Programming note: Mark will be back right here in a couple of hours for Part Two of our latest Tale for Our Time: Psmith, Journalist by P G Wodehouse.
There was a song Ray Charles used to hum in the back of his car on the way to the gig. A few hours later, on the way back from the gig, he'd hum it all over again. The paying customers in between never got to hear the tune, only Ray's chauffeur.
"Cat said, 'You hum it so much, why don't you record it?' recalled Charles. "I said, "cause I don't even know the words."'
The driver pointed out he could learn them. So he did:
Georgia is on everybody's mind for the next month and a half, but that's not why we're featuring it tonight. Sixty years ago - November 1960 - it hit Number One on the Billboard Hot One Hundred, and an old sweet song on Ray Charles' mind was in everybody's ears:
The whole day through
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia On My Mind...
It never left him. In 2004, when Ray Charles died a long way from Georgia in Beverly Hills, this was the song Willie Nelson sang at his funeral:
A song of you...
It's a song of him, but not by him - just "an old sweet song" that had been around a long time before Charles started humming it to his driver. He didn't just record it; he swallowed it up. And in the many recordings in the six decades since he hit Number One somehow Ray Charles is always present, part of the song now and forever.
It wasn't that way originally. "Georgia On My Mind" is such an old sweet song that it predates Charles. It was first recorded on September 15th 1930, eight days before young Ray Charles Robinson was born, on September 23rd, in Albany, Georgia, as it happens. The guys who came up with the song had never set foot in the state. They had Georgia on their mind and nowhere else. Ray Charles had Georgia all around. His father had already split, leaving his mother in absolute grinding poverty. "Even the blacks looked down on us," as Charles once told me. Eventually they moved to Florida, where his mother, barely thirty, died in her sleep one night, and left her fourteen-yea- old son sans mother, father, brother - and blind. He could see until he was seven. And he had two strong visual memories of the world before darkness descended: one was of the neighbor who ran the local store teaching him the piano keys; the other was of playing with his younger brother in the yard and watching him drown in the wash tub. Instead of immediately running and getting his mom, Ray tried to pull his brother out, and, by the time he realized that, with all the waterlogged clothes, his kid brother was too heavy, and he'd have to go get help, it was too late.
Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you...
The road to "Georgia" runs through Queens, New York by way of Indiana. The great saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer got it started. He's not a Georgia man, either, but a son of Carbondale, Illinois. Yet one day - in New York City - he said to his friend Hoagy Carmichael, "Why don't you write a song called 'Georgia'? Nobody lost much writing about the South."
Trumbauer wasn't done with advice. "It ought to go 'Georgia, Georgia...'"
"That's a big help," said Hoagy, drily.
We've featured Carmichael in this space before, with "Ole Buttermilk Sky", "The Nearness Of You", and "Heart And Soul" (SotW #171), which Miss Jessica Martin and I did a spectacularly ambitious version of a couple of years back. But Hoagy wasn't Hoagy in 1930 - not yet the cool guy at the piano with Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not, the fellow Ian Fleming describes James Bond as looking like in Casino Royale. Born in Bloomington, Indiana, he'd gone to the university right there in town, graduated in law, and joined a local firm. But along the way he'd befriended another midwesterner, a cornet player called Bix Beiderbecke, and Bix had introduced him to a trumpeter called Louis Armstrong, and before you know it Hoagy had the jazz bug and quit the law firm to come to New York to make it as a songwriter. It was slow going: He'd written "Stardust", but he hadn't yet made any money out of it. So even in the big city he was still hanging out with his Indiana buddies, like his old college roommate Stu Gorrell.
Like Carmichael, Gorrell had come from Indiana to make it in New York - not in the music business, but in banking. He wasn't a banker in the sense that Hoagy was a lawyer: that's to say, a frustrated songwriter. He wasn't a banker in the sense of Kay Swift's husband, James Paul Warburg (yes, the banking Warburgs) who wrote lyrics for her tunes to "Fine And Dandy" and "Can't We Be Friends?" Stu Gorrell liked banking.
But he was around. And he was there one night at a party at Harry Shackelford's house in Jackson Heights when they'd laid in a lot of Scotch and Hoagy, having decided to take up Frankie Trumbauer's advice, began to bash away at the piano on the tune for "Georgia, Georgia..." Like Trumbauer, Gorrell was helpful: He proposed the title "Georgia On My Mind". And so two fellows from Indiana who'd never set foot in Georgia worked out the song:
The whole day through
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia On My Mind...
It's a song about a song, much like the earlier "Stardust" (1927), which is about a melodee that haunts my reveree. But, unlike the intricately twisting melody of "Stardust", "Georgia" is a simpler, more primal lament. What they share in common is Stuart Gorrell. The banker didn't write the lyric for "Stardust" (that fell to Mitchell Parish a couple of years later), but he did come up with the title. Hoagy played the tune to his pal, and told him to come up with a name for it to atone for enticing Carmichael into bad habits like smoking before breakfast. Stu said, "Call it 'Star Dust'", because it evoked "the dust from the stars drifting down through a summer night", and he made a little gesture with his hands of dust twinkling through the sky: Star dust. Carmichael had never heard of the word, or words. "I had no idea what the title meant," he said, "but I thought it was gorgeous." The concept wasn't exactly familiar: In fact, Webster's Dictionary dates the word to the song - 1927.
