Is there a singer more suited for romance than Johnny Mathis?
His velvety vocals – so liquid, so lush – have provided the soundtrack for countless first dates, first dances and anniversary dinners. Whether musing about the fleeting nature of love in “It’s Not for Me to Say” or marveling at how “Misty” he’s gotten, he seems to caress each word as it leaves his mouth.
To quote another signature song, “Chances Are” that Mathis’ reputation as “the voice of romance” is secure.
“I can’t get around it,” Mathis, 81, said with a chuckle. “When I open my mouth it just sounds like that.”
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Mathis has been charming listeners since childhood.
The fourth of seven children, he moved with his family from Texas to San Francisco as a young boy.
He credits his father, Clem, with encouraging his interest in music. Not only did Clem Mathis bring home an old upright piano for his 8-year-old son – when the instrument wouldn’t fit through the front door of their basement apartment, he had to dismantle and then meticulously reassemble it – but he also searched tirelessly for the right voice teacher to foster his talent.
“My dad wanted me to learn to sing so I could sing for the rest of my life,” Johnny Mathis explained.
At age 13, Mathis met the instructor who would shape his unique style, Connie Cox. In exchange for lessons, he ran errands for Cox and cleaned her home.
“She gave me the understanding that my vocal range was not going to be limited if I wanted it not to be limited,” Mathis said, adding that he “worked very hard on maintaining the soft, high quality that I’ve become known for in my singing.”
Mathis also took cues from his dad’s favorite recording artist, Hank Williams, and the “jazzers” his siblings listened to. He idolized Nat King Cole, calling the groundbreaking black baritone “the best singer I’ve ever heard.”
“I couldn’t have been happier to follow in his footsteps,” said Mathis, a black entertainer who broke barriers himself when he publicly came out as gay in 1982.
Mathis was a student at San Francisco State College when he caught his big break. While performing at a San Francisco nightclub, he captured the attention of Columbia Records producer George Avakian, who sent a telegram to his label: “Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.”
Mathis, then a talented track and field athlete, gave up his chance to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team to record his first album in New York City. “Johnny Mathis: A New Sound in Popular Song” was released in 1956.
Although Columbia initially signed Mathis as a jazz artist, his true talents as an interpreter of pop standards soon became apparent. In just a few years, he recorded many of the love songs that would become his standard fare, including “A Certain Smile,” “Wonderful! Wonderful!” and “Wild Is the Wind.”
Three of those songs – “Chances Are,” “Misty” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” – later landed Mathis in the Grammy Hall of Fame. “I call them the holy trinity,” said Mathis, who received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 and was inducted into the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame in 2014. He makes them the centerpiece of every concert.
That wasn’t always the case. “Years ago,” he said, “I had no idea what was de rigueur.” Tired of the same songs over and over again, he stopped.
“I never heard such awful words (from) people leaving the performance,” Mathis recalled with a chuckle. “I learned my lesson very fast: Sing a few that everybody knows, and then you’re safe.”
That said, Mathis has always left room for experimentation. In the course of roughly six decades and more than 70 albums, he’s explored every genre from the blues to Broadway – getting religious with 1958’s “Good Night, Dear Lord,” diving into disco with 1979’s “Mathis Magic” and returning to his country roots in 2010’s “Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville.” His Latin American-flavored album “Olé,” released in 1964, found the performer singing in Spanish and Portuguese.
Like his idol, Cole, who turned “The Christmas Song” into a chestnut-roasting classic, Mathis has also put his stamp on the holidays. He’s released six Christmas albums so far, starting with “Merry Christmas” in 1958; his latest, 2013’s “Sending You a Little Christmas,” earned a Grammy Award nomination for best traditional pop vocal album. (Mathis received three previous Grammy nods in the same category, including one for “Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville.”)
“If you don’t put quotes around yourself, you can do everything,” said Mathis, whose upcoming album will feature covers of R Kelly’s R&B anthem “I Believe I Can Fly” and Alan Jackson’s country chart-topper “Remember When.” “What we do is determined by what we can do vocally. … If you have a wide vocal range, you don’t limit yourself with so much.”
Although Mathis doesn’t view himself as a dreamy romantic – “I’m kind of an outdoors-crazy guy who plays golf all day and comes home and tries to learn a song very fast,” the self-avowed gym rat said – he’s reconciled himself to his role as an ambassador of love.
“I always thought I was a jazz singer. Everybody says, ‘No, no, no, you’re a romantic singer,’ ” Mathis said with a chuckle. “I’ll take whatever I can get. At this stage, I’m really very happy to have a career.”