Jazz pianist Hoagy Carmichael's story is one of a musician overcoming the odds. For Hoagy Carmichael, life started with a succession of homes across the Midwest as his father moved their family around looking for steady work, returning always to Bloomington, Indiana. While his mother would play piano for the local movie houses and at dances, Carmichael would stand beside her. He later reflected on this time, stating, "Ragtime was my lullaby."
Lida Carmichael, Hoagy's mother, dreamed of seeing her son become the president of a railroad. Railroad work wasn't in the future for Carmichael. With his mother's musical ear and a burning ambition to become a jazz musician, Hoagy went to hear Louie Jordan playing with an early jazz ensemble in 1919. The performance convinced him to become a musician.
The final piece of his future destiny fell into place when Hoagy Carmichael played an improvised piano tune for coronet player and fellow jazz enthusiast Bix Beiderbecke. Bix asked Hoagy why he didn't write music himself, and thereafter Hoagy decided to become a musician, songwriter and entertainer for a living.
As with many artists, the road to success and fame wasn't always smooth. After initial success with the celebrated "Washboard Blues" and "Riverboat Shuffle," Hoagy moved to New York City.
Finding that his initial success faded, Hoagy eventually had to work a job selling bonds with a Wall Street broker to make ends meet. He chose to produce music he believed in rather than succumb to growing pressure to produce commercial songs.
The conviction and desire to remain true to the music he loved finally yielded results with the release of songs like "Rockin' Chair," "Georgia on My Mind" and "Lazy River." Alongside artists such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the new medium of radio quickly thrust Hoagy Carmichael, the pianist from Indiana, into the spotlight.
In 1936, Hoagy made the move to Hollywood, where many composers were experiencing unprecedented success. Over the subsequent decade, picking out a tune on a piano earned him success that his mother could never have forseen when warning him against a musical career path many years earlier. During this period, Hoagy Carmichael worked alongside lyricists such as Mitchell Parish, Frank Loesser and Johnny Mercer.
By the late 1940's, the musician had achieved almost unparalleled success. Hoagy Carmichael was a household name with hits on the radio, record deals and appearances in movies such as "To Have and Have Not" and "The Best Year of Our Lives." In 1946, three of four songs on the Hit Parade were written by Hoagy Carmichael. In 1951, Hoagy won an Oscar along with Johnny Mercer for 'In the Cool, Cool, Cool of Evening." Hoagy was even host of his own TV show, "The Saturday Night Review."
The charm of Carmichael as an entertainer was in his ability to remain the kind of person that the public felt they could have a drink with or a share a joke over dinner. Hoagy Carmichael was an entertainer that the average person felt they could identify with easily. He was someone who shared the same hopes and dreams they did.
Beneath his easy going exterior, the musician retained an intensity of emotion which powered his music and desire to produce quality work. To see Carmichael late in his career at his piano performing songs like "Lazybones" and "Ole Buttermilk Sky" with his unique style and distinctive voice made it hard to imagine that he ever struggled to achieve success.
Carmichael's tale of himself as a young kid going crazy for jazz music and making the piano his life's work is the story of a triumph of the human spirit. Hoagy Carmichael's journey from humble musical beginnings wasn't always smooth, but his development as a musician and entertainer gave many popular and highly regarded songs to the public during his long and successful career.
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