Georgia On My Mind: Hoagy Carmichael, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the great popular tune Georgia on My Mind. We will review the original by Hoagy Carmichael, and covers of that song by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson.

Hoagy Carmichael and Georgia On My Mind:

I am a big fan of Hoagy Carmichael for two reasons. The first is that during a period of roughly twenty-five years he wrote several of the finest songs of the Big Band era, including immortal greats such as Stardust and Heart and Soul. Carmichael had a real genius for working out a melody on the piano (others would write the lyrics).

Statue of Hoagy Carmichael on Indiana University campus.

Statue of Hoagy Carmichael on Indiana University campus.

The other reason I am such a fan is that Hoagy was born and raised in my current home town of Bloomington, Indiana. I have had several meals at the restaurant where he composed Stardust, and there is a bronze statue in his honor (shown at left) on the Indiana University campus. It has become quite popular for people to have their photos taken with the statue of ‘Hoagy’ and his piano.

Howard Hoagland Carmichael attended Indiana University and earned a law degree, although he quickly discovered that his real interest lay in music. Taught to play piano by his mother, Hoagy gained experience playing in jazz bands with Bix Beiderbecke, and there his song-writing talent blossomed.

Hoagy first made a name for himself in New York, where he was a songwriter for Ralph Peer’s Southern Music Company. Here’s a side note about Ralph Peer, a legendary figure in `roots’ music history. Peer recorded both the first blues and first country songs, and he discovered country music legends Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family in the same week.

Anyway, Ralph Peer’s music company was the first to have their offices in the Brill Building. Carmichael gained success when artists like Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington recorded his songs. In several instances, Hoagy played piano and sang his songs along with the band.

Once Carmichael achieved acclaim for his songwriting, he moved to Hollywood in order to break into the movie business. There he parlayed his fame into several screen music-writing gigs, and he also appeared in several movies during the 40s and 50s. His stock movie character was a laconic piano player and singer in a club or saloon. He was generally wearing a hat tilted back on his head, and either chewing on a toothpick or smoking a cigarette, as in the photo shown below.

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My favorite movie memory of Carmichael was his appearance as the piano player ‘Cricket’ in To Have and Have Not, Lauren Bacall’s screen debut with Humphrey Bogart. This film featured Bacall’s unforgettable line to Steve (Bogart’s character in the film), “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Hoagy sang a couple of numbers in that movie and also accompanied Bacall on piano.

Many people have nominated Stardust as the greatest song of the pre-rock era. It is a gem of a song, with very sophisticated chord changes and a deeply melancholy retrospective look at a failed relationship. But Georgia on My Mind has to be a close second for Carmichael’s greatest song. There is a widespread rumor that the song was actually written for Hoagy’s sister Georgia, rather than the state of Georgia. The Wikipedia article about the song states that
Carmichael wrote that the song was composed when bandleader Frankie Trumbauer suggested that he write about the state of Georgia. … Carmichael made no mention at all of his sister in his telling of the song’s genesis.

Hoagy Carmichael’s song, with lyrics by Stuart Gorrell, is extremely beautiful and touching. Both the melody and lyrics are simple but moving, and express a deep love and longing for the state of Georgia. No wonder this has been named Georgia’s official state song.

Georgia, Georgia
The whole day through
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind

I said Georgia, Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you

Hoagy Carmichael’s voice is flat and reasonably emotionless. However, it is suitable for his songs, and it’s nice to hear him singing his own tunes. His voice has a Midwestern twang, and Hoagy made no great claims for his singing ability. He described his unique, laconic voice as being
“the way a shaggy dog looks.… I have Wabash fog and sycamore twigs in my throat.”
So here the audio of Hoagy Carmichael performing Georgia on My Mind. By the way, note that the still photo with this link shows Hoagy together with Lauren Bacall in the movie To Have and Have Not.

This was recorded in 1930, and in addition to Hoagy on piano and vocals, the song featured Eddie Lang on guitar and Bix Beiderbecke on cornet (Bix has a lovely solo just before the 3-minute mark in the song). It was part of the last recording session ever for Beiderbecke before his death the following year from alcoholism, at the age of 28.

Hoagy Carmichael had a great run both as a songwriter and movie actor, and he also broke into television in the 50s. His career was waning by 1960, but his reputation was given a brief bump when Ray Charles recorded his version of Georgia On My Mind. However, like so many popular musicians of his day, Carmichael’s song-writing career did not survive the rock music era.

In 1971 Carmichael was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 1979 for his 80th birthday the Newport Jazz Festival sponsored a tribute concert to Hoagy that was held at Carnegie Hall. He died of heart failure in California in 1981 and is buried in his home town of Bloomington.

Ray Charles and Georgia On My Mind:

A friend of mine was traveling, and went for dinner in the restaurant of his hotel. He was the only diner in the restaurant, and as he was eating his meal a band commenced to play. After he finished his meal, he thought it would be polite to give his regards to the group, so he approached the bandleader and had a conversation that went something like this.

