by Michael P. Coleman
“Along the way, you find out what you really can do and what you really can’t do. But you try everything.”
Johnny Mathis is quite simply one of the most successful and beloved recording artists of all time. With dozens of international hits (“Chances Are” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” with Deniece Williams among them) and millions of records sold, he’s influenced everyone from Smokey Robinson to Luther Vandross to Billy Joel, setting the standard for male pop vocalists while simultaneously providing the soundtrack for family holiday gatherings for decades.
Next year, Mathis will celebrate his 60th anniversary as a recording artist. At 79, he still sounds incredible, and he’s just begun working on an album of contemporary material to be released next year. He also continues to sell out concert halls worldwide.
As Mathis prepares for two performances with the San Francisco Symphony, he generously shared behind-the-scenes stories from the making of some of his most iconic projects. He talked about working with other entertainment icons like Quincy Jones, Mahalia Jackson, and Clive Davis, who’s asked Mathis to record a few uber-contemporary songs for his upcoming album that would REALLY push the envelope! He also talked about the nervousness he still feels when he takes the stage, who he’d like to sing with, and the person who actually turned down the opportunity to sing with him!
It was wonderful to learn that the warmth and sincerity that Mathis exudes when he sings comes across in person, as well. I’ll admit to having really been besotted with him. From my perspective, as the song says, we could have danced all night.
This interview has been edited.
I was surprised to learn that at one point you were an accomplished athlete with a potential Olympic bid in your future, and that you competed with a guy that basketball fans know! Tell us about that.
I got involved in physical ed class as a young boy, and I could out jump all of my buddies in class. By the time I was in high school, I was a high jumper on the track and field team. Then I went to San Francisco State College and got involved with the track team there and started to travel. One of my best buddies [on the team] happened to be the great basketball player Bill Russell. Bill and I traveled together all over California, and we kind of were figuring out what we hopefully could do after we finished high jumping. I think Bill tried the hurdles for a short time, and I used to sing a little bit in the car when he and his girlfriend would drive to track meets. Bill and I got along really great and he’s still one of my best pals in the world.
At one point, you had an opportunity to try out for the Olympics…??
Yes, I received an offer to attend the Olympic trials of 1956 at the University of California I think, and during the same week my dad got a telegram from one of the executives at Columbia Records. Someone had sent him some of my recordings that I’d done just for fun, and he wanted me to come to New York and make my first [professional] recordings.
Was pursuing music instead of professional sports a hard decision for you to make?
I was overjoyed to get out of high jumping. [Laughs]. It was such a pain — literally. I had a bad back like a lot of athletes do. It limited not only my performance [in high jumping] but other physical activities. So when the telegram came and my dad told me about it, it sounded too good to be true, to get an invitation to come to New York and make a record.
How’d you become interested in music in the first place?
I’d always just liked to sing, and my dad encouraged me to take voice lessons. We looked for about a year before we found the right person, and she was kind enough to teach me free of charge. So that was the genesis of the whole thing. I was a product of all of the singers who had played in my little room: Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne……those were the people I listened to, and that was the music that appealed to me. Along the way, you find out what you really can do and what you really can’t do. But you try everything.
You were an out of the gate success with songs like “Chances Are” and “It’s Not For Me To Say”, recorded with full orchestras. A few years later, you recorded the brilliant, acoustic Open Fire, Two Guitars album. What do you recall of making that album?
That was a fun thing for me, because the two guys who played guitar on that, Al Caiola and Tony Mattola, wrote some music for a very popular program on CBS at the time, “Danger”, and it was a mysterious kind of scary television show. That was the only way I knew who they were when they showed up in the recording studio. It was quite a departure for me to sing with just two guitars and a bass. I LOVED doing that album.
With that album, your gorgeous album of religious music, Good Night, Dear Lord and your first holiday album, you seemed willing to try different things at a very early point in your career, when many artists would have waited until their career slowed down to experiment like that. Was that by design, or were you just having fun and singing what you wanted to sing?
The structure in record companies now has all sorts of classifications, but when I started, there wasn’t even a producer around for artists. I ended up working with Mitch Miller who became my first producer, but all he did was get the songs and sit in the studio and tell me how he wanted me to sing them. And that was about all of the [direction] I ever got about how to make a record. So when I had my first two or three hits, that was a big deal then, so [Columbia Records execs] felt that I could have successes without a producer. So I was on my own and I merely did what I thought would work. I was very lucky that [Columbia Records] left me alone, and that some of what I wanted to sing became quite successful.
How’d projects like your first holiday album, Merry Christmas, and Good Night, Dear Lord, come about?
