In 2016, elegant pop balladeer Johnny Mathis celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of his Columbia Records debut. The golden-toned singer of “Chances Are,” “It’s Not for Me to Say” and “Wonderful! Wonderful!” signed with the label in 1955, a few weeks before his twentieth birthday. With the exception of three years at Mercury Records, he’s been with Columbia ever since, longer than any other artist.
43 Mathis recordings have entered Billboard’s pop singles chart. He’s released 85 albums, excluding compilations. Three of his singles are in the Grammy Hall of Fame and he’s the recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. On January 25, Mathis, 82, will sing many his dozens of hits at the Saenger Theatre.
In September 2017, Columbia released Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook. Music business giant Clive Davis and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds co-produced the album of mostly contemporary songs. The track list includes Mathis’ interpretations of Adele’s “Hello,” Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.”
Born in Gilmer, Texas, in 1935, Mathis grew up in San Francisco. His father, Clem Mathis, a former professional singer and pianist, encouraged his son’s interest in music. When Mathis was 13, he began 6 years of singing lessons with Oakland voice teacher Connie Cox. He paid for the instruction via odd jobs performed at Cox’s home.
Mathis was a star athlete at San Francisco State University when a fellow student brought him to a Sunday jam session at the Black Hawk nightclub. Helen Noga, the club’s co-owner, became his manager. The persistent Noga convinced George Avakian at Columbia Records to attend a Mathis performance in San Francisco. Avakian signed him immediately.
In 1956, Columbia released Mathis’ jazz-oriented debut, A New Sound in Popular Song. But jazz wasn’t his forte. Columbia pop producer Mitch Miller paired Mathis with romantic ballads. In 1957, Columbia released the hits “Wonderful! Wonderful!” and “It’s Not for Me to Say.” A career-making appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, movie appearances and the number one hit, “Chances Are,” followed.
Mathis’ Greatest Hits album, released in 1958, is among the best-selling albums in history. In December 2017, Legacy Recordings released the 68-disc Mathis box set, The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection.
I haven’t interviewed you since 2001.
Wow. We’re still here!
What’s your reaction to your new box set?
I couldn’t believe it. I’ve got one sitting on the table right next to me. My past is flying in front of me. It’s the most wonderful thing that someone like myself can have. My whole recording career in one box.
Do you have a favorite among your own recordings?
When I do listen to my music, I look forward to hearing the album I did with Henry Mancini [The Hollywood Musicals]. I love that album. I play it, not so much because of the music, although I love the music, but because I see Henry and remember the cues he gave me when he was conducting. I traveled all over the world with him. We became pals and I sang some beautiful songs that he wrote.
I’ve been so fortunate over the years to meet these gifted composers who write these songs that I sing. But I get all the attention, because I deliver the package. But the writers, they’re the ones who created the package I’m carrying.
Do you like everything in the box set?
Whoever gets this will hear recordings I hoped nobody would ever hear. But the record company wanted to release everything—the good, the bad and the ugly. But there’s a lot of stuff that I am so proud of. So many of the people [producers, composers, arrangers, musicians] went above and beyond what I even dreamed of. I’m the first one to give credit to all these extraordinary people who I’ve worked with over the years.
In 2017, San Francisco State University presented an honorary doctorate of fine arts to you. The City of Los Angeles gave you a lifetime achievement award. You released two new recording projects. Has it been a wonderful, wonderful year?
Extraordinary. I’ve done what I usually do in the past year and a little bit more. Recording has always been a big project in my life. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a record company deal all these years. Most of the things, the big highlights of my career, have been involved with recordings.
Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds co-produced Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook.
I’m big new friends with Babyface. We worked in the studio together for three or four months. I’ve made so many recordings, some of them better than others, but they’re always an adventure. This recording that I did with Babyface turned out to be one of my favorites.
The album is mostly songs that were hits in recent years. Who picked the track list?