“I especially enjoyed Georgia on My Mind, because the songwriter came from my home town,” he said.
“Oh, you’re from the same city as Ray Charles?”
“No, the songwriter was someone named Hoagy Carmichael, and I live in his home town.”
“No, that song was written by Ray Charles.”
“I’m reasonably sure Hoagy Carmichael wrote the song. Why don’t you look it up to find out?”
“Why would I do that – everyone knows Ray Charles wrote Georgia on My Mind!”

Well, such an interchange illustrates the extent to which Georgia on My Mind has become associated with the musical genius Ray Charles. This is a shame, because Ray’s contributions to music are so spectacular that he does not need credit for songs he didn’t actually write.

Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia in 1930 and his family then moved to Florida. He suffered from glaucoma, which took his sight by age seven. Ray was subsequently educated at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, FL. Here he learned to play the piano, although Ray greatly preferred jazz and blues to the classical music he was taught at the school.

Following the death of his mother, Ray began playing the piano with various bands in central Florida. Although he gained a local following in Florida, he moved to Seattle in 1948 to increase his chances for commercial success. There he met the 15-year-old musical prodigy Quincy Jones, and Jones and Charles began a life-long collaboration. The photo below shows Ray Charles in 1959.

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Ray then moved to Los Angeles, searching for fame and fortune in the world of music. In the late 1940s, the path to success for a black pop singer and keyboard artist seemed clear: you should emulate Nat King Cole. Cole had broken through the color bar to mainstream success in two different areas. First, as a jazz pianist in the Big Band era, he had more or less single-handedly introduced the notion of a trio consisting of piano, electric guitar and bass. Second, when Cole added vocal numbers to his repertoire, his silky-smooth baritone voice seemed irresistible.

Not surprisingly, black singers with an interest in broadening their appeal decided to copy Nat King Cole’s style. Both Ray Charles and Chuck Berry’s early songs were performed in a style eerily similar to Cole’s. However, Ray’s star really ascended in 1953 when his record company Swing Time Records folded and he was signed to a contract with Atlantic Records by the great producer Ahmet Ertegun.

Ertegun and his associates persuaded Ray to concentrate on rhythm and blues rather than continuing to copy Nat King Cole. They sent Ray to New Orleans, where in collaboration with NOLA musicians Ray virtually invented ‘soul music’ by merging elements of jazz and gospel with R&B band arrangements and dance tunes.

Once he settled on his personal singing style, Ray began to enter the R&B charts on a regular basis. Ray’s first #1 R&B record was I Got a Woman in 1954. Then in 1956 Ray signed on a girl group called The Cookies and renamed them as his backup singers The Raelettes. In 1959 Ray released What’d I Say; with its wonderful gospel-inspired call-and-response vocals, it became Ray’s first top-10 pop hit.

As the leading proponent of popular R&B, Ray Charles had insured his legacy; however, he did not stop there, but proceeded to expand his range to take in both pop music and country. Georgia on My Mind is a great example of the former. As I mentioned earlier, Ray Charles’ version of the great Hoagy Carmichael classic is so well-known that many people are convinced the song was written by Charles himself. Similarly, Ray had a major hit with his cover of Don Gibson’s country classic I Can’t Stop Loving You.

Here is Ray Charles in a live performance of Georgia on My Mind. He is accompanied by a full orchestra; however, for the most part it is primarily Ray singing and on keyboards, plus a flute. In the last half-minute of the song, the entire orchestra enters in for the finale.

What an absolutely stunning voice, with a song that is a perfect vehicle for Ray’s delivery! Ray Charles expresses poignantly the sense of longing and nostalgia for Georgia. And he succeeds magnificently in expanding his horizons from R&B to pop music.

Ray Charles was also one of the very few rock or blues musicians from the 50s who were fully in charge of their own fortunes. Here he was assisted by both Quincy Jones and Ahmet Ertegun, who taught Charles the ins and outs of the finances of the music business. As a result, Ray managed to make a great deal of money in an era where most musicians were seriously short-changed by their producers and record companies.

In his earlier career, Ray Charles was a dedicated fighter for civil rights. He cancelled at least one concert when he learned that the audience would be segregated, with whites on the main floor and blacks confined to the balcony. He also wrote or covered a number of songs that championed the civil rights movement.

Later on Ray would perform at a number of Republican party conferences. He was a good friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and he performed at Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985. And in 2003 Charles was the headliner at George W. Bush’s White House Correspondents dinner in D.C. At such events Ray nearly always ended with his moving gospel-tinged rendition of America the Beautiful.

Ray’s personal life was rather complicated. Like the lyrics from his song, Ray usually did have “a woman, way cross town, who’s good to me.” He had a long series of affairs, several of which resulted in children by his mistresses. Eventually Ray ended up fathering twelve children with ten different women.

Ray also had serious addiction problems in the mid-60s. After his third arrest for heroin possession, he entered a rehab clinic in 1965 and successfully kicked his heroin habit. At that time, Charles claimed that he had been a drug addict ever since he was 16.

