Sunday, 12 June 2011

Hoagy Carmichael, the white songwriter who made pop black - and cool

Not being gay or over 70, I’ve never been much interested in pop music before 1955. Roots music – blues, R&B, country and folk – sure. But “crooners” have never been my thing. I can take some of the Big Band stuff – Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Bennie Goodman – in small doses.

But most pop songs from the 1930s and 1940s leave me cold. The exceptions are those whose roots are in Jewish or black music. Cole Porter (a WASP) once told Noel Coward and Richard Rodgers that, after a series of flop Broadway musicals, he finally realised how to produce hits songs – “I’ll write Jewish tunes!” Cue plangent minor key melodies such as ”Night and Day” and “Love for Sale”. Of course, it seemed to come naturally to Jewish songwriters – just listen to “42nd Street”, “(Remember) My Forgotten Man” or “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Hoagy Carmichael, my favourite pre-1950s songwriter, took a different tack and went the Black route. His songs feature lots of arresting flattened “blue” notes. Given that Rock ‘n’ Roll and R&B were full of them, it’s little wonder if he makes more sense to later generations of listeners than many of his more “white bread” musical contemporaries. 

Just listen to Carmichael performing his own 1939 song, “Hong Kong Blues” (see above), in the 1944 Bogart and Bacall vehicle, To Have and Have Not (the line “sweet opium won’t let me fly away” has been changed to “sweet loco-man...”: due to the Hayes Code, one presumes). This tale of a “very unfortunate coloured man” sounds like a novelty record – but it’s brilliant: no wonder contemporary performers still regularly cover it. It’s laconic and ironic and “cool” in a way little else mainstream music was back then. (Carmichael wrote the terrific lyrics, which makes one wonder why he bothered teaming up with lyricists quite so often.)

Carmichael’s performance also sets him apart. He has an untrained, natural, intimate voice. Most male singers of the 1930s and 1940s – especially those with conventionally “good” voices – don’t tend to connect with us today: they sound artificial, unfeeling, formal. That’s probably because (especially in the Big Band era) their aim was to sound as smooth and melodic as possible, to become just another well-played orchestral instrument. Carmichael’s voice is quiet, not that strong, and very much to the front in the musical mix. (Interestingly, the only other male voice of that period which really works for me is Fred Astaire’s – again, rather weak, but natural and intimate.)

About 30 years ago, I bought an album of Hoagland (his real first name, by the way) performing his own songs, just to get hold of “Hong Kong Blues”. I assumed it was the only track I’d like.  But I ended up practically wearing out the whole album. I was astonished by how many great numbers he’d been responsible for – many of which I’d never heard. Of course there was the most recorded song in history, “Stardust”, along with the lovely “Georgia on My Mind” (which I knew best from the Ray Charles version) and “Lazy River” (of which Bobby Darin did an excellent cover).

But it was the stuff I hadn’t previously come across that astonished me, especially the blues-inflected tracks – “Memphis in June”, “Baltimore Oriole”, “Rockin’ Chair” (which contained the line, “fetch me that gin son, ‘fore I tan your hide”, which one might not have expected to find in a pop song at that time), “Lazybones” (the South, in Carmichael’s imagination, was evidently a place for not really doing very much of anything), plus his first two professionally-released compositions – “The Riverboat Shuffle”, and the beguilingly bluesy “Washboard Blues”.

But it’s “Hong Kong Blues” that’s up there in my all-time Top 20. Nobody’s ever done it as well as its composer, but many have tried, including Jerry Lee LewisJunior Brown and George Harrison. (The weirdest one I’ve ever heard is this instrumental version, from 1959, by Martin Denny, an American painist and composer who was known as the “father of exotica”.)

Carmichael, famously, was the actor Ian Fleming had in mind for James Bond. His scrawniness makes the idea appear eccentric to us now – he looks like he might need help getting a door open - but back in the early 1950s, when pudgy-faced Van Johnson was supposed to be a heartthrob, and little Alan Ladd was effortlessly duffing up Big Jack Palance on screen, I suppose anything seemed possible: and Carmichael did appear in at least a dozen pictures. I assume it was the easygoing, relaxed voice, full of charm and knowing intelligence that attracted Fleming’s attention - or it could just have been the Bond-like commas of black hair over the brilliant composer’s forehead. 

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