STAR DUST (1927)
music by Hoagy Carmichael
words by Mitchell Parish
Lucy is holding a saxophone. It turns out, as she informs friend Ethel Mertz, she's an amateur musician. Who knew? Lucy then blows into the mouthpiece and produces a few dyspeptic squawks. "It kind of sounds like 'Star Dust,' " says Ethel, diplomatically. "Yeah," Lucy responds, "everything I play sounds like 'Star Dust.' "
Somehow this least expected of testimonials to "Star Dust" resonates particularly loudly. By the mid-1950s, when I Love Lucy
was the most popular show in America (and therefore, one assumes, a credible barometer of national taste), "Star Dust" had already been around for twenty-five years and was long established as the most popular of popular songs. Ten years later, it was estimated that Hoagy Carmichael's classic had been recorded at least five hundred different times and its lyric translated into forty languages. (Although over the years, on record labels and in various other places, it has sometimes been spelled as a single word, the correct title is given as two words, "Star Dust.")
Long before Lucy
, "Star Dust" had also become archetypal Tin Pan Alley: its dreamy, somewhat meandering melody had inspired thousands of other tunes, its metaphor lyric had launched God knows how many other reveries of love and loss. Small wonder that everything Lucy played should remind her of the song. Yet long after its canonization, "Star Dust" remains a maverick: its construction, its history, and its unique place in the celestial firmament of essential American music stamp it as a song like no other.
The song's melody and lyric are both uncommonly introspective for a popular song. The tune, especially intricate, but without being fussy, is almost delicate in the way it unfolds, yet at the same time, it's masculine enough to withstand extremely tough treatment at the hands of such macho, hell-for-leather improvisers as Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge. Mitchell Parish's words are, if not as urbane as some by Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart, sensitive in a way that few pop songs are. Yet what makes all this sensitivity unique is the long association of "Star Dust" with male performers, especially boy singers and jazz musicians. Although a number of women have sung it, the major recordings are predominantly by men (with the unlikely exception of Ella Fitzgerald).
"Star Dust," it would seem, is a love song made for men to express the way they feel about women. That's how Ben Webster played it, as a solo feature with Duke Ellington's orchestra. Up until 1940, Webster had been known primarily as one of the hardest-hitting tenormen in jazz, famous for his rough-and-tumble up-tempo playing and his gritty blues technique. (Off the bandstand, as well, Webster had a reputation for settling disagreements with his fists, and did not restrict himself to exercising them only on members of his own sex.) It was at the Ellington orchestra's famous 1940 dance in Fargo, North Dakota (famous primarily for being an early example of a remote concert recording) that Webster's rhapsodically romantic treatment of "Star Dust" was first documented. The song became a staple of his repertoire for years after he had departed the Ellington ranks, and Webster would periodically prevail upon Jack Towers, the engineer who had recorded the Fargo concert, to cut him a few 45-rpm acetate pressings to hand out to friends.
According to legend, composer Carmichael (1899-1981) was thinking about a girl when the melody of "Star Dust" first hit him, around 1926. Until then, he had regarded the making of music, whether as performer or composer, strictly as a sideline. His piano playing had supported him through law school (Indiana University), but on graduating he gave up practicing the piano to practice law ("and be a real success") with a firm in Miami. It didn't last. By 1927, Carmichael was back in Indiana, and back to music.
If Hollywood had ever filmed Carmichael's life (Gary Cooper would have gotten the role, and Hoagy himself would have played his own fictitious sidekick, named "Cricket" or "Smoke" or something), the scene of "Star Dust"'s creation would have been shot against a painted backdrop of a nocturnal sky rich with starlight. Our hero, while paying a nostalgic visit to his alma mater, happens to pass the campus's lover's lane, or "spooning wall" as it was known, and begins thinking about all the girls he'd loved and lost in his college days. While pondering one old school romance in particular, the kernel of a melody just pops into his head. A frantic Carmichael dashes in search of a piano and locates one in the campus coffee house-a cozy little joint called the "Book Nook"-where, oblivious to all else, our hero works the melody out and gets it down on paper. Shortly afterward, he plays it for a friend and former classmate named Stu Gorrell, who remarks that it reminds him "of the dust from the stars drifting down through a summer night." From there comes the title "Star Dust." "I had no idea what the title meant," Carmichael later said, "but I thought it was gorgeous."
