They’re Still Playing That Song
by Bruce S. Hapanowicz and Arthur Bailey
The Song of the Century was not an overnight sensation. It started out as a piano piece, presented in later-day ragtime style by its composer, a jazz band groupie recently graduated from the University of Indiana law school. This young man had put his legal career on hold while he trailed after the jazzmen he idolized, and offered them songs like ‘Riverboat Shuffle,’ ‘Washboard Blues,’ and ‘Star Dust.’ This last was a little ditty that gave no hint it would later evolve into the most enduring of popular love ballads.
Three generations have enjoyed that “memory of love’s refrain…. ” so much so that one enthusiastic expert claimed that it appeared on a thousand commercial recordings in the U.S. alone. (1) This was a bit of an exaggeration, but our catalogue does reveal (it) had been recorded world wide by 1990. There is now a fourth generation waiting in the wings. Kids, get ready for a peek into a different world. You think you know some hit songs? — Well, this is what being a HIT is all about!
To start we might remark that the melody did not conform to any popular song conventions. Quoting Oscar Hammerstein II, it “rambles and roams like a truant schoolboy in a meadow…. it’s structure is loose, it’s pattern complex.” Another commentator cited its “alternation of broken chords in bright major modes, but half in minors.” Perfect you might say for a piano romp, and some singers kept the fast tempo when performing with a dance band. By 1929, however, it had been discovered that the song was more effective when slowed to the pace of a sentimental ballad. When a lyric was added that year, the package was on its way to immortality…. but let’s not get ahead of our story.
Hoagland Howard Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana on November 22, 1899. The home was full of music, particularly the new ragtime that was sweeping the country. His mother played piano for silent films and at the nearby college, and she once told Hoagy that his lullabies were mostly in ragtime. (4) He taught himself to play it, also, with only a few hints on technique from Mom and local performers.
In his mid-teens, the family moved to Indianapolis, where he struck up a friendship with a nightclub pianist named Duval. War came to America in 1917, but the slightly-built lad could not meet the military minimum weight requirement. He graduated from high school, worked in the cement trade, and built himself up just enough to be accepted into the army a few days before he celebrated his nineteenth birthday on the original Armistice Day. Quickly discharged, he decided to continue his education.
For most of the next six years Hoagy lived with his grandmother back in Bloomington, where he attended the State University. He played piano with school and semi-pro bands, and organized prom dates. One of his bookings introduced him to Bix Bederbecke, and initiated a friendship that was to endure to the very day of the great cornetist’s death in 1931 (Hoagy discovered the body). The Wolverines recorded a Carmichael tune in Richmond on 6 May, 1924. It has been reported that Bix himself suggested the title: ‘Riverboat Shuffle.’ Jazz activities no doubt competed with studies, but Hoagy managed to graduate in 1926, and for a short time joined a friend starting a law practice in the booming state of Florida.
Passing thru New York, Hoagy brought the manuscript of a queer thimble folk opera he called ‘Washboard Blues’ to the attention of publisher Irving Mills. This strange amalgamation of styles, tempos and racial traits so impressed the impresario that he offered the composer a job on the spot to write more of his pseudo-ethnic stuff for Mills Music. Not a big city boy, Hoagy declined, but hearing a Red Nichols recording of the song a few months later, he decided to return to Bloomington and see if he could support himself pursuing the musical career he really loved.
The composer has reported that the inspiration for ‘Star Dust’ came at a secluded spot on the campus of his Alma Mater. He had relaxed at the “spooning wall” (the story does not say he was actually spooning!), but when the melody came to him, he ran to the nearby Book Nook to try it on the piano and jot down a few phrases. Then he took it home and put in a lot more work devising its magnificent sixteen bar verse and thirty-two bar chorus. We know from the historic Emil Seidel recording that in October, 1927, the melody was just as we hear it today.
Hoagy himself played piano on that Gennett session, appearing as guest artist in the untidy Starr studio in Richmond, Indiana. Could he have meant to call it Starr Dust? This version is still available in LP reissue (Hindsight-33). The Seidel discography includes several other dates for Gennett, in one of which Carmichael played cornet. There is another trivia sidelight here in the possible interchange of personnel between the Midwest journeymen bands of Emil Seidel and Jack Crawford: Rust notes all Seidel’s Gennett‘s were reissued on Champion under Crawford’s name. Neither appears to have survived the twenties.
