Programming note: Steyn's Song of the Week can now be heard weekly on Serenade Radio, every Sunday at 5.30pm British Summer Time. If you missed today's show, you can hear the repeat at 5.30am Monday UK time - that's 9.30pm Pacific Sunday evening on the West Coast of North America, or Monday lunchtime in Australia.
Alternatively, there's a second repeat at 9pm Thursday, which is 4pm Eastern.
We would be remiss to let June close out without noting the centenary of the great jazz pianist Erroll Garner, born in Pittsburgh exactly halfway through this month in 1921. Mr Garner was principally a phenomenal performer, but he made one great contribution to the standard songbook. We are pleased to reprise Mark's thoughts on the subject:
Clint Eastwood has better taste in music than probably any other mainstream director still working, but he's not always the best at matching it up with the rest of the movie. The great exception is the film with which he made his directorial debut back in 1971 — Play Misty for Me. When I was starting out in radio, we disc-jockeys loved the premise of this picture - that guys who played music in the wee small hours on some rinky-dink station were cool enough to attract their own psycho stalkers. In my early days, I did attract a few stalkerettes, none of the psychotic kind, alas, just dogged, which is more wearisome. At any rate, after seven movies in which he'd been a cowboy or a soldier, Clint decided that, for his first directorial assignment, he'd play a platter-spinner, one Dave Garver of station KRML, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California - Eastwood's real-life home town, in which burg years later he was elected mayor. Dave has a late-night jazz show, on which a lady listener by name of Evelyn (Jessica Walter) is wont to dial up and huskily request, "Play 'Misty' for me":
Play Misty For Me was a hit and pioneered a mini-genre in which the hero has his life turned upside down by a deranged obsessive female - see Fatal Attraction, Misery, Basic Instinct, Fatal Misery, Basic Attraction, Miserable Instinct, etc. What those films lacked was the sheer cool with which Eastwood infused an essentially schlock proposition. Play Misty includes scenes of Johnny Otis and Cannoball Adderley at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and even the obligatory boy/girl montage of DJ Dave and his old flame (a rather dull Donna Mills) strolling by the sea is accompanied by Roberta Flack singing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", which promptly went on to become Billboard's biggest hit of the year.
Yet holding the whole thing together is a then nearly twenty-year old tune by Erroll Garner - "Misty".
As Garner liked to tell it, he wrote "Misty" on a plane, and probably a flight from Chicago to New York. He was staring out the window, thinking about his wife, when suddenly the clouds parted, he glimpsed a rainbow, and the word "Misty" popped into his head, shortly followed by a melody. Garner didn't write or read music, so he hummed the tune to himself over and over until the plane landed and he could get to a piano and have somebody transcribe it. The melody was so good, he was convinced it must be a pre-existing composition that had somehow swum up from the depths of his memory. When he'd previewed it to enough friends and fellow musicians and had been reassured that it was all his own work, he started playing "Misty" with his trio. In 1954, it appeared on Garner's album Contrasts:
Any reasonably popular jazz instrumental quickly finds its publisher shipping it out to potential lyricists. The problem, as noted in this space on several previous occasions, is that, when a tune isn't conceived as a vocal line, the resulting adaptation sounds less like a song than a guy singing along with an instrumental - see any number of Duke Ellington compositions for starters. But Garner, whether intentionally or otherwise, had written "Misty" in traditional 32-bar song form - AABA - that's to say, main theme, repeated with a slight modification, middle section, and back to main theme. The melody has a range of nearly two octaves, but it has a singer's logic about it. An exception to the singing-along-with-an-instrumental syndrome, even as an instrumental "Misty" sounded like a song you couldn't quite recall the lyric of. And so it was that in 1955, a year after its debut, Johnny Burke was called upon to fit words to Garner's tune.
Burke was dubbed by his fellow lyricist Sammy Cahn "the Irish poet", and like many an Irish poet he enjoyed a tipple. It ended his career, and eventually his life, a couple of decades ahead of his principal collaborators and equally prodigious drinkers, Jimmy Van Heusen and Bing Crosby. But in the twenty or so years he was at his peak, Burke produced a catalogue of songs that puts him in the very top tier of lyric-writers. He wrote classic ballads, rhythm numbers, comedy novelties ...and the all-time greatest animal song:
But if you don't care a feather or a fig
You may grow up to be a pig.
The title of that Crosby hit from 1944 catches the Johnny Burke style: To modify Oscar Wilde, a lot of drunks are lying in the gutter, but few of them are swinging on a star. Burke dealt in a lot of conventional Tin Pan Alley imagery - the stars, the moon, the heavens - but the celestial stuff was lightly worn: "Pennies From Heaven", "Moonlight Becomes You", "It Could Happen To You", "What's New?", "Imagination", "Here's That Rainy Day", "Comes Love (Nothing can be done)". Alas, come the booze, nothing could be done, and when Bing and Jimmy Van Heusen reckon you're drinking too much, that's the gold medal in the liquid Olympics. By 1955, Burke was on his way out. But he took the Erroll Garner assignment and gave it his best. The title was a given - "Misty". The question was how to serve it. Burke opted for romantic helplessness:
Look at me
I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree
And I feel like I'm clinging to a cloud
I can't understand
I get Misty just holding your hand...
The first problem the lyricist faced was that, even without any words, the first three notes of the music are among the most memorable in popular music. If you're going to put a text to them, it has to be something that doesn't get in the way. Burke opted for short, inconsequential phrases that don't seem especially distinctive, but fit the tune very nicely:
Look at me...
