The power of Johnny Mathis’ voice can soothe and comfort; I can certainly attest to this!
It was a sunny September morning in 1994. Before rising, my brother, Stephen had appeared to me in a dream; he was smiling ear-to-ear. My brother had transitioned on this day; he was only 42. I later realized, Stephen was saying goodbye to me. That morning, before I was notified of his passing, I had gotten up and began doing my yoga exercises when the phone rang. It was the doctor calling from the hospital to inform me that Stephen had passed.
When I hung up the phone, the radio was playing Johnny Mathis singing Misty. Mathis’ melodic vocals were like a blanket of comfort and calmness that soothed my soul.
Mathis’ music became the soundtrack for people’s lives, loves, and heartaches. He has recorded over 80 albums, 6 Christmas albums, and sold millions of records worldwide and his latest album Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook is produced by Grammy Award-winning greats Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Clive Davis. The album features today’s pop sound christened by the vocals of Mathis’ refined elegance. Among the songs included are I Believe I Can Fly by R. Kelly; Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars, and Hello by Adele.
Last December, Mathis, whose career has spanned an incredible six decades, released The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection. It is a 68-disc box set of Mathis’ recordings with Columbia Records since 1955. Mathis is celebrating his 62nd anniversary this year as a recording artist.
The fourth of seven children, John Royce Mathis was born on September 30, 1935, in Gilmer Texas. As a small boy, his family moved to San Francisco. In high school, Mathis was a true athlete, a track and field star, and basketball player. While in attendance at San Francisco State College, Mathis set a high jump record and was only two inches short of setting an Olympic record. In 1956, Mathis was offered a chance to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials which meant travel to Australia. Mathis had a gig singing weekends at a club and one day, a Columbia Records executive came to see him at the request of the club’s co-owner. The 19-year-old received an offer to sign with the record label and turned down the U.S. Olympic trials opportunity. He elected to go to New York City to record his first album released in 1956.
He credits his first vocal teacher Connie Cox as having guided him as a teenager to develop his iconic sound. She agreed to take on the teen as a client in exchange for him doing odd jobs around her house. In June 1957, Mathis emerged as a national celebrity and a household name when he performed on TV on the famed Ed Sullivan Show.
It is absolutely absurd that although Mathis has been nominated five times, he has never won a traditional Grammy Award. He has had three songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, achieved 50 hits on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Chart, and was one of only five recording artists to have Top 40 Hits spanning each of his first four decades as an artist. In 2003, he was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
In 1958, Mathis released his Greatest Hits album, which began a tradition copied by every record company since then. Johnny’s Greatest Hits went on to become one of the most popular albums of all time and spent an unprecedented 490 continuous weeks – almost ten years – on the Billboard Top Album Charts. The record has been noted in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Mathis has sung duets with Deniece Williams, Gladys Knight, Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, and countless other stellar talents.
The supreme romantic crooner is currently on The Voice of Romance Tour. At 83, Mathis is not even thinking about retiring. He relaxes by playing golf and is an impressive gourmet cook. We chatted with this living legend about all things that make up the man whom we have loved for so very long.
50BOLD: You look marvelous! What is your exercise and health regimen?
Mathis: A long time ago, I was on a golf course playing with this guy and I was limping. He said, “What’s wrong with you?”
I said, “I don’t know. I had back surgery and my foot is flopping around like this. I guess they cut the wrong nerve in my back.” Anyway, he turned out to be a kinesiologist. They deal with the movements of the human body in any capacity. He was a real lifesaver. I started working out with him about 30 years ago. I began an exercise regimen. I’d get up at 4:00 am in the morning and go to the gym for an hour and a half. It keeps my weight down.
50BOLD: Mr. Mathis as a teen, you were offered two phenomenal choices, you could have either participated in the U.S. Olympics in track and field or become a recording artist. You chose to go the music route, why?
Mathis: Well, when you’re a kid you do a lot of stuff. I was maybe 16 or 17 when I was given the opportunity to make my first recording. The late George Avakian, a jazz record producer, talent scout at Columbia Records, and a wonderful man, signed me to a recording contract and this has been my life ever since. I get up in the morning and the first thing I think about is “me, me, me, me, me, ” as I recite my daily vocal warm-up scales.
50BOLD: This brings me to the next question, your first vocal instructor, Connie Cox. Did she set a musical foundation for you?
Mathis: Well, you know, my dad was my best pal, God bless him, and my mom had seven children. Yet, he found ways to spend time with all of us. Dad loved to sing. He was a good singer and I was the only one who took after him in this respect. My other brothers and sisters were busy doing other things.
