Ask Charlie...

Stardust

Hello Troubadourians! Everyone has a favorite song. Sure, many of you will say that you have several favorite songs. But, if you really had to, I’m sure that there is one, just one, that really holds deep meaning and is truly your all-time favorite. For me, it’s “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael. I’m sure that many in my family, maybe many of you will find that surprising. Surely my favorite song must be “Rocky Mountain Way” or some other song by Joe Walsh given my avowed fondness for his playing and songs. Others would wonder why it isn’t one of the many pieces that Chet Atkins recorded, something like “Windy and Warm” or ”I’ll See You in My Dreams” or any of a dozen more that I would listen to incessantly when I was first learning to play. In my formative years on the guitar, I wanted to be Chet Atkins. In fact, I was so into Chet that I played everything with a thumb pick and fingers. I begged my guitar teacher to show me how to play more in Chet’s style because I couldn’t figure it out well enough on my own. In his infinite wisdom, my teacher refused my request saying, “There’s only one Chet Atkins and he’s the one.” There might have been many reasons for him to tell me that, and there are certainly thousands of fine pickers who have mimicked Chet and still developed their own style, but I was very literal at that time and so I almost completely abandoned my pursuit of Chet’s playing. Well, at least as far as my right hand was concerned. His phrasing and note choices had already permeated my ideas and naturally began to come out in my left hand with my own playing. It was around this time that I discovered Clarence White and Doc Watson, so my fingerpicking evolved into the hybrid picking style that is still my main form of right-hand technique. Sure, I can still fingerpick but it isn’t in the true Chet style of my youthful dreams. Then there was the afore mentioned Joe Walsh as well as Don Felder as I was a deep devotee of Joe’s solo work as well as the Eagles. When they eventually joined forces on “Hotel California,” I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.

So, with all of these guitar heavyweights, why is my favorite song a jazz standard not known as a “guitar song?” Well, it’s like this… my father was very into jazz and Dixieland music. All of his record collection was Big Band recordings from the likes of Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, and the Dorsey brothers or various horn players like Jack Teagarden and Al Hirt. He wasn’t into the bebop style much except for Dizzy Gillespie so I wasn’t exposed to players like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, but I became tangentially aware of them, in name if not by their music, as time passed. But my biggest influence—and absolute favorite—was without a doubt a recording of “Stardust” by Lionel Hampton and his All-Stars. Recorded on August 4, 1947, this was a live recording for promoter Gene Norman’s “Just Jazz” concert series at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. The musicians who performed that evening were (in order of their solos): Willie Smith (alto Sax), Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Gene “Corky” Corcoran (tenor Sax), Slam Stewart (bass), Tommy Todd (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Lionel Hampton (vibes), and Lee Young (drums, no solo). I’m listening to this on YouTube as I write this. Here is a link to what I think is the best version of this recording:

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4GFdJ_cJyo)

The story goes, as I remember from the jacket notes on the original record, was that this was the last song of the evening. The band had played long past their scheduled performance and Hampton had a 6am call on a movie set the next morning. But, somehow, when Hamp played the opening chords, the song was irresistible and history was made. It should be noted that they only played the chorus changes of Stardust. There is an intro/verse that is pretty but somewhat awkward as compared to the chorus. The chorus really is the most recognizable part of the song and the changes really lend themselves to the improvisation that jazz players crave.

On the recording, as each man steps up to the microphone, a masterpiece of music is created on the spot. Beginning with alto player Willie Smith—who sets the tone and sticks the closest to the actual written melody—the song gains momentum and showcases each player’s style and influences as well as their sense of humor. Trumpeter Charlie Shavers seems to “talk” through his horn and draws laughter and applause from the audience. Tenor Saxophonist Corky Corcoran plays what is, in my opinion, the most emotional solo on the recording. Going for vibe over humor, he nails it. But it’s back to humor mixed with virtuosity when bassist Slam Stewart starts his solo. Playing in the standard pizzicato style when backing the others, he shows his classical training and picks up a bow to play his solo while masterfully scatting along with his bass, again drawing laughter and applause from the audience. But the real master of classical technique has to be pianist Tommy Todd. His chord voicings would be completely appropriate in any orchestral arrangement, yet still speak jazz as well. Followed by guitarist Barney Kessel, the contrast couldn’t be more evident. Known as a consummate jazzer, Kessel never the less rips out what can best be described as a protype blues-rock solo. Given the audience’s reaction to his solo, I think they “got it.” For years I tried to learn this solo without much success. I’m just now getting the hang of it. Kessel’s solo perfectly sets up Lionel Hampton’s multiple chorus solos. You can hear Hamp vocalizing his emotion at several points during his solo—to the joy of the audience—as well as hear his foot keeping time as he accelerates from standard time to double time and then again to signal the band his return to standard time and finally to half time to end the song. As Hamp’s solo reaches its final chorus, the horns re-enter to play a smooth, chordal backup which brings the song in for a beautiful landing.

I’ve been listening to this song for 50 years and messing around with it on the guitar for almost as long as I’ve been playing. For a long time I was only able to figure out about half of the chords by ear, despite owning the sheet music at one time. But now I’m finally coming close to being able to actually play it. “Stardust,” my favorite song and lifelong obsession. What’s yours?

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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