Composer Hoagy Carmichael wrote a tune that is the bane of all piano teachers: “Heart and Soul,” a gateway to the keyboard, with a melody that can be played with one finger. Amateurs will have a much harder time plucking out the melody to Carmichael’s “Star Dust,” perhaps the least hummable tune on this list. But that’s part of its charm. The melody doesn’t conform to the typical structure for pop songs of the time. It rarely repeats a note, and it lands in places your head wouldn’t normally go, but your heart gravitates toward it without hesitation.
Carmichael studied to be a lawyer at Indiana University, where he met jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. The melody for “Star Dust” emerged from an improv session with Beiderbecke. For a few years after its first recording, in 1927, the piece was a jaunty and danceable instrumental song. But a 1931 version, slowed to a dreamy ballad with words by Mitchell Parish, is the one that went on to be one of the most recorded pop tunes in history, with more than a thousand versions that cross genres and styles.
In its most famous recording — a rendition by the great Louis Armstrong — we get both the instrumental treat, with Satchmo’s signature trumpet on the intro, and the stargazing reverie of the vocals. As he sings, Armstrong dispenses with much of the melody, improvising in his distinctive style and finally repeating “Oh memory, oh memory” before belting out another trumpet solo, finding his own inspiration “in the stardust of a song.”
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