Some people think it’s a song about a girl. Others think it’s a song about a place. A state. The State of Peach. The two men who wrote the music and the lyrics — Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell — can’t answer this question because they died a long time ago. But the story of the song’s birth and how it became a song the world would know and love is a quintessentially American story.
Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1899. His father took on every job he could to help pay the bills, first as a horse-drawn taxi driver and later as an electrician. Her mother played the piano for a living. Throughout his youth, his family struggled to make ends meet. The defining event of his youth was born out of a tragedy. In 1918, the Spanish flu ravaged the country and her little sister, Joanna, was not spared. His death was something Carmichael would never forget, and it would fuel his ambition. “We couldn’t afford a good doctor or good attention, and that’s when I swore I would never be broke in my life again,” Carmichael said.
He graduated from Indiana University and its law school and soon began practicing law in Indianapolis. But his real interest and talent, and where he would end up earning a living, was in the entertainment world. The music – in particular, delivering the melodies of some of Tin Pan Alley’s greatest hits – was his particular and particular genius.
Carmichael attributed his melodic gift to his roots in jazz and his love of jazz pianists, which he got from his mother, who loved to play ragtime. “I listened to them constantly,” he told reporters. As a teenager, he spent long hours in a black neighborhood called Bucktown, where exceptional jazz players often gathered.
American composer and songwriter Alec Wilder described Carmichael as “the most talented, inventive, sophisticated and jazz-oriented of all the great artisans” of pop song from the first half of the 20th century. Not many people write a single standard, but Carmichael has written a bunch: “Stardust”, “The Nearness of You”, “Skylark”, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” and, of course, his more. known composition, “Georgia on My Mind”.
Gorrell, the song’s lyricist, was born in Knox, Indiana, and went to college with Carmichael. The two became friends. After hearing his boyfriend play a new tune at a party, Gorrell had a sleepless night and ended up with the lyrics to the song. Gorrell would become a banker. He never wrote any other lyrics in his life.
“Georgia on My Mind”, written in 1930, was initially taken up by a number of artists, including Louis Armstrong and Carmichael himself. But the song never found a large and willing audience, and it lingered for decades in Carmichael’s catalog.
In the 1950s, Carmichael’s career, like so many other music lovers and songwriting masters of his day, began to fade with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues. “After rock and roll, I never even got a phone call from another record holder about anything,” Carmichael said. Highligths later in his life.
“Georgia on My Mind”, as well as the entire catalog of Carmichael, has been a victim of the evolution of tastes and musical styles. It would take Ray Charles to bring the song back to life.
The 30-year-old rising star had just left Atlantic Records because he wanted more independence, more artistic control over his music and higher royalties. More than that, he wanted his music to reach more people. He wanted his music to be accepted by the general public at a time when albums were starting to sell better than singles.
The genius takes to the road was his first record for his new label, ABC Paramount. It was a 12 track themed album, released in 1960, based on locations in the United States. “Georgia on My Mind” was nestled between “Basin Street Blues” – the main street of Storyville, in the Red Light District of New Orleans – and “Alabamy Bound”.
The lush orchestration of the song – it had 55 string players on the session – was unlike anything Charles had recorded before. Some critics thought it was a mistake; others thought it was selling. The public, as is often the case, disagreed. The song reached No. 1 on Billboard‘s pop chart album in November 1960, and it won his first of four Grammys that year, two for “Georgia on My Mind.” Charles would win 15 more Grammys in his life. He would also break down more musical barriers, including Modern sounds in country and western music, his masterpiece from 1962.
Other Charles hits include “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Hit the Road Jack,” and “Seven Spanish Angels,” his duet with Willie Nelson, which reached # 1 on the country charts in 1985. But his most memorable recording is “Georgia on My Mind”. In 2003, Rolling stone named the song the 44th greatest of all time.
Was the song about an old love? Or a man who dreams of home? We’ll never know. But Charles had his own opinion. In his 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray, he told the world he wasn’t thinking of a woman or a state when he recorded the song. “I never knew a woman named Georgia, and I never dreamed of the state, even though I was born there,” recalls Charles. “It was just a beautiful romantic melody.” That wouldn’t prevent “Georgia on My Mind” from becoming the state’s official song in 1979, when Governor George Busbee promulgated it.
It’s a quintessentially American story, the story of “Georgia on My Mind”. Two white men from the Midwest wrote a song that a brilliant blind black man they never knew or met would bring to life many years later. There was no question of cultural appropriation, neither by Charles nor by Carmichael. They were doing what American musical artists have done since the beginning of time: borrowing from all forms of music and making the result their own. And thanks to the miracle of intellectual property rights, American artists are not only protected against the theft of their work, but also encouraged to share their work – their songs – with others, and regardless of race, class, culture and chronology.
Charles’ cover of “Georgia on My Mind” changed the lives of the writers – and the singer – forever, making them a small fortune. And the song also made the world a better and more beautiful place. As our great musicians do, one song at a time.
There were many other covers of the song, and by great artists of all musical genres: Eddy Arnold, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Michael Bolton, Michael Bublé, Ella Fitzgerald, Leon Russell, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Garcia, Coldplay, the Righteous Frères, Tom Jones, James Brown and the Zac Brown Band. But one version stands out from all the others. At the time of his death at age 73 on June 10, 2004, Ray Charles was giving an average of 200 concerts a year. “Georgia on My Mind” has always been the audience’s favorite.