The legend, as is often the case, probably isn't true: according to Richard Sudhalter, currently in the process of finishing the first serious biography of Carmichael, Hoagy had been working on the tune at least since early 1926, possibly while still in Miami. Thus the whole story about the spooning wall and the Book Nook may have been a later invention, although the wall notion would later find its way into the lyric.
Carmichael introduced "Star Dust" on records in a session for Gennett Records, the number-one label for jazz and blues in the Midwest, on Halloween, 1927. He recruited a symphathetic band of friends who usually played under the leadership of pianist Emil Seidel, although in this case they were credited on the original label as "Hoagy Carmichael and His Pals." The verse is introduced by trumpeter Byron Smart, following which the main melody is laid out by one of the alto players (Gene Woods or Dick Kent). Then Carmichael plays a one-chorus piano solo (a true solo, as he is completely unaccompanied) that immediately sets up a brilliant set of variations on the song. The arrangement is in D natural (two sharps), which, as Sudhalter observes, must have been the key Carmichael felt best suited his piano solo. He certainly wasn't doing the horns any favors by throwing them into "sharp-infested waters."
The original 1927 tempo of "Star Dust" is considerably faster than we're accustomed to hearing, especially in the wake of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. This has misled many historians to describe "Star Dust" as having originally been a "stomp" or a "ragtime" number. Although the melody has the feel of a jazz improvisation, particularly one by Hoagy's hero Bix Beiderbecke, make no mistake: "Star Dust" was always essentially a reflective, contemplative tone poem. Indeed, back at the beginning, Carmichael even wrote a set of love lyrics to the tune. But love songs, like every other kind of music then, were also meant for dancing, and the idea of a band or a jazz-influenced pop singer doing a number in slow rubato (really slow out-of-tempo balladeering, as we know it today, was not heard in pop music until the coming of Sinatra, decades later) was all but unknown. Carmichael's 1927 disc of "Star Dust" moves along at a comparatively fast clip, yet it's slower than most other recordings by Carmichael's compadre Emil Seidel or by any other band of the era.
It has also been widely reported (by Alec Wilder, among others) that the verse was added only later, at about the time Mitchell Parish wrote his famous lyric. But the verse is there on the 1927 premiere recording by Hoagy and pals. Just listen: the disc opens with a guitar intro (the instrument was just beginning to be widely heard in the new age of electrical recordings; banjos had dominated in the acoustic era) before the trumpet takes the now famous verse, which can be heard on virtually all the early "jazz" versions of the tune. The apocryphal story of the verse being written later on was to work against Carmichael: for years a rumor persisted that the verse wasn't written by Carmichael at all but by Don Redman, a composer and arranger who worked for Carmichael's publisher, Irving Mills. As with the persistent gossip that Fats Waller actually wrote some of Jimmy McHugh's songs, there's nothing to back it up.
Although Redman didn't write the verse, that pioneering jazz orchestrator (also saxophonist, bandleader, and novelty vocalist) does play an important role in the career of "Star Dust." Redman, who had spent the earlier part of the twenties as musical director for Fletcher Henderson's band, was by then the leader of McKinney's Cotton Pickers. The McKinney's band, based in Detroit, seems to have been the first to record "Star Dust" after Carmichael, working under the pseudonym of "The Chocolate Dandies." (This was in October of 1928, nearly a year after Carmichael had recorded the entire song, verse included.) Carmichael brought his own chart to Detroit and met with Redman, who, according to Sudhalter, "filled it out and corrected the voicings," although he left it in Carmichael's key, D major.
Apart from the evidence of the verse existing on the original Gennett recording, there's the evidence of one's own ears. A single hearing of its melody, which is even more meandering and ruminative than the chorus's, should be enough to convince anyone that the verse is by the same hand that penned the central chorus melody. The chord changes in the verse are slightly more conventional than they are in the chorus, as we'll see, but the melody of the verse is either the work of the same mind-it uses the same kind of range and intervals-or the mind of a darn clever forger.
There's one particularly lovely record of "Star Dust" from 1987 by avant-garde jazzman Archie Shepp, most of whose career can be regarded as a rebellion against the traditional musical values that "Star Dust" had come to stand for. What we find here, however, is a romantic tenor treatment of the great love song in the best Ben Webster tradition, done as a duet with the remarkable expatriate pianist Horace Parlan. The oddest thing about this recording is that the CD booklet credits the song to "Carmichael-Redman," inserting Don Redman's name and omitting poor Mitchell Parish entirely.
