By Carol Anne Szel
Chances are you’ve heard one of his massive hits, as Johnny Mathis has sold more than 27 million recordings in the United States alone, with more than 130 albums and sales totaling more than 350 million worldwide.
In the 1950s, this musical jazz singer and consummate balladeer was the iconic young singer who was poised to change the face of music in an era that saw little crossover in mainstream music, both in the way it sounded and the way it looked, blending worlds that once seemed miles apart.
Born to Clem and Mildred Mathis in 1935 in Texas, the family moved to San Francisco when Johnny was a toddler. One of seven children in the family, he was quick to show an interest in music, singing in the church choir and local community events. At age 13, Johnny found himself studying with a local voice coach and excelling in high school sports, as well.
1956, in fact, Johnny Mathis was given the rare decision: Choose a career in music or try out for the Olympics. His choice was music. Later that year, he was recording with famous band leader Mitch Miller on Columbia Records, where he recorded his first hits. “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not For Me To Say, peaked on the Billboard pop charts a year later in July 1957, followed by Johnny’s first No. 1 hit “Chances Are.”
His career has taken him around the world, playing to audiences for more than 60 years, to heads of state, royalty, and into the Grammy Hall of Fame two times so far with “Chances Are” and his iconic classic, “Misty.”
Based now out of his Southern California home, Mathis is never far from the road. He turns 75 this year, but he remains a driving force, playing venues across the country nearly every weekend of the year.
Goldmine had the chance to speak with Mathis recently, shortly after seeing him play live in New York, where he sold out two nights in a row.
Goldmine: You look and sound wonderful. How do you stay in such great shape physically and vocally?
Johnny Mathis: Well, you know, I’ve been very lucky over the years, starting from the beginning of my career. I had a really good teacher who took me under her wing and decided that we could get started to really learn what the voice could do and what it was capable of doing. And then, along the way, after I started to sing, I was a high school athlete, and that sort of gives you an idea about, you know, what your gonna have to do the rest of your life, if you’re gonna stay fit and be able to do the things you want to do. Over the years, I started to play golf. I met a guy on the golf course who was a kinesiologist. First, I had to look up the word! This was about 25 years ago, and he kind of said, “What do you do physically before you go onstage?” ‘Oh John,’ he said, ‘You should exercise.’ And I said, “I used to do the high jump in school and then I let it go by the wayside.” So I got into a routine with him, and we started exercising, and I kind of stuck with it over the years. It didn’t seem like a big deal, you know; it just seemed like if I’m gonna go onstage, I might as well put forth a little effort.
I understand that your dad, Clem, bought you a piano when you were a young boy, one of seven children, in fact.
JM: Yes, I was maybe 5 or 6 years old when he bought an upright $25 piano, and he dismantled it into the house, because we lived in a tiny little house, with all of us. He took it apart and put it back together, and we thought, “What are we gonna do with that old thing?” And then he sat down and started to play, and we looked at each other and said, “We didn’t know you could do that.” He played and sang for us, and that was the beginning. I just stood by his side and listened to him, and I was amazed, and that’s when I really found a good pal in my dad. And for the rest of our lives, we were just really good buddies.
You have a wonderful story of starting your career at an early age in the early ’50s as a teen in San Francisco. I understand a local nightclub owner, Helen Noga, was very instrumental in your early years?
JM: She was a lady who discovered me, more or less, for recordings. She owned a jazz club a called the Black Hawk, which is very famous, had all the great jazz artists from the time I was a little kid about 13. I used to go there on Sunday and watch them during the jam sessions, when they didn’t serve liquor, and I got to meet people like Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie and all these better-known jazz musicians. But I was nice and comfortable around the, you know, famous people, at an early age. So I kind of had a jump start about what it would take if I was going into it. I got to meet some of these people and saw the routines that they went through and probably studied, and it was kind of a good beginning point.
It is well known that in 1956, while attending San Francisco State College, you had the choice of either going for the Olympic track team or pursuing your musical career. How did you come about the decision to chose music?
