There is only one Johnny Mathis. With a career that is now in its seventh decade, he has touched many generations with his velvety vocals and a radiant persona punctuated by — we can’t help but say it — “a certain smile.”
Known for such hits as “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “It’s Not For Me To Say,” “Chances Are,” “The Twelfth of Never,” “Misty,” “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” and, of course, “A Certain Smile,” which he performed in the 1958 film of the same title, Mathis has always had a way with standards and, especially, those that festoon the holiday season.
Born in Gilmer, Texas, and raised in San Francisco — the fourth of seven children — John Royce Mathis learned music and performance early from his musician-father, Clem Mathis. At George Washington High School and San Francisco State College (now University), he distinguished himself as much for his athletics as for his singing, once besting NBA legend Bill Russell in a high-jump meet.
He was invited to the 1956 Olympic trials in Melbourne, Australia. But around that time Mathis also had an opportunity to go to New York to cut his first record. With his father’s guidance, he chose music over sport, which led to impresario Mitch Miller, TV host Ed Sullivan and the Mathis we enjoy today.
Recently, we caught up with this performer for all seasons — who’ll be at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts on Long Island with his Christmas concert Dec. 9 — and began by asking about his “Wonderful, Wonderful” life.
In your 2006 PBS special, “Johnny Mathis Live — Wonderful, Wonderful,” you talked about having “a lot of good memories” in spite of times in your career when you had to do 101 one-night concerts. How do you think that the experience affected you artistically and personally?
“Television is very demanding. You not only have to sing, but you have to look like you’ve got it all together (laughs). That oftentimes gives you a little leg up on your physical activities, like trying to stay in shape, so that you look as good as you sing. You do get absolutely affected by what you do, for instance ‘101 one-nighters in a row’ and things of that nature. You realize that your capabilities are quite extensive if you continue your routine, which is remembering that you’re going to have to perform, so that all your extracurricular activities have to be minimized.
“Not so much that you’re restricted in too many ways, but you do have to get a lot of rest, concentrate and remember it’s a job, a wonderful job. But it does require a lot of attention and concentration and you’re dealing with your vocal chords, which are very, very sensitive and also require a lot of rest. So, many things of that nature go into affecting performance.”
Speaking of exhaustion, I was worn out just watching that vintage clip in which you and Andy Williams were doing gymnastics. How do you stay fit these days?
“My lifestyle has been honed and nurtured by two very extraordinary people. My exercise routine started years ago when I met a man by the name of Mike Abrahams at the MountainGate (Country Club). We just happened to get in the same foursome and, along the way, he told me about what he did, that he exercised a lot of the people in motion pictures, and asked me what I did to keep in shape (laughs).
“Unfortunately, I had a negative answer like, ‘I don’t really do anything.’ He kind of gave me a disapproving look. So I called him later on, and we got together and spent the better part of 20 years working out together. He got me into the routine of remembering that I was not always going to be young and fit, and I was going to have to work at it. It was Mike who told me that it would not only enhance my performance to look fit onstage, but it would probably give me a great boost as far as my energy level was concerned when singing and doing my day-to-day activities.
“Also, my voice teacher Connie Cox. When I was 13 years old, we worked together for about five years, and got the ‘ground floor’ as far as protecting my vocal chords over the years and how strenuous my workload was going to be. I understood that as a young man, and it has stood me in great stead over the years. I would say she was the only voice teacher I’ve ever had. Along the way, I’ve met some wonderful people who have helped me when I had problems vocally, but through her training she was the instigator and the foundation of my singing.”
You have a long history of performing duets, with partners ranging from Deniece Williams, with whom you had a chart-topping hit single, to Jane Olivor and Dionne Warwick, among others. Is there a current artist with whom you’d like to sing a duet?
“Jennifer Warnes. I just love the quality of her voice. You can’t buy that. You can’t learn it. I heard her for the first time singing ‘Up Where We Belong’ and would be honored to sing with her if she is ever available. As far as my other duet partners are concerned, of course, I love my ladies very much. They are dear, wonderful and truly great artists.”
When I interviewed Don McLean a couple of months ago, we talked about your rendition of “And I Love You So.” He cited it as one of his favorites and said, “It’s always amazing to hear Johnny Mathis…do ‘And I Love You So,’ because he has such a unique style. He has that echo chamber in his mouth and he does that song and it knocks you out.” What do you think about that?
“Don McLean, yeah, wonderful, good songwriter. I loved the way I sang it, but I had sort of a misconstrued idea about waiting before I sang a certain phrase. He liked it a lot and I was very, very happy because he wrote it. But I thought on my second listening, I thought I could’ve done a better job, but, of course, that is the way careers go. I’m always thinking I can do a better job on most of the things I’ve recorded. Evidently, Don wasn’t bothered by my lack of confidence in my singing of that song.”
You are once again going out on a concert tour. When you look out in the audience and see the faces of your fans, especially those of a certain age, do you feel as if you’ve grown up together?
“Yes, many of us have grown up together. And it’s a wonderful thing. It helps me in that I don’t feel obligated just to sing the same songs over and over again. They’re familiar enough with them that if I sing a little bit of one or two, then I can actually do what I think is more interesting for the audience by singing some of the songs that perhaps they aren’t familiar with, but that I feel deserve to be performed.
“I’ve been very lucky over the years, meeting great songwriters and musicians who have performed music that I fell in love with, and I have recorded. But there are wonderful moments when I feel like really getting involved with some music that perhaps I’ve sung in the past, or that I’ve always wanted to sing. Fortunately, the audience is attentive enough to let me do it. I’ve learned my lessons not to go too far out, but you do want to experiment a little bit because we do a lot of the same stuff over and over and over again. The fans don’t hear it that way, but we (the performers) do.
“I was very nervous in the beginning of my career and unfortunately on a lot of occasions it showed through my performances — not so much that it ruined the performance, but it certainly was a learning process on my part to learn to control my emotions while I’m onstage. When you know that the people are familiar with you, they like your music, it gives you a certain amount of relaxation, which, of course, has helped me over the years. I don’t really know how I came to feel as relaxed as I do now onstage. Maybe it’s just that you do it so often. It’s all I know how to do.”
If there was one song that you could retire and never have to sing again, what would it be?
“I’ve been very lucky over the years. Most of the music that I’ve sung has been good music. There are songs that are more difficult than others to sing. For instance, the high note in ‘Misty.’ We did lower the key, which helps a great deal, but I still have to sing kind of a note in the middle of the song that is a bit (laughs) ‘iffy’ and way out there. But I’ve just learned to do it vocally night after night. I love that song. I love the fact that it was written by the great artist Erroll Garner and the wonderful lyrics by Johnny Burke.
“As far as retiring any of the songs, mostly, I have a hard time with songs that are vocally difficult but over the years, I’ve learned that it’s better in the long run that I sing songs that I can vocally manage without too much trouble.”
Johnny Mathis performs, Dec. 9 at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts LIU Post in Greenvale, N.Y. For more, visit tillescenter.org.