The Hoagy/Bix Beiderbecke Friendship
Here’s my arrangement of “Skylark” with my improvised solo, fortunately with my improvisation, I get to enjoy the song twice!
Like all the songs that make it into the “Great American Songbook” it’s sophisticated, interesting and adventurous but the story behind the making of “Skylark” is the intersection of 4 fascinating lives.
Skylark was composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, Hoagy wrote the music and Mercer the lyrics, but there are two other huge personalities involved that are integral to the meaning of the song.
Once you know how all the pieces fit together you’ll have another level of appreciation of Skylark.
A native of Indiana, Hoagy Carmichael was always interested in music but after finishing high school he went on to study law at Indiana University when a life changing event happened.
Bix Beiderbecke, the great Jazz cornet player, came to play at the University with his band.
Hoagy and Bix met and struck up a great friendship that only ended with Bix’s early death at the age of 28. The first song Hoagy wrote, Riverboat Shuffle, was for Bix which he recorded with his band the Wolverines. Hoagy, who was a good pianist, did play with Bix.
Bix Beiderbecke was one of the stand out musicians of his generation and coming from Iowa he packed a lot into his short life.
He is famously remembered today for his piano composition “In A Mist”.
After his time with the Wolverines he went on to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra which was the most popular band in its day, George Gershwin actually composed Rhapsody In Blue for Whiteman.
It seemed that there were endless possibilities for Bix yet his early death put an end to all that promise.
Bix started playing music in his mid teens but within a very short time it became very clear that he was something really special and Bix impressed everyone that heard him play.
Louis Armstrong was a good friend who admired Bix’s playing and in fact…the 1981 documentary movie about Beiderbecke called “Bix: None Of Them Play Like Him Yet” the subtitle is a quote by Armstrong himself.
It was due to his alcoholism that he died at 28 and his tragic life was the inspiration for Dorothy Baker’s novel “Young Man With A Horn”.
Loosely based on Beiderbecke’s life and career it was turned into a movie starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and even Hoagy Carmichael.
Hoagy was one of the great songwriters of the 20th century having composed massive hits like “Stardust”, “Georgia On My Mind” and “The Nearness Of You”.
He came up with the idea of creating a Broadway Musical about Bix Beiderbecke so he took an improvisation of Bix called “Bix Licks” and came up with the melody that would then become Skylark.
He intended it to be a theme tune but the musical never came to fruition. Hoagy felt that the tune had promise so he gave it to the great lyricist Johnny Mercer to supply the words and turn it into a complete song.
So the next personality in the story is Johnny Mercer perhaps the greatest of American lyricists.
Born into a prominent and old American family, in fact he was a distant cousin of General George Patten and his forbear Hugh Mercer was personal surgeon to George Washington and Hugh is even depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting “Washington Crossing The Delaware”.
Johnny Mercer was raised in privilege and started his further education at Princeton University when his father’s business got into financial difficulties so Johnny left Princeton to help his father salvage the business.
This actually turned out to be an invaluable training for his later career.
After seeing the family business back in shape Mercer headed to New York and his music career began, he later wound up with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as a singer.
Because of his songwriting he was then asked to move to Hollywood to write songs for the musicals that were being made into movies and they were very popular.
After some early setbacks he wound up becoming successful beyond his dreams.
He wrote the lyrics for songs composed by Richard Whiting, Harry Warren and Harold Arlen. Mercer also wrote songs for the biggest stars of the day like Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; some of his songs were “Moon River”, “Autumn Leaves” & “Days Of Wine & Roses”.
Johnny Mercer was later to found Capitol Records.
Capital had huge success with its stars like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and later the Beatles due to the English label, EMI, buying into Capitol.
It was dripping with success.
With everything going so well you’d think that they’d all live happily ever after but people are complicated.
Johnny Mercer fell hopelessly in love with Judy Garland and she’s the 4th personality in the Skylark story.
Despite being married Mercer and Garland became romantically involved which led to Mercer writing “I Remember You” which expressed how smitten he was with Garland.
There’s an Australian aspect to the song… Frank Ifield recorded “I Remember You” at the suggestion of Ron Martin his bass player.
I was fortunate enough to have played with Ron every Thursday for about 10 years and apart from playing the standards I’d hear his stories and experiences of what life was like for musicians in the past, the 40’s, 50’s & 60’s.
Frank Ifield kept the Beatles from the No. 1 spot on the Top 40 for 4 or 5 weeks with “I Remember You” and Ron described what it was like being in England for a year with a number one hit.
A family friend told Johnny Mercer’s wife about the situation between her husband and Garland.
Ginger Mercer confronted Garland and the two women agreed that the affair should end.
This actually moved Mercer to write the song “One For My Baby and One More For The Road”.
Around this time Hoagy Carmichael asked Mercer about the progress of the melody he’d given to him.
Mercer again drew from his “Judy Garland affair” and came up with the words that made the song “Skylark”.
So he wrote at least 3 songs to Judy Garland.
The 4th personality as mentioned above is Garland and the highs and lows of her career are dizzying.
Born Ethan Francis Gumm 10 June 1922 and her mother was the tennis and soccer mum from Hell and on steroids.
Her parents had been “Vaudevillian” people and when her mother saw the young Judy’s talent and ability she pushed and promoted her career.
She was given pills to stay awake through the day so she could accomplish more but then given sleeping tablets to get her to sleep of a night.
As she became a star, MGM insisted that she keep her weight down, so more pills.
Subsequently Judy’s addiction started at a very young age.
She was one of the biggest stars in the world and with playing Dorothy in the ” Wizard Of Oz” she’ll be remembered for a long time to come.
I love using the standards as vehicles for my improvisation, I enjoy making my arrangement of of a tune then I enjoy further exploring the tune by improvising on the chord changes so I get to enjoy the song twice…