Earl Hines reminisced about after-hours visitors to the Sunset Cafe in Chicago’s stomping South Side. He mentioned Dorseys, Jess Stacy, Bix, “….I remember a fellow who came in with the guys…he was constantly playing his new composition and trying to make everybody listen to it….” That’s our hero! In later years Hines became a great admirer of Hoagy’s songs and remembered Herb Jeffries with that tune nobody really wanted to hear — of course it was ‘Star Dust.’
Any bandleader passing thru Hoagy country would be coaxed to add this lilting ragtime melody to their repertory. One of the first to respond was Don Redman, director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, and himself a pioneer in hot jazz orchestration. Redman liked ‘Star Dust’ well enough to record it in 1928 with a unit he called the Chocolate Dandies. There is a persistent rumor that Redman wrote the verse (7, 8), but there is no hard evidence. We can speculate that the two friends got together for a session of chord evaluation until they had shaped it just right to compliment the main strain. Hoagy would have pitched in the same way to polish one of Don’s compositions, and the warm affection between the two men would never have permitted either to exploit the other financially. Redman never claimed in public life that he had a hand in the song, but he must have mentioned it to associates who saw an opportunity to enhance his stature after his death.
We know for sure that the verse was complete before its first recording, and Hoagy had his penciled manuscript at the Library of Congress in January, 1928. (9) Musicians may be interested to know that his piano version was in the key of D Major. Publisher Irving Mills submitted a printed copy a year later, energetically pushed the tune, and was responsible for another 1928 version by hot studio musicians known variously as the Whoopee Makers, the Good-Timers, or the Detroiters.
One of the first arrangers to see the advantages of slowing the pace was Jimmy Dale of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. This was Paul Whiteman’s major competition in the heyday of the semi-symphonic but jazz-flavored big white band. Goldkette did not record the Carmichael tune before he disbanded in 1929, but a performance had favorably impressed Victor Young, at that time violinist and arranger for Isham Jones. The latter led another successful but generally less pretentious white band (which had recorded Hoagy’s jazz tune ‘Riverboat Shuffle’ back in 1925). Soon after receiving the music, Jones played ‘Star Dust’ in uncharacteristic concert style on a nationwide radio broadcast. His schmaltzy1930 recording was clearly intended for graceful dancing, but the tempo had not quite slowed down to the leisurely format familiar to us today.
By this time Carmichael had written other successful songs and had moved to New York to facilitate contracts with Irving Mills. In the Fall and Winter of 1929 the composer performed on piano (and celeste) with a Mills-organized studio group called the Hotsy Totsy Gang. Their version of our feature was issued as Brunswick 4587. Fletcher Henderson’s great career was in a slight slump when he took Hoagy’s tune into the studio in February 1931 (issued on Crown 3093 and other minor labels). Thus we see that the pre-lyric Star Dust was itself a viable commodity.
Mills thought words were needed, tried it himself without much luck, and finally asked another of his staff writers, Mitchell Parish, to see what he could come up with. A bit reluctant at first, Parish eventually crafted a superb lyric that linked verse and chorus in one unshakeable mood. The publisher and his collaborators did not realize at first that their collective efforts had created an art song in a superior class by itself. It was sung, perhaps tentatively, over the air, but two years would pass before they ventured to record the lyric. It was not until 1933 that Mills sent the published song to the Library of Congress to secure his copyright.
The new complete format was first performed publicly at the Cotton Club by (brother Sydney’s) Mills’ Blues Rhythm Band, directed by Edgar Hayes. The outfit alternated at the famous Harlem night spot with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, both also managed by Mills Music. The Blue Rhythm Band made the first vocal record in May 1931, featuring the popular white singer Chick Bullock. Bing Crosby lost no time getting into the act (Brunswick 6169, August 1931) and there were at least a score of different versions available over the counter in the deep depression year of 1932.
An early booster was the columnist Walter Winchell, who held it up as the standard to which every popular song had necessarily to be compared. Many years later Mitchell Parish was with Winchell at New York’s Copacabanna night club listening to Nat Cole crooning That Song to a band arrangement of his favorite line “…When our love was new, and each kiss an inspirartion…”
THE BANDS RECORD IT
Sweet Bands picked it up in a big way. Gus Amheim, Jimmy Grier, Eddie Duchin, and a host of others added it to their “book” and had to play it every night — if not every set. Duchin’s long engagement at the Central Park Casino and his affection for Star Dust were recalled in his filmed life story, which starred Tyrone Power. As it happened, the greatest jazzman (if not of all entertainers) had recently discovered the commercial possibilities of popular or so-called Tin Pan Alley music. Louis Armstrong’s three historic takes of 4 November, 1931, revealed this great song’s emotional power. For years these were the definitive “hot” performances, but in later decades the complex melody with the poignant changes has become a favorite of improvisers throughout the world.
