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The Unlikely Story of How "Georgia on My Mind" Came To Be

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 7, 2024 3:04 am

The Unlikely Story of How "Georgia on My Mind" Came To Be

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 7, 2024 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Lee Habeeb tells the story of how "Georgia on My Mind" came to be, and how it became a song the world would come to know and love.

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Shop now at your closest Victoria's Secret store or online at And we continue with our American stories. Up next, one of our favorite types of stories about artistic imagination, about creating something from nothing. This is the story of a song you all know, but don't know how it came to be. Some believe it's a song about a girl. Others believe it's a song about a place, a state, the Peachtree State. The two men who wrote the music and lyrics, Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Burrell, can't answer that question.

They died a long time ago. But the story of how the song Georgia on My Mind came to be and a song that the world would come to know is a quintessentially American story. Hoagy Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1899. His father, he took on whatever jobs he could to help pay the bills, first as a horse-drawn taxi driver and later as an electrician. His mom played piano for a living. Throughout his youth, his family struggled to make ends meet. The defining event in his early life sprang from tragedy.

In 1918, the Spanish flu ravaged the country, and his baby sister, Joanna, was not spared. Her death was something Carmichael would never forget, and it would fuel his ambition. Here's a quote from Carmichael.

We couldn't afford a good doctor or good attention, and that's when I vowed I would never again be broke in my life. He graduated from Indiana University and its law school and soon began to practice law in Indianapolis. But his real interest, his real talent, and where he'd end up making his living, was in the world of entertainment. Music, specifically coming up with the melodies to some of Tin Pan Alley's greatest hits, was his particular and peculiar 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 anyone who would listen. As a teenager, he spent long hours in a black neighborhood called Bucktown, where outstanding jazz players often convened. American composer and author, Alec Wilder, described Carmichael as the most talented, inventive, sophisticated, and jazz oriented of all the great craftsmen of pop songs in the first half of the 20th century.

Few people ever write one standard, but Carmichael wrote a bunch. Stardust, The Nearness of You, Skylark, In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, and, of course, his most well-known composition, Georgia on My Mind. Gorel, the song's lyricist, was born in Knox, Indiana, and went to college with Carmichael. The two became friends, and after hearing his pal play a new melody at a party, Gorel pulled an all-nighter and ended up with the lyrics for the song.

Gorel would go on to become a banker. He never wrote another lyric in his life. Completed in 1930, the song was initially covered by a number of artists, including Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael himself. Here's Carmichael singing his version of his song. The song failed to find an audience when it was released, Carmichael's version or anyone else's, and it lingered for decades in his back catalogue. By the 1950s, Carmichael's career began to fade with the ascent of rock and roll and rhythm and blues.

It would take Ray Charles to bring the song back to life. The rising 30-year-old star had just left Atlantic Records. He wanted more independence, more artistic control of his music, and higher royalties. Most of all, he wanted his music to reach more people. He wanted mainstream audiences and mainstream acceptance of his music at a time when albums were starting to outsell singles. The Genius Hits the Road was his first record for his new label, ABC Paramount. It was a 12-track themed album, released in 1960, based on places in the United States.

Georgia on My Mind was tucked between Basin Street Blues, the main street of Storyville in New Orleans' Red Light District, and Alabama Bound. The song's lush orchestration, he had 55 string players in on the session, was unlike anything Charles had recorded before. Some critics thought it was a mistake. Others thought he was selling out.

The public disagreed. The song reached number one on Billboard's pop album chart in November of 1960, and he won his first of four Grammys that year, two for Georgia on My Mind. Charles would go on to win 15 more Grammys in his life. He would also go on to break more musical barriers, including modern sounds in country and western music, his 1962 masterpiece. Other hits by Charles include I Can't Stop Loving You, Hit the Road Jack, and Seven Spanish Angels, his duet with Willie Nelson, which would rise to number one on the country charts. But it's Georgia on My Mind that is his most memorable recording. In 2003, Rolling Stone named the song the 44th greatest of all time. Was the song about an old love or a man longing for home?

We'll never know. But Charles had his own opinion. In his 1978 autobiography Brother Ray, he told the world that neither a woman nor a state was on his mind when he recorded the song. I never known a lady named Georgia, and I wasn't dreaming of no state, even though I was born there. It was just a beautiful, romantic melody. That wouldn't stop Georgia on My Mind from becoming the official state song in 1979 when Georgia Governor George Busby signed it into law. 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 so many years later.

There was no talk of cultural appropriation, either by Charles or by Carmichael. They were doing what musical artists do in America and have done from the beginning of time, borrowing from any and all forms of music and making it their own. And thanks to the miracle of intellectual property rights, artists in America are not merely protected against the theft of their work, but also incentivized to share it with others and across race, class, culture, and timeline. The Charles cover of Georgia on My Mind changed the lives of the writers and the singer forever, making all of them a small fortune. And the song also made the world a better and more beautiful place. There were many other covers of the song and by some great artists from every musical genre. Eddie Arnold, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Michael Bolton, Michael Buble, Ella Fitzgerald, Leon Russell, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Garcia, Coldplay, and the Righteous Brothers, Tom Jones, James Brown, and the Zac Brown Band. But one version stands out from all the rest.

At the time of his death at 73, on June 10th, 2004, Ray Charles averaged 200 concerts a year. Georgia on My Mind was always the crowd favor. The story of Georgia on My Mind, how it came to be, here on Our American Stories. Hey guys, it is Ryan. I'm not sure if you know this about me, but I'm a bit of a fun fanatic when I can. I like to work, but I like fun too. It's a thing.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-06-07 04:39:16 / 2024-06-07 04:43:37 / 4

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