Jan 232024

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Misty covers

Popular song titles end up as film titles often enough–“Singin’ in the Rain,” “Dazed and Confused,” “American Pie,” “[I] Walk the Line.” But how many songs are referenced by a film title? Only one: Erroll Garner’s 1954 hit “Misty.” The film Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut from 1971, calls it out.

The film follows a jazz radio DJ who spins “mellow groove” for his listeners each evening. One night someone calls in a simple request: “Play ‘Misty’ for me.” The next evening she calls again. “Play ‘Misty’ for me,” she repeats, and hangs up. This psychological suspense thriller hinges–or unhinges–on this repetition.

A hundred good versions of “Misty” were in circulation by 1971, but the caller doesn’t say which one she wants to hear. And the DJ doesn’t ask. (I get it: the film must advance its plot and not get mired in detail, but as a music lover I’m disappointed, and still just curious: What was her jam?) The DJ puts on the instrumental by the Erroll Garner Trio–the original “Misty” recording.

The song was original in both senses of the word: being the first, and being wholly unique. Garner himself was an original: a self-taught prodigy with a style all his own, who could not read or write music notation, but whose unorthodox creations were some of the era’s crowning achievements, both artistically and commercially.

Garner’s instrumental plays a few times during the film, both as part of the action, and as part of the score. In the world of “Play Misty for Me,” there are no covers of “Misty,” and no lyrics.

Moviegoers mostly knew the words anyway, through popular versions by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mathis. But audiences may have been clueless about the substance of the lyrics. “Misty” was the “Every Breath You Take” of its day: it passed as a love ballad or torch song, but it invited a darker reading, with each verse hinting at a serious emotional disturbance, a fatal attraction. Screenwriter Jo Heims had the song’s double-edged meaning in mind, and wove her story around its tale of obsession. As with the radio caller’s request, you hear it once and it’s anodyne; hear it again and something feels wrong.

Lyricist Johnny Burke didn’t work on “Misty” until a year after Garner released it. Already famous for “Pennies from Heaven” and a few other standards going back to the ’30s, Burke declined to take on “Misty” at first. And once he finished the lyrics, the piece was slow to gain recognition.

The first big-name vocalist to sing and record “Misty” was Sarah Vaughan. Though her 1959 take didn’t become widely popular, it got the attention of a young Johnny Mathis. Months later Mathis outright copied Vaughan’s interpretation and added it at the last minute to his second album. The recording launched “Misty” to the top of the charts, and eventually to the Grammy Hall of Fame (where it joined Garner’s original recording). Now the world took notice.

All the great pop and jazz vocalists of the day quickly followed with their renditions. Aretha. Frank. Ella. Bing. But so did less-than-great vocalists by the dozens or hundreds. By the mid-seventies “Misty” had become a cocktail lounge cliché. (Need proof? Play this short documentary from an early Saturday Night Live episode –start at the 18:20 mark.)

It’s a different story in 2024. A vintage jazz resurgence is going on, especially among Millennials and Gen-Z listeners. And what’s being revived is romantic jazz specifically–“Misty,” and music like “Misty.” Several excellent “Misty” covers by artists still in their 20s have dropped just in the last year or two. Samara Joy is just one example: she was named Best New Artist at the 2023 Grammy Awards, and she won Best Jazz Vocal Album for Linger Awhile, which featured “Misty.” Erroll Garner would be pleased: good times are here again for his timeless classic.

Laufey–Misty (Erroll Garner/Johnny Burke cover)

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir developed her sizable following via TikTok, aided by her cover of Billie Eilish that Eilish shared with her considerably larger following. Laufey is a Swiftie in love with “Misty,” which she has recorded more than once. She conjures a Chet-Baker-meets-Ella-Fitzgerald vibe so powerfully you’d think she had listened to nothing but her grandparents’ old jazz LPs all her life. But on Bewitched, her 2023 sophomore release, “Misty” is the one jazz standard on the album–most tracks fuse pop and European classical forms (with or without mid-century modern jazz elements).

Richard “Groove” Holmes–Misty (Erroll Garner cover)

I gave this up-tempo cover a hard pass when I first heard it. Based on the first few bars, I decided this is not how you play “Misty” (for me). But that short snippet stayed in mind and brought me back; now I wonder if this is the only way to play “Misty,” with a slammin’ Hammond B-3 organ. Groove Holmes is my go-to when (to borrow some vocabulary from Groove’s album titles) I need a big bowl of soul or a healin’ feelin’.

Coincidently (or not), the drummer on this track is Jimmy Smith, who soon joined Erroll Garner’s quartet and occupied that seat for years.

Ray Stevens–Misty (Erroll Garner/Johnny Burke cover)

Ray Stevens was known for his blend of country music and comedy. And sure enough, this arrangement of “Misty” started as a joke in a Nashville recording studio–”right, a bunch of chicken-pickers playing Erroll Garner, that’ll sell.” Eyeroll. But to their own surprise it clicked, and it did sell. And won a Grammy.

Some will say it started as a joke and remains one, or that it’s a crass bastardization of a masterpiece. But there is no kidding around when it comes to the musicianship involved, or the tastiness of the arrangement. It’s novel, but not a novelty.

Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio–Misty (Erroll Garner cover)

At least one great pianist needed to be in this “Misty” survey, no matter how obscure. Enter the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio.

Yamamoto considers Garner one of his main inspirations, and has released numerous recordings of “Misty” going back five decades. And yet he departs from Garner-style pianism in his work, and in his varied approaches to “Misty.” The Yamamoto trademarks are spaciousness, an intimate touch, wide-ranging dynamics, and interaction with his collaborators.

The recording shared here is new, less than a year old. It differs from his 1974 version, but both are masterful and moving. Oddly enough, Yamamoto’s most recent iteration (recorded in his late 70s) brings more bounce and youthful vigor than on the version he recorded in his 20s, which feels like the work of a wise elder–uneager to please, content with restraint. Both have their considerable charms and it was a toss up as to which one to share. Let’s hope this later version is not the last.

Fun fact: Yamamoto was the house pianist at the famous Tokyo jazz club called “Misty.”

Dakota Staton–Misty (Erroll Garner/Johnny Burke cover)

Let’s end by circling back to the beginning. Dakota Staton was apparently the first vocalist to record “Misty.” Why this track from her popular debut album The Late Late Show didn’t resonate with audiences is a mystery. Staton did score a big hit with the album’s title track, but had only modest success thereafter. Though largely forgotten by the ’70s, Staton in the late ’50s and early ’60s influenced many upcoming vocalists with her blend of blues and jazz with newer pop and R&B approaches. Purists may have frowned at Staton’s experimentation, but that didn’t deter her from moving to England in the mid-60s. There, she felt freer to play in her own ever-evolving style.

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  One Response to “Five Good Covers: “Misty” (Erroll Garner)”

Comments (1)
  1. Loved this!…and also confess I have endless love for the Ray Stevens version and don’t care who knows it :)

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