Indiana at 200 (92): Hoagy and Cole Topped the Charts
by Andrea Neal
Two of the 20th century’s most popular song writers hailed from Indiana, both so distinctive that the mention of their names brings to mind such familiar melodies as “Night and Day,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Stardust.”
Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael grew up on different sides of the track but followed similar paths to celebrity.
Porter, born in Peru in 1891, had a privileged childhood as the grandson of one of Indiana’s richest businessmen. With his family’s encouragement, he studied violin and piano before he turned 8. By age 10, he had composed “The Bobolink Waltz,” which his mother liked so much she paid to get it published.
Porter received an elite education, attending Yale for his undergraduate years where he wrote musical comedies and sang solos for the Glee Club. At his grandfather’s insistence, he enrolled in Harvard’s law school, but the dean suggested he transfer to the music program. By 1930, Porter was living in New York City writing hit songs and scores for Broadway’s most popular shows, such as “Anything Goes” and “Jubilee.”
In 1937, Porter was seriously injured in a horse-riding accident that led to 30 operations and the eventual loss of his right leg. Although his physical disability ended his social life, it did not affect his genius. In 1948 he collaborated with writers Bella and Sam Spewack to create his Broadway masterpiece, “Kiss Me Kate.”
“Stardust” was the masterpiece that defined Carmichael, who, like Porter, showed musical talent at an early age. Born in Bloomington in 1899, Carmichael vowed to have a more comfortable life than his parents. His father was an electrician who struggled to make ends meet. His mother supplemented their income by playing the piano at fraternity dances at Indiana University and at silent movies. Hoagy learned to play the piano at her knee.
Carmichael attended I.U. for undergraduate and law school and along the way organized a jazz band and wrote tunes. After graduating, he moved to Florida to fulfill his ambition of a law career, inking “Stardust” on the front pages of a book while waiting for business. When Carmichael unexpectedly heard a recording of one of his earlier pieces, “Washboard Blues,” by Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, he decided to give up law for music.
Carmichael moved to New York City, where he met such greats as Louis Armstrong, the Dorsey Bothers and a would-be songwriter by the name of Johnny Mercer. Carmichael and Mercer enjoyed a fruitful partnership; one of their earliest collaborations was “Lazy Bones,” which became a sensation in 1933 at the height of the Depression.
Although Carmichael had 50 hit songs, nothing compared to “Stardust” in popularity or royalties. Carmichael wrote the song for instruments only; it rose to the top of the charts after lyrics were added by Mitchell Parish and is believed to be the most recorded song of all time.
Porter died in 1964 and was extolled in his Associated Press obituary for “such an individuality of style that a genre known as ‘the Cole Porter song’ became recognized.” Carmichael died in 1981, remembered by biographer John E. Hasse for his “strong and distinctive melodies” and a singing voice “as unmistakable as his nickname Hoagy.”
The Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis has a room dedicated to Porter’s legacy that is a must-visit for Cole Porter fans. An interpreter sings biggest hits in the 1940s-style cabaret with digital piano, photographs and videos about Porter’s life. The center’s restaurant, in tribute to Carmichael, is called the Stardust Terrace Café.
Directions: The Indiana Historical Society is at 450 West Ohio Street, Indianapolis.