Mathis was born in Gilmer, Texas, but raised in San Francisco. His father was a former vaudevillian and encouraged his singing talent. In 1956, he took his dad's advice and turned down the chance to try out for the US Olympic Team as a high jumper to pursue a music career.
Mathis started out as a jazz singer at Columbia Records until Mitch Miller, a record producer who was also the label's vice president, steered him towards singing pop ballads. Mathis continued to sing an array of styles, but he is most remembered for his ballads like the hits "Wonderful! Wonderful!," "Misty
," "The Twelfth Of Never
," and "Chances Are
He's considered the originator of Greatest Hits compilations thanks to his 1957 album, Johnny's Greatest Hits. The collection was a huge success, staying on the Billboard chart for 490 consecutive weeks, and spurred other artists to release their own hit packages.
Although he enjoyed listening to male singers like Bing Crosby and Nat "King" Cole, his biggest influences were female singers, especially Lena Horne. "He stole everything but the gowns," Horne quipped.
Mathis and Deniece Williams, who sang the hit 1978 duet "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late
," also sang "Without Us," the theme song to the popular '80s sitcom Family Ties
for most of its 7-season run (in the first season it was performed by Dennis Tufano and Mindy Sterling).
In 2017, Mathis publicly confirmed he is gay, telling CBS News Sunday Morning, "I come from San Francisco. It's not unusual to be gay in San Francisco. I've had some girlfriends, some boyfriends, just like most people. But I never got married, for instance. I knew that I was gay." Mathis was quoted by Us Magazine about being homosexual in 1982, but after the singer began receiving death threats, the publication retracted the statement.
Aside from a four-year stint at Mercury Records in the mid-'60s, Mathis has spent his entire career as a Columbia Records recording artist. Along with Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, he's had one of the longest tenures of any singer at the label.
In 2017, the previously unreleased album I Love My Lady, recorded with Chic's Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers in 1981, was included on Mathis' box set The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection. The collection also debuted the Brazilian-flavored 1989 album The Island, which had never been released in its entirety.