One of the last great American crooners to achieve success before the rise of rock-n-roll, singer Johnny Mathis enjoyed a half-century of popularity as a romantic balladeer with such timeless, million-selling songs as "Chances Are," "Misty," "It's Not for Me to Say" and countless others. Mathis' ethereal voice, marked by a heavy, oft-imitated vibrato and clarity of tone, imbued a sense of innocent, youthful longing to the pop standards that formed the backbone of his catalog, beginning in 1957 with the Top 20 hit "Wonderful! Wonderful!" He would work almost exclusively in these genres for the next five decades, amassing a staggering amount of gold and platinum records and albums and nearly 75 songs in the Top 40. Mathis was also the first artist to release a greatest hits album, which enjoyed unprecedented favor among listeners, who kept it on the charts for nearly a decade. Though the adult contemporary audience contracted significantly in the late 1960s and 1970s, Mathis remained a major attraction on the concert circuit. He also shifted successfully into R&B with "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," a 1978 duet with Deniece Williams that returned him to the top of the pop charts. Mathis continued to release albums well into the 21st century while maintaining his status as a living link to the classic pop sound of the 1950s through live and television appearances, which showcased his singular voice in fine form, even after five decades. The extraordinary span of Johnny Mathis' career and talent underscored his status as one of the most beloved and successful pop singers in the history of the recording industry.
Born Sept. 30, 1935 in Gilmer, TX, John Royce Mathis was the fourth of seven children by one-time vaudeville performer Clem Mathis, and his wife, Mildred. After moving to San Francisco, CA, the younger Mathis began showing signs of musical talent through displays of singing and dancing at home and at school and church functions. His father encouraged his son's nascent abilities by teaching him many of the songs and routines from his former act. By his teenaged years, Mathis was taking vocal lessons from an opera coach, which provided him with his lush vibrato and ability to sustain notes. He soon exercised his newfound abilities in a band with several fellow high school students, including future blues keyboardist and Grateful Dead compatriot Merl Saunders. But Mathis was also an exceptional athlete, skilled at both track and field and basketball, which provided him with a scholarship to study English and physical education at San Francisco State University. While there, he also participated in jam sessions in local clubs. Helen Noga, co-owner of San Francisco's famed Black Hawk Club, saw Mathis at one such performance and immediately signed him to a management contract. By the mid-1950s, he was singing regularly on the city's club circuit, where Noga invited jazz producer George Avakian to hear Mathis in concert. Avakian was so impressed by the singer's talent that he wired Columbia Records to sign Mathis to a recording contract.
However, the proposed recording dates for his debut album with the label conflicted with trials as a high jumper for the U.S. Olympic Team, which was destined for Melbourne, Australia in November of 1956. On the advice of his father, Mathis decided to forgo a career in sports and pursue his musical ambitions, which launched in earnest with the release of his self-titled debut album in 1957. Despite the presence of such stellar names in jazz orchestration as Teo Macero and Gil Evans, the record was a failure. Producer Mitch Miller, who also served as an A&R executive at Columbia, took control of Mathis' sophomore release, which hewed closer to the smooth, relentlessly upbeat easy-listening pop ballads that Miller had recorded with the likes of Tony Bennett, Doris Day and Jo Stafford. While Miller's material often hobbled the talents of great singers, others benefited greatly from his approach, including Mathis, who scored a Top 20 hit with the velvety love song "Wonderful! Wonderful!" in 1957. Its follow-up, "It's Not for Me to Say," soared even higher, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard pop charts, but his third release, "Chances Are," provided him with not only his first No.1 single but also an enduring signature song. By 1958, Mathis had collected enough hit singles to warrant a Greatest Hits album, which remained on the Billboard 200 for an astonishing 490 weeks, earning him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Mathis was the first artist to release such an album, which soon became an industry standard.
The album format soon became Mathis' primary showcase, as listener response to his singles dropped after 1958's "Call Me." He remained a consistent presence on the Billboard Hot 100, but usually in the lower ranks of the Top 40 or below, though there were occasional returns to the Top 20, most notably with "Misty" (1959) and the back-to-back "Gina" and "What Will Mary Say" in 1962 and 1963, respectively. His album releases, however, often yielded spectacular results, like 1958's Merry Christmas and Heavenly (1959), both of which reached multi-platinum status. Mathis also enjoyed exceptional popularity in the United Kingdom, where he continued to mine gold and platinum albums well into the 1980s, long after his standing on the U.S. pop charts had waned.
For much of the late '50s and 1960s, Mathis' fanbase was built on a foundation of white, middle-class listeners drawn by his preference for ballads and pop standards, as well as female fans who found his clean-cut good looks a refreshing alternative to the growing tide of rock-n-roll artists. However, Mathis rarely appealed to African-American audiences until the early 1970s, when he began to embrace soft rock and R&B. Albums built around songs by Roberta Flack (The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, 1972; Killing Me Softly, 1973), Billy Paul (Me and Mrs. Jones, 1973) and The Three Degrees (When Will I See You Again, 1975) not only broadened his audience but also brought him significant chart success in the third act of his career. In 1978, Mathis enjoyed his second No. 1 pop single "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," a duet with Deniece Williams that also topped the R&B chart. He followed this success with "The Last Time I Felt Like This," a duet with Jane Olivor that earned an Oscar nomination for its inclusion on the soundtrack for "Same Time, Next Year" (1978). Mathis would go on to record several more collaborations, including a reunion with Williams for "Without Us," which became the theme song for "Family Ties" (NBC, 1982-89) and duets with Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight. Though none could reproduce the heights reached by "Too Much," he continued to land in the Top 40 on both the R&B and adult contemporary charts for the next decade.
During this period, Mathis struggled with addictions to amphetamines and alcohol, which he successfully overcame through rehabilitation. He briefly made headlines following a 1982 interview with Us magazine, in which he declared that homosexuality was "a way of life that [he] had grown accustomed to." Mathis later stated that the comment was given when he believed he was off the record with the reporter, but the revelation appeared to have little or no effect on his enduring popularity. By the 1990s, Mathis was still scoring Top 30 albums in the U.K., while his long and storied career received a number of awards, including the induction of three songs, including "Chances Are," into the Grammy Hall of Fame between 1998 and 2008. The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award followed in 2003, while his 2006 album Isn't It Romantic: The Standards Album> and his first country album, Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville (2011), both received Grammy nominations, underscoring his enduring popularity. In 2006, Mathis celebrated his 50th anniversary as a recording artist with a series of concerts and television specials, as well as two compilation albums.
By Paul Gaita