Ray Stevens, “Misty” and the Story of a Song

My last post was about the Roberta Flack song featured in the film Play Misty for Me and in the comments boxes, Rol, whose excellent My Top Ten blog is one I visit often, threw down the gauntlet and asked, “Any chance of a follow-up post on Misty itself, by Ray Stevens? If you don’t, I will!”.

After watching the film again the other night, it confirmed for me that the version of Misty that was requested so often (tring, tring, …”Play Misty for me”) by mad-stalker-woman Jessica clintWalter, was not indeed the one by Ray Stevens (as it wouldn’t have been recorded for another four years), nor by Johnny Mathis who did a very romantic version in 1959, but in fact the original instrumental composed by jazz pianist Erroll Garner. Mr Garner was born in Pittsburgh in 1923 and started playing piano at the age of three. He came from a very musical family all of whom played piano but he never did learn how to read music and always played by ear. I give you the original Misty, composed in 1954 (the familiar part starts at 0:30).

And here is where I made a brand new discovery – I mainly know Johnny Mathis from his mid ’70s offerings I’m Stone In Love With You and of course When A Child Is Born, the big 1976 Christmas No. 1 hit. At that time Johnny always looked as if he’d just got off the golf course but in the late ’50s and early ’60s he was apparently the “Master of The Love Ballad” or more crudely put, “The King of Necking Music”. Despite being an outstanding athlete, he chose music as a career and amazingly Sinatra and Presley are the only male artists to have sold more albums. It should come as no surprise therefore, that when Johnny Burke wrote lyrics for the previously instrumental Misty, Johnny Mathis would be the very person to record this new version which became a big hit for him in 1959.

But this was supposed to be a post about the Ray Stevens‘ version of the song and at last I am getting round to it. Although Ray Stevens had been a very successful, multi-talented entertainer from the early ’60s onward, I probably only knew him from his early ’70s comedic novelty songs. There was Bridget the Midget (Queen of the Blues) in 1971 and then The Streak in 1974 released on the back of that very unusual fad of running naked through sporting venues. Fortunately, British bobbies’ helmets at that time were well designed for containing those body parts best kept under wraps, but still amused the crowds at Twickenham, Wimbledon and even at a Winter Olympics curling final (brrr…).

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In 1975 Ray Stevens decided to record a very countrified, up-tempo version of Misty which was a bit of a departure for him after so many novelty records. He was however born in Georgia in 1939 (still with us, I have just checked) and became a producer and studio musician in Nashville, so it would have made sense for him to go down that route especially as during the mid-70s country music had kind of become mainstream. Looking back at the charts of 1975, around a quarter of the records were by people whose names ended in a “y” or an “ie” – Tammy, Dolly, Johnny, Kenny, Billie, Charlie and so on. Yes, country-pop as a sub-genre had come of age, even outwith the US, and I think a lot of it was down to the fact that for the first time in ages, people of my parents’ generation had new music they could identify with and enjoy. Maybe it was different in the cosmopolitan cities, but where I came from in Scotland venues were packed out with people keen to watch their American country stars of choice perform songs that were set in the Appalachians, in Tennessee or Kentucky. Very apt really as these songs were written by the offspring of the Scottish, Irish and other Celtic immigrants who played well-known traditional instruments, such as fiddles, banjos, harmonicas and acoustic guitars.

Misty by Ray Stevens:

Ray Stevens‘ version of Misty is the one I know best and whenever I hear that intro I know exactly what is going to come next – That first line about being so love-struck you’re “as helpless as a kitten up a tree”. Yes, we’ve all been there, but fortunately not for some time in my case (the helpless kitten part). I’m not sure if Erroll Garner or Johnny Mathis would have approved of this version, but it was certainly the most commercially successful here in the UK and won a Grammy Award in the category of Music Arrangement of the Year. Ray was never as well-known here as in his native US but I have just had a bit of a déjà vu moment where I am reminded of watching him appear on the Andy Williams Show back in the late ’60s. He was a regular as it turns out, but at the time I would have been just far too preoccupied with that very good-looking band of Osmond brothers who also used to appear regularly, performing their very polished barbershop routines.

So, “What’s It All About?” – Not sure how well I’ve risen to the challenge of writing about this song, but I have enjoyed revisiting Misty and finding out so much more of its back story. I know Rol would have probably approached it differently but hey, this is how I do things here at WIAA? so hopefully whoever drops by will find something of interest. The question now is, do I continue to ask for suggestions on what song to write about next? I think this approach is sufficiently different to what we do on The Chain, so for one more post only, please enter suggestions in the comments boxes below to a song that links to Misty by Ray Stevens and I’ll see what I can come up with – A challenge indeed!

Misty Lyrics
(Song by Erroll Garner/Johnny Burke) 

Look at me
I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree
Ah, I’m walkin’ on a cloud
I can’t understand, Lord
I’m misty holdin’ your hand

Walk my way
And a thousand violins begin to play
Or it might be the sound of your “hello”
That music I hear, Lord
I’m misty the moment you’re near

You can say that you’re leadin’ me on
But it’s just what I want you to do
Don’t ya notice how hopelessly I’m lost
That’s why I’m followin’ you

Ooh, on my own
Should I wander through this wonderland alone, now
Never knowin’ my right foot from my left
My hat from my glove, Lord
I’m misty, and too much in love

You can say that you’re leadin’ me on
But it’s just what I want you to do
Don’t ya notice how hopelessly I’m lost
That’s why I’m followin’ you

Ooh, on my own
Should I wander through this wonderland alone, now
Never knowin’ my right foot from my left
My hat from my glove, Lord
I’m misty, and too much in love

(Misty) too much in love
(Misty) too much in love
(Misty)
(Misty) too much in love…