The long-lost story of Mort Garson, Saint John’s electronic music pioneer and moon landing composer

The long-lost story of Mort Garson, Saint John’s electronic music pioneer and moon landing composer

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,” says 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.

A typed document, also covered in handwriting, listing details of birth of Mort Garson.
Mort Garson’s official birth certificate registered in 1924 with the province’s Department of Health. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

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.

A drone show of a yellow brick former Calvinist church-turned synagogue
Shaarei Zedek Synagogue on Carleton Street in uptown Saint John, where Mort Garson’s parents met and fell in love. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

In an unpublished handwritten memoir, Garson described how his father “looked up in the balcony [of Shaarei Zedek] and saw my mother Emma … He waited outside the synagogue and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.

WATCH | Mort’s moon music and other memories from his daughter:

Pioneering New Brunswick musician Mort Garson wrote the soundtrack for the moon landing

Saint John’s Mort Garson was one of the founders of modern electronic music. His career would take him to New York, LA and, in a way, the moon, when he was hired to score the soundtrack of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

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 film pictures — and you know the rest of the story. He moved to Hollywood and became very successful.”

An early 20th century wooden townhouse in a nice residential neighborhood in Saint John, New Brunswick
The townhouse at 204 Douglas Ave., where Mort Garson lived as a young boy with his parents, Frank and Emma Garson, and older sister Riva. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

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 year. 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 films, as a session musician and on a wide range of easy-listening records.

“His relaxation was reading sheet music,” she said.

A black and white photo from the late 1950s or early 1960s of a man and a woman sitting at a restaurant table.
Mort Garson and his wife, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Garson. Their daughter described her mother as ‘the muse of the family.’ (Submitted by Day Garson-Darmet)

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.

A Moog synthetizer - a tangle of patch corns, buttons, and keyboards
Garson invested in a Moog synthesizer and started playing around with electronic music, rather than the commercially successful music on which he’d built a career. (Submitted by Day Garson-Darmet)

“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.

A 1960s photo of two men and a woman by a huge reel to reel machine.
Mort and Peggy Garson pose with an unnamed audio engineer in the midst of one of Garson’s many projects. (Submitted by Day Garson-Darmet)

“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 Journeya 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.

A group of 1960s counterculture types in bathrobes and odd outfits gathered around the breakfast table.
Some of the interesting cast of characters at the Garson house, including maternal grandmother Winnie Redden, daughter Day Garson-Darmet, Mort Garson and John Drucker. (Submitted by Day Garson-Darmet)

Lost recording

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 archaeological 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 PlantasiaBraaten 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.

An album covering featuring two plant people hugging.
The cover of Sacred Bones Records 2019 reissue of Plantastia, one of Mort Garson’s best-known works. (Sacred Bones Records)

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 Beyonda 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.”

A bald man smoking a cigarette and playing the piano.
Up until his death in 2008, Garson never stopped playing and creating. Sadly, he never lived to see the success of his electronic music. (Submitted by Day Garson-Darmet)

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.”

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