Walk my way...
On my own...
For the rest of the lyric, Burke got by on romantic enfeeblement: I'm helpless, I can't understand, I'm hopelessly lost. In contrast to the moony wallow of the main section, the big legato release is all about movement:
You can say that you're leading me on
But it's just what I want you to do
Don't you notice how hopelessly I'm lost?
That's why I'm following you...
If I had to venture a modest criticism of Burke's lyric, I would say it's the old problem of the smitten with the mitten. I've written before about the four-and-a-half rhymes for "love" - "above", "dove", "glove", "shove", and the half-rhyme of "of", pronounced "uv". "Glove" is annoyingly singular - as in Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm":
Off with my overcoat
Off with my glove
I need no overcoat
I'm burning with love...
- and you find yourself thinking: why's the guy only wearing one glove? Burke's solitary mitt is less obtrusive, but still seems hand-me-down:
On my own
Would I wander through this wonderland alone?
Never knowing my right foot from my left
My hat from my glove
I'm too Misty and too much in love
- which seems a weak and conventional end to a Johnny Burke lyric. Still, he wanted to wrap things up by making it clear that being "misty" equals being in love, and not just having blurry vision from one too many boozy three-in-the-mornings with Johnny Burke. So "glove" and "love" it is.
Who to sing it? The earliest vocal performance I know is Bing on the radio in 1955 with the Buddy Cole Trio. In the Eighties, Ken Barnes and Pete Moore, Crosby's British producing and arranging team at the end of his life, took dozens of mid-Fifties airchecks and added full orchestral accompaniment. I remember Ken telling me on a BBC show that, in case I was wondering how come Bing got to "Misty" years before anybody else, it was the Johnny Burke connection. Burke had written 26 movie scores for Crosby and given him six Number One hits, and so naturally he thought of Bing for that Erroll Garner tune. Indeed, I would be surprised if he didn't write the lyric with Der Bingle in mind. And in some ways, the song is made for him - it should sit beautifully in that mature Crosby voice. But on those radio shows with Buddy Cole Bing got a little jazzier than he did in the studio, and the resulting "Misty" is a bit too casual:
So the song sat there for the best part of half a decade until Johnny Mathis' big hit record in 1959. A lot of Mathis smashes from that early phase of his career - "Chances Are", "Wonderful Wonderful" - sound terribly dated now, but that six-decade-old single of "Misty" holds up pretty well, especially Johnny's beautiful return from the instrumental for "On my own..."
His performance established Erroll Garner's tune as a song, and came to define it. Obviously, Clint Eastwood was far too hip to use Johnny Mathis in Play Misty for Me, but the lyric and the love ballad are implicit in the dramatic burden the director places upon Garner's instrumental: The film simply wouldn't work if Jessica Walter were calling up and demanding "Take The A Train" or any other great tune. True, there's a pleasing alliteration about "Play 'Misty' for me", to the point where I occasionally wish Clint had got somebody to write a song with that title - a song about another song, in the sense of "The Gang That Sang 'Heart Of My Heart'". But, even without that, Eastwood gave the tune a third life - cool instrumental, sentimental ballad, and now a musical McGuffin in a taut little thriller. Just for the record, the studio didn't want "Misty" at all. Their preferred title for the film was Play 'Strangers in the Night' for Me.
That ought to be enough for any song. But, a couple of years later, Ray Stevens came along and added another wrinkle. Five decades ago, Stevens was Number One with "Everything Is Beautiful", but he's better known for novelty numbers like "The Streak" and "Ahab The Arab", the latter of which is probably unperformable in these touchy times. One day in 1975, he and his band were warming up at rehearsal, and suddenly launched into an impromptu performance of "Misty" - a countryfied version on banjo, fiddle and steel guitar, peppy and up-tempo. At the end of it, Stevens figured it was goofy but he kinda liked it. So they went into the studio and played it again, this time with a vocal:
And Ray Stevens found himself with a Top Twenty hit in America, a Top Two hit in Britain, and a Grammy Award for Best Arrangement. (I have a very slight connection with Mr Stevens, in that he is the publisher of this song by C W Kalb, Jr.)
Jazz or country, for lovers and stalkers, "Misty" is a versatile song. Johnny Burke didn't live long enough either to see Eastwood's movie or hear Ray Stevens' hit reconception. After "Misty", Crosby told Burke to quit boozing or else. Burke chose "or else". His last nine years weren't so much misty, as one woozy blur, ending in his death in 1964 aged just 55. His words for Garner's little instrumental would prove to be his swansong.
But Erroll Garner lived to see Clint and hear Ray Stevens and many other versions. And on this centenary I hope someone up there in the Great Majority sits him at a piano and says "Play 'Misty' for me".
~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we now have an audio companion, every Sunday on Serenade Radio in the UK. You can listen to the show from anywhere on the planet by clicking the button in the top right corner here.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we've done the same for our musical features merely to provide some mellifluous diversions in this age of lockdown and looting. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Liza Minnelli to Loudon Wainwright III; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's lyrics, John Barry's Bond themes, sunshine songs from the Sunshine State, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from house arrest without end and revolution on the streets.
If you're a Mark Steyn Club member and you disagree with any or all of the above, feel free to tell him he doesn't know his hat from his glove in our comments section. As we always say, membership in The Mark Steyn Club isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other regular content, but one thing it does give you is commenter's privileges. Please stay on topic and don't include URLs, as the longer ones can wreak havoc with the formatting of the page.