A short history of … “Misty” (Erroll Garner, 1954)
“Misty” was composed by pianist Erroll Garner in 1954. Garner originally wrote the song as an instrumental for his trio. They version was recorded that same year.
Singer Johnny Mathis heard it, loved it, and eventually asked lyricist Johnny Burke to write words for it. Burke had been part of Bing Crosby’s songwriting team alongside Jimmy Van Hausen; the two famously composed the Academy Award winning song “Singing on a Star” from the 1944 film Going My Way.
Mathis recorded and released his “Misty” in 1959. It became a hit, peaking at number 12 on the U.S. Pop Singles chart and becoming the singer’s signature song. Interestingly, Steve Sullivan notes that jazz chanteuse Sarah Vaughan had released her own version of “Misty” a few months earlier as the B-side of her summer-1959 Top Ten hit “Broken-Hearted Melody,” but ‘her splendid rendition was largely overlooked while that of Mathis soared.’
“Misty” became a hit for five different artists between 1959 and 1975. In 1971, Garner recorded a new version of “Misty” for Clint Eastwood’s feature directorial debut Play Misty for Me. The song is prominently featured in the movie, which includes an obsessed fan repeatedly phoning a radio deejay to ask for “Misty.”
Today, “Misty” stands as one of the most beloved and best-known jazz standards. Despite this, Ted Gioia writes: ‘Garner’s ballad is certainly well written, and the ascending melody line entering the bridge, spanning more than an octave over the course of three bars, makes for high drama, but “Misty” has suffered from too many saccharine cocktail-piano versions over the years. Even the great jazz players struggle to reclaim its dignity nowadays.’