I come from a big family and Christmas was a big deal for us, so I decided to make a Christmas album. And lo and behold it became a very high point in my career. I think that album and those Christmas albums that followed it are the greatest accomplishments I’ve ever had because I loved nothing more than having my parents listen to my music and be pleased with it. If you can imagine having a parent have people come to them and say “Oh it’s not Christmas without your son singing a Christmas song!” — they were over the moon about it! And then after that first Christmas album, I decided to let my audience know that during my growing up years in San Francisco I’d gone to the synagogue, to the Methodist church, to the Baptist church, and I wanted to sing some of that music.
Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson was recording for your label, Columbia, at the same time. Did you ever have an opportunity to meet her?
Constantly! I was so enamored with her, of course, because my dad had studied the ministry and had introduced me to her music. I followed Mahalia into the studio on several occasions, and I always got there early to listen to her and [her pianist] Mildred Falls make their recordings. Mahalia was very funny and very down to earth, and very practical, and she was absolutely the most wonderful person to be around. I remember specifically the one song that I chose to sing — “One God” — all because of Mahalia. I don’t think people make a habit of buying religious music, but somehow that one became very popular with my audience. And I was lucky to get Percy Faith! He was a recording artist at Columbia, and they asked him if he would do the arrangements to all of those songs. Along the way, I’ve met some wonderful people who’ve been in my corner — probably because we enjoyed the same types of music — but Percy Faith was very, very important in my career.
Of all of your collaborators, do you have a favorite?
There are two who resonate the most for me. First of all was Percy, who wrote for me orchestral arrangements that were like the ones on his own records. He’d had a couple of hit records, and he just consented to work with me. It was kind of tough because he was a classically trained orchestrator, and some of the other people who were in the studio at the time were not. He said some funny things to those people when they’d ask him “Why don’t you do this?” or “Why don’t you do that?” I remember once he said “The reason I don’t do that is because what I’m doing is perfect!” [Laughs] I said “Yeah! Right on!” Percy was one of my great, great heroes. I love him very much. Ray Ellis was also a WONDERFUL orchestrator. He always had these high voices singing along with his violins. It became his trademark, and I just loved his accompaniments. There were others…Ray Coniff for instance had my first two or three hit records: “Chances Are”, “The Twelfth Of Never”, “It’s Not For Me To Say”, “When Sunny Gets Blue”, and those were his first recordings. He was a musician in a traveling band that performed all over the country, and he decided that traveling was too big a chore for him, so he wanted to see if he could get involved in studio work, and I was the first person that he recorded with.
So many singers were influenced by you. Who’s your favorite singer?
Nat “King” Cole. He’s one of my favorite heroes in the music profession. He was not only a great singer, but most people don’t realize that he was one of the greatest piano players in the world! He also was one of the most wonderful, kind people to me. I met him at an early age — he came to see me sing once at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood. My eyes bugged out…I can’t remember whether I sang well or not! He came backstage after the show and put his arm around me and said something to the effect that he loved it — I can’t remember exactly what he said because I was in awe of this man that I had listened to from the time I was a little kid! I decided listening to him that that’s what I wanted to do: sing like Nat “King” Cole. He had a television show for a very short time. It got cancelled because the people in the south weren’t too happy about him being on national television WHICH WAS THE WEIRDEST THING I’D EVER HEARD OF! Anyway, he invited me to sing on one of his programs, which of course was just over the moon for me!
You’re working on a new album with Clive Davis. Tell us about that!
Clive and I go a long way back. He was the president of Columbia for years while I was there. I’d sung for him once before at a Grammy party, and he was annoyed after it because he didn’t think the performance got the response it deserved — the room was noisy and bad, and it came off poorly. This time, earlier this year, it was a great venue and it came off fabulously. Afterward, he was all jazzed and he asked me to do something with him. Clive has suggested that we go with really contemporary stuff. I’ve chosen five so far that I felt I could do. Clive wants hits, titles that people will know about, and he’s interested in selling records, and I’m interested in whether I can sing the song or not. A few that he sent me made me go “WHAAAT?” [Laughs]. One of them even has an expletive in it, and I go “Oh yeah! I’m gonna say that word in a song? Are you KIDDING me?” Anyway, Clive’s list goes from the sublime to the ridiculous! I told him that I couldn’t sing some of this stuff if the lyric doesn’t hold true. Some of these songwriters are very young, contemporary guys and girls writing lyrics that don’t rhyme, some of it seems off the tops of their heads, some of it doesn’t really make sense to me. But out of all of it, we’re going to have to find at least eight songs that I can do. The lyrics to Whitney Houston’s “Run To You” really work well, so I’ll be doing that one. And there’s one by a group called A Great Big World called “Say Something” — it’s a very clever, wonderful song. I love it. “I Believe I Can Fly” by R Kelly, that’s a nice song. There’s one kid who’s just wonderful — Bruno Mars — who writes all of his stuff, sings it, he dances, he’s amazing. I’m going to see if I can do one of his songs for this new album. And then there are a couple of more that I don’t have in front of me…I’ll get through it with a lot of help from a lot of people, as is the case with most of the projects that I’ve been doing lately. They have to convince me to do some of this stuff because I’ve still got my little boy attitude about what I really like to sing. I have to be shoved a little bit one way or the other, and that’s good. I’ll probably be very glad that I did it, but it is going to be a lot of work. I’m looking forward to it.
