Hoagy Carmichael's stardust memories

The late Hoagy Carmichael had the face to make a cigar-store Indian look cheerful by comparison. The high cheekbones were permanently in mourning. A hank of hair was inclined to slant at half-mast across his forehead. The eyes seemed to be borrowed from a particularly melancholy bloodhound.

His costume was of a supporting sobriety, involving stovepipe hats, elastic bands on the shirtsleeves, and, of course, an upright piano.

The Carmichael baritone matched everything else. The singers of his formative years -- the 1920s -- tended to sound sweet and airy, as if they were blowing soap bubbles and swallowing marshmallows at the same time. The lyrics had a lot to do with it. But Hoagy could sing moon-June with the worst of them, and every note would come out solid and angular, as if whittled from hickory.

There are two kinds of male singers in American popular music: city boys and country boys. If Frank Sinatra, out of New Jersey, evokes with his voice theater marquees, taxi cabs, and late-night streets, Hoagy Carmichael, out of Bloomington, Ind., evoked friendly scarecrows in cornfields at high noon. He scored to music the hum of ''One Morning in May,'' the flight of a ''Skylark,'' and a slow paddle ''Up the Lazy River'' -- the very titles gave him away.

Then there was the garden wall where roses bloom and the nightingale tells its fairy tale. How many singers -- mostly with sweet and airy voices -- have warbled, ''Sometimes I wonderm why . . .''? How many trumpets in colored spotlights have puckered those soaring notes into shameless schmaltz?

A thousand different recordings have been made of ''Stardust,'' give or take an extra chorus or two. Only ''St. Louis Blues'' has come close, according to the Guinness Book of Records.

Hoagy Carmichael, a versatile fellow who started out as a lawyer and ended up as a pretty fair movie actor, was long ago destined -- or doomed -- to be remembered for this one thing. ''Stardust'' tagged him for life, the way those few hours above the Atlantic tagged Charles Lindbergh.

The song swallowed up its composer.

The composer didn't seem to mind, though his own style was better suited to delivering ''Rockin' Chair'' or ''Lazy Bones'' or even ''Hong Kong Blues,'' a piece of drollery that he served up as deadpan as a musical Buster Keaton.

Hoagy Carmichael was an entertainer of the old school, about as obsolete today as a good butler. Nowadays entertainers put on airs. Rock singers and the juvenile leads in soap operas talk about their Art. The shabbiest soft-core pornographer borrows arguments from D. H. Lawrence.

Old-school entertainers did not know enough to be pretentious. Dealing in plots with happy endings, songs with pretty melodies, and clowns in search of banana peels, the old entertainers would do anything to squeeze a tear or tickle a laugh. That was the compact, from Tin Pan Alley to Hollywood, with every vaudeville stop in between.

Confronted by the dwindling remnant of old-school entertainers, we should beware of becoming as sentimental as they could be. Old Hollywood was mostly safe formulas. Tin Pan Alley was paved with trite rhymes and tinkling banalities. Paper moons got scribbled about by people with paper heads and paper hearts. These were no Meistersingers.m

But can anybody be that stern about standards? At least, anybody for whom ''Stardust'' was part of the penny-candy poetry of childhood. Just as Hoagy Carmichael was bound to ''Stardust,'' adults of a certain generation are still bound to make-believe ballrooms of radio, the Saturday afternoon serials at neighborhood movie theaters -- all the sights and sounds of old-school entertainment. Without these stardust memories, would we, on some days, have had poetry in our childhood at all?

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