The mid-thirties were bleak for millions of households, but American Popular Song enjoyed one boom year after another. Riding the top of the crest was Star Dust. It received the unparalleled distinction of being issued on BOTH sides of a 78 RPM single, played by VICTOR’s two most illustrious properties: Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. B.G. provided an instrumental version and T.D. offered his usual trombone work and a vocal by Edythe Wright. Neither performance strikes us as particularly distinguished today, but VICTOR listed this disk as its best seller in both 1936 and 1938. So many Goodman air checks were released later for the nostalgia market that we find this artist (and usually the original Fletcher Henderson arrangement) appearing on our list over twenty times. This does not include the 1960 RCA album that assembled fourteen (count ’em) versions of our song.
Glenn Miller was another devoted admirer. When he initiated his famous medley feature “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue” in December 1939, his lead-off song was Star Dust. In 1943 his first V-Disc had this title. It might also be mentioned that Glenn picked Mitchell Parish to write words for Moonlight Serenade.
In 1940 VICTOR had ideas of a follow-up coupling. They had the magnificent Artie Shaw / Billy Butterfield / Jack Jenney tour de force in the files and a sparkling vocal package by Tommy Dorsey’s new stars Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers. It certainly would have made a memorable pairing, but Tommy begged off. That lush Lennie Hayton arrangement with strings and all-time great solos was just too much competition. Tommy’s recording was successful enough, but nobody came close to matching Shaw’s sheer rapture of sound.
It is a matter of record that the original Artie Shaw Star Dust appeared year after year in the annual juke box polls, capturing more nickels, dimes, and quarters than any other disk, besides selling two million copies over the counter. Mitchell Parish once called it his personal favorite. Indeed we must consider this recording, and its many re-issues into every commercial format, as the definitive version.
A BIT OF ANALYSIS
What makes Star Dust so durable? The lyrics are a balanced mixture of imagination, sentimentality, and corn, with that bland detachment from real life that was in vogue at the time. One can truly say, however, that Parish brought out the best in that powerful and complex melody. Guy Lombardo preferred cheerfully upbeat tempos, and admitted that he had trouble finding the right setting for this vocal refrain, “…The problem is that there are so many words jammed into each musical measure. We had to take some liberties….” Lombardo’s bouncy rendition with Kenny Garner featured, found very little favor outside his own circle of fans.
You must realize by now that our feature is difficult to sing well, and not just by amateurs. It’s considered a real challenge in the music trade. It has long melodic phrases, with main refrain repeated only once — not your typical “vocal” line. However, it boasts a unique and characteristic singleness of purpose that gives plenty of scope to jazz improvisors, and we shall find that many of the of the later recordings are hot improvisations after the famous Coleman Hawkins Body and Soul blueprint. It is certainly not unreasonable that only a complex and “different” song could continue to interest both artists and public over such a long span of years.
The late Bud Freeman recalled that Hoagy tried to get one of his pick-up studio groups of 1930 (possibly the Bix-BG-Venuti session that produced Barnacle Bill) to play Star Dust, but the guys couldn’t find a comfortable groove and it was thrown out. In later years Freeman came to respect Carmichael as a prototype jazz composer, and pointed out that the descending tag line “dreaming of a song…” is just what a jazzman would play between phrases to prepare a chord change. Hoagy’s best tunes sound a little like jazz improvisations — in fact, Bud Freeman could hear a Beiderbecke influence in his style.
It may be a jazz item to Bud Freeman — and to many European instrumentalists who have recorded it since 1950 — but it is a fact that this song can shine in almost any interpretation. Our list includes big swing bands and choral chamber groups, strings, choirs, Dixieland, bop, boogie, samba, mambo, cha-cha, what have you. It is the only song that is standard fare in every conceivable form of jazz and popular music.
Here is a bit of Radio Trivia. You’ve heard of the famous War of the Worlds broadcast on Halloween night in 1938? You may recall it was presented by Orson Welles as a series of news flashes interrupting regular programming. There were actually several fairly entertaining interludes of hotel band music, among which we heard “Ramon Raquello’s Orchestra” perform a Latin-tinged version of Star Dust. It may be noted that Mitch Miller was in that studio combo. The script of that broadcast has been published and a recording of the show is available on MURRAY HILL 44217.
