Ray Stevens’ version of “Misty” is a particularly joyful expression of new-found love.
It was also a very unlikely UK Number Two chart hit back in 1975. It’s a little different now, but country music was deeply un-cool in the UK back in the mid-1970s. The sort of thing your grandparents might listen to, but even then, only if they were getting to the stage of life where you indulged them rather than criticised them.
From the first twang of the banjo, you knew where you were headed with Ray Stevens’ version of “Misty”…and just to make sure in case you didn’t get the message the first time, a couple of seconds later when the country fiddle and pedal steel guitar join in too there was absolutely no doubt.
Yet the warmth and affection in Ray Stevens’ performance won over a country which would normally turn its collective back on bluegrass-infused songs, and certainly wouldn’t normally consider it likely material for the very upper reaches of the pop charts.
It was also an odd follow-up single for Ray Stevens in the UK. The previous year, he’d reached the Number One slot in the UK singles chart with his comedy record “The Streak”.
So he was a well-known name, even to younger radio listeners and record buyers. But still, I don’t think many would have predicted that Ray Stevens’ next assault on the pop charts would be a country music take on the sort of jazz classic our mums listened to on night-time radio.
Mind you, this wasn’t the first time Ray Stevens’ took his career in what you might describe as an unexpected direction.
From comedy records like “Gitarzan” and “Bridget The Midget” through to the more socially conscious “Mr Businessman” and the inspirational, Grammy-winning “Everything Is Beautiful”, there’s probably not many artists with a broader sweep of musical genres in their kit bag than Ray Stevens.
The thread that runs through them all, though, is wonderful musicianship.
As a long-time Nashville studio musician, producer and arranger, Ray Stevens played with the very best and was considered one of the very best himself.
So it seems only fitting that “Misty” came out of a session where Ray Stevens and his band were just messing around in a recording studio.
As he describes it himself, they were making a very affectionate tribute to a great song, rather than a parody, in a break between recordings. But, as sometimes happens, they hit upon something astonishingly good, entirely by chance, and quickly switched the tape on.
After a quick run through, the version released as the single was Take Two.
They captured the spirit in the moment and had the good sense to leave it alone after that.
Before Ray Stevens recorded it, by far the best known version of “Misty” was Johnny Mathis’ 1959 version. Over the years, “Misty” became Johnny Mathis’ signature song.
Originally written by jazz musician Errol Garner as an instrumental. Johnny Mathis liked the tune, and wanted to use it on a record, but needed some lyrics.
Thankfully Johnny Burke was on hand for that job. Not a terribly well-known name nowadays, Johnny Burke was an Oscar-winning lyric writer…for Bing Crosby’s “Swinging On A Star”…and wrote many fine songs with the much better-known Jimmy Van Heusen.
Their songs together included “Moonlight Becomes You”, “It Could Happen To You” and “Like Someone In Love”.
It’s probably appropriate, given Ray Stevens’ penchant for comedy songs, that Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen also wrote a number of songs which featured in several of my grandfather’s favourite films…the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road” movies.
That included one of my personal favourites, the theme song for “The Road To Morocco” which includes a line that always makes me laugh… “Like Webster’s Dictionary, we’re Morocco bound”…
For “Misty”, though, Johnny Burke stayed away from light comedy and played it straight. Instead of going for the laughs, he captures that tender moment in the instant you realise you’ve met someone very special just beautifully…
Look at me
I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree
I’m walking on a cloud
I can’t understand
I’m misty, holding your hand
This lyric really suited Johnny Mathis’ voice. It’s got a slight quiver to it that makes it sound like a man struggling to describe the unaccustomed emotions running through his veins at the very moment he realised he was in love for the first time.
But love is a funny thing. It does different things to each of us.
If I was summing up Johnny Mathis’ performance of “Misty” in a single word, that word would be “sincere”.
It feels like a very genuine, from the heart message being sung by someone who really means what he’s saying. It’s not a tired old line he’s said a thousand times before. This time, it’s for real.
On the other hand, if I was summing up Ray Stevens’ version of “Misty” in a single word, that word would be “joyful”.
In Ray Stevens’ hands, it becomes the musical embodiment of the expression “head over heels in love”.
Fireworks are going off inside his head. All the colours are turned up to the max. He’s dazed and confused, albeit in a nice way, and doesn’t know quite what to say or do next.
The Johnny Mathis version feels like the song someone would sing out loud to the object of their affection. Ray Stevens’ version sounds like the internal dialogue that’s taking place just after someone’s heart went “boom”.
And although he’s playing this one straight, of course Ray Stevens couldn’t resist fading in the country fiddles for this section…
Walk my way
And a thousand violins begin to play
Or it might be the sound of your hello
That music I hear
I’m misty the moment you’re near
Ray Stevens’ 1975 unexpected hit recording isn’t the only unusual way what was originally a slow-paced jazz standard has been used in popular culture over the years.
The instrumental version of “Misty” also features strongly in the Clint Eastwood classic movie “Play Misty For Me”, where he somehow uses a love song to create a sense of foreboding…which is also a hard trick to pull off by anyone’s standards.
Over the years, pretty much all the great and the good have recorded their own versions of “Misty” over the years, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
They all do a wonderful job, but to this day, my favourite version of “Misty” is the one by a great country musician, producer and arranger with a track record in writing and performing hit comedy songs.
The joy of being in love that Ray Stevens captures in his version of “Misty” is masterful. The evident affection he has for Errol Garner and Johnny Burke’s masterpiece is humbling. And it’s so beautifully done too, winning a Grammy for Ray Stevens’ arrangement.
If you’ve ever been head over heels in love and want to recapture exactly what that feels like in three minutes or less, I couldn’t give you a better example than Ray Stevens’ joyful, affectionate and utterly unexpected take on such a well-known song.
Here Ray Stevens with his version of “Misty”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3uO8oSAAFaueJyzkK39zq