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Misty (1954)

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Origin and Chart Information
“When I was sequencing this session I heard two of Erroll’s distinct facets: the romantic balladeer and the hard-driving, swinging guy. So I decided to call the album Contrasts.”

- Martha Glaser

Rank 56
Music Erroll Garner
Lyrics Johnny Burke

In 1954 the Erroll Garner Trio introduced the instrumental “Misty.” A year later Johnny Burke penned the lyrics, creating the song we know today. “Misty” remained relatively unknown until Johnny Mathis popularized the vocal version with his million-selling recording in 1959. Versions of “Misty” to make the pop charts include

  • Error Garner Trio (1954, instrumental, #30)
  • Johnny Mathis(1959, #12)
  • Lloyd Price (1963, #21)
  • Ray Stevens (1975, #14)

Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

Although it was never a number one hit, “Misty” has been performed by hundreds of instrumentalists and vocalists. Ray Stevens, who is best known for novelty songs such as “Ahab the Arab,” won a Grammy Award for Best Arrangement with a hit recording he says came about by accident. During a rehearsal he and his band were fooling around and played “Misty” on a banjo, a fiddle, and a steel guitar. They liked the sound and recorded it, never expecting “Misty” would bring Stevens his second Grammy.


More on Erroll Garner at JazzBiographies.com

There are several variations of the origin of “Misty.” One has Erroll Garner sitting on an airplane waiting for take off and looking out the window into the mist and observing a rainbow; another has him in the air flying from Chicago to New York; and a third simply says he was in an airplane thinking about his wife. Regardless, as a musician who could neither read nor write music, he hummed the tune to himself repeatedly while he hurried home to play his melody on the piano for transcription.

Paul McCartney has said he woke up with the melody to “Yesterday” in his head but felt he had heard it before so did not record it until verifying its originality with a number of friends. Once transcribed, Erroll Garner, like McCartney, wondered if “Misty” was a composition he had heard before but not remembered.

“Misty” was originally introduced via Erroll Garner’s Contrasts album on the EmArcy label in 1954. The album title was courtesy of Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser, who recalls, “When I was sequencing this session I heard two of Erroll’s distinct facets: the romantic balladeer and the hard-driving, swinging guy. So I decided to call the album Contrasts.”

The success of his ballad has created an interesting irony: “Misty” is not an imitation as Garner once feared it could be but rather a source for imitation by others. The inventive and briskly changing harmonic structure is often used as the basis for jazz improvisation, one famous example being Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk about You.”


More on Johnny Burke at JazzBiographies.com
Called “the ultimate love song,” Garner wrote “Misty” in the 32-bar A1-A2-B-A2 form with no verse. For lyricist Johnny Burke, fitting lyrics to the already-written composition was undoubtedly a bit constraining. With a title like “Misty,” the sentimental tone of the song was preordained. But within his constraints Burke found latitude, choosing an air of loving tenderness instead of sorrow or nostalgia. Loving and tender need not imply a lack of confidence, but Burke portrayed exactly that with his phrases, “I’m...helpless,” “I’m clinging,” “I can’t understand,” “I’m lost,” etc.

Interestingly, this depiction of lovesick romance has not discouraged appreciative listeners, instrumentalists, or vocalists. “Misty” has become Garner’s best-known composition. ASCAP named it as one of the 25 most performed standards of the 20th Century, and no other song published since 1954 has been recorded by more jazz artists except for “Satin Doll” (1958), which was originally recorded as an instrumental in 1953.

“Misty” is also well known as the title song for the movie thriller, Play Misty for Me (1971), in which Clint Eastwood starred and made his directorial debut. Eastwood plays a late-night disc jockey who has a casual affair with one of his listeners. She in turn becomes his stalker, calling his request line several times each night, saying in her throaty voice, “Play ‘Misty’ for me.” Also featured in the film was Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which became one of the biggest hits of the 1970’s.

More information on this tune...

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(This book features a short biography of Johnny Burke and nine pages of his lyrics, including those for “Misty.”)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

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