On July 20, 1969, the world was watching the CBS News broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing. As Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface for the first time, the music millions of viewers heard was an otherworldly, futuristic soundtrack by Mort Garson.
Without Garson, “electronic music as we know it today would not exist,” said Caleb Braaten of Sacred Bones Records, a Brooklyn, New York, label that specializes in lost and obscure recordings.
Garson wrote popular songs, including Our Day Will Come, a hit for Ruby and the Romantics, among other artists. He was an arranger on recordings by Doris Day, Glen Campbell, Mel Tormé and for The Sandpipers’ 1966 hit, Guantanamera.
He also was instrumental in popularizing the Moog synthesizer.
In 1996, indie rocker Beck sampled Garson on the song Devil’s Haircut.
Yet today, few people realize he grew up in New Brunswick.
Young love, scrap metal and Louis B. Mayer
Morton Samuel Garson was born in Saint John on July 20, 1924, to Frank and Emma Garson — Russian Jewish immigrants who both attended Shaarei Zedek Synagogue on Carleton Street.
“Dad talked a lot about Canada and how that was where he came from,” said his only daughter, Day Garson-Darmet, of San Francisco.
In an unpublished handwritten memoir, Garson described how his father “looked up in the balcony [of Shaarei Zedek] and saw my mother Emma … He waited outside the synagogue and introduced himself. After they talked for a while, he asked her if she would like to take a ride in his car on Sunday (the next day). She was delighted and asked if she could bring her two sisters. He said, ‘bring your whole family.’ She did.”
His parents married in 1921 and moved into a townhouse at 204 Douglas Avenue in the city’s north end. Their daughter, Riva, was born in 1923. Fifteen months later, Garson came into the picture.
Frank Garson was a “junk man” who ran the New Brunswick Iron & Wrecking Co. at 151 Prince William St. Newspaper ads between 1919 and 1921 show him advertising for sale an eclectic array of machines, including second-hand mining gear, locomotives and old streetcar bodies.
“His competitor was Louis B. Mayer,” Garson wrote, “who was interested in silent movie pictures — and you know the rest of the story. He moved to Hollywood and became very successful.”
Mayer went on to co-found Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM studios, in 1924 —the year Mort was born.
Little did his family know, he was headed for his own Hollywood success story.
From Saint John to New York
The Garsons left Saint John for “business reasons,” Mort wrote, when he was still young enough to be looked after by a “very pretty nurse.”
“I was very sorry to leave,” he wrote.
The family relocated to Albany, New York, where Garson leaned full-throttle into his musical ambitions, studying piano at the prestigious Julliard School and working as a pianist and arranger before being called into the Army to work as a medic near the end of the Second World War.
“My dad was the worst person to be a medic in the world. I think my dad’s whole world was music,” Garson-Darmet said.
After leaving the service, he went immediately back to working on background music for movies, as a session musician and on a wide range of easy-listening records.
“His relaxation was reading sheet music,” she said.
Garson and his wife Peggy — the muse of the family according to their daughter — moved their family from New York City to Los Angeles after a Hollywood studio asked him to work with Doris Day.
Despite continued success in the music industry, he “felt he was getting further and further away from his artistic true self,” said Garson-Darmet. “He was looking for something.”
Enter the Moog
In 1967, Garson found the “something” that would define his musical legacy.
It was at an engineering conference in 1967 that he was introduced to Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer. The world’s first analog synthesizer, the Moog was a strange and groundbreaking instrument, creating sound via voltage-controlled oscillators, amplifiers, filters and noise generators played with a range of controllers.
In that tangle of patch cords, keyboards, joysticks and pedals, Garson saw his musical future.
He shocked his wife and family by dropping “like $50,000” on one of the first Moogs ever made, Garson-Darmet said.
“We had no idea what he was doing. We were all very confused.” Instead of Garson’s usual melodic, beautiful piano playing, the house was suddenly filled with the weird wailing of the Moog.
Over the next decade, Garson wrote synth film scores, advertising jingles and music for television programs. His daughter recalls celebrities such as Liza Minelli, Bill Withers and Doris Day coming to the house.
“I didn’t really understand that these were famous people,” she said. “It was hard to tell the famous people from the people that my dad just pulled in because he thought they were artistic and interesting for him. There was music playing all the time — there were drums, guitars, there was singing, there was creating.”
One of those creations was Garson’s lunar-landing composition, Moon Journey, a commission that came to him via his agent.
It so happened that the moon landing fell on July 20 — Garson’s 45th birthday. As Apollo 11 touched down, the family was having a pool party in the backyard. All the kids ran into the den in their wet bathing suits “and we sat on the floor and we watched,” listening to her father’s moon music.
“It was a moment that you could remember — always,” she said.
Yet, for decades, the music that accompanied that history-making broadcast was presumed lost, surviving only in an old YouTube clip that was eventually taken down, according to Braaten.
“It has been a lot of archival, a lot of archeological digging, just to get more information on how he worked,” he said. “The man himself did not keep very good records.”
More information started coming to light with the advent of YouTube and file-sharing, which resulted in a Mort Garson renaissance among fans of obscure electronic music. In 2019, Sacred Bones reissued one of Garson’s best-known albums, Plantasia, from 1976, described as music “for plants … and the people who love them.”
As an underground following continued to blossom for Plantasia, Braaten was stunned to hear from Andy Zax, the archivist and record collector responsible for restoring and remastering the catalogs of Talking Heads, Rod Stewart, Echo & The Bunnymen and The Sisters Of Mercy, among others.
Zax said he had the reel for the Moon Journey recording, Braaten said.”I truly never thought that we’d be able to find that.”
On July 21, 2023, Sacred Bones plans to release Journey to the Moon and Beyond, a compilation of unreleased Garson tracks that runs the gamut from space-age disco to the “theme song of a very unknown blaxploitation film.”
It will be available “all over the world. On vinyl, CD, digital —however you listen to music, you’ll be able to find it,” said Braaten.
Shoot for the moon
Garson passed away in 2008 before ever seeing the popular success of his electronic music, a genre he’s now credited with helping to shape.
Still, he was writing and playing music up until his last moments. Just before he died, he played the classic Stormy Weather in the slowest tempo ever, and it was “hauntingly beautiful,” his daughter said.
His gravestone in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, reads “the music plays on.”
While his legacy isn’t widely known in his home province, his career path contains a lesson for young, creative people around the world. It was his strangest, riskiest and seemingly least-commercially viable work that wrote his legacy in the stars.
“He stepped forward and he gave up what was his commercial income to follow his dream, what he loved. I think that’s a really important message for younger people: follow your dream. Don’t ever, ever side-path it,” Garson-Darmet said.
“I don’t know where he is now in the universe. But I hope that he sees what’s happening.”