During World War II the song followed GI’s around the world. In the Philippines, a native combo cheered the crew of an LST with a proud performance. In Burma our troops heard Tokyo Rose play it at midnight. A Japanese journalist later reported that he huddled with friends in a closet during a B-29 raid, listening to Star Dust on a portable phonograph.
This is one melody that is never “revived” — it is always current. High School graduating classes often pick a Favorite Song and Star Dust still gets its share of yearbook votes. Various versions have been making the best seller charts since 1930 (at least in each of its first five decades, see below). The head of BBC radio in the 1970’s declared it was one of the most-played songs of his era, just a half century after Hoagy had that bit of inspiration on the Indiana campus.
Not only the English-speaking world either. In Italy it is called Poivere di Stella, said TIME in 1955, and “…ranks with O Sole Mio as an all time favorite. In Japan it is called Suta Adasuto, and is one number the record stores are not afraid to reorder….” The French love it as Etoile d’Amour, the Spanish as Povo de Estrelles, and popular translations are enjoyed in Sweden, Finland, Germany and Austria, and at least thirty other languages.
In 1955, George Marek, then music director of Good Housekeeping, pointed out that canned-music entrepreneurs were finding it good business to keep one version of Star Dust in every juke box at all times. Only the biggest transient hits earned more plays in any given interval. Marek also counted forty-six published arrangements of the tune. Sheet music was readily available for piano, two pianos, organ, xylophone, Hawaiian guitar, mandolin, brass band, string sextet, woodwind sextet, “choral group with symphonic setting”, and just about everything from accordion to zither. The reader can find a bewildering array of formats in 1959 alone.
The first live radio broadcast was from the Cotton Club. The fact that Irving Mills published the song AND managed Duke Ellington can hardly be considered a coincidence. The first appearance on the silver screen was probably in “Swing, Hutton, Swing,” a 1927 short featuring Ina Ray Hutton and her “Melo-Dears.” In 1940 a full-length movie entitled Star Dust starred Linda Darnell and John Payne. The tune was sung by Mary Healy.
Honors started coming as early as 1937 when Variety picked the best Tin Pan Alley songs of the decade. By 1950 — when it was rated no higher than tenth among the most-recorded titles — readers of Metronome had already voted it their favorite of all time. Forty years later the National Enquirer found Star Dust was still on top: picked by one out of every five responders to an “enquiry” by the notorious scandal sheet.
1953: Disk Jockeys polled by Billboard magazine named Star Dust their all-time favorite song.
1956: Another Disk Jockey poll by Billboard — this time they were requested to list favorite recordings. Among the thirty top vote-getters were THREE versions of our song: (1) Artie Shaw, (4)Glenn Miller, and (22) Tommy Dorsey.
1957: A rhythm and blues version by Billy Ward and the Dominoes hung on the best seller charts for sixteen weeks.
1963: Mills Music filed IRS documents that indicated gross royalties for this one song had averaged $50,000 in each of the previous five years. These were in a sense the peak years (more below).
1964: April Stevens, backed by Nino Tempo, saw her pop vocal reach the best seller list for six weeks in both England and the U.S.
1978: Willie Nelson’s Star Dust album was a best seller for twelve weeks, going “Gold” in July. It was still on country charts in early 1981 after 137 weeks. Willie recalled the enthusiastic audience response at a concert in the Austin (Texas) Opera House: “There was a kind of stunned silence in the crowd for a moment, and then they exploded with cheering and whistling and applauding. The kids thought Star Dust was a new song that I’d just written…”
1980: Studs Terkel introduced Mitchell Parish at a session of the Kool (formerly Newport) Jazz Festival in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. There was hardly a dry eye in the audience as the old timer sang his immortal lyric “one more time” with the hushed accompaniment of sax legends Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller.
Perhaps the impact of this song is best summarized by a pathetic little incident that occurred in Indiana in 1933, when a twenty year old girl, mortally wounded in a shooting, asked to have Star Dust played at her funeral. She was no doubt one of the millions that had danced and dreamed to its tumbling, translucent strains. How many Prom Nights, parties, and first dates does this American Classic recall? Comfortable as an old shoe, but rare as a golden slipper (a little like Hoagy Carmichael himself), Star Dust is a song for lovers, for all time.
