Johnny Mathis, the man, the crooner in action
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
“A voice that makes its own music”
The holiday season brings out a plethora of music made famous by an array of singers; Johnny Mathis’ holiday songs are ageless and timeless wonders. With those sentiments in mind, the Los Angeles Sentinel presents the following “Legends” in honor of Johnny Mathis, the man and his music.
His Christmas albums have become a staple for holiday music lovers.
[SOME OF HIS SONGS HAVE BEEN ITALICIZED BELOW]
“Chances Are” that if beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then music is certainly in the ears of the listener. When Johnny Mathis sings, his vocal rendition is “the” music and that is surreal. Three years ago, he is celebrated 51 years as a recording artist and he is still a legend, at his best in the studio or on stage. Born John Royce Mathis on September 30, 1935 in Gilmer, Texas, he was the fourth of seven children born to Clem and Mildred Mathis. Early in his life, his family moved to San Francisco where he grew up. As a student at Washington High School, he became popular not only for his singing abilities, but also for his athletic prowess. But it was from his father that he learned early the vestiges of music and song, and realized that “Life Is a Song Worth Singing.” The elder Mathis bought a piano for his young prodigy who began singing in the church choir, for community events as well as amateur shows in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Mathis received professional voice training from a prominent Bay Area teacher including voice production, vocal scales and exercises, classical and operatic skills for six years. But as a star athlete, he was caught between singing and music, and track and field. He made the high school team as a high jumper and hurdler, and also played on the basketball team.
Then in 1954, Mathis enrolled in San Francisco State College with the intention of becoming an English and Physical Education instructor.
At the state college, Mathis continued to pursue track and field. The sports allure was almost irresistible since he was frequently mentioned in the sports sections of Northern California newspapers as “Olympic material” and “the best all-around athlete in the San Francisco Bay Area.” The turning point came when a fellow student took him to the famous Black Hawk Nightclub and he met its co-owner. When she heard him sing, his life was changed forever. The singing career of Johnny Mathis, the vocal crooner and the musical sensation was launched – a career, like “the Impossible Dream” that has lasted over five decades and is still alive and well, and “ballading” into the 21st century.
Because of the choice that Mathis made when he chose singing and music over track and field, he has ultimately helped to make a “Wonderful, Wonderful World.” In 1955, when the head of A&R Columbia heard him sing, he sent, what in the recording history became known as the ‘famous telegram’ to his record company which read, “Have found phenomenal 19 year old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.”
Though Mathis continued his studies and athletics at San Francisco State, and was even asked to attend the trials for the 1956 Olympic team, when, at the same time, Columbia Records called, his choice was not an easy one. With a little persuasion from his father, Mathis chose singing over the Olympics. And it was the right time, not “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” He went to New York, recorded his first album and became an overnight sensation, and a timeless singing wonder of the ages. Starting in 1956, his first hit, “Chances Are,” instantly became number one. Since then many of his subsequent hits have remained timeless classics, relevant today, as they were in the fifties and beyond, particularly during the last half of the 20th century.
Mathis’ singing talents were used to sing soft, romantic ballads that made his audiences “Misty” and turned the Mathis magic into romantic melody. He easily gravitated into music for movies and after two years of back-to-back hits, MGM Studios signed him to sing for one of their movies. He performed It’s Not For Me To Say” in the film, ‘Lizzie.’ The Mathis magic has always displayed “A Certain Smile,” which was the title and the theme song of the next movie, where he sang in a nightclub scene. That cinematic visibility earned him one of the nation’s choice spots – an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the show that placed him “on the map” along with all of his superstar contemporaries back then. Mathis’ voice, songs and recordings have since been used in a multitude of movies, as theme songs, background music and to enhance particular settings and segments. He has been dubbed “the velvet voice.”
While honing his craft, Mathis learned from some of the music world’s smoothest crossover vocalists. Legendary voices like Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald provided some of his inspiration. He concentrated heavily on jazz and romantic melodies, and renditions for the adult contemporary listening pleasure. The focus of his early career was dominated by a flurry of singles, which naturally ascended into the then burgeoning album market. Many of his albums went “gold” or “platinum.” Also, his songs tended to emanate the theme-oriented flavor of show tunes and traditional favorites during the sixties, while he gradually moved into soft rock in the seventies, where he stayed comfortably and well into the nineties.
Mathis formed his own company, Jon Mat Records, Inc. to be able to produce and control his records and his career. In addition to recording singles and albums, he did concerts, tours, theater, television appearances, promotional and charitable events. One of the charities that benefit from his generosity is the NAACP. Since his business partner and manager, who helped to guide his career, passed away, Mathis has taken the sole responsibility for his career. And with the exception of a three year hiatus, he has been with Columbia Records for his entire professional career, making him Columbia’s longest recording artist.
His songs have not only transcended racial, ethnic and age groups, they have also enjoyed an international flavor including Brazilian and Spanish, soul, R & B and Blues. Mathis’ Christmas albums have become a staple item for holiday music lovers. According to a recordings chart historian and a Guinness Book music writer, Mathis has recorded over 110 albums and has sold more than 350 million records worldwide. He is one of the last and most popular singers in a long line of traditional male vocalists who emerged before the rock-and-roll era, and is still singing today. His appearance on “Live By Request” on the A&E Network made his television performance the largest viewing audience of the series.
Mathis has performed duets with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole, the late Ray Charles and his most successful partner was Deniece Williams, with whom he made a number one single in the seventies, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” He has received three Grammy nominations, three Grammy awards and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. His most impressive award has been the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. For his 50th anniversary as a recording artist, Mathis received the prestigious Ella Fitzgerald award; he also did a PBS television special titled, “Wonderful, Wonderful;” and three concerts in England, his first in over ten years.
Despite his tremendous, long-reigning success as an artist, there were some “bumps in the road” in his personal life. He reportedly told a British newspaper, “I’ve had a few death threats from the Southern states (in America). They didn’t like my sexual orientation. I didn’t like the attention, so about 20 years ago, I decided to perform without publicizing the concerts with interviews.” His private life has always remained private. He currently lives in the same home in the Hollywood Hills and has said, “I love the house that I’ve been living in for over 40 years.” (It has also been reported that there is an oversized swimming pool inside of his house and in the mornings, he would often swim to the dining room for breakfast).
Mathis’ favorite pastimes are golf and cooking. He has sung at many golf banquets, and has arranged his own golf tournaments, PGA Classic(s) and the Shell/Johnny Mathis Golf Classic. He is quoted as saying, “I really am a homebody and I still love to play golf.” Mathis is also a gourmet cook who often does his own cooking, and enjoys family gatherings with his brothers and sisters, and their families. He has published a cookbook titled, “Cooking For You Alone.”
An avid listener of many of Mathis’ television specials noted that he would usually sing a five-minute interlude as a warm-up introduction for his special, before he belts out the main course (repertoire). And one of his contemporaries, Barbra Streisand, has said of him, “He’s always been one of my favorite singers ever since I saw him on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a thrill singing with him.” Looking back at the past and reflecting on the future, the Mathis musical mystique will very likely be providing music and songs until “the Twelfth of Never.”