VOL. 132 | NO. 94 | Thursday, May 11, 2017
Legend Johnny Mathis Still Going Strong, Coming to Memphis
By Don Wade
As the story goes, Johnny Mathis was 8 years old and living on Post Street in San Francisco when his father purchased a piano for $25 and brought it home. But there was a problem: Clem Mathis couldn’t fit the piano through the front door of their small flat.
Johnny Mathis, right, was a young man when in 1956 he recorded the first of more than 80 albums. Now 81 years old, he brings his distinctive style to The Orpheum for a June 25 performance.
Clem’s solution was to spend the night disassembling the piano, move the pieces inside, then put the piano back together. Young Johnny, the fourth of seven children, watched all of it. In the years that followed, father and son would go to work on building Johnny an opportunity that eventually would blossom into a professional career that started in 1956 when Columbia Records released his first album.
It was a beginning, however, that also cued an ending. A successful track and field athlete, Johnny had a chance to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials. But there was a conflict. The competition was at the same time Columbia Records had called and invited him to New York.
“My dad and I had been hoping for a big break,” said Mathis, now 81 years old and coming to Memphis to perform at The Orpheum Theatre on June 25. “We weren’t gonna let a situation like this pass by. So I kissed my athletic career goodbye.”
It’s appropriate phrasing for Mathis, who is stopping in Memphis as part of “The Voice of Romance Tour.” Singer, musician and comedian Gary Mule Deer will be the special guest at the Memphis performance, which is at 7:30 p.m. Click here for ticket information.
Best-known for his hits “Chances Are,” “It’s Not For Me To Say” and “Misty,” Mathis has recorded more than 80 albums, had 50 hits on the Billboard adult contemporary charts, and ranks as the No. 6 album artist in the history of the pop album charts. He also has received five Grammy nominations, and in 2003 was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
In a career that spans 61 years as a professional recording artist, Mathis has performed in duets with the likes of Barbara Streisand, Billy Joel, Natalie Cole, Ray Charles and Bette Midler, to name but a few. And it was Streisand who once said of him: “There are a number of good singers, a smaller handful of truly great singers, and then there’s Johnny Mathis.”
He got his start learning songs from his father around that piano. But his dad also realized the importance of him having professional voice instruction. When he had a voice coach that lived on the other side of the bay, young Johnny had to make a two-hour one-way trip via street car, train and bus.
“I still don’t believe I did that as a kid,” Mathis said. “But it paid off.”
“It’s kind of sad. If you’re at all musically inclined, you should have some idea of what came before.”
Award-winning vocalist who has recorded more than 80 albums
So did growing up in cultured San Francisco, where he was exposed to everything from opera to jazz and could go to the Fairmont Hotel and see immense talents such as Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne perform. Even today, Mathis talks with reverence about all who have influenced his music: his father, his voice teachers, and all the great artists that preceded him.
It’s why he seems dismayed – albeit in his own gentle way – that young artists today sometimes are oblivious to the fact they are not the first to make music.
“Most of what I do is from a period of time young people have not heard (the music),” he said. “It’s kind of sad. If you’re at all musically inclined, you should have some idea of what came before.”
Ultimately, there was no style of music that Mathis could not sing. And as his success as a pop singer grew, he earned the freedom to, as he put it, have a “free hand” to sing whatever he wanted.
“I’ve never gotten bored,” he said.
Nor has he grown stale. He’s had a hit in every decade of his career. In 2013, his song “Sending You a Little Christmas” with Jim Brickman peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart.
His music has appeared in more than 60 television shows and films, ranging from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Goodfellas” to “Mad Men” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” He has appeared as himself more than 100 times in films, documentaries and TV shows, including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Simpsons,” and “Family Ties.”
An avid golfer, he hosts the Johnny Mathis Seniors PGA Classic. He also works out five days a week. He arrives at the gym at 6 a.m. and goes through a routine that includes using a treadmill, lifting free weights and doing structured stretching with a coach. In recent years, he also has begun serious voice care leading up to a performance
“If I just shut up for a couple of days, the voice is wonderful,” he said.
He still cooks for himself and when he goes to his local market he often is reminded that, in some ways, his life has been one long melody.
“I meet a lot of people more or less the same age I am,” he said. “They feel very relaxed about coming up and telling me how long they’ve been listening to my music. It’s very rewarding. You never get over the excitement of people knowing what you do or that you’re in the arts.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. And it never goes away. Or at least for me it doesn’t.”