Johnny Mathis is a distinguished guy. He had to make a choice between pursuing a singing career or becoming an Olympic athlete. Mathis is the longest-tenured artist at Columbia Records and the first artist for whom there was a Greatest Hits album. He sang a melodic style of music starting in the mid ’50s and sold millions. His voice remains a staple of the holidays. While the counterculture came and went, Mathis stuck with his true self and is still kicking and crooning. He’s a super nice guy. We talked about music, and he even called my mother, a lifelong fan, to wish her a Merry Christmas. Johnny Mathis will be at the Orpheum on Saturday, December 21st.
Flyer: You were around some musical greats when you were very young at the Black Hawk Club. What was that like?
Johnny Mathis: I guess I started going with my older brother Clem and my dad to the Black Hawk when I was about 13. The process for them was to rehearse in the afternoon and do the performance at night. Sometimes they were agreeable to someone as young as myself listening to their rehearsals. I got a chance to meet and to almost become friends with people like Errol Garner [composed “Misty”], Dave Brubeck, of course, who was almost a house musician there. But I also got to meet people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, singers that I really really admired. Then when I made my first recordings at the age of 19, I started to work some of the same venues that they worked and was able to reconnect with them. And they remembered me. I had a wonderful kind of association with some pretty mature artists at a very early age. It kind of impressed on me how important it was to really and truly concentrate on what my performance in opposed to thinking of it kind of a frivolous way.
Mitch Miller was a polarizing producer, but he had a tremendous influence on your career.
Mitch was very important to me because he had a kind of a childlike quality about what he felt was going to make it as music as far as I was concerned. The music that he chose for us to sing was very simplistic. He insisted on being there and making sure that we sang it the way he wanted it, which was on the beat, never ad-libbed. It was completely different from what I did on my first album, which was produced by George Avakian who was head of jazz [at Columbia]. So Iwas torn between these two people but I was perfectly willing to do whatever they asked. I was 19 years old. I took what they said as gospel. Fortunately Mitch guided me in the right direction. I wasn’t really a jazz singer, but I was signed to the company by George. I was a little bit more comfortable singing something that didn’t require me to improvise.
Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney said some nasty things about him.
They hated him. But I was young. It was awkward.
Miller hated rock-and-roll. He called it “musical baby food.” Do you agree?
I’ve tried everything. Some of it clicked. Some of it didn’t. The rock and roll sound was not really something that I pursued. I would laugh a little bit about it. It didn’t seem referential enough for the music. It seemed like I was making fun of it. So I backed off. Whoever you’re hanging out with or working with has a great effect on what you eventually do. The people that I hung with had a not-very-good feeling about rock-and-roll. Feeling that it was simplistic, and it was. But we were dealing with young people. And young people didn’t want to get serious. That’s what they listened. I stuck with what I was doing. Fortunately, I was with a record company that had good distribution. Rock-and-roll was not a big deal at Columbia. At that time, they were pretty heavy into Broadway shows. Most of their product was aimed at a pretty mature audience.
Your Miller-influenced sound was in contrast to much of what happened in the 1950s and ’60s. But it’s 2014 and you’re still going.
The process of singing is so individualistic. I just liked what my dad sang. He was a good singer; the first I ever heard. I felt comfortable singing songs that had a pretty melody. I had studied from the time I was 13 until 18 with a lady who taught opera. I was very comfortable in that situation. My music was fun. I always knew that I didn’t really know anything about how to sing. I knew how to produce the notes, but I didn’t know how to put them all together into an interesting song. It took me a very long time. I got off on the wrong track on many occasions, as evidenced by the record I did with George Avakian who left me to my own devices. I was all over the place. It wasn’t until I met Mitch Miller,
I listened to your comeback Number One “Too Much Too Little Too Late” from 1978. It took me back to my parents car like I was sitting there.
My producer said he wanted me to do a duet. That was before anyone had considered doing duets in the mainstream at the time. He mentioned Minnie Riperton. Unfortunately she became very ill at the time and eventually passed away. Denise Williams had just come off the road with Stevie Wonder, singing background for him. She’s a very forceful lady. She came right up to the producer and said, “I’m here. Let me sing with him.” That started a wonderful relationship with Denise whom I love very much.
Christmas has had a massive influence on your career.
I come from a large family. The first Christmas album I did was for my mom and my dad, who made Christmas a wonderful time. I keep telling everybody that we weren’t poor, we just didn’t have any money. It was very important that we took advantage of all the free stuff like going to church and singing Christmas songs. I was really ready to do something for my mom and my dad. I’d had a couple of hit records and the record company let me have my own way about the thing. I eventually ran into Percy Faith, who was another artist in residence at Columbia. He agreed to do the album with me, thank God, because it’s so brilliant what he did with a ll the voices and the violins. And that particular album has been iconic in my career.
Do you still play golf?
I used to be pretty good when I was taking lessons. There was a guy on the tour. He tutored me for about five years and I got down to about a 7 or 8 handicap. No more. Those days are over.
Since it it’s Christmas and I have you on the phone, I’m going to ask you a favor. Would you call my mom and wish her a Merry Christmas?
I sure would. What’s her number?