", and "Lazybones", which was a smash hit, selling over 350,000 copies in three months. Carmichael's financial condition improved dramatically as royalties started to pour in, affording him a comfortable apartment and dapper clothes. So did his social life, finding him hobnobbing with George Gershwin, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, and other music giants in the New York scene.
Carmichael started to emerge as a solo singer-performer, first at parties, then professionally. He described his unique, laconic voice as being "the way a shaggy dog looks.… I have Wabash fog and sycamore twigs in my throat." Some fans were dismayed as he steadily veered away from hot jazz, but recordings by Louis Armstrong continued to "jazz up" Carmichael’s popular songs. In 1935 he left Ralph Peer’s Southern Music Company and started composing songs for a division of Warner Brothers, establishing his connection with Hollywood. His song "Moonburn", his first movie song, appeared in the film version of Anything Goes.
In 1935 Carmichael married preacher’s daughter Ruth Menardi. He moved to California and accepted a contract with Paramount for $1,000 a week, joining other songwriters working for the Hollywood studios, including Harry Warren (Warners), E. Y. Harburg (MGM), Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin at Paramount. Soon, the Carmichaels were accepted members of the affluent Hollywood community. In 1937 Carmichael appeared in the movie Topper, serenading Cary Grant and Constance Bennett with his song "Old Man Moon".
In 1937 he wrote the song "Chimes of Indiana", which was presented to Indiana University as a gift by the class of 1935. It was made the school's official co-alma mater in 1978.
With Paramount lyricist Frank Loesser, Carmichael wrote "Two Sleepy People" in 1938. Around the same time he composed "Heart and Soul", "Small Fry", and "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)" (premiered by Dick Powell in a radio broadcast). However, countering these successes, Carmichael's and Mercer's Broadway score for Walk With Music was unsuccessful. In 1939, Hoagy Bix, the Carmichaels' first child, was born.
The growing Carmichael family was thriving in Los Angeles in the former mansion of chewing-gum heir William P. Wrigley, Jr., when America entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hoagy Carmichael maintained a strong personal and professional relationship with Johnny Mercer. That continuing collaboration led to "Skylark" in 1942, recorded almost immediately by Glenn Miller, Dinah Shore, and Helen Forrest (with Harry James). In 1943, Carmichael returned to the movies and played "Cricket" in the screen adaptation ofErnest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, opposite Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, where he sang "Hong Kong Blues" and "The Rhumba Jumps", and played piano as Bacall sang "How Little We Know". He also contributed to the 1941 Max Fleischer animated film,Mister Bug Goes to Town (later reissued as Hoppity Goes To Town).
Carmichael appeared as an actor in a total of 14 motion pictures, always performing at least one of his songs, including Young Man with a Horn (based on friend Bix Beiderbecke's life) with Bacall and Kirk Douglas, and multi-Academy Award winner The Best Years of Our Lives with Myrna Loy and Fredric March), in which he teaches a disabled veteran with metal prostheses to play "Chop Sticks". He described his screen persona as the "hound-dog-faced old musical philosopher noodling on the honky-tonk piano, saying to a tart with a heart of gold: "He'll be back, honey. He's all man"."
When composing, Carmichael was incessant. According to his son Randy, he worked over a song for days or even weeks until it was perfect. His perfectionism extended to his clothes, grooming, and eating as well. Once the work was done, however, Carmichael would cut loose—relax, play golf, drink, and indulge in the Hollywood high life.
Carmichael was a Republican supporter and anti-FDR, voting for Wendell Wilkie for president in 1940, and was often aghast at the left-leaning political views of his friends in Hollywood. His contribution to the war effort was similar to other patriotic efforts by Irving Berlin ("This Is the Army, Mr. Jones"), Johnny Mercer ("G.I. Jive"), and Frank Loesser ("Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition"). Carmichael's war time songs (most with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) included "My Christmas Song for You", "Don't Forget to Say 'No' Baby", "Billy-a-Dick", "The Army of Hippocrates", "Cranky Old Yank", "Eager Beaver", "No More Toujours l'Amour", "Morning Glory", and the never completed "Hitler Blues". He regularly performed on USO shows.
Carmichael's 1943 song "I'm a Cranky Old Yank in a Clanky Old Tank on the Streets of Yokohama with My Honolulu Mama Doin' Those Beat-o, Beat-o Flat-On-My-Seat-o, Hirohito Blues" is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the song with the longest title. However Carmichael admitted it was a joke; the title was intended to end with the word 'Yank'.
Between 1944 and 1948, Carmichael was the host of three musical variety radio programs. In 1944–45, the 30-minute Tonight at Hoagy's aired on Mutual Sunday nights at 8:30 pm (Pacific time), sponsored by Safeway supermarkets. Produced by Walter Snow, the show featured Carmichael as host and vocalist. The musicians included Pee Wee Hunt andJoe Venuti. Fans were rather blunt about his singing, with comments like "you can't sing for sour owl" and "your singing is so delightfully awful that it is really funny". NBC carried the 30-minute Something New at 6 pm (Pacific time) on Mondays in 1945–46. All of the musicians in this show's band, called the "Teenagers", were between the ages of 16 and 19. Carol Stewart and Gale Robbins were the vocalists and comedy was supplied by Pinky Lee and the team of Bob Sweeney and Hal March, later of quiz show fame. The Hoagy Carmichael Show was broadcast by CBS from October 26, 1946 until June 26, 1948. Luden's Cough Drops sponsored the 15-minute program until June 1947.
