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Hoagy on my mind

Hoagy Carmichael is one of those musicians who has a special place in my memory.

I used to see him on television when I was a kid. When I picture Hoagy Carmichael he is sitting at the piano, hands on the keys, legs facing forward and his upper body and head turned sideways to face the audience while he sings. His hair had a habit of falling off to the side of face and his easy-going voice had a distinctive nasal quality to it. He looked a bit like my cousin Mike. But to writer Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, Carmichael looked like what he had in mind for 007.

It's hard to believe that Hoagland Howard Carmichael was born in Indiana in 1899. But that's what I learned when I went to Camelot Theatre's "Spotlight on Hoagy Carmichael" last weekend. The script, written by Charles Cherry and delivered masterfully by Brian O'Connor, did much to fill in the blanks for me about Carmichael, the songwriter, singer and actor (14 films and appearances on television shows). His work spanned the decades from 1918 to 1981. That's a lot of years and a lot of different styles of music.

Hoagy's themes came from an idealized American heartland. In his biography of Carmichael, Cherry says that in a Hoagy Carmichael song, nothing happens. There's no story line, no incidents. Things just are. Musically, he seldom repeats notes. Beatle John Lennon is reported to have said that Carmichael was his favorite songwriter.

Hoagy is probably best known for "Stardust" which he wrote and recorded in 1927. The sheet music for "Stardust," sold 1500 copies a day. It is the most recorded song in history. Many people think "Skylark" is the most beautiful song ever written. Again, paraphrasing Cherry, "Stardust" is his most popular, "Skylark" is his best.

The spotlight at Camelot featured Duaine George with additional vocals by Jade Chavis Watt and Kay Garwood. The show was so popular that 14 extra chairs were added the night I was there. Up to 117 people have filled the theater to hear the music of this USA's Songwriters Hall of Famer, who was inducted in 1971 along with Duke Ellington.

The night I went, Dal Carver, the show's musical director and arranger, sat in for keyboardist Don Harriss. The rest of the band featured Michael Vannice on alto sax, clarinet and flute, Bil Leonhart on guitar, David Miller on bass and Steve Sutfin on drums. What a treat.

The musicians filled the bare stage, which was trimmed in black curtains. The singers stood downstage center behind three old-fashioned, fist-sized, pewter-colored microphones. The spotlights at Camelot always make you feel like you're in a nightclub. George's voice has a nice deep range with just a hint of Willie Nelson, especially in "Georgia on My Mind."

George also has Hoagy's relaxed, unforced delivery. Garwood's treatment of "Am I Blue" was just right. Mellow, understated and bluesy. Watt got the privilege of singing "Skylark," which she did with great sensitivity and vocal richness.

Among the other songs that received the wonderful spotlight treatment, "a little biography and a lot of music," were "I Get Along Without You Very Well," "Two Sleepy People," "How Little We Know," "The Nearness of You," "Lazy Bones" and — believe it or not — "Heart and Soul."

During his career Carmichael worked, composed or sang with the likes of Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.

I also learned that night that Carmichael appeared in the 1946 western "Canyon Passage" shot right here in Oregon. Naturally I went home and watched it on DVD and there were Mount Thielsen, Diamond Lake, Crater Lake and Jacksonville.

Acting in front of those vistas were Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward, Brian Donleavy, Andy Devine, Ward Bond and Lloyd Bridges — and Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bill Patton. He rode a horse as part of the posse chasing down the bad guy. I couldn't see his face and he whizzed by, but I felt proud just knowing he was there.

One of Carmichael's four songs that he sang in the movie is "Rogue River Valley." His song "Old Buttermilk Sky" was nominated for an Academy Award.

The movie was set in 1856 and the opening scene was rain pouring down on the streets and people of Portland. When Andrews returned to his business in Jacksonville and people asked him how was Portland he said, "A thousand people and it was raining. Too crowded." Some things never change.

And some things, like a Hoagy Carmichael song, just are.