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 that 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…

Roberta Flack, Clint Eastwood and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”

Well, today was the start of the first “normal” working week for a while after the confusing festive period. I am glad however as it is easy to get thrown out of kilter by the space-time continuum messiness that happens around this time of year – It certainly has thrown a certain Chain-Ganger, who shall remain nameless, but hopefully all will be back to normal this week!

Anyone who visits these pages will know that I am often earworm-afflicted, but thankfully most of these earworms are of the pleasurable variety. Last week it was The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack which had popped up on on the car radio on my way home from work. I hadn’t heard it in years and was struck by just how beautiful it was. Such a slow pace to it which contrasted markedly to everything else I had heard during the same journey. It was actually written back in 1957 by Ewan MacColl, the multi-talented British folk singer, songwriter, activist and more importantly, dad to Kirsty, but was subsequently covered by many other artists.

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The young Ewan MacColl – Is it me or is there a passing resemblance here to a certain Mr Shane MacGowan?

Ewan made no bones about the fact that he didn’t like these cover versions, but despite that, Roberta’s version from 1972 became a major international hit, winning a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. Her rendition, at over five minutes long was much slower than the original which ran to only two and a half minutes but the success of this more sensual version was no doubt because it was used by Clint Eastwood for his 1971 film Play Misty for Me, where he made his directorial debut. Yes, although the song was originally written as a love song for Ewan’s long-distance American lover Peggy Seeger, whom he subsequently married, the Roberta Flack version, once in the hands of Mr Eastwood became a song all about “makin’ love” – All very smooth in the make-believe world of the movie and not at all like in the real world where I’m sure there would have probably been nettle stings, ants and mussed-up hair.   

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack:

Play Misty for Me is a really great psychological thriller and one which I do remember watching on television as a teenager, back in the ’70s. Of course in those days families generally only had one television set which resided in what we called The Living Room (although I am aware that depending on your class and geographical location it could have been called something else). We also had no central heating but a very fine looking 2 bar electric fire to keep us cosy during the long winter months. My point is that the whole family sat in the living room watching television together and whenever “scenes of a sexual nature” as they are called nowadays were transmitted, it was a cue for everyone to get very embarrassed. My dad would suddenly pick up his Aberdeen Press and Journal (Scotland’s oldest daily newspaper) to hide behind, and my mum would find something very important to do in the kitchen. I was left red-faced, willing the “scene of a sexual nature” to be over as soon as possible so that we could all get back to the business in hand, which was hoping that the dashing Carmel-by-the-Sea radio jockey Mr Eastwood, would manage to thwart the unwanted attentions of his stalker, Jessica Walter.

And here is where the law of freaky coincidences strikes again. After purchasing the song at the weekend I decided to write about it on Sunday night. I got side-tracked however by a spot of boxset binging – Mad Men, the final season. Anyone who has watched Mad Men will know that it is an American period drama set primarily in the 1960s at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue. We were now right at the end of the final season however and had reached the early 1970s. At the end of each episode they chose a song from the era to accompany the closing credits and what did Sunday night’s turn out to be? Yes, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack!

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The Cast of Mad Men – We’ve reached the 1970s!

But of course I can’t leave it there as this would just be too schmaltzy a post. No, instead I will leave you with Will from the Inbetweeners movie, who thought that a spot of Roberta Flack would help him capture the heart of Katie, a girl he had met on holiday – Needless to say it didn’t, and she led him a merry dance on the way to finding that out, but all very funny nonetheless. Until next time, I give you Will…..

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
(Song by Ewan MacColl)

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies my love
To the dark and the endless skies

The first time ever I kissed your mouth
I felt the earth move in my hand
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command my love
That was there at my command my love

And the first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last ’till the end of time my love
And it would last ’till the end of time

The first time ever I saw your face
Your face, your face