The languid, almost sensuous lyrics of “Georgia on My Mind” could as easily be about a lover as the southern US state the 1930 song celebrates. Certainly, the line “Other arms reach out to me, other eyes smile tenderly” suggests a woman (or man) might be involved. But combine Stuart Gorrell’s lyrics with Hoagy Carmichael’s music and the sense of place becomes palpable. Yet Indiana-raised Carmichael had never set foot in Georgia when he composed the tune. What’s more, it seems that the idea for the song wasn’t even his. According to his biographer, Richard M Sudhalter, it was the saxophonist Frank Trumbauer who suggested Georgia as a subject. After all, he reasoned: “Nobody ever lost money writing songs about the South.”
Carmichael recorded the song in September 1930. This “Georgia” mixes sentiment and hot jazz, features Carmichael’s vocals and, towards the end, a short eight-bar break from his friend Bix Beiderbecke. It is the cornetist/trumpeter’s last-known session: Biederbecke, an alcoholic, died the following year at the age of 28.
But it was the originator of the idea for the song, Trumbauer, who had the first hit with it. His equally jazzy version made the US top 10 in 1931, as did Mildred Bailey’s recording that same year. Although many versions followed, hits proved elusive. The drummer Gene Krupa and his orchestra reached No 17 in 1941 with Anita O’Day on vocals but the rock-and-roll 1950s were a barren period for both the song and its composer. Carmichael, who ended up acting and writing music for the TV western series Laramie, once told Downbeat magazine: “After rock and roll started, I never even got a phone call from an A & R [artists and repertoire] man about anything.”
But in 1960 the song’s fortunes changed. Rising star Ray Charles had left Atlantic Records in order to gain greater artistic control, higher royalties and mainstream acceptance at a time when albums were starting to outsell singles. His first LP for his new label ABC-Paramount was The Genius Hits the Road, a 12-track concept album themed on places in the US; “Georgia on My Mind”, the standout track, was sandwiched between “Alabamy Bound” and “Basin Street Blues”. Released as a single, it reached No 1 in November 1960 and won a Grammy Award.
Charles’s performance wrung every ounce out of the song’s yearning-for-home theme; his live renditions were even more moving. Yet according to his 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray, neither woman nor state were on his mind when he recorded the song. “I’ve never known a lady named Georgia . . . and I wasn’t dreaming of the state . . . even though I was born there,” he said. “It was just a beautiful, romantic melody.”
That didn’t stop “Georgia on My Mind” becoming so indelibly linked to the southern state that in 1979 the relationship was formalised when the Georgia House of Representatives declared it the official state song.
Charles’s 1960 hit ushered in a plethora of covers, including The Band’s 1976 endorsement single for presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter. But it was Willie Nelson who had a substantial hit with it when he topped Billboard’s Country and Western chart in 1978 and won the song a second Grammy.
In 2005 the Albany rap group Field Mob’s “Georgia”, with Atlanta-raised Ludacris and Jamie Foxx (who played Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic), bookended a rap on the gritty reality of the state’s underbelly with the rose-tinted yearnings of Carmichael and Gorrell’s song. The idea worked, not least because “Georgia on My Mind” is a brilliant work of imaginative fiction that captures the yearnings of the homesick soul. That fact and fantasy are so out of step only adds to the pathos.
For more in the series, as well as podcasts with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song