In 1948 Carmichael composed a piece called Brown County in Autumn, a nine-minute tone poem which was not well received by critics.
"In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening", with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, featured in 1951's Here Comes the Groom, won Carmichael his first Academy Award for Best Original Song, and Mercer his second of four. In 1952, he played his composition My Resistance Is Low in the movie The Las Vegas Story. The lyrics were written by Harold Adamson for this Howard Hughes film. The song did not catch fire in the U.S. but was a hit in Britain.
In the early 1950s, variety shows were particularly popular on television. Carmichael hosted Saturday Night Review in June 1953, a summer replacement series for Your Show of Shows, but found the pressure too intense and did not return the following summer. About 1955, Carmichael reprised the Dooley Wilson role in a short-lived television adaptation of Casablanca on Warner Brothers Presents, playing Sam the piano player.
Among his numerous television roles, Carmichael guest starred with Keenan Wynn, Anthony George, and Olive Carey in the 1956 episode "Death in the Snow" of the NBC anthology series, The Joseph Cotten Show. He was thereafter a regular on NBC's Laramie western series (1959–1963) with John Smith and Robert Fuller, co-starred in The Helen Morgan Story on CBS's Playhouse 90 (1957) and provided the voice for a stone-age parody of himself, "Stoney Carmichael", in an episode of ABC's The Flintstones, which aired in September 1961. On June 15, 1961, he appeared in one of the final episodes of NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Carmichael composed seven songs for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1954) but only two made the final cut: "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love" and "When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right)", with Jane Russell singing the former. Both songs' lyrics were written by Harold Campbell Adamson.
As rock and roll emerged in the mid-1950s, the music industry found less commercial appeal in his new songs. As his song writing career started to ebb, Carmichael's marriage dissolved. Secure with royalties from his past hits he wrote some songs for children.
In 1960, Ray Charles' version of "Georgia on My Mind" was a major hit, receiving Grammys both for Best Male Vocal and Best Popular Single. Carmichael's rediscovery, however, did little for such new output as "The Ballad of Sam Older", "A Perfect Paris Night", "Behold, How Beautiful", "Bamboo Curtains", and "Close Beside You", which were all but ignored by the recording industry. For his September 15, 1961, animated guest appearance in "The Hit Songwriters" episode of The Flintstones, Hoagy wrote and performed a song created especially for the show, "Yabba-Dabba-Dabba-Dabba-Doo". Jerry Lee Lewis recorded "Hong Kong Blues" during his final Sun sessions in 1963, but it was never released. In 1964, while The Beatles were exploding on the scene, Carmichael lamented, "I'll betcha I have twenty-five songs lying in my trunk" and no one was calling to say "have you got a real good song for such-and such an artist". Still, royalties on his standards were earning Carmichael over $300,000 a year. Former-Beatle George Harrisonrecorded two of Carmichael's songs ("Baltimore Oriole" and "Hong Kong Blues") for his 1981 LP Somewhere in England.
His attempt to compose movie scores failed when his score for Hatari! was replaced by that of Henry Mancini, although his song "Just for Tonight" (a re-working of "A Perfect Paris Night") is used in the film. With the Johnny Appleseed Suite, Carmichael once again tried his hand at a longer musical composition, but the episodic treatment lacked the compositional unity and momentum of works such as George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. By 1967, Carmichael was spending time back in New York but was still unsuccessful with his new songs.
Carmichael was inducted into the USA's Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971 along with Duke Ellington. The 1970s went by with little musical success and fewer people recognizing him in public. With the help and encouragement of his son Hoagy Bix, Carmichael participated in the PBS television show Hoagy Carmichael's Music Shop, which featured jazz-rock versions of his hits. He appeared on Fred Rogers PBS show Old Friends, New Friends. With time on his hands, he resumed painting.
In 1972 Indiana University awarded Carmichael an honorary doctorate in music.
In 1977 he married Dorothy Wanda McKay.
On June 27, 1979 he was honored for his 80th birthday by the Newport Jazz Festival with a concert entitled "The Stardust Road: A Hoagy Carmichael Jubilee" in Carnegie Hall. Hosted by former band leader Bob Crosby, the concert included performances by many major singers and musicians, including singers Kay Starr, Jackie Cain, Dave Frishberg,Max Morath, and musicians Billy Butterfield, Bob Wilber, Yank Lawson, Vic Dickinson, and Bob Haggart. The concert was broadcast later that summer by National Public Radio.
During the concert, a new Carmichael tune, "Piano Pedal Rag", was performed. Afterwards, Carmichael said that he wrote it because he admired the writing of Bix Beiderbecke "so much that I didn't want to quit until I wrote something that was a little bit like something Bix might have liked." Twenty-eight years after Bix's death, he was still seeking his approval.
On his 80th birthday, Carmichael was reflective, observing, "I'm a bit disappointed in myself. I know I could have accomplished a hell of a lot more... I could write anything any time I wanted to. But I let other things get in the way... I've been floating around in the breeze." Shortly before his death, Carmichael appeared on a UK-recorded tribute album, In Hoagland (1981), together with Annie Ross and Georgie Fame.
Carmichael died of heart failure at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California, on December 27, 1981. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Bloomington.