By Chris M. Junior
In October 1957, Johnny Mathis received a belated 22nd birthday gift of sorts when “Chances Are,” his third entry on the Billboard pop-singles chart for Columbia Records, reached No. 1.
On Sept. 25, 2015, five days before Mathis turned 80, Legacy Recordings and Columbia issued “The Singles,” a four-CD anthology featuring “Chances Are” and many more non-album and compilation-only songs by the distinct singer.
Mathis says he doesn’t recall recording some of the tracks included on “The Singles.” That’s OK because the collection is a great reminder of his classy, ballad-filled Columbia catalog, which co-existed on the pop chart and radio airwaves during the rise of rock ’n’ roll and on through the years leading up to the British Invasion.
“The Singles” also has tracks Mathis recorded in the 1970s and 1980s, including Christmas-themed songs and compositions written by Gordon Lightfoot, Jimmy Webb and Lionel Richie. And while Mathis had plenty to say recently about his past work, he’s also looking ahead to making some new studio recordings.
GOLDMINE: In the liner notes for “The Singles,” you write that the success of “The Twelfth of Never” resulted in everybody being “a little more careful about what was put on the other side of a single record.” How did that song come to your attention?
JOHNNY MATHIS: I’m not quite sure. The only thing that comes to mind is we had a certain amount of songs to do, and I chose it out of a stack of music that was about as tall as I was. I was so happy to record it because it was very easy, and as most people aren’t aware, at the time I had to do four songs in three hours. And that one was easy because I knew the melody already. We were never told which side was going to be the one they were going to promote, so it was kind of a nice happenstance.
GM: You had big pop-chart success with songs written by the team of Robert Allen and Al Stillman, most notably “It’s Not for Me to Say” and “Chances Are.” What in particular about their material and that of other songwriters registered with you?
JM: Most of the songwriters that I was introduced to during my first recording sessions were friends of Mitch Miller. He was very important in my life because he was the one who recommended that I would sing some popular music. I was signed to Columbia Records by George Avakian, and George was the head of jazz at Columbia. So I was off into one section of the company, and Mitch wanted me to move over and record some popular music. I owe it all to him. He was a very big part of my beginning at Columbia, and the first few songs I recorded with Mitch turned out to be big hit records.
GM: In your breakthrough year of 1957, rock ’n’ roll was in full swing, with Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis — artists the same age as you, or very close — also having big hits. Who did you view as your true competition and contemporaries at that time?
JM: Well, you know, an odd thing that people might not be aware of was Columbia Records was never a pioneer in rock ’n’ roll. They resisted (laughs) until they were forced to record rock ’n’ roll. So I was sort of the big deal at Columbia at the time; I was the kid singing these lovely little ballads and having success with them, without singing rock ’n’ roll. I studied with a lady who was a classical singer, and I sang a lot of classical music. But, of course, when I recorded, it was a nice, simple, straightforward singing style with no big rock ’n’ roll underneath — nothing of that nature. So there really wasn’t any competition going on. I was way over there with my little ballads, and Elvis and the rest of the team were (on the other side), and the two never got together (laughs).
GM: It’s interesting how things changed culturally then, and while what you were doing musically was a little more traditional and refined than rock ’n’ roll, there was a place for both styles at the same time.
JM: Yeah. And I was fortunate to be with a big powerhouse record company like Columbia, which had a lot of financial means to promote my music. That was a very big deal for me, as a youngster starting out. I was very much aware of the rock ’n’ roll (scene), and there was R&B, too. It was kind of live and let live, but we never got together until much later … I ended up recording with Dionne Warwick, and I recorded with a lot of rock ’n’ rollers. So everything finally came together, but we all started off in our own little section of the (business).
GM: Were there other singers at that time who you looked to for guidance, or maybe who were actual mentors? Nat King Cole might be an obvious one, but he was older than you, so I don’t know if you ran in the same circles musically or socially.
JM: Nat Cole was the most wonderful singer I’ve ever heard, and to this day, he stays in my mind whenever I’m recording. He set the standard so high, not only because he was such a marvelous person, as I got to know later in life, but he was a great musician who was a world-class jazz piano player. I was very much aware of Nat King Cole; I wanted to be Nat King Cole.
GM: Is there an under-the-radar song on “The Singles” that you’re hoping gets a belated second look by fans?
JM: There are a couple of songs I didn’t remember recording; some of them were never released, unfortunately. “Sometimes” is a Henry Mancini composition that he wrote using his daughter’s letter for lyrics. She wrote him a letter while he was away from home, and I think we were probably on the road together, Henry and I. His daughter wrote him a lovely letter, and he thought so much of it that he put it to music. We performed it onstage, and I recorded it.
GM: Do you think today’s marketplace, with the ability for fans to download individual songs, is similar to the early part of your career, when singles were maybe more of a priority than a fully realized album?
JM: I think it’s very important that the listening public gets a chance to at least hear what’s available … Nowadays, you don’t have to splurge (for an album). You can buy individual songs, and I think that’s a great idea.
GM: Your brief set in February at Clive Davis’ star-studded pre-Grammys party was well received. In a subsequent Los Angeles Times story about you that centered on that performance, it seemed as though an album with Davis was in the discussion stage. What’s the latest on that?
JM: Clive did call me and say, “Let’s renew old times,” because – of course – he was the president of Columbia Records at some point during my tenure there. Clive wanted to do some contemporary stuff, and I’m in the process now of compiling some songs. So far I have four, and I’m looking forward to maybe four more. That’s basically what I’ve done in the past: sing the music of the day, with an option to sing whatever I want a little later on. GM