Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Burning: “Stardust”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout


At one time “Stardust” was the most recorded song. That time has long passed but it remains a most beloved entry in the Great American Songbook (GAS). Although the song was published in 1929, according to Richard Sudhalter, author of his biography, Hoagy Carmichael had been working on the tune as early as 1926. Publisher Irving Mills had a young staff lyricist, Mitchell Parish, supply a set of lyrics which were added in 1929. The evocative title was suggested by Stuart Gorrell (a friend of Carmichael) who said the song reminded him “of the dust from the stars drifting down through a summer night.” (Carmichael said that he had no idea what the title meant but thought it was gorgeous.)

“Stardust” is an unusual song for the late 1920s and perhaps any era. Carmichael’s complex melody consists of wide leaps and unexpected turns from major to minor, outlining the jazz-oriented harmonies with many sevenths, ninths and thirteenths. Also, starting with a minor chord on the second degree of the scale was very daring. Singer Mel Torme, once noted that the verse “rambles up the scale and down, resembling nothing so much as an improvisational cornet solo.” Then he adds “It is one of the most bittersweet examples of ‘lost love’ ever written.” Oscar Hammerstein II, comments in the preface of his book Lyrics that “ ‘Star Dust’ rambles and roams like a truant schoolboy in a meadow. Its structure is loose, its pattern complex. Yet it has attained the kind of long-lived popularity that few songs can claim. What has it got? I’m not certain. I know only that it is beautiful and I like to hear it.” Given such complexity, the song’s huge success is all that more remarkable. Mitchell Parish’s lyrics are likely integral to that success. They marry well to Carmichael’s music and create an indelible mood. Example – a young man looks up at the stars at twilight made distinctive as “the purple dusk of twilight time steals across the meadows of my heart.” Although an excessively florid line it complements Carmichael’s dreamy melody. That young man then reflects on a lost love and hums a song that “haunts my reverie and I am once again with you.” “When our love was new and each kiss an inspiration, is one of the nicer phrases in popular music. Surprisingly, the lyric uses the words “star dust” only twice.

Unlike so many standards, “Stardust” did not originate in a musical show or film. It is a stand-alone song, introduced at the famed Cotton Club in New York’s Harlem. Later that same year, the song was introduced to the mass audience by the popular Isham Jones dance band. His 1930 recording, which featured a violin solo by Victor Young, became a best seller. In 1931, Young, this time with his own orchestra, gave “Stardust” a concert treatment that featured the Boswell Sisters, who took liberties with Carmichael’s melody. In that same year “Stardust “received two other fine recordings by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. Crosby got very playful with the song, scatting and whistling and, at various points, improvising on the melody, even exchanging phrases with the saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey. His reading of the well-written verse is particularly masterful. Since those early days, Carmichael’s famous song has been played and recorded so many times, and in so many ways that it’s difficult to realize at this stage how unique and original this melody was in comparison to other tunes of the period.

In the movies, the song has had an equally impressive career. It was sung by Mary Healy in the 1940 film also titled Star Dust and by David Essex in the 1975 movie Stardust. Nat King Cole sang it in My Favorite Year (1952) and it was sung by Bob Wasserman and Aaron Neville in the 1988 Rain Man. The song was dubbed in on piano by Carmen Cavallaro in The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) which starred Tyrone Power. It appeared in the movie musical Hi Buddy (1943) and was featured in the popular Sleepless in Seattle (1994). The song is heard at a critical moment during Woody Allen’s movie Stardust Memories and was also used in the television series Cold Case. “Stardust” was selected for ASCAP’s All-Time Hit Parade and was chosen for Variety’s Golden 100 Tin Pan Alley Songs list. Two recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In Italy it is called “Polvere di Stelle” and ranks with “O Sole Mio” as an all-time favorite. It is very popular in Japan where it is called “Sutaaadasuto.” In England, where such songs are called “gone evergreen,” no song has sold more copies.

A Few Sample Recordings

Artie Shaw with the Gramercy Five in 1954. Shaw also recorded a memorable version in 1940 but this later version is startling. His solo is absolutely gorgeous. In addition to Shaw, the Gramercy Five consisted of Hank Jones on piano, Irv Kluger on drums, Tommy Potter on bass and Joe Roland on vibes. (Six minutes of bliss.)

But I would be remiss to not also provide a link to that classic 1940 recording (that’s Billy Butterfield on the opening trumpet solo).

Ben Webster. The melodic Webster loved Stardust and played and recorded it many times. The man did not know how to play poorly but the best is arguably from Duke Ellington’s famous 1940 Fargo concert, Webster’s performance is remarkably similar to Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” of the previous year. This was supposedly Webster’s own favorite recording.

Paul Desmond with Dave Brubeck. There are about nine separate recordings of Desmond playing Stardust, each with its own unique melodic variations. The one below may be the most complex. Note that although Carmichael’s melody is seldom actually stated, it informs each solo.

Frank Sinatra. Below is a link to his unusual and famous (in some circles) version in which he sings only the verse. It is on his 1961 Sinatra and Strings CD with Don Costa. I’m not sure it works but it does illuminate the fact that Carmichael’s verse can live independently

Nat King Cole. Cole’s version with Gordon Jenkins is lush and beautiful. Initially it was the second track on the 1956 Love is the Thing recording, which went platinum in 1992.

Mel Torme.

1) Here is a link to an older Mel (voice still in great shape) stretching Stardust
out to six minutes with the lovely assistance of Frank Wess on sax.

2) In 1999 Mel and George Shearing recorded a sublime rendition of Stardust on the
Concord label.

You may also with to investigate worthy recordings by the following.

Vocal versions by Louis Armstrong (but of course), Hoagy singing his own song,
Ella Fitzgerald (with pianist Ellis Larkins), Ernestine Anderson, Doris Day
Instrumental versions by Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett, Benny Goodman, Jaki Byard,
John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Erroll Garner, Lionel Hampton (with Oscar Peterson),
Coleman Hawkins

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