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Today's Song: "Misty"

September 13, 2019

My All-Time Greatest Songs


By Songbook Volunteer: Dick Schwartz


Author's Note: This blog has its origin in my interest – maybe, obsession – with songs. It seems there is usually some song in my head at nearly any time.  When I hear certain songs, I’ll sometimes think or say “Ooh! That’s one of my all-time favorites!” The range of my favorites is broad and diverse. These songs might be popular or obscure, from Broadway or the back roads, simple or complex, ballads or rockers. 


I hope that you will enjoy my blogging exploration of contenders for my all-time-favorite songs and that you’ll be moved to consider and share your own favorites that have held a timeless presence in the soundtrack of your life, or rather, your own personal Songbook. Enjoy!


Who doesn’t love “Misty”? This week’s addition to “My All-time Greatest Songs” may be one of the most popular and recorded songs ever. ASCAP named it as one of the 25 most performed standards of the 20th Century. No other song published since 1954 has been recorded by more jazz artists, except for Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Satin Doll.” It’s an interesting (to me) fact that the two biggest hit records of “Misty” were not actually on the schedule for the recording sessions where they came to life. More on that later.



“Misty” was composed in 1954 by Erroll Garner as an instrumental. He said he developed the melody on a long flight, inspired by the view of clouds and thoughts of his wife. As he did not write or read music, he committed it to memory until he could get home and record it for transcription. Garner recorded the song with his trio, and it was included in his 1954 album “Contrasts.” “Misty” quickly became a popular jazz standard, and hundreds of instrumental interpretations have been recorded.


Johnny Burke was a successful, prolific and award-winning lyricist in the 1930s through the 1950s. He wrote a string of hits with Jimmy Van Heusen, including songs for several Bing Crosby movies. Together they won an Academy Award in 1944 for “Swinging on a Star” for the Crosby film Going My Way. With its nearly two-octave range and melancholy feel, “Misty” presented a complicated task of adding words. Burke took on the challenge in 1955 and created the now-familiar lyrics in just a few hours. He captured the splendor of being in love and did that without changing a note, while being bound by an already-popular title.


While still in his teens, Johnny Mathis heard Erroll Garner play “Misty” in the Black Hawk jazz club in Mathis’ home town of San Francisco. He recalls blurting out “Mr. Garner, I am going to record your song if I ever make a record.” (Remember, there were no lyrics to the song at that time.)  Mathis was discovered and signed by Columbia Records in 1956 at the age of 21, singing jazz in that same Black Hawk club. Following a few unsuccessful jazz recordings, Mathis started working with Columbia’s A&R head Mitch Miller and moved toward a more straightforward vocal approach with more romantic songs.


Johnny Mathis and Errol Garner


For a recording session in 1959, Mathis was asked to select and provide demos for songs he thought would work. Among those he picked was “Misty,” inspired by a recent Sarah Vaughan vocal recording that he admired. As the recording session wound down, there was time for only one more song. Erroll Garner’s business manager, Martha Glaser, turned up at the recording session because she heard Johnny was going to record Garner’s song. (At times, the story has included that Erroll Garner himself was at this recording session.) Though Mathis was contractually obligated to record a different song, Mathis chose to record “Misty” that day.


Note: A definitive 2010 recounting by Joe Manning of the Johnny Mathis “Misty” recording session, including interviews with participants, may be found here.


In 1975 Ray Stevens, a country and novelty-song singer/songwriter/producer, had a big hit with an entirely different approach to “Misty.” As in the Johnny Mathis story, “Misty” was not on the schedule for Stevens’ recording session. Ray Stevens has recounted that he and other musicians were warming up and experimenting when they drifted into an upbeat, countrified version of “Misty.” They and the producer liked the sound, and the final version was recorded on the second take. Stevens’ version became a Billboard Hot 100 hit, and it was awarded a Grammy for Music Arrangement of the Year.


The absolutely lovely melody of “Misty” was given a voice with the addition of Johnny Burke’s masterful lyrics – a voice interpreted over and over by many vocal artists.


“Misty” notable releases and versions (instrumentals):

  • Errol Garner Trio (1954)
  • Count Basie and His Orchestra (1960)
  • Liberace (1962)
  • Ahmad Jamal (1966)
  • Richard “Groove” Holmes (1966)
  • Les & Larry Elgart (1969)
  • Slide Hampton (1970)
  • Pete Fountain (1970)
  • Lionel Hampton with Earl “Fatha” Hines (1977)
  • The Oscar Peterson Trio (1982) - medley
  • Dave Koz (1993)
  • Itzhak Perlman & Oscar Peterson (1994)


“Misty” notable releases and versions (vocals):

  • Dakota Staton (1957)
  • Johnny Desmond with Dick Marx Quartet (1957)
  • Sarah Vaughan (1959)
  • Johnny Mathis (1959)
  • Ella Fitzgerald (1960)
  • The Ray Charles Singers (1961)
  • Frank Sinatra (1962)
  • Andy Williams (1962)
  • Marty Robbins (1962)
  • Lesley Gore (1963)
  • Lloyd Price (1963)
  • Steve Lawrence (1963)
  • The Four Freshman (1964)
  • Gene Pitney (1965)
  • Pat Boone (1965)
  • Billy Stewart (1965)
  • Aretha Franklin (1965)
  • Donny Hathaway (1970)
  • Solomon Burke (1972)
  • Ray Stevens (1975)
  • Peggy Lee (1977)
  • Etta James (1986)
  • The Real Group (1987)
  • Kenny G featuring Gladys Knight (2005)
  • Michael Ball (2011)
  • Galaad Moutoz Swing Orchestra (2017)
  • Eddie Brewer & The Manic Episodes (2018)


 Check back next week for the next installment of "My All-Time Greatest Songs". In the meantime, listen to a few renditions of today's feature, "Misty"!