Johnny Mathis – Misty

It’s strange how Johnny Mathis isn’t mentioned as often as some other crooners whose repertoire had many love songs. The reason might be because Mathis rose to prominence in the late 50s when the popular taste was changing and would rapidly start to favour rock music. So even though he’s had a long career, the limelight didn’t shine on him quite as many years as the likes of Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra. And yet many original Mathis recordings became well known jazz standards, and his singing style cannot really be compared with anything else.

Misty was first a jazz piano piece by Erroll Garner before Mathis recorded it, arguably his biggest hit. And you can still hear its origins in the gentle dissonant chords and the quirky melody. There’s sweetness and peace in the way it’s sung, and yet the melody has tension. The whole situation seems fragile, just like having a strong infatuation and feeling all the more vulnerable because of it, like a kitten up a tree.

This uncertainty is present from the very first phrase: when Mathis sings “Look at me,” the melody rests on the seventh note of the scale, or the second, if the song is thought to be in the relative minor key. There is some ambiguity in that sense. Not only does the melody rest on a tension, but the song itself seems to hover in that misty area between C minor and Eb major. At least to my ear it largely sounds uncertain whether it’s going to resolve in C or Eb. And as the song ends, we’re given the beginning phrase again, leaving the melody hanging in the mist. This feeling is strengthened throughout the song. Singing “you can say that you’re leading me on, but that’s just what I want you to do” the melody goes even deeper into dissonance. You can hear it as the song going to a different key (Db) for two bars, or just resting in b9 or b7 for a moment.

Perhaps the music theory perspective means nothing to the average listener, but the gist of it is this: the lyrics in themselves are naive, but because the music goes to such unusual places, the naivety sounds fresh and intriguing. And in the first grip of love our thoughts are usually idealizing and naive, so it fits the mood perfectly.

We also have the arrangement and the voice to enhance the mood: the sweeping violins, which were a feature of so many love songs of the time, and the first violins enter just when he’s singing “and a thousand violins begin to play”. There’s also a harp in the background, enhancing that heavenly feeling. And then the oboe solo which ends with a subtle fade-in of Mathis singing in falsetto. Apparently that was an accident – he simply came in at the wrong time, and yet it fit the arrangement perfectly

And this combination of sweetness and tension, infatuation and uncertainty, has raised the song to be one of the classics. To hear music when your lover says hello, to be confused about your right and left foot, so in love that you’re completely misty. It works both as a fantasy and as a description of what love does feel like, when you can’t believe your luck that something like this has happened. That all this time somewhere there was this person so wonderful, and now just thinking of her it seems like the whole world has been transformed because you are so different feeling that way, so much in love. There’s the longing to be seen in the hope that both could share that feeling, make it even more intense perhaps by the mutual recognition. It’s like Misty is not even a song, but one of the greatest dreams written, just under 4 minutes of bliss in uncertainty.