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There’s More to Erroll Garner Than His Hit “Misty,” But It’s A Good Place to Start

The nimble fingers of jazz pianist Erroll Garner glide over the black and white keys during a recording session with his trio in NYC, 1953.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
The nimble fingers of jazz pianist Erroll Garner glide over the black and white keys during a recording session with his trio in NYC, 1953.

A critical genetic link between ragtime and bebop, Erroll Garner was one of the most stylistically distinct jazz pianists of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Beloved by audiences and revered by fellow musicians, Garner’s accomplishments transcended his art.

He played with soul and good-natured mischief and contagious joy—and more than just a little intelligence. At the height of his popularity, he sued his record label, one of the world’s biggest, for releasing music of his they’d agreed not to. His stance earned him race-fueled derision in the press, put a temporary halt on his career’s momentum, and made him a trailblazer for artists’ rights.

A humble autodidact who told interviewers his musicality was a gift from God, Garner’s bandwidth for repertoire was massive; all his takes on standards are littered with idiomatic signposts of the sort that only come from an encyclopedic musical mind and an infinitely playful one. He whooped and grunted and hummed and had an impeccable feel for time, often metronome-like with his left hand, while playing coolly behind the beat with his right.

And yet, he’s most readily identifiable by a single word.

Garner’s legacy should be much more than his greatest hit, but they’ll always be inseparable. And, in truth, “Misty” is as good an on-ramp into Garner’s life and work as any.

By all accounts, “Misty” was actually conceived on an airplane in 1954, recorded later that year for his albumContrasts. Lyrics were added later by Johnny Burke, who had written tunes for Bing Crosby movies with Jimmy Van Heusen. Although Garner had recorded as early as 1944, and his 1955 live album Concert by the Sea was a great success, it was “Misty,” recorded the year prior, that would become a bona fide jazz standard and his enduring popular legacy.

Audiences seeing Garner live knew "Misty" was coming, but he was so adept at artfully keeping a crowd on its heels. In live performances (like the one from Brussels, Belgium below), he approached his signature tune the same way he approached so much of his repertoire, with sweeping improvisational prologues that would keep audiences temporarily guessing as to what was coming next.

In time, "Misty" became a behemoth. Gaining clout across subcultures, it has become inescapable. ASCAP named it one of the 25 most performed standards of the 20th century, and no other song published since 1954 has been recorded by more jazz artists, except for Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Satin Doll.”

One of the first jazz tunes I was introduced to as a young saxophone player was “Misty,” in the “Real Book” original key of Eb. But it wasn’t until I listened to versions recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Sinatra, Aretha Franklin and Johnny Mathis, that I realized the impact of this music not just on jazz but on popular music, too.

Mathis, as a teen, first heard Garner play “Misty” at San Francisco’s famed Blackhawk Club and, just a few months before recording his own version in 1959, was inspired by Sarah Vaughn’s, a B-side to Sassy’s “Broken Hearted Melody.” That release, in terms of record sales, would pale in comparison to Mathis.’

The story goes that Mathis was contractually obligated to record another tune but decided to record “Misty” anyway. It became a massive hit for the crooner, selling over two million copies in the U.S. Some versions of the story have Garner at the recording session along with his longtime manager, Martha Glaser—both Garner and Mathis were, at the time, artists on the Columbia label. Mathis’ “Misty,” with its lush orchestration, continues to be a part of every Marthis concert to this day.

While the vocal and instrumental arrangements varied in style, tempo and feel from one artist to the other, even country singer Ray Stevens had a hit in 1975 with a countrified version. Basie (1960), Ahmad Jamal (1966), Liberace (1962), Slide Hampton (1970), Oscar Petersen (1982), and Itzhak Perlman (1994) all recorded instrumental versions, and vocalists Etta James (1986), Gladys Knight (2005), Donny Hathaway (1970), and Aretha Franklin (1965) have all had a go with Garner’s music and Burke’s lyrics.

You may even recall “Misty” as the title song in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me in 1971. Garner’s trio recorded a new version especially for the film—that, too, became the subject of some controversy between Garner’s camp and the filmmakers.

The takeaway is that Garner was collaborative and amenable but, ultimately, not to be trifled with. Frequently maligned in the popular press as an absentminded, untrained musician unable to read music, he, with help of his agent Martha Glaser, took Columbia Records to court and won when they began releasing his studio recordings without his permission. Money from the settlement allowed Garner to establish his own label, Octave Music, where he recorded 12 albums in 18 years.

The litigation with Columbia was protracted, and it resulted in Garner not recording at the height of his marketability. This is among the reasons why Garner isn’t named as readily as part of the jazz canon as some others. But like Curt Flood in baseball, Garner took a principled stand and set a precedent for artists’ rights. His music and commitment to his lawsuit proved he was far more principled, educated, and shrewd than this portrayal.

In an ideal world, other aspects of his catalogue would receive more than just passing mention and his stance on artists’ rights would be celebrated to the same extent Flood’s is by sports fans and pundits. But, ultimately, it’s “Misty” that makes Garner immortal. And though that may not be perfect, it’s certainly not “Misty’s” fault.

Sign up here between September 24th to 26th for a chance to win the Erroll Garner Liberation in Swing Centennial Collection.

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.