JM: I started to sing in public at an early age, and these people who came to San Francisco with big bands would hear me sing occasionally, and they thought it would be kind of a novelty to have this little kid on the road with them singing a couple of songs or something. Then finally, when I had the opportunity to record, my dad and I thought this is the direction we want to go. Because, you know, if something happens and you go back to school, you just continue. But it was more or less up to my dad, and he made a great decision. That was when I decided to go to New York and make my first recording, and then things just started to click.
And shortly after you landed in New York to record for Columbia Records, you met up with Mitch Miller, who was also quite formidable force in your career.
JM: Right. Actually, Helen Noga was the cousin of a very famous recording producer for Columbia Records who introduced me to Mitch Miller. And Mitch kind of gave me some direction in the studio, as far as what he thought I should concentrate on, and we ended up singing a lot of love ballads. It was just a golden time for me, because I was young and I had all these people who knew what they were doing, and they were just as nice as they could be to me. And I just kind of hung around them and picked up a few things, mostly about what it would take to be able to do what I wanted to do, and that is to first of all make sure that I took care of my voice. They’re delicate and to lose it ... it is over with. Because I studied at such an early age, I got the idea that the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night is to make sure that I didn’t do anything to harm my voice.
What was the New York City music scene like back then in the ’50s?
JM: First of all, you had clubs, which sort of don’t exist anymore, and it was a learning process. People were in a nice mood, they’d have a few drinks and sit and listen to whoever was on the stage. And usually, people who worked in clubs worked for long periods of time. In other words, maybe for three weeks or a month. I know I worked in a lot of night clubs for a month, and you’re kind of looking forward to something that takes away the drudgery of going on the phase of your next tour, and somebody shows up and they’re a singer and she says, ‘Yeah, come on upstairs and sing.’ And that was kind of the mood. It was a nice, relaxed atmosphere in the clubs, and on many, many occasions, I got a chance to get up and sing with some pretty famous musicians, and all of that kind of gave me enough confidence to get in front of people.
How was the experience of appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957?
JM: When you watch that television show, it seemed like a big deal, but it was a very small studio, and the orchestra was very close to you. And it helps to have an intimate kind of situation, if you’re just singing. When it gets big and, you know, a big expanse, then you’re mainly out of your element, especially when you’re singing such quiet types of music. So the studio, which still exists, was quite small, and the orchestra was close to you, and you got up and you sang a song, a couple of songs, and to a small audience, a studio audience. Then all of a sudden, you go outside and everybody all over the world tells you that they saw you on television. You go, ‘Oh my goodness!’
Your career is so legendary for so many reasons, one of which is its longevity. What do you attribute that to? And what do you think of musicians today who look for instant success rather than taking the time to hone their musical craft?
JM: Yeah, there are some people who really do want to be famous, and then there are other people who want to be good at their craft. I just sort of grew up around people that inspired me to say to myself, “How can I do this a little better?” or “Let me try this, let me do that.”
I have a lot of wonderful people who I work with — my office staff and musicians and what have you — and they are terrific to be around, because they are always learning, always studying. Most of them have been with me 30 and 40 years.
How do you keep your music fresh for yourself after all these years?
JM: The whole idea about enjoying yourself, it is to share stuff that you get. This is so funny though, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson once said that you don’t want to be alone in this world; it would be like being in a well and hollering “Look what I’ve got; look what I’ve got!” If you can’t share it, then what do you have?
What are you working on right now?
JM: Something extraordinary. I’ve got this Portuguese song in front of me right now that I’m learning.
And your new release “Let It Be Me: Mathis In Nashville” is amazing. How did you decide to do a county music CD?
JM : Yes, a lot of songs that were kind of reminiscent of what my dad taught me as a youngster, because my dad was from Texas, and that was the kind of music that he listened to when he was growing up and that the kind of music he played for me when I was 5 and 6 years old, so I was very comfortable singing things like “Make The World Go Away” and things like that. And then things like “Shenandoah.” I just love it.
Well you seem to love singing, and we look forward to hearing you for many, many years to come.
JM: Well, thank you. Its a labor of love for me.