Paradoxically, in its time, "Star Dust" was hardly a traditional song. Compared to most pop songs of the late twenties, "Star Dust" is conventional in certain aspects but in many others it's rather daringly different, for its day or any other. It consists of a thirty-two-bar chorus that can be broken down into four eight-bar sections, as well as a sixteen-bar verse, something that can be said of about ninety percent of the items in what we consider to be the Great American Songbook. The current edition of the published sheet music is in C. The melody moves primarily in thirds. Sometimes these are major thirds (as C to E) and sometimes minor thirds (as B to D). While this is uncommon, Sudhalter notes, there are are other songs of the period that do use these bigger intervals as organically as "Star Dust" does, among them "Coquette," "Make Believe," "I'll Get By," and "All of Me."
"Star Dust" also has an uncommonly wide range. And while other songs do this, too-"Night and Day" covers an octave and a fifth whereas "Star Dust" travels only an octave and a third-these other songs generally use their high and low notes as a means of heightening the drama. "Night and Day" saves its low G for a climactic moment, but "Star Dust" uses its widely polarized high-highs and low-lows as an integral aspect of its basic melody. At the start of the second bar we're on a low D ("spend") and exactly four beats later we're holding a high E for a whole measure, and a bar after that we're back down at low D. As I say, this is no special effect; it's simply the bread and butter of the "Star Dust" melody. The song never stops jumping high and then stooping low.
When we talk about the structure and the harmony of any given song, we're usually talking about two separate, if interrelated, issues. With "Star Dust," however, it's impossible to discuss one without the other. As we've noted, the song is thirty-two bars in length, but it's not laid out in typical A-A-B-A form. With most songs, it's immediately apparent where the eight-bar sections begin and end; with "Star Dust," the start of the B section is more ambiguous. The form is A-B-A-C, but even that isn't clearly spelled out, and each section is eight bars long.
In many songs-"I'm in the Mood for Love," for instance-we get a recurrence of the tonic chord at either the beginning or end, or both, of each eight-bar section. This doesn't happen on "Star Dust." The tonic normally helps serve notice that one section is ending and a new one is beginning, but in "Star Dust" the chords keep progressing right through the start of the new segment. And the lyric matches this movement: rather than stop a sentence and start a new one, lyricist Mitchell Parish pins an ongoing thought to this passage, which just continues uninterrupted. The B section melody begins at the start of bar nine, on the last three words of the line, "when our love was new." Those words fall on the V chord (the fifth, which in C major is G), and in fact this is the only time in the chorus when Carmichael gives us the same note (G) three times in a row. Instead of the tonic (C), we linger on the unresolved dominant and don't get to the tonic again for another two measures.
The song starts on the IV (F) chord in major, then shifts, in bar 3, to minor (Fm+7); we don't spend any time to speak of on the tonic until bar 5, where it arrives, appropriately, on the word "melody." Traveling through the circle of fifths, we pass through the iii (Em7), the VI (A7), the ii (Dm7), and hit the iv (Fm+7) again. The harmonies of the opening section are reminiscent of the 1918 "After You've Gone" and anticipate Gerald Marks's 1931 jazz classic "All of Me," among many other songs. The difference is that those other two songs employ some of the same chords in a more conventional fashion. In "Star Dust," the subdominant (Dm7) leads to the dominant (G) at the start of the B section, expressed in two bars of variations on the dominant chord (G7, Gdim7, G7 again, and then G7 with an augmented 5th to correspond with a D-sharp on the word "in-spir-a-tion"). The B section also dwells on the II chord ("But that was long ago . . ."), either a D9 or a D7.
The return to the A section is in itself striking. As noted, the transition from A to B is so subtle that we don't even notice we're changing sections. The shift back from B to A is more pronounced, and jarring in fact, because it brings us back to A before we've really registered it mentally that we've left A to begin with. This second A section, which begins with the words "Beside a garden wall," is identical to the first melodically and harmonically (only the lyric is different), the only time anything
Excerpted from Stardust Melodies by Will Friedwald. Copyright © 2002 by Will Friedwald. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.