Artists You Should Know: Erroll Garner (and His Song "Misty")

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61bmluy3bdl-_ss500I heard the jazz standard “Misty” on FIP radio the other day, and it made me think about the song’s composer, American pianist Erroll Garner (1921-1977). Garner conceived of “Misty” — his most famous song — while on a DC-3 lumbering over Chicago in 1954. The clouds were beautiful and misty on that flight, and a classic was born.

I say “conceived” because Garner played by ear all his life and never bothered to learn to read or write music. He didn’t need to. He started playing at the age of three. His older siblings were taking piano lessons from one Miss Bowman in his home town of Pittsburgh. He’d sit nearby, listening and taking it all in. Then, as described in a biography by James M. Doran, Garner would repeat exactly what Miss Bowman had just played. He later attended George Westinghouse High School — named after the famous inventor and entrepreneur — where other famous pianists like Billy Taylor and Ahmad Jamal were enrolled.

Misty” was first recorded in 1955, for Garner’s album Contrasts. The vocal version, with lyrics penned by Johnny Burke, came later the same year. It became a pop hit when singer Johnny Mathis recorded it on his 1959 album Heavenly. Many other artists played or covered it after, including stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Frank Sinatra. Liberace even played it on an episode of The Muppet Show. I hope that Erroll Garner retained publishing rights for it, and that it made him a wealthy artist.

Like Ahmad Jamal, Garner played with a distinctive style. He incorporated many elements, swung beautifully, and exuded humor. My favorite recording of his is Concert by the Sea, which was recently reissued in an expanded 3-disc set. The album was recorded live at the Carmel By the Sea event in 1955 by KCRW’s jazz guru, the late Will Thornbury, who was in the armed forces stationed in Carmel. The reissue set also features for the first time an interview with Garner during the concerts there in the beautiful California central coast city.

Erroll Garner was a frequent guest on the The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. When the subject of not reading music came up, Garner said, “No one can hear you read.” Carson asked Garner what made his music so recognizable. Garner didn’t have an answer. So Carson asked The Tonight Show‘s pianist Ross Tomkins the same question.  Tomkins’ answer: “Happiness.” I feel the same way. I suggest getting the reissued Concert by the Sea set.  It’ll make you feel happy, too.

Garner became less prominent after his death in 1977, and a 2012 documentary film called “No One Can Hear You Read” aimed to remind jazz fans about him. Here is the trailer. The film would probably make for some happy viewing…and here is a 35 minute 1964 performance to whet your appetite.