With his leading-man good looks, Johnny Mathis made the soundtrack for countless makeout sessions of the 1950s, with couples making the moves as his hit singles "Chances Are," "It's Not for Me to Say" and "Misty" repeated on the record machine. That's why it was a surprise in a recent extensive conversation with Mathis, who has never stopped recording and performing in the intervening years, to hear him say he never understood why people considered him mostly a ballad singer.
In 1982, Mathis recorded an album with Chic (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards) called I Love My Lady that went unreleased until 2017, when some tracks from it appeared on the massive 68-disc collection The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection. On Record Store Day (April 21, 2018), it gets a full release on vinyl.
We spoke with Mathis about the project and also talked about his fitness regimen, the music he most connects with, and meeting The Beatles.
Johnny Mathis: Mostly it's about genres. I grew up in a house full of kids. My mom and dad had seven kids and my dad was a singer. He and I were the best pals in the world. I still miss him greatly because, not only was he my dad, but he was also doing the same thing I wanted to do, and that's sing. Those things, they're so part of your whole being that they stay with you at all times. So when I decided to stretch out as far as my singing was concerned, I just threw things up in the air to see which one stuck.
I got involved later on in life, after I had a couple of hit records and I wanted to sing some music for my mom and my dad, and it turned out to be an album of religious songs, Good Night, Dear Lord. But I wanted everyone to know I had schooling and as part of my schooling in San Francisco, I went to school with a lot of Jewish kids, and I went to temple with them on many many occasions. I wanted to sing the "Kol Nidre" and "Eli Eli" and all that happened to me because I lived in San Francisco and there was an amalgamation of people and all sorts of lives and religions and what have you.
All of that was to make sure I didn't just have one kind of thing to sing. I wanted to sing a lot of stuff and find out which one stuck, as far as the public is concerned.
Songfacts: And ballads turned out to be your strong suit.
Mathis: You know what? I never understood that. Because I was singing all kinds of stuff, and it became, "Oh yeah, Johnny Mathis sings the ballads." I was always a little... not annoyed, but, "Did you ever hear the other stuff that I did?"
Of course, I realized people had their likes and dislikes. When you think about Nat King Cole, I think about his ballads too, but he was a great jazzer and he sang a lot of up tunes.
Songfacts: Speaking of doing a lot of other stuff, there was that album you did with Chic in 1982 that didn't come out until a few tracks surfaced on the boxed set last year. And now I Love My Lady is finally coming out on clear smoke vinyl on Record Store Day, April 21. What was that process making that?
Mathis: I was kind of interested in the whole aspect of what they were talking about. It was a completely different process, as far as my making the recording. I got in there and they were writing the song as I was singing. And along the way, they would say, "Oh, that sounds nice, let's go with that a little more." They'd write a melody or something, but it was mostly rhythmical. Words, not so much melody.
But it was fun. And that's the way I started my musical career. I started studying at a very early age with a voice teacher, but I also went to church and I heard church music. I also had classes in school listening to classical music, so I was just jumping in anywhere I was thrown.
With Bernard and Nile, it was fun. They were really, really enthusiastic. Of course, they were in a different genre of music than I was, but they were the first people who opened my eyes to the fact that just because you sing one kind of music doesn't mean that people who do other kinds of music aren't listening to you. So when I got an opportunity to work with them, I was thrilled.
It was a process. We did it piecemeal. We made up a lot of stuff along the way, which was fun, because I got to put my own two cents in. And Nile was with me, Bernard was kind of quiet, and I didn't really know who he was. But they were wonderful pals and we had a lot of fun doing it. I'm amazed when I listen to it how well it was done.
Songfacts: It sounds very contemporary.
Mathis: It does, doesn't it?
Songfacts: How do you feel about it coming out to a new audience who may not have known you or even Chic?
Mathis: Over the years, I've had so much success in so many genres musically, but I'm still like a little kid. I still get excited. I still wonder: what's this all about? I cannot tell you how fulfilling it is to have a record company like I've been involved with all these years.
Everything that I've done musically has been available to the public, and each time it comes out, it buoys my career and my enthusiasm about what I do. I started when I was 18 years old, making records, and how old am I? 82? And I'm still doing the same thing I did when I was a kid. You can get blasé, I guess. I know a few people who have. But not me.
Songfacts: You started out in jazz, right?
Mathis: Well, I was raised in San Francisco and all the famous jazz musicians in the world came to San Francisco, to about three venues. One was The Black Hawk, which was owned by the lady who eventually became my business manager. There was the Downbeat, and there were a couple more.
I grew up in a household of nine people, and had all sorts of music that they liked. My dad of course was my greatest influence, and when I was a little kid, wherever he was going to listen to music, he'd take me. And the places that were available in San Francisco were mostly jazz clubs.
The club at Turk and Hyde Streets in the Tenderloin District was run by John and Helen Noga from 1949 to 1963. When Helen Noga heard a teenaged Mathis sing during a jam session in 1955, she was so impressed she stepped up to be his manager. She arranged for Columbia Records' head of jazz A&R George Avakian to see him and once he did he sent a telegram back to New York: "Have found phenomenal 19 year old boy who could go all the way."