I mention this because Stuart Gorrell came up with two song titles - "Star Dust" and "Georgia On My Mind" - and a certain percentage of the lyric of the latter: Carmichael was a lyricist in his own right ("Lazy River"), and enjoyed chipping in even when working with full-timers like Frank Loesser or Johnny Mercer. But Gorrell wrote enough of it to get the credit for it. It's not as polished as the work of Hoagy and Stu's fellow Indianan, Cole Porter. But then Porter wrote with a Park Avenue sophistication, even when he was in Peru, Indiana. He would never have written the impure rhyme that Gorrell and/or Carmichael did:
Georgia On My Mind...
Moonlight through the pines...
Nonetheless, it's a fine song - and, aside from the title of "Stardust", the only song Stu Gorrell ever wrote. He went on to become vice-president of Chase Bank, and may be, in the words of Ted Gioa in his book The Jazz Standards, "the most remarkable dabbler in pop song history". One day, he says, "Call it 'Star Dust'." A couple of years go by, and he says, "Call it 'Georgia On My Mind'." And they become two of the biggest hits of the century. Yet he never shoots for a third.
He did, though, dedicate the song to Hoagy Carmichael's sister, who happened to be called Georgia and was going through a bad divorce. Was she the Georgia on his mind? Stu's mother liked the song, but, after looking over the sheet music, she asked her son: "What is Georgia? A girl? Or a state?" He never answered, he left it ambiguous even to his dear old mom. Ever since 1979, it has been the official state song of Georgia. But, beyond the state, its genius is its ambiguity: Is he pining for a place? Or a woman?
For Carmichael, it marked an early example of what would become a big part of his songwriting - "the idea of home," as he called it. Hoagy is short for Hoagland, and I like to think of Hoagland as a place somewhere far from Tin Pan Alley up a lazy river by the old mill run, way out in 'possum and 'coon country, under an ole buttermilk sky, with sweet oleander/Blowing perfume in the air... Home in Hoagy's work is what his biographer Richard M Sudhalter calls "a place where wandering ceases and the heart comes to rest. It need not be any specific place." Indeed:
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines...
Hoagy loved Indiana, and eventually wrote "Can't Get Indiana Off My Mind", which is a lovely wandering melody. Unlike the nominal Hoosier Cole Porter, with all those insistent rhythmic repeated notes ("Just One Of Those Things", "Night And Day"), Hoagy liked tunes that meander like a lazy river toward the horizon. "Georgia" doesn't quite have that same rural character - there's a bluesy yearning in it - but, for a southern song written in New York City, it's a long way from "Swanee" or "D-I-X-I-E" or "When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam'". Carmichael put the way he felt about the Hoosier State into a song about the Peach State.
For that first recording of "Georgia", on September 15th 1930, Carmichael's friendship with Bix Beiderbecke came in useful. The session is credited to "Hoagy Carmichael and his Orchestra", and it was a collection of all-stars: Bix on cornet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet, Bud Freeman on tenor sax, Pee Wee Russell on alto, Joe Venuiti on violin, Eddie Lang on guitar...
It was the last recording session of Beiderbecke's life: he was dead a few months later. The record wasn't a big seller. But twelve months later, on the day after baby Ray Charles' first birthday, Frankie Trumbauer recorded it, and the guy who'd advised Hoagy that "it ought to go, 'Georgia, Georgia'" wound up having the first hit with it. There were a lot of records in those first couple of years - Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, a lovely warm, tender vocal by Mildred Bailey ...with another just as lovely a decade later. And Mildred liked to sing the verse:
The Swing Era gave it a second wind: Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, a Billboard hit in 1941 for Gene Krupa with Anita O'Day.
But Ray Charles changed the song. All that soul and all that ache – "The road leads back to yooooooo..." at the end of the bridge, and then that falsetto back into the final eight:
No peace I find...
The emotional wallop had always been in there, lurking. In the sixth bar of the middle eight there's an upward movement that's always arresting: you can't really glide croonily over it. But Charles made it explicit. He also made a small musical change along the way. In Carmichael's original, the E7 at "old sweet song" gave what could be a rather mundane lyric sentiment a strange intensity. Charles ditched it in favor of something more ordinary, I think - and yet what do I know? The overall power of Charles' interpretation is undeniable. He took a minor standard to another level, and in the course of doing so became the song.
The singers that followed - Michael Bolton, Coldplay - aren't doing their version of an old standard; they're doing their version of Ray Charles' version. He's part of it, as much as Frankie Trumbauer's opening, and Stu Gorrell's title, and Hoagy Carmichael's middle eight. It's because of Charles that the Georgia legislature decided to make a number by two Hoosiers about some guy's sister their official state song. It's because of Charles that, in Rolling Stone's 2005 list of the greatest songs of all time, "Georgia On My Mind" placed at Number 44, the highest position of any jazz standard on the list - although Ted Gioia wondered how many Rolling Stone readers had ever heard a jazz band play it.
Very few, but so what? The chemistry of popular music is very whimsical: No one would think you needed both a Chase Bank vice-president and a limo-service driver to get the full juice from the peachiest Georgia song, but that's what it took. And in that landmark 1960 recording a great song got greater, and came home. Ray Charles had Georgia not only on his mind, but in his heart. Here's Ray, toward the end, livin' it at the Montreux Jazz Festival:
~Mark writes about Ray Charles in his book Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, available in personally autographed print edition or as an eBook. If you're a Mark Steyn Club member and you order the print version, don't forget to enter your promotional code at checkout for special member savings on that book and dozens more Steyn Store products.
If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-companion, a Song of the Week Extra, on our audio edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Ted Nugent, Peter Noone & Herman's Hermits, Patsy Gallant, Paul Simon, Lulu, Tim Rice and Randy Bachman. And you can hear him play one of the most recent versions of "Georgia" on this show.
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