When I was about 12 or 13, my dad started looking for a voice teacher. I said, “Pop. I can sing. You taught me how to sing.” He responded, “No, no son, we need somebody, a professional to teach you how to sing.” He explained it all to me and we searched the San Francisco area for a vocal coach for quite a long time. We found some people who seemed legitimate, but they would put on a record, turn it up loud, and have you sing along with it. Of course, you sounded good because the record was loud.
Despite all of the nonsense we went through in looking for a coach, I finally found a lady whom I auditioned for when I was about 13. I told her that money was sort of nonexistent. She said well, “We’ll take care of that a little bit later. Let’s begin your lessons.” She taught me for five or six years when my voice was just maturing. She was the best thing that ever happened to me. God bless her. Connie Cox was the angel in my life.
50BOLD: During the Civil Rights era would you say you were low-key and did any leaders of the movement ever reach out to you?
Mathis: I was all over the place as far as my activities outside of singing. I had friends who were members of Civil Rights organizations. I actually got involved with some people and we were going down south to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When we got there, there were about 5,000 people outdoors. All of a sudden, the stage collapsed. Pandemonium set in. We all scattered. Dr. King, of course, canceled the event. We found out later that some very unsavory people were watching the whole situation take place.
Over the years, however, I’ve done a lot of charity performances for the cause, and this benefitted many organizations.
50BOLD: I hear you! Now, during that time did you experience any racial prejudice like not being able to go through the main entrance of a hotel, or barred from getting into a pool?
Mathis: You have to remember I started out by myself. I had no money except for what they were going to pay me if I sang. I didn’t really go too far away from home. I’ve had only one racial thing happen to me once. I was singing in Las Vegas at the same casino where many African Americans had performed like Sammy Davis, Billy Eckstine, and Lena Horne. I felt pretty cool about the gig. Unfortunately, the hotel administrators would not allow me to stay at the very same hotel where I was performing.
50BOLD: Oh, wow!
Mathis: And I thought, “You guys are crazy.” I was from a new era. All the other people whom I had talked to over the years like Lena and Harry Belafonte, you know, those performers who had traveled this road before me, had to deal with racial incidences. I thought the whole thing was ridiculous.
Anyway, I went across the tracks, stayed at a hotel there, and then sang at the casino. About a year or so later, I thought the across-the-tracks arrangement was just stupid; it was the only real racial incident that tripped me up.
50BOLD: You are such a global phenomenal performer. Were you ever ostracized by other Black performing artists, was there ever any jealousy shown towards you?
Mathis: No, I was never ostracized, and no jealousy! When Deniece Williams and I made a recording called Too Much, Too Little, Too Late in 1978, the song really opened up the R&B gates if you will; it was my second number one hit record.
Deniece used to call me every week after the record was released and say, “Guess what, we’re number 20 now!” “We’re now number 10!” “Now, we’re number 5!” (laughs) I had forgotten all about it. Deniece and I had a number one R&B recording, we were ecstatic!
Of course, I’m also so proud of my recordings with Gladys Knight and other extraordinary and gifted singers like her whom I have worked with over the years. It makes me feel so good that these great artists want to sing with me.
50BOLD: What? Now you know that should be the other way around. They are probably honored to be singing with you.
50BOLD: Out of all of your many hits which one is your very favorite and why?
50BOLD: Oh, I love Misty too! Why is Misty your favorite?
Mathis: When I was a little boy, my father, whom I loved dearly, was a piano player who would take me to see Erroll Garner, a very famous Black jazz piano player who composed the instrumental song, Misty. My dad played this song, all of the time, morning, noon, and night. There were no words to the song.
When I began singing professionally at the age of 18, I wanted to record the song. I finally discovered that Misty did in fact have lyrics. I jumped all over the song and recorded it, doing so was one of the best moves I’ve ever made.
50BOLD: I love it! You have an incredible 68-piece box set collection, The Voice of Romance, part of the Columbia Records album collection which was released last December. Phenomenal! Do you ever sit back in amazement at your extraordinary body of work?
Mathis: (laughs) I do! I have a box sitting right next to me. My mind goes back to where was I when I recorded a particular song. “What was I thinking? Let me see what this sounds like. Oh my goodness, that’s terrible! Oh, I hate that. Ok, that’s alright. That’s fine.”
50BOLD: Mr. Mathis, one of your previously unreleased albums that was originally recorded in 1981-82 is included in the box set and entitled, I Love My Lady. It was a collaboration with Chic’s Niles Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards. Niles said when he worked with you it was like a gift that the music Gods presented to him. What was it like working with Rodgers and Edwards?