Clive Davis. For the past 10 or 12 years, I’ve sung at Clive’s pre–Grammy Awards soiree. The last time that I sang for Clive, he said, “Where have you been? Let’s do something.” He came up with the songs. I hadn’t done any top-of-the-chart songs in a long time. I’m thrilled about these songs and I owe it all to Clive Davis.
Are you doing some of The Great New American Songbook songs in your show?
I just got off the phone with my guitar player, Gil Reigers. This is our forty-seventh year of working together. He’s my sounding board for performances, because he’s sitting there accompanying me. He said, ‘Why don’t you do the Leonard Cohen song?’ It’s a very positive song in some ethereal way. I don’t still don’t understand it, but I love trying to figure it out. So, I think I’m going to perform ‘Hallelujah.’
In 1955, George Avakian signed you to Columbia as a jazz singer.
Helen Noga, a lady who owned a nightclub where I sang, and George Avakian were friends. They were both Armenian. Helen sent some of my tapes to George at Columbia. I was going to become the next big jazz thing.
But you weren’t a jazz singer.
No. I never was a jazz singer. But I tried it. I recorded with some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. But then I came to the attention of Mitch Miller, who was in charge of popular music. That became my career.
Helen Noga was important to your career.
Helen was an extraordinary woman. She was adamant that she was going to get out of the night clubbing business and make her boy—me—a success. My mother hated Helen when she said things like that.
Early in your career, many people—your father, Connie Cox, Noga, Avakian, Miller—contributed to your success.
I was in a culturally advanced city to begin with. And I had the blessing of being born to the most wonderful parents in the world. My father sang for the family. No one else heard him, but I heard him and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be like my father. I loved him very much. He was a wonderful man who raised seven children in San Francisco. It’s a very expensive city. But we didn’t seem to be denied anything.
How soon did your father recognize your talent?
I was 12 or 13 when he said, ‘Son, let’s find a voice teacher.’ I said, ‘Pop, I can sing. I don’t need a teacher!’ He said, ‘No, no, no. You have to learn to do it properly.’ And that was the catalyst.
Did your vocal training make your long career possible?
I had early training, free of charge, from this wonderful woman, Connie Cox. She said, ‘You’re going to want to sing all your life, so learn to do it properly.’ I thought she was going to make me do something that I didn’t want to do. Of course, she didn’t. She wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do, but in a way that I could not hurt my voice.
You turned 82 in September. Have you considered retirement?
The only thing I’m concerned about, and it’s always in the back of my mind, is overdoing it. But when the opportunities present themselves, you must take advantage of them. And every 20 years or so there’s a new audience, young people who don’t know who you are. So, it’s a constant battle between not overdoing it and doing just enough to let people know that I’m still alive and I do still sing.
When you toured in the 1950s and early ’60s, did you experience racial discrimination in the South and elsewhere?
I was so naïve when I started to travel. Growing up in San Francisco, of course, I was just the same as anybody else. So, yeah, discrimination happened to me on a few occasions. I used to laugh at it. I said, ‘That’s so stupid. Wait ’til they hear me sing. And then they can make up their minds.’ But after I laughed at it for a while, it became annoying and then downright unacceptable. I got a taste of it and made it a learning process. I said, ‘I will never, ever treat anyone that way.’ So, I learned a lot of lessons through the ignorance of people who treat other people badly. Fortunately, it never soured me, it never warped my opinion of people.
Your mother and father left Gilmer, Texas, during the Jim Crow era. Are you glad they moved to San Francisco?
I used to ask my dad, ‘Pop, why did you move to San Francisco?’ He said, ‘Son, I wanted to get out of there.’ As far as his surroundings were concerned, he was so forward thinking. But I cannot believe the nerve that he had. He had nobody in California waiting to help him. He and my mom just got in the car and took off. God bless them. My mom, my dad were my best pals. I am absolutely a product of all of the good things that they stood for in their lives. They were the nicest people I ever met.
Do you think the love you experienced when you were growing up in San Francisco helped make you the successful person you are?
It overrides everything, all the negative stuff. My dad and my mom, they are my heroes. I prefer to be like them, because that’s what I really love. O