It is interesting to note that the song title, usually compacted to one word, has a celebrity life of its own. It has been appropriated by innumerable bars, diners, and night clubs. Record labels, bands, and vocal groups over the years have embraced its magic, and we have seen it applied to non-musical items as well: jewelry, luggage, airline flights, a gift shop, the masthead of a newsletter. A recent private eye novel by one Robert T. Parker (Spenser, 1990) has the STARDUST title, and there are at least four Hollywood movies that have used it, the latest by Woody Allen. We can reflect that very little of this would have happened if titles were subject to copyright protection.
There has been at least one Star Dust recording to represent every year from 1927 to the present. The song leaped to prominence in 1931 when the lyrics appeared on record and soon became a staple commodity in the English-speaking world. It maintained popularity throughout the big band craze (fifty releases from 1938 to 1941), although it could be argued that there has never been a definitive vocal version. A challenge to all styles and formats, That Song soon became a necessity to every artist, and no recording company could overlook this sure-fire title. They have been processing new versions regularly ever since, some ten to twenty a year, with one phenomenal burst that peaked in 1958-59. Just when one might have expected the fever to be dying out, our list shows this unbelievable bulge:
1956 ————– 19
1957 ————– 31
1958 ————– 50
1959 ————– 48
1960 ————– 33
1961 ————– 32
1962 ————– 22
The surge carried through the entire industry. RCA Victor put out their famous “Stardust Road” collection in 1969 with fourteen versions, mostly from their files (only three were originals). It was the era of the “Easy Listening” 33-rpm disk and That Song was in its magnificent prime.
The number of new Star Dusts on wax may be slowly declining — only 100 in the eighties! — but interest in this phenomenally popular song is as strong as ever. A commuter radio station on Long Island and another in Pennsylvania each played a different version every morning for over two years, no doubt supplied by collectors.. There were 142 currently available recordings listed in the June 1990 Phonolog. Just as a passing thought, do you suppose any of today’s hits will ever be recorded by fourteen (let alone 142) different groups or artists?
Here’s a chilling note. In the sixties, Mills Music became a subsidiary of MCA. More recently, MCA joined an oversea conglomerate. It would appear that our song now belongs to Japan!
Let us salute once more the unusually talented men that brought Star Dust to the world, each a giant in the field of popular music: first that Jazz Legend (and probable contributor to the verse) Don Redman; then bandleader Isham Jones and his arranger Victor Young; Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics and a thousand more, many of them touching and memorable — there was a Broadway revue in 1987 exclusively devoted to his work — and he published a book of poetry “For Those In Love”; Irving Mills impressario, publisher, talent scout, who really brought the whole thing together; and most of all that underemployed attorney called by Alec Wilder the most “inventive, sophisticated and jazz oriented of all the great craftsmen.”
AN ADDITIONAL NOTE: the following excerpt from “Bix, Man and Legend” by Richard M. Sudhalter & Philip R. Evans (p. 82-83):provides further insight into how “Stardust” was composed:
“But this November night in 1922, a slightly tipsy Bix was indeed sitting by the bandstand as his idol counted off “Tiger Rag.” Contrary to LaRocca’s assertion that he was quick to welcome Bix and respond to his playing, Hostetter said it took an exhaustive sales pitch to even arouse the older man’s curiosity. Finally, late in the evening, he agreed to hear what the kid could do. Motioning Bix to the stand, he called the band’s new medley of “Margie” and pianist J. Russell Robinson’s composition “Singin’ the Blues.”
“While I played the melody of “Singin the Blues” said LaRocca, “he used this countermelody which had parts in that Mr. Hoagy Carmichael later incorporated into his song, “Stardust“. Now when I say this countermelody was similar I mean this man derived his idea or drew on Bix ideas as I had heard this boy playing similar. Please, do not construe that I try to take this credit away from Mr. Carmichael, as he is the composer, but there are many other people, who get ideas from others.”
In later years, Hoagy acknowledged Bix as chief inspiration for “Stardust“, especially the verse, which when played at about the same tempo as Beiderbecke’s 1927 recording of “Singin’ the Blues“, takes on the melodic shape of a characteristic Bix solo. Also, “Singin’ the Blues” and the refrain of “Stardust” begin in the same chordal position; this coupled with Bix’s affinity for both songs, makes more than likely a countermelody to “Singin’ the Blues” incorporating elements of either Hoagy’s verse or chorus – or both.