Stardust – Nat King Cole
…And now the purple dusk of twilight time
…steals across the meadows of my heart…
High up in the sky the little stars climb
always reminding me that we’re apart…
Such a melancholy yet beautiful lyric on such an unusual, strange and compelling melody.
Hoagy Carmichael wrote the melody to Stardust when he was 28 years old in Bloomington Indiana, imagining as he composed it that one day his hero – cornet player Bix Beiderbecke – would play the tune. The way the song winds and swerves through different keys is a challenge for any singer – but originally Stardust was an instrumental. A jazz instrumental. The saxophone player Bud Freeman once said ‘Carmichael’s songs are the only songs on which you don’t have to improvise much, because the improvisation is already in them‘. So Hoagy recorded the instrumental and it was played by Ellington, Calloway and others until in 1929 Irving Mills decided the tune needed lyrics and asked young Mitchell Parish to write some.
The resulting ballad (first performed by Isham Jones in the form we know it today) is simply the most exceptional combination of words and music that I know of, my favourite song of all time, and the song which was covered more than any other (over 1500 covers to date) up ’til McCartney dreamed up Yesterday (covered over 3000 times).
Stardust is a song about a song about love. Lost love – all that’s left is the song. The star has gone, all that’s left is stardust. The image of Star Dust (original title) is a powerful one and has been used many times – Bowie called himself Ziggy Stardust during 1972, and Joni Mitchell sang “we are stardust we are golden” about the Woodstock generation. The idea that music can contain in it the dust of a feeling, of a relationship, of a love is a very beautiful one, and of course it is also the idea behind this very blog. So it seems fitting to me that as I reach the satisfying figure of 100 pieces of music written about, 100 feelings converted into stardust, that this song marks the auspicious occasion.
I first became obsessed with Stardust around February 2008 – yes, quite specific… And once again I am indebted to Kenneth Cranham for his musical guidance. In a small-world twist of fate, he was now playing patriarch Max in Pinter’s The Homecoming at The Almeida Theatre – and my wife Jenny Jules had become the first black woman to ever play the role of Ruth in the same production. Harold Pinter clearly fancied her in fact and would insist on sitting next to her at dinner and so on. His wife Lady Antonia Fraser was terribly patient. I walked home with Uncle Ken one day, probably after rehearsal, because he lives not far from the theatre round the back of Caledonian Road. I had been cast in Richard Curtis‘ film The Boat That Rocked, playing late-night DJ Bob Silver, a kind of John Peel template, but with the difference that I was an old geezer in 2008 compared with Peel’s early 20s in 1966 on the pirate radio station Radio Caroline. Uncle Ken being my musical guru I asked him, if I’d been 50 in 1966 then who would I have grown up listening to? Apart from a reference to Muddy Waters there were no clues in the script. A week later I was at rehearsal again, or maybe first night, and Ken thrust 3 whole C90 cassettes into my grubby paw. I know. It was 2008 and he was still making C90s. They were completely brilliant. “They’re all writer-based“, Ken explained, “the first one is Ellington, with plenty of covers too, the second is Harold Arlen who wrote Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Stormy Weather, and the third is Hoagy Carmichael, and there’s even a track of Hoagy singing on that one”…
The track of Hoagy singing was Stardust. There were three other versions on the cassette – one I already had at home by Nat King Cole, probably purchased in the mid-eighties after a John Godber-directed show, (perhaps A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon theatre on King’s Road in 1982). John’s parents were addicted to Nat King Cole and some of John’s writing acknowledges his greatness as an artist, mainly as a crooner. The other two versions were by Willie Nelson and The Mills Brothers. Four of the best versions. I could not stop listening to the damn song. I started collecting covers of it. There are a lot. At the last count I had 57 cover versions of it – all different, most of them terrific. They range from wild jazz instrumentals from the likes of Charlie Christian, Ben Webster and Oscar Aleman to staggering vocal journeys by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby. Some odd ones – by The Shadows (it’s ace), The Mills Brothers – an instrumental version AND a sung version, but all done by their voices (amazing), and Frank Sinatra – only sings the introduction (!!). He had a history of picking the bits he liked though, did Frank (see eg: Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park). Then there’s Louis Armstrong‘s simply astounding cover which bounces along on the one & the three like a song possessed while the trumpet riffs above it – until Louis starts to sing and makes up the words, scats along, it is simply brilliant and probably the “best” version. Unique, certainly.
But my favourite is Nat King Cole. He had a long career as a jazz pianist playing some classic trio cuts before his vocal ability took prominence and he started to sing more – his version of The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting…”) in 1946 made him a superstar, (although the famous version still played today was the 4th time he recorded the song in 1961). By 1956 he had his own syndicated TV show in America, the first black performer to do so. In 1957 – the year I was born – he released his version of Stardust, his vocal melisma and jazz sophistication perfectly suiting the song’s temperament. The string arrangement – can’t find out who it was – is beyond perfect – the opening violin swell is like someone breathing in and out it is so organic. As Nat reaches the word at the end of the introduction “the music of the years gone by” the strings are clearly on the “wrong” note, but resolve with exquisite delay.
When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration…
What a line – and don’t we all know that feeling ? Now sadly gone but he has the song….
My stardust melody – the memory of love’s refrain
The lyrics are full of stars – in the sky reminding him that “we’re apart” and at the end again as he sits beside a garden wall
“when stars are bright and you are in my arms…”
To be honest there’s only so much you can write about a piece of music like this. Without getting overly muso – the use of semitone intervals – going up and down is extremely effective. “Sometimes I wonder…” the first four notes are a semitone climb up that line of the first verse which leads you into the reverie. Then later “Though I dream in vain…” the last three words are semitone falls, perfectly in sympathy musically with the lyric. I don’t want to go overboard at the deep end so I’ll just leave this here. I will doubtless come back to other versions and covers in future posts. And of course Hoagy wrote other songs too – Georgia On My Mind and many others. But Nat King Cole sings Stardust and he wears the crown for My Pop Life #100.
Nat Cole : LIVE !