The son of a silent film piano accompanist, Hoagy Carmichael learned to play the piano by ear. Putting himself through college by performing with groups like Carmichael’s Collegians, the young Hoosier left Indiana after his 1926 graduation from law school and went to Florida in search of a job, but his legal career was short-lived. While in Florida, Carmichael heard Red Nichols’ recording of his own song Washboard Blues and he quit the Florida practice, determined to earn a living as a songwriter.
There are as many stories about Carmichael’s creative endeavors as there are versions of “Stardust” and, predictably, one of the most repeated stories is how Carmichael came to write his famous tune. In the BBC program Sometimes I Wonder: The Hoagy Carmichael Story (www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/inside/hoagy_series.shtml) Carmichael recounted the song’s origins as follows: “Well, I got the idea just walking across the campus [of the University of Indiana] one night. I’d just left the college hangout called the Book Nook, and I was going over to my grandmother’s house to spend the night. And I started a-whistling and I whistled this opening strain of Stardust, and I knew that I had something very strange and different. And so I knew I was prone to forget things, tunes, and I ran back to the Book Nook, and got the Greek that owned it, Pete Costas, I got him to open up the front door so I could get back in and play the piano for a little bit, and see the melody, that opening strain, just see the notes on the piano so I could visualize them. Then I went home, and I had an old grand piano there in that house that I’d bought, that wouldn’t stay in tune, so I worked on the melody and finished the chorus in the next day or two.”
Music historians disagree about when Carmichael completed what ultimately became the first published version of “Stardust.” Despite the apocryphal nature of Carmichael’s story we do know that he and “his pals” recorded the first version of the song, still wordless, with Gennett Records on Halloween, 1927. Of that “Stardust” recording session, one of the band members, Maury Bennett remembers, “The first we’d heard of it was the evening before… it was a pretty ragged performance, mainly because there was no adequate preparation or rehearsal. Hoagy hadn’t yet written the number down on paper, and it wasn’t orchestrated. In fact, I don’t think he was too sure himself about how he wanted it played,” (ibid.).
The Library of Congress copyright office received a manuscript lead sheet for “Stardust” (not in Hoagy’s hand) on January 5, 1928, indicating that during the three months between the October recording, and January’s copyright date, Carmichael fleshed out a “final” version including a verse and chorus. Meanwhile, Carmichael was publishing other songs with the Mills Music Company and in 1929 he moved to New York City where he met Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and the man who would become his song-writing partner, Johnny Mercer, with whom he wrote many hits, including Lazy Bones. On January 29, 1929 Mills published “Stardust” as a wordless instrumental and five months later, in May 1929, they printed another version, this time including Mitchell Parish’s lyrics. The following May, Isham Jones recorded the song (without lyrics) using a slowed-down tempo that gave it a ballad-like quality. It was the Jones recording that first popularized “Stardust” and made it into “one of the most enduring of all pop standards, being recorded more than 1,100 times and reportedly translated into 30 languages,” (New Grove Dictionary of American Music). In fact, “Stardust” is probably America’s, if not the world’s, most recorded song: Hoagy Carmichael’s son reported that a Pennsylvania record collector had amassed over 1,800 different versions. “The Guinness Book of World Records gives the title of most-recorded song to Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Yesterday,’ with 1,600 versions, but the evidence favors ‘Star Dust,’” (“75 Years of ‘Star Dust,’” Arts Journal, Stryker). Subsequent recordings of “Stardust” were made by such diverse talents as Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Pat Boone, The Boswell Sisters, John Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Nelson, Dizzy Gillespie, Liberace, Artie Shaw, and Sarah Vaughan.
The first two letters of the title “Stardust” are written in a faltering graphite pencil but Carmichael has traced over them with blue pencil with which he also drew the staff and wrote his signature. The musical notation as well as three stars were added in red pencil. Jauntily written on a diagonal on paper with ragged top and bottom edges. In very good condition.