Mathis: They were fantastic. Unbelievable! I was so happy to finally find people who helped me to interpret their music. Up until then, people thought I knew what I was doing. (laughs) If folks only knew! I was guessing all over the place! I welcomed anyone who would come along and say “I’d like to try you singing this way, that way, stay a little bit on the beat, a little bit off the beat. Put it in a higher key, put it in a lower key. “
Usually, when a composer writes a song, they have an idea about how they want it to sound. I’m all for that. A composer who knows what they want and how a singer should perform their works is a great help to me. Give me some ideas as to what you want me to do vocally with your song, this helps me a great deal. Rodgers and his partner were a gift from heaven too because I went in the studio to work with them. They had all these new kinds of sounds for me to try. Not too many lyrics, but hip melodies. I loved it!
I see Niles all the time. He’s still hanging in there. I told him I am too. (laughs)
50BOLD: Mr. Mathis, you are currently on your Voice of Romance Tour. How is the tour?
Mathis: Well, you know, I love this tour and now, I’m sitting here thinking about my next engagement. It is actually for a friend of mine that I play golf with who has a charity. He has adopted two or three children over the years and has gotten involved with this charity. He used to talk to me about charity when we were playing golf. I told him that if I can help in any way to let me know.
So sure enough he let me know! I’m going to New York to sing some songs with him. He is a wonderful guitar player.
It’s for one of the fundraisers that they have for his adopted children. I love doing it. The best thing about my situation now is that I get a chance to do the things I really enjoy doing like helping people out when it’s needed.
50BOLD: Oh, that’s beautiful. Who do you listen to now? In today’s music, the voices of these young performers are so unrecognizable. Now, when your voice comes on the radio, we know automatically who is singing, Johnny Mathis.
Mathis: (laughs) Well, this is the basis of popular music which changes every six or seven years. There are crops of new singers popping up all the time. The way songs are written now is different and makes it difficult for me to find new songs to record. In my latest album, however, I did pretty well. I had some really good songs to sing.
The music industry is not easy, but who said it was going to be. So far, I’m keeping my head above water as far as finding new songs to sing.
50BOLD: Do you have a favorite recording artist?
Mathis: Everybody. I’m telling you, I can’t even remember some of the names of these people. I’ve got the radio on all the time; listening and going to and from the golf course. Just riding around to the market because I do my own cooking. My mom and dad taught all of us kids when we were little how to cook.
When I’m doing something that I love, I like listening to music. When I was a little kid, my voice teacher was an opera singer. She insisted that I listen to some of the operatic voices that were around at the time and this helped me a great deal because I learned to stretch my vocal qualities to the fullest extent.
The album that comes to mind where I put what I learned into practice is entitled, Good Night, Dear Lord, where I sang a few songs in Hebrew and also performed some classical songs.
50BOLD: Whom did you admire growing up as a singer?
Mathis: Everybody. Oh, my goodness. I got to meet half of them. The first three or four years that I started traveling, my big heroes vocally were Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, and so on. I got to meet them all. And they were all so wonderful and kind to me.
50BOLD: Now, I know about three years ago your house caught fire and burned down. I can’t imagine how you felt. Were you devastated?
Mathis: I was away. Driving back home from the airport after being someplace singing, and I saw all of these fire trucks about a mile away from my house. I said, “My God what is happening?” It turned out that my house had caught fire.
Unfortunately, the housekeeper was not there at the time. She eventually passed away. The fire smoldered for about three days. What it did — the smoke ruined all of my clothes. All the stuff I had gotten in Europe and things like that. Oh, I was devastated.
What I did, I moved into a penthouse in Hollywood, stayed there for a year-and-a-half, and didn’t even think about going to the house because I didn’t know what was going on. I had hired this wonderful man to do what he could as far rebuilding.
One day I visited my home and saw what he had done. My house is all new and I’m having a wonderful time decorating it. Tragedy turned into something really nice now.
50BOLD: The same house is on the same lot?
Mathis: Yep, absolutely, up from the ashes.
50BOLD: Mr. Mathis, I know that you play golf, you are a gourmet cook and I know retirement is not in your vocabulary, what is left to do for you?
Mathis: The next thing. There is always a next thing. If something is given to you like a gift, try to honor it as much as you can. Don’t throw a gift especially when it’s God-given.
50BOLD: I like that. Shifting gears. When you came out as a gay man was a burden lifted?
Mathis: Oh, my God yes. Can you imagine? (laughs) Being gay was SUCH a big thing. Before coming out, I wondered what my dad would say to me. What my mom would say to me. When we all finally talked about it, they said, “Son, you are our son. We love you and we don’t care.”
50BOLD: When Johnny Mathis looks in the mirror who does he see?
Mathis: Oh gosh. I keep saying, “I better fix that.” I keep looking at myself and I say, “Oh, gosh, you’re getting old!” But what can I do? I’m grateful for being around. Some of my friends and golfing partners have passed away in the last couple of months. I get these phone calls from wives and husbands about passings and it’s a wake-up call. But, here’s the thing, we can either handle it or not. I choose to handle it as long as I have some health. (laughs)