Johnny Mathis' Enduring Success Born of Respect for Natural Talents

Today's Billboard charts are populated with an endless list of performers whose fame comes as much from their shared personal lives via social media as much as the success of their music. For many, their fame is fleeting.

The term legend has come pretty cheaply in recent time, and yet very few endure to become true legends. One such performer whose place has been firmly secured for decades, is not even close to putting down his microphone.

For the past near 60 years, Johnny Mathis has cemented himself as one of the true greats. He has at least one hit song make the charts in each of the decades he has recorded songs, dating back to the late 1950s.

The middle tenor called the Velvet Voice has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000 records, and is known from his hits songs "Chances Are," "It's Not For Me To Say." and "Misty," which are all in the Grammy Hall of Fame. And though he's never won an award, he has been nominated five separate times.

Johnny's Greatest Hits, whic h was released a mere three years after starting his recording career, had no less than eight singles reach the Top 40. The album holds the record for most continuous weeks on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart remaining on it for 490 straights weeks. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon broke the overall record for weeks, but not for continuous weeks.

His list of accomplishments, accolades and awards runs long and his songs haves appeared in no less than 60 TV shows and films.

New Times caught up with the 79-year-old classic crooner as he was preparing for his latest 24-stop nationwide tour which will bring him to Celebrity Theatre here in Phoenix this Sunday. Mathis, 79, discussed from among other things, the gift and responsibility of talent, staying fit, Nat King Cole, a new non-traditional Johnny Mathis album that is in the works, and his first piano.
New Times: You were born in Gilmer, Texas, but raised by your parents Clem and Mildred in San Francisco with six siblings. What was life like back then?

I had six brothers and sisters; my mom and dad were domestic workers and we had to get our experiences from school and things outside of our household because we were pretty strapped for anything but our companionship. I love my brothers and sisters, and fortunately three of them are still around. And, my mom and dad were the most precious parts of my life. My dad was a singer. He taught me to sing. My mom was the support of all of us.

You were a high jump star at San Francisco State College, and jumped 6 feet, 5.5 inches, which was nearly a record back then, and competed against legendary NBA HOFer Bill Russell and even got an invitation to try-out for the US Olympic team but passed to sign your first recording contract with Columbia in 1956. Did that experience shape who you became?

Bill Russell and I were buddies, and we went to a lot of the track meets together. So all of that made my personality. I sing a little bit, I play a little basketball, and I sort of grew up that way.

Your first piano was given to you by your father who supposedly paid $25 for it. Is there truth to the story that he built it for you?

I never knew where Pop got the parts for the piano. I think someone gave him the piano, and we lived in a very small apartment basement flat. So, in order to get it in the house he had to dismantle it. Of course all we saw was him bringing in all the parts. By 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, he had gotten it assembled, and started to tinkle on it and play. We had no idea he could play the piano.

What were your first recollections of listening experiencing live music?

I grew up in San Francisco and met these extraordinary people who do what I do at such a high level, and most of them I saw at a place called The Black Hawk, which was a club my dad and older brother use to take me to when I was a kid.
Who did you see there and what impact did it have on you?

I saw people like Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine, Earl Garner, Oscar Petersen. I met them at an early age. It kind of sunk in for me that it wasn't a big deal to have these talents because they were gifts, after all, and you kind of feel bad if you don't nurture them. So I hung around people who were very gifted, but they were also very responsible people, and I really admired that, and I guess it rubbed off on me.

Every great musician in the modern era has a story of the person who took them under their wings and helped make them a star. Who did that for you?

The guy I really owe my allegiance to George Avakian (head of jazz at Columbia Records). George was the person who signed me to Columbia. I did meet Mitch Miller who was responsible for pop music at Columbia, and he had a menagerie of stars that he worked with like Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone and Tony Bennett and all sorts of wonderful people. George is one my best friends and he is over 100 years old now and he is still kicking.

You initially had aspirations of being a jazz singer. Who steered you in the direct of romantic ballads and pop music?

He (Miller) didn't approve what I was doing because it was kind of jazzy and extemporaneous. He handed me a stack of sheet music that was almost as tall as I was, and he said, 'Here kid, get four songs and we'll go in and see what happens. I choose "When Sunny Gets the Blue," "Wonderful, Wonderful," "It's Not for You to Say" and something else. And we went in recorded them, and nothing happened for about a year, and then all of a sudden, somebody played one of my songs and there it started.

As you are in the twilight of your career, Johnny, how do you persevere and maintain your health and ability to perform and record?

All the stuff that everybody else says, I can't do. you know drinking, staying up late, overtaxing yourself. All of that is just surreal to me. I live on a schedule and go to bed at a certain time, get up and exercise. Especially after the age of about 35, I think I started an exercise regime. If you feel good than you can do what you are suppose to do, and if you don't, you can't.

You grew up on the West Coast far from the racial strife that was starting in the 50s and exploded in the 60s in many parts of the country. Do you see yourself as being fortunate?

It was the most wonderful time growing up in San Francisco because I had no idea about the race relations. We were so homogenous,
there was the night clubs and the beatniks — an amalgam of everything. It wasn't until I started to tour that I learned the horrible truth I realized then that I was living in a utopia in San Francisco. I got a lot of taste of it when on tour and I went around by myself for the first six or seven years.

One of your early influences and friends was the legendary Nat King Cole. What was the relationship like and is it true labels sometimes tried to whiten the voices of African-American artists for wider pop appeal?

Nat had successes with some of those songs, and that was what people know about Nat (his later songs) they don't know that he was one of the great piano players of all time, extraordinary gifted. He was also a wonderful, kind person. I got to know him early on and he befriended me. He was very giving and very loving, and he tried to please a lot of people. One person comes to mind [he would not say who] that wanted him to enunciate better, appeal a little bit more to the [pop] culture. He was so gifted that he could do it.

What is the part of performing that appreciate most aside from singing in front of your adoring fans and life-long followers?

The greatest surprise that I had and still have, is when the record company or whoever is advising me of what I'm going to sing is the people that I have met, the extraordinary artists who are all very happy to sing with me. that's people like Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick, Dave Koz. That's the kind of thing that keeps me excited because of all the opportunities that come along even at this point in my career.

You are going to begin work on yet another album soon after your current tour with some covers songs of some modern hits. how challenging and how exciting is that?

I was scared to death when they sent me some of these songs. I said, 'I can't sing that!' There were expletives in it. then we delved a little bit further into it, and I sat down and listened to it and listened to some of the suggestions, and stuff that I could do that the younger audience might recognize. I am looking forward to this because my eyes and my ears have been opened a little bit, because there is some good music to be sung.
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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn