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Music Journeys: Johnny Mathis

Apr 16, 2020

Credit Rojon Productions

From traditional tunes to holiday music, Johnny Mathis has been singing for more than six decades. His Ohio shows originally set for this spring have been rescheduled for August. Mathis joins Music Journeys and shares reflections on the early days, the teacher who helped shape his voice, the decision he faced between music and athletics, his jazzy first record, the lost album he recorded with Nile Rodgers, his love of Christmas music, and what keeps the 84-year-old continuing to perform. 

Johnny Mathis is our featured guest on this edition of Music Journeys. Thanks for listening.

Chances Are plays...

Chances Are became the first number one hit for Johnny Mathis in 1957 about a year releasing his first album. He hasn't stopped recording and touring. Mathis has more than 80 albums. His first greatest hits compilation in 1958 spent almost ten years on the Billboard Top Albums Chart. He's also had 50 hits on the Adult Contemporary charts.   

It's Not For Me To Say plays…

"The thing I marvel at all the time is how many people know me as a singer," Mathis reflected. "It's very rewarding. I'm absolutely over-the-moon happy about it. But it is a responsibility. I've made some choices over the years. Most of them have been positive as far as my music is concerned. I can still sing. I perform almost all the time all over the world. It's a blessing that I still marvel at." 

I'm Coming Home plays...

The fourth of seven children, John Royce Mathis was born in 1935 in Gilmer, Texas. About five years later, the family moved to San Francisco, where his music interests began to take shape.  At 13, Mathis would spend the next six years finding his voice. 

"I had an opportunity to go to a lot of local places that had music," Mathis recalled. "Fortunately, I met a woman who agreed to help me vocally. She was a voice teacher. She taught me free of charge. I ran errands for her and cleaned her apartment in between her paying students. Her name is Connie Cox. I owe all of my beginnings, middles, and ending to this wonderful lady who taught me vocal technique."

Wonderful Wonderful plays…

"It was a learning process just like anything else," Mathis said. "I had to learn certain things that would affect my voice. For instance, not too much screaming and yelling. They were fundamentally things that were pretty obvious to me day to day. I was a pretty good athlete in school. I was involved in athletics which was good for my voice production, and things just sort of worked out for me at a very early age."

That's What Makes The Music Play plays...

Mathis was better than pretty good in music and athletics. He set the high jump record while attending college at San Francisco State. Mathis also competed against future NBA star Bill Russell, and the two were listed as the top high jumpers in the Bay Area at the time. In 1955, Mathis also landed a job singing on the weekends at a local club, where a Columbia Records executive would see him perform. Mathis soon faced a decision that would shape his life.  

"I had an opportunity to go to the Olympic trials as a high jumper," Mathis said. "During the same week, I got an opportunity to go to New York and make my first recording. It was a dramatic time for me as a young person. My dad was my best pal and a singer. We talked it over and agreed that I should forego my high-jumping escapades and go to New York and make my first recordings. Having my dad with me at that early age was really the biggest plus as far as I was concerned being so very young.” 

Easy To Love plays...

"Well, I was a jazzer," Mathis said of making his first record. "I was signed to Columbia Records by the head of jazz, George Avakian. We went into the studio with a group of jazz musicians. I sang in a manner that I had been accustomed to because I grew up around jazz clubs. That was sort of the thing that I felt was my calling. Then of course I got opportunities to do other things. So I ran around and made a couple of songs and before I knew it I was singing popular songs of the day, and that sort of ended up being my forte." 

Misty plays...

Is he okay with that being his forte?

"Very much so," Mathis responded. "I loved opera. I met some of the most wonderful opera singers in the world. I kept my focus not so much on what I sang, but how I sang it. The vocal process is very similar no matter what you sing." 

Too Much Too Little Too Late plays…

That duet with Deniece Williams topped the charts in 1978. A few years later Mathis had the opportunity to try something new with production help from Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.  

"I was very fortunate to meet them," Mathis said of connecting with Rodgers and Edwards. "They had a lot of success, but it was just a little bit over the line toward Rhythm & Blues, maybe not so much Blues but Rhythm. They were the most marvelous and loving people who loved my voice and wanted to take me in the direction they did. I loved what we did."  

It’s Alright To Love Me plays…

The lost album from 1982 called I Love My Lady finally saw its rightful release in 2017.

I Love My Lady plays...

As Mathis embarks on his new tour celebrating 64 years in music, expect an eclectic setlist. 

"I guess the thing I'm most happy about is that when I sing in public, the people are really quite open to what I sing," Mathis said. "I get an idea about what they would like to hear at my meet and greets, and that helps me a great deal because I do have my own preferences. Sometimes they are okay, and sometimes I need to lean a little bit more toward what people would like to hear as opposed to what I want to sing.”

So what does Mathis like to sing the most? 

"Everything and anything," Mathis responded with a laugh. "I'm very musically inclined. My dad sang all the time, and I think I’ve acquired his situation in that respect. I love all kinds of music. From one performance to the next, I may sing a completely different lineup of songs. But the audience seems to enjoy it, and fortunately the people are quite wonderful and still coming around in droves." 

What also comes around every December are his timeless Christmas songs. Mathis has also been called the voice of Christmas. He's recorded six such albums, the first coming in 1958. 

Winter Wonderland plays...

"I wanted to sing some music for my mom and my dad,” Mathis said of recording that 1958 Christmas album. “They raised seven children on domestic wages in a very small house in San Francisco. We even had some relatives stay there when they were passing through. Christmas time was a big, big deal when you have a large family. The first opportunity I got to have some say about what I recorded, I wanted to make some Christmas music for my mom and my dad. Fortunately, I was able to do that and over the years have extended that part of my recordings. I love singing Christmas songs, and I love that part of the year. I've been very fortunate with the success." 

Sleigh Ride plays...

Songs from that 1958 album come across the radio airwaves today, and more recent ones too like this 2013 song with Jim Brickman. 

Sending You A Little Christmas plays...

How does it feel to be so tied to the Christmas season?

"It's the most wonderful time of the year," Mathis responded in song. "I love it. I love to hear my music at Christmas time. My parents made it such a wonderful time of the year. To hear my music at that time of the year every year for all these many years is a blessing for me. But I love the stuff that Nat King Cole recorded. When I was a kid, I listened to his Christmas music. As long as I have that in my head when I sing, I'm happy with any of the Christmas songs over the years, yeah."   

Mathis turns 85 later this year and shows no signs of stopping what he loves to do.

"I think more than anything along the way, most of the people who have been important in my life have told me that I will want to sing all my life whether I can or I can't," Mathis reflected. "I'm going to want to sing. To make sure that you can sing, you have to stay healthy. So at a very early age, I started to listen to these people. They made different suggestions how important exercise was to my singing. The physical education and the musical education sort of melded, and I've been very fortunate. A lot of good things happen because in order to do what you do physically and musically, you have to be healthy. I've been blessed in so many ways." 

The stay at home order in Los Angeles County, where Mathis resides has been in place for about a month. I'm told he's doing well - still working out five days a week at home, watching his favorite films on Turner Classic Movies, and rehearsing his concert setlists. At this point, the Ohio shows in Dayton and Cincinnati are still on for August. While no streaming sessions are planned at this point, Mathis will be sharing some deep dive cuts from his catalog on social media in the near future.  You can keep up with all the latest developments at johnnymathis.com and through his Facebook page.