You recorded a country album a few years ago. What prompted you to do country after so many years?
It goes back to my pop. He was born and raised in Texas, and he was a great singer. All of the songs that he sat down and played at the piano when I was a little kid listening to him were sort of country. He loved that music, and that’s what I heard when I was in the house when I was a little kid. A few years ago, I said it would be kind of nice to try some of that stuff since I listen to it all of the time. I just kind of love to stir up the pot a little bit and see what I can sing and what I can’t. Some of it comes off ok, some of it is not as good as what my dad did [laughs] but I loved him so much, and I’m so happy at this point in my career to still have a recording contract and still sing songs that I want to sing. The hierarchies in these record companies change every six months, so I’ve been lucky. All of the people in leadership [at Columbia] seem to be in my corner as far as recording.
Do you have a favorite on-stage moment?
A little while ago, I sang at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. I was amazed at the intimacy of the place. The audience is situated all around you and it looks very intimate. It goes deep into the rest of the hall, but they seem so close to you. The whole atmosphere was so wonderful for me, and I thought that it was one of the best performances I’ve ever done. It was magic for me. But of course there have been a few other times when I thought I’d sung well and was in a really spectacular place. A couple of times I was in Great Britain and sang well in front of the queen of England, a few of those times pop into my head, because I get nervous like everyone else does. It took me YEARS to get comfortable on stage. Fortunately, it hasn’t affected my on-stage persona and I’m able to mask it. You have to learn how to take your nervousness and use it to enhance your performance. Nothing is more unpleasant than watching someone whose nervousness shows on stage.
You’ve never won a competitive Grammy award. What are your feelings about that?
In my heart I know that those things to some people are very meaningful, but the thing that means more to me is the consistency in my work that I have to keep to get to the next level and the next performance. I remember going to Quincy Jones’ house for a rehearsal once. He must have had 50 Grammys all over the place, but his whole focus and excitement was about the little project that we were doing. And I understand that because that’s the way this business is: you’re glad for the awards and you’re happy for them, but they won’t guarantee you your next project. Being in the business for as long as I have, I really admire the people that get these awards. I think to be nominated is just like winning, because you’re in the same boat. They have to choose someone to win, and it’s nice to be in the choosing.
You’ve talked about never wanting to retire. Other than the new album with Clive, what else is on the horizon for you?
I’m kind of just saying “bring it on”. I’ve never lost my enthusiasm! I’ve met some of my vocal heroes along the way. None of us want to stop. We want to be in a place where it’s still fun and it’s still meaningful, but the voice is a very, very delicate instrument. And some of us have retained it. I give the credit to my voice teacher because she always told me “You’re going to want to sing forever, so do everything you can to maintain your voice.” I was talking to Bill Withers the other day — we love each other a lot, he’s a great guy — and for some reason he can’t sing. He’s had a problem with his vocals chords and nobody’s been able to help him, and I thought that was the saddest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Is there anyone that you haven’t sung with that you’d like to work with?
I’ve often thought that that’s pretty brazen of me to want to sing with some great artist, but I keep forgetting that we all listen to one another. I love singing in tandem, and I’d love to sing with Michael McDonald, for instance. Someone told me that he was playing one of my songs for his grandchild. I thought ‘Good! He knows who I am! That’s the first step!” [Laughs]
With all due respect, everyone knows who you are! Has anyone ever turned down the chance to work with you?
One of the great singer songwriters was asked on my behalf and we were told they were busy. I said “Oh, no! I’ve been shot down!”
Who was too busy to work with Johnny Mathis??
Well, I’m certainly not going to mention the name, but he’s a great artist. I’m sure he’s very busy, but if I really wanted to work with someone, I’d toss everything away and work with them!
What can your fans in San Francisco look forward to?
I love to find songs that I usually don’t do ordinarily because we have a large orchestra there and I like to feature the orchestra as much as I can. There a lot of people that come to many of my shows quite often, so I like to change a few of the songs up for them, but I do try to run through as many of the “hit” songs that I’ve had over the last few years. I’ll do a little of Harry Mancini’s songs because I worked with him for many years in concert and I love his music. And then I’ll sing a few that I recorded with Thom Bell who’s behind the Philadelphia sound. The whole situation at Symphony Hall in San Francisco is just perfect for my kind of music. I think everyone’s going to love the show.
Tickets for Mathis’ performances with the San Francisco Symphony are available at sfsymphony.org.