Mathis: We listened to free music on the radio. It was all available according to whatever station you were listening to. But we had few and far between recordings. We just didn't have any money. But other than that, everything was free.
Songfacts: A lot of your music is coming out on vinyl LP records again rather than CDs. What do you think of that trend?
Mathis: I think it's a great idea. Young people have been accused, and I think wrongly so, of having short attention spans. This will certainly prove the public to be wrong, because you really do have to put a little effort into listening to the LP rather than just a single record.
And I'm constantly amazed when I ask people for some reason or another what they liked as far as my music is concerned and they always come up with a single record. They never know all the work that went into albums, and those thousands and thousands of songs that were involved in the album. They always come up with "Chances Are," "Misty." But those are all single records.
I'm grateful that I was able to do, vocally and musically, as much as I have. I lucked out being with Columbia Records. I don't know, but I think I'm maybe longest tenure of anybody at Columbia Records.
Songfacts: You've seen them all come and go, haven't you?
Mathis: Well, yeah. I keep saying, "Where's so and so" as far as my contacts at Columbia Records are concerned. "Oh he's dead! He left a long time ago!"
"Well, who's there? I gotta talk to somebody."
But the company is going strong and I'm very fortunate.
Songfacts: They released a 68-CD boxed set The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Albums Collection in December.
Mathis: It was the most flattering thing I've ever seen in life. My whole life comes before me when I open that box set.
Songfacts: What was it like to see all of that together?
Mathis: I was always wondering, What's going to happen to my stuff that I did? I'm sure anyone who is involved in music and recording feels that way: We don't want to throw it away, how can we make it have a life still? And the minute I looked at that, I said, "Oh my god, this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me musically."
Finally, my music is available — everything that I've ever done musically on records. And it's the greatest feeling I've ever had in my musical life. It was an eye opener and I said, "Fortunately I won't be forgotten musically by the record company." That's a great, great feeling. I just hope they do it with other people, because it's so gratifying.
Songfacts: For a lot of people, seeing a boxed set like that, artists might think their career is complete. But I guess you released a Greatest Hits album two years into your career.
Mathis: That was Mitch Miller's idea. That was the first time I had a chance to go out of the country and go to Great Britain. They wanted me to go in the studio and make some more recordings. I had had some success with "It's Not for Me to Say," and I wasn't able to record anything new, so he threw the first four recordings that I did - both sides on them - and called them Johnny's Greatest Hits.
That was a little flamboyant, because it was not the greatest hits, yet. But that was a great beginning for a lot of people. Even Mozart has a Greatest Hits now. Good idea from Mitch Miller.
Songfacts: Miller was a key person in your career it seems.
Mathis: The guy that I am most beholden to is George Avakian. They're having a retrospective of his life in a couple of months that I'm going to go to. He was a jazzer. He was the head of jazz at Columbia Records. He came to see me sing in San Francisco at a jazz club with one of my pals when I was 16 or 17 years old. He liked what he heard but he thought that I needed whatever a kid at that age needs to facilitate a recording contract. And sure enough, he came back the next year and heard me sing and signed me up. I think I was 18 years old.
Mathis with George Avakian (left) and Bob Prince. Photo: Rojon Productions/Columbia
I just have the most wonderful feeling about what we tried, because I was wide-eyed and bushy tailed. But I was singing with people like John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Teo Macero, Bob Prince, Gil Evans — the great jazz of all time. They threw this little kid - me - into the mix and we did what we did at that age. And of course, it was hit and miss. But musically, as far as the arrangements from John Lewis were concerned, it was some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. I was way out there.
It wasn't until later I was heard by Mitch Miller. We were all in the same building, but each floor was a different musical genre, and they never met each other at this building in New York. I wondered why it took a year and a half or two before Mitch Miller knew that I was even a recording artist. Someone played him this jazz recording that I did and of course, we ended up working together and he found a niche musically for me that suited me, and we had a lot of success.
His singalong style was captured on hits like "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and the whistling "Colonel Bogey March / The River Kwai March" from The Bridge on the River Kwai. His TV show, Sing Along with Mitch, ran from 1961 to 1964, with viewers encouraged to sing along to musical selections, with lyrics provided in screen captions. A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner in 2000, Miller died in 2010 at 99.
Mathis: I had just started going to England on and off and then on one of my occasions, I just went on across the channel to Germany. I'd always been a fan of the music of Bert Kaempfert, and got a chance to work with him.
Ha! I hope I'm not giving out too much information but I had never had schnapps before. So I went over there and we got pretty heavy into schnapps before dinner and what have you. So now when I listen to that, I kind of remember that!
But, you know, you do so much in your life, especially at an early age when I was running all over the world singing. I even ended up in Brazil — places where I had to learn the language a little bit. It was fun to sing — some of it worked and some of it, ha ha ha, maybe...
Songfacts: You had worked with Bacharach quite a bit.