Ray Charles was a fantastic artist and innovator, a true pioneer in R&B music, and one of the great cross-over musicians. He was a role model for all the generations of musicians who have followed him.  Ray was an inspiration for an entire generation of British blues singers, including Van Morrison, Stevie Winwood and Joe Cocker.  For example, Roger Waters of the psychedelic group Pink Floyd had this to say about Ray Charles’ influence:
“I was about 15. In the middle of the night with friends, we were listening to jazz. It was “Georgia on My Mind”, Ray Charles’s version. Then I thought ‘One day, if I make some people feel only one twentieth of what I am feeling now, it will be quite enough for me.’

Willie Nelson and Georgia On My Mind:

We have discussed Willie Nelson and his career in an earlier post that featured Steve Goodman’s folk song City of New Orleans. Willie is my favorite country singer, a man whose individual singing career took off only after his retirement!

Willie grew up in west Texas, where he was a great fan of the popular music of the day, and also country music, particularly Western swing as exemplified by groups like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Willie eventually gravitated to Nashville, where although he had considerable success as a songwriter, his individual career languished as he did not fit into Nashville’s relatively rigid musical style.

Only after he retired and moved to Austin, TX did Nelson really gain fame as a performer; and once he achieved success, Willie and his ‘outlaw country’ counterparts have remained atop the country charts almost continuously.

I absolutely love Willie Nelson’s music. His voice seems just perfect for country music, and in particular I find his cover of Always On My Mind to be deeply moving (note to self: do a post on that song soon). In addition, he is justly famous for his songwriting, ever since his earliest compositions such as Crazy and Pretty Paper.

Willie is also famous for his social activism. In addition to his work on behalf of various environmental causes, and his leadership of NORML, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, Willie is a co-founder of Farm Aid, a series of concerts held to provide support for this country’s small farmers. Neil Young and John Mellencamp were the other co-founders of this series of concerts. The photo below shows Willie at the 2007 Farm Aid concert.

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Below is Willie Nelson’s performance of Georgia on My Mind, from the US Festival in 1983. The US Festival (it’s pronounced “us” as in the pronoun meaning “we,” not “U.S.”) took place on a weekend in 1982 in San Bernardino, CA; the festival was then reprised for an encore in 1983. The US Festival was the brainchild of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. His idea was that the 70s were dominated by the “Me” generation, and he envisioned a festival that would emphasize community values and that would also combine music with innovative technology.

The Festival attracted some impressive musical heavy hitters. Over Labor Day Weekend in 1982 one day was devoted to folk-rock groups, attracting acts like the Grateful Dead, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac; while over Memorial Day Weekend in 1983 the “Heavy Metal” day brought in Quiet Riot, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Judas Priest and Van Halen.

Willie Nelson and Family were headliners for “Country Day” at the 1983 US Festival, and they performed Georgia On My Mind. Alas, although the festival attracted more than 600,000 attendees each of the two years of its existence, and though the idea of combining music and new technology is appealing, the festival also lost roughly $12 million each year and was not repeated after 1983.

So here are Willie and Family performing Georgia On My Mind at the 1983 US Festival.

You can clearly see Willie’s love for pop music standards in his sparse and unadorned but moving cover of Georgia on My Mind. Harp player Mickey Raphael from Willie’s band Family gets in some lovely licks on this song.

The song was first released on Willie’s 1978 album Stardust, which has a terrific back story. Willie’s neighbor in Malibu was Booker T. Jones, the leader of Booker T and the MGs, who released some great R&B songs in the mid-60s. The combo also served as the Stax Records “house band” for the hundreds of great records that emerged from that studio. Willie asked Booker T. to arrange a version of Moonlight in Vermont, one of the pop standards that he remembered fondly from his childhood in Texas.

The arrangement turned out so well that Willie asked Jones to produce an entire album based on Nelson’s favorite old songs. The result was the album Stardust. When Willie brought the album to executives at his record label Columbia, he encountered stiff resistance. They saw this album as a radical and potentially risky departure from his recognized country music style. ‘Outlaw country’ star Willie performing songs by Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin? Potential box-office poison!

Another thing that concerned the Columbia execs was the incongruous pairing of country singer Nelson with soul-music producer Booker T. Jones. The Columbia suits should not have worried; the songs on Stardust included music that Willie grew up listening to. Not only did he love those songs, but Willie’s own compositions such as Crazy clearly showed the influence of these old pop standards. And Booker T had a degree in music from Indiana University, so he also had a deep appreciation for this style of music.

Fortunately for Willie, he had sufficient clout to get the album released. And a good thing for Columbia that he succeeded, as not only did the album rocket up to #1 on the country ratings, but it remained a best-seller in the charts for over a decade, and critical reviews for the album were uniformly glowing. The year after the album’s release, Willie Nelson had the highest-grossing tour in the music industry.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Georgia On My Mind
Wikipedia, Hoagy Carmichael
Wikipedia, Ray Charles
Wikipedia, Willie Nelson

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife have shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, Lewis and his sibling Clark [2002-2018], who have enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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2 Responses to Georgia On My Mind: Hoagy Carmichael, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson

  1. Wow … so much in here that I find exciting — specially the Booker T. notes, and the story about how Stardust got produced. One of my all time faves!!! (and GREAT photo of Betty Bacall with Hoagy!! Way to keep your hometown in the story, Tim!)


  2. Pingback: Always On My Mind: Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson | Tim's Cover Story

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