Making "Misty": The Legendary Johnny Mathis Recording, Page Two

Johnny Mathis and Mitch Miller, courtesy of Johnny Mathis Archives.

Mathis was told to pick out 20 potential songs, demo them with just a guitar, and give the demos to arranger Glenn Osser. Among the songs he chose was "Misty."

"I heard Erroll Garner play it when I was in my teens. I was frequenting the Black Hawk, where Erroll played three or four times a year. One night, he played the tune. There were no lyrics yet. I liked it a lot. I blurted out, ‘Mr. Garner, I am going to record your song if I ever make a record.' Several years later, Johnny Burke had written lyrics to it, and I had fallen in love with Sarah Vaughan's version."



"Erroll's business manager, Martha Glaser, heard somehow that I was going to record it, and she showed up at the recording studio. But we had a little problem, because I was told to record a song from one of the current Broadway shows, for which Columbia was planning to do the original cast recordings. That was going to push ‘Misty' out."

"By the time we got to the last song, which was ‘Misty,' someone reminded me that I was also obligated to sing one of those Broadway show songs, and so we had a little argument over that. I said, ‘Let's just do ‘Misty,' and then I'll sing the other song, and we'll see which one comes out better.' So Mitch asked Glenn Osser to do the chart. When I sang ‘Misty', I remember the oboe solo, and that I just sort of came in at the wrong time with that high note. Well, it turned out later to be a famous moment in the song. Looking back now, it was wonderful that it happened sort of accidentally on purpose."

Mathis was referring to his full-octave fade-in glissando (sliding down the scale) when he sings "On my own," as he comes back in after the instrumental break. It was his idea, and the only way he could do it was to stand a distance from the microphone and gradually walk toward it.

"I used that device a lot back then. They couldn't do it technically in the studio, so if you wanted it done, you had to do it yourself. What you did in those days was often very much off the cuff. Since you did the recordings entirely live, you had only one chance to sing the song. When you have to do four songs in three hours, which was what we did in those days, you really don't have much time to do anything more than what comes natural to you. If it works, it works; if it doesn't work, it's still going to get released."

Osser was a seasoned staff arranger who had been writing arrangements since 1937, many for big band stars such as Benny Goodman and Bob Crosby. More recently, he had worked with singers Vic Damone and Jerry Vale. As it turned out, he and Mathis were a perfect match. Now 95 years old, Osser recited the details of his classic arrangement for "Misty," as if it were just yesterday.

"I knew that it had been written by Erroll Garner, so I started off the arrangement with the piano, on account of him. Then I decided that I wasn't going to have any violins come in until the second verse, when Johnny sings, ‘And a thousand violins begin to play.'"

Andy Ackers was the piano player on the session, and his introduction and fills played a prominent role in the recording. I asked Osser if Ackers was improvising.

"It was all written out. If you listen to it closely, Andy played block chords and the guitar played the lower notes in unison, just like in the George Shearing Quintet arrangements, except that I didn't use a vibraphone. Usually, when I do an introduction, I try to incorporate the main theme, paraphrased in some way. But this is one time that I didn't; it was a completely new composition. Behind it, I had the rhythm section and some violas and cellos sustaining harmony, just as a little cushion. When I wrote out those piano fills for Andy, he said, ‘I'll play anything you want.' He was one of the best players for being able to do that in exactly the right style. I had him on so many dates."

Ackers was also a veteran of the big bands, as well as a busy songwriter. In the late 1940s, he stopped going on the road and became a highly gifted studio pianist who played on perhaps a thousand or more records with everyone from Tony Bennett to Brenda Lee. He also played on numerous television commercials, and even on many Musak recordings. He died in 1978. His son Andrew, also a musician and composer, grew up fully aware of his father's talent.

"I was just listening to ‘Misty' last night," he told me, "and I enjoyed it more now than I ever have, since you brought it out to me. Johnny's singing was so spectacular. He had a beautiful voice and a beautiful style. Of course, Dad would have been playing a written score, but I loved his style of playing it. It was so meaningful. He didn't roll the chords. There were little subtle touches that were examples of my father's sensitivity."

"With the Internet now, I am able to hear a lot of the records that my father played on. And I can recognize my father's style. Compared to my father, almost every other studio pianist was mechanical. He had a very musical way of pacing. You think of an ocean and its waves going higher and lower, and that describes my dad's playing. He wasn't just playing the notes as they were written. There was another pianist who competed with him named Bernie Leighton. He was the only other studio pianist with the caliber of my dad. They were friends. But even Bernie didn't play with the same sensitivity. In fact, I can almost always recognize my father on piano when I hear something that he played on. I remember one time when I was getting a haircut. They were playing Musak in the background. All of a sudden I heard this piece I had never heard before, listened to the piano part like you did in 'Misty,' and said to myself, 'That's my dad.'"

Great recordings such as "Misty" would not have been possible without the services of sound engineer Frank Laico, now 92, who along with Mitch Miller, created the legendary 30th Street Studio where Columbia recorded most of its best albums. Laico's long association with Tony Bennett, and his work on memorable original cast recordings such as "West Side Story" only scratch the surface in describing his contributions to the recording industry. It was Laico who worked with Mathis in the studio to find the best way to record his voice.

"When Columbia started the studio on 30th, Mitch and I found an empty room in the basement that was just storing junk," said Laico. "We emptied it out and spent quite a bit of time with microphones and speakers to make our own echo chamber. Johnny had done two albums with Columbia previous to when I was asked to record him. We were looking for a sound that was going to sell records. We tried all kinds of things: equalization, echo, just about everything. I spent a good hour of the first session while the musicians just hung around. Finally, Mitch and I got the sound we wanted. At that point, we never changed the way we recorded him."

Laico had a long association with Osser, and they remain friends.

"He arranged his charts as if he wrote the songs himself. He had such a clear idea how to make an interesting arrangement for any song. He did so many different kinds of songs. He's a great artist. The recording of ‘Misty' couldn't have come out any better. Most of the time I did records, I was hearing, but I wasn't paying attention to the lyrics or other little things. But this was one of those that I was really listening to."

I asked Mathis if he thinks "Misty" represents his best work.

"It's the song I am most proud of, because I did it myself. The other stuff was handled more or less by Mitch Miller or whoever was the producer of the moment. But I took it upon myself to do the tune the way I wanted to, and to have it actually become a signature moment in my musical career was the best thing that could have ever happened. I loved Erroll Garner so much. He was a wonderful musician, a genius really, because he couldn't read music. He never played the song the same way. He had all these amazing inventions he played before he started playing the melody. I was so proud that I had heard the tune when I was very young when there were no words to it, and that I kept my promise to record it, and I did it in a way that would last over a couple of lifetimes."

Johnny Mathis and Erroll Garner, courtesy of Johnny Mathis Archives.

Johnny Burke, lyricist for "Misty," circa 1960. Photo by Leo Friedman, NYC.

"'Misty' happens to be one of my favorites. Johnny Mathis used to call the house quite often and ask to speak to Johnny. He was crazy about him." -Mary Burke Kramer, widow of Johnny Burke


On the following pages, see the complete interviews with sound engineer Frank Laico; arranger-conductor Glenn Osser; Andrew Ackers, the son of pianist Andy Ackers; and singer Johnny Mathis, plus sound samples and more photos.

Laico tells us more about working with Mathis in the studio. Osser talks about his incredible 75-year career, including colorful stories about working with Benny Goodman and Judy Garland, among others. Ackers gives us great insight about his father's life as a unique and underrated musician. And finally, Mathis talks in depth about how he developed his singing style, and the music business people who mentored him.

Full interview with sound engineer Frank Laico

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