Mathis: Yeah, Burt was really early on. He was very businesslike about his music, which I loved, and as I got to know him over the years, appreciated it. He jumped right in when I was available to sing single records and we became friends. I think he was in the publishing business with Mitch Miller, as some of the young writers were at the time.
Yeah, I got really lucky. He wrote a couple wonderful songs for me. I guess he wrote them for me — you never know. I found out later on, these people that said that they wrote it just for me had written it 20 years before. But it didn't really matter, as long as we got the song.
Shaw had co-written the opening song on Mathis' Wonderful, Wonderful album, "Will I Find My Love Today." While "Heavenly" was never released as a single, the album spent five weeks at #1; Faithfully could only get as high as #2, because it couldn't overtake the original cast album of The Sound of Music.
Mathis: Yeah. I've always enjoyed singing songs of the day, songs that people listen to over and over again, and I got a chance in my career to sing almost everything that I ever wanted to. And it's fun because there are special recordings that I did, for instance religious albums that were just for special people who wanted to hear that.
But then when you do the contemporary music that's available all over the place, it sort of keeps you in the moment, and that was fun for me. I had certainly responsibilities as a singer and also contractually to my record company to do as much as I could and as wide ranging as far as my musical genres were concerned. But I sang the songs of the day, and that constantly changes all the time. It very much comes to mind when I listen to I Love My Lady, which I did with Nile and Bernard. That was stuff that was happening at the moment and I'm glad I did it. It was a learning process, though. It was like, Tell me what to do and I'll try to do it.
Songfacts: On the Raindrops album, you have a version of "Something" by The Beatles, but in concerts you sing "Yesterday." You seem to have had a long association with their music.
Mathis: I started to go to Great Britain at a very early age. I think I went when I was 20 years old. I don't know how I ended up there, but I did, and I got accustomed to going back every year. And on a couple of those occasions, I got to meet the Beatles and hang out with them.
They were just kids, very talented kids I must admit. We kind of bonded and I wanted to sing some of their stuff because it fit my voice personally and the lyrics were always quite good too.
Songfacts: They were probably happy to have you sing them, too.
Mathis: Well, yeah. They were business guys. I enjoyed that aspect of their personalities. They wanted to make a living, sure.
Songfacts: You continue to record contemporary music, most recently last year's New American Standards with Babyface, doing Adele's "Hello," and Bruno Mars' "Just The Way You Are." How do you go about choosing songs for those projects?
Mathis: Oh gosh, it's a little bit of everything. Sometimes I seek out people, very much like I did with the Bert Kaempfert stuff. I wanted to sing some of those lovely, lush songs that I had heard instrumentally. I was in Germany for a series of concerts and I jumped at the opportunity.
Fortunately, the record company was supporting me and that was the way that happened. It all depends on if you're in the moment. It's important to stretch your thoughts and your wings as much as you can when you get those moments, because they certainly go by and you miss an opportunity. For instance, I met a guy when I was 19 years old and had just gotten into New York — Bob Allen was his name and I don't know how he knew who I was because I hadn't met anyone yet. He said hello to me and that was the beginning of singing "Chances Are," and "It's Not for Me To Say."
Mathis: Yes, I do, because each place that I go is different for me. You go to Philadelphia, there's stuff in Philadelphia. You go to New Orleans, there's stuff in New Orleans.
I had a good start with athletics in high school. I was pretty successful as a high jumper, almost got an invitation to the Olympics as far as that was concerned. But I've kept up my enthusiasm about physical training over the years, and it's a good thing I did, because you get old, your bones creak, you're tired. If your muscles don't work, you don't work. So the rest of my life I owe to the importance of the people along the way who have insisted that along with my musical training that I had to physically keep myself in shape. And God bless them, they're absolutely right. I still go to the gym every morning. I get up at an ungodly hour and spend an hour with trainers, and it all matters. It's all very important.
Songfacts: Of course there are songs of yours that people will always want to hear. Are there certain songs that have most meaning to you when you perform them?
Mathis: I think so. I really wish that vocally, I could sing some of the ones that were eye-openers to me. For instance, when I got to New York, the most eye-popping soundwise was when I would be by these Broadway production theaters and see My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Brigadoon - all these great Broadway shows with all these great live singers in the building. I'd walk by the stage doors, just in hopes that maybe they would let me sit in the back and listen, which happened on several occasions.
When I sing them, all of these memories flash into my head about where I was when I learned this song, why I sing it. And mostly I sing songs that I remember as eye-openers. For instance, I saw a production of Gypsy, and I heard Ethel Merman sing "Small World" and all these songs that flash through my mind as far as what I want to sing.
Fortunately I've been able to move around and go all over the place. I remember the first time I went to Brazil, my Portuguese was not very good at all. I had not even considered singing in Portuguese the way the Brazilians do, until I got there. Then I got enthusiastic about it, and now every performance I sing some Brazilian songs in Portuguese.
I'm still wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as far as music is concerned. And I get a little bit sad, because music doesn't seem to be as available as it was. In order to hear the music, I have to go to the source now. I can't hear it on the radio or places like that because they just don't play a wide variety of stuff on the radio any more.
April 17, 2018
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