Singer Johnny Mathis

Grammy Hall of Fame singer talks about his first country album and explains why he made the decision to release a CD in this genre.

One of the most enduring vocalists in music history, Johnny Mathis holds many records and has set many precedents in the business. He's been inducted twice into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was one of the first artists to embrace the album concept. He's also Columbia Records' longest-running artist. Mathis was a star high school athlete, but chose his love of music over a chance to be on the U.S. Olympic team. He's performed songs in a variety of genres, including his latest release, "Let It Be Me"—his first foray into classic country music.


Tavis Smiley: What a pleasure to welcome Johnny Mathis to this program. The music icon has sold well over 350 million records during his stellar career, a career that began more than 50 years ago. But he’s out now with his first-ever country album. It’s called “Let it Be Me: Mathis in Nashville.” Before we go to that, from his 50th anniversary concert special, here he is performing his classic hit, “Misty.”
Tavis: You don’t need me to tell you this, but you still got it, Johnny Mathis. You still got it, man.
Johnny Mathis: Well, thank you very much [laughter]. It sounds like a – you know, I’ve heard myself so often and every time it sounds like a caricature of myself, because I’m – yeah.
Tavis: Have you always liked the sound of your voice, never liked the sound of your voice, or you’ve changed over the years?
Mathis: Yes [laughter]. Yeah, in the beginning I couldn’t stand it, of course, because I started recording very early when I was 19, I guess. My voice was a little, oh, flexible, I guess, but eventually it settled down. I started to listen to people like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine and comparing myself, and I was a little too high.
Then it got to a point where I kind of got comfortable with it, but it’s still the strangest feeling in the world to hear yourself so often as I have to hear myself. You get a little bit detached sometimes.
Tavis:Let me take you back. You mentioned a moment ago that you started recording when you were about 19. Let me go back a little bit before that because your back story – we all know the legend that you have become, but your back story is so fascinating to me. Let me go back to the beginning, if I can.
So if I have this correct, it’s your father who first hears that you have a voice. It’s your father who then says, “Johnny, we got to get you in some music training, some voice lessons.” And the way that you paid for those voice lessons from your voice teacher was to do household chores?
Mathis: Right. Connie Cox was her name, a wonderful lady. I met her when I was, I guess, about 13 and studied with her for about seven years. Of course, couldn’t pay, but I cleaned her studio. She had a nice studio where she taught music, and I cleaned the studio, ran some errands for her, and did things between her paying students.
I would do my homework. I’d sit in the corner and do my homework and listen to the paying students, and I think that’s where I really learned to hear the trial and errors that her paying students made and how they accomplished what they did. She was a wonderful teacher and I was absolutely blessed to have her.
Tavis: So you start studying with Connie Cox for these seven years or so. That pushes you into time to go to college. What many of your fans may not know, you were an amazing athlete. So amazing that you had the choice at one point to try out for the Olympic team or to record for Columbia Records. Tell me about how one has to decide – Olympics, Columbia Records.
Mathis: In the same week, one week, I had to either do one or the other, but over the years I had studied with something in mind of making some recordings, and I had made some recordings with my voice teacher, but this was really something special.
George Avakian, who signed me to Columbia Records, was a mentor to people like Mahalia Jackson and Miles Davis – just enormous – and I was a big fan of his. To be able to go with him to New York, make my first recordings with people like John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Gil Evans, Tio Masero (sp), Bob Prince, Manny Albam. All these things might not mean much to young people now, but they were jazz icons at the time and I was over the moon about recording. So I did, I went to New York and made my first recording.
Tavis: So you signed – again, your back story is so phenomenal to me, and what I’m about to say now is, like, unheard of. You signed. You decided to pass on the Olympics, you signed with Columbia, as you’ve just said. You signed with Columbia in 1956.
Mathis: ‘6 or ‘7, I think.
Tavis: Yeah. My notes say ’56, but who am I to argue with Johnny Mathis? So let’s just say for the sake of television ’56.
Mathis: I think I did sign in ’56 and the first recording came out in ’57.
Tavis: Exactly.
Mathis: You’re right.
Tavis: Thank you, Mr. Mathis. I appreciate that. Kudos to my research team [laughter]. Anyway, so you signed with Columbia in ’56. What’s amazing about that – and here’s the unheard-of part – my calendar reads 2010, October, to be exact, 2010, and you are still with Columbia Records.
Mathis: Yeah. Isn’t that amazing [laughter]?
Tavis: That is unheard-of. Nobody in this business stays with the same record company from 1956 until 2010. How is that possible?
Mathis: I don’t know, because the hierarchy in the company changed. I must have gone through 15 or 20 different presidents.
Tavis: At least.
Mathis: Yeah, and of course all the other people who support all the artists on the label. It is – I don’t know. I’m lucky. Am I lucky? Yeah.
Tavis: Why, from ’56 until 2010, given that you were raised on this stuff, did it take you this long to figure out that you were good enough to record some country-western?
Mathis: I think most people are of a mind that the really big country hits were the performances by these iconic people. They can’t be really – you know, you can’t do any better. But I had recorded some country music over the years, but never gone to Nashville and sat in with all the guitar players and what have you.
It was a great experience for me. I loved it and I’m so thrilled that I got the opportunity to record some of these wonderful songs.
Tavis: But I wanted to come back and ask you this because I suspect there are a bunch of folk watching right now who won’t forgive me if I don’t ask this. Since you mentioned it, I’m going to follow up on it. So who does Johnny Mathis have on his iPod?
Mathis: Well, I’ve got a lot –
Tavis: Did I ask the right question, guys? I see everybody shaking their head, like, “Yeah, we were waiting for you to ask that.” [Laughter] So since you went there, I’m sure it’s an eclectic roster, but who’s on your iPod?”
Mathis: Everybody that I grew up listening to. Nat King Cole has been my favorite not only musician, singer, person, that I met along the way. Then when I was 13, I started singing in this jazz club in San Francisco and, every week, in came Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner of Misty. All these people are still in my heart. I still have them on my iPod.
The newer ones are people that I’ve worked with, people that I’ve sung with. I’ve sung with almost everybody.
Tavis: You’ve done a lot of collaborations, yeah.
Mathis: Lena Horne and Patty Austin, Denise Williams. You name them, I’ve sung with them, and they’re all my friends and my passion. They all have so many abilities, and it’s so wonderful to be able to listen to one and then listen to the other one and enjoy them.
I’m a lucky guy because I really and truly love all kinds of music. My dad was that way, too. The music that he brought into the house was so eclectic and amazing.
Tavis: Well, speaking of eclectic, this is the first time he’s ever done a country-western album. It’s called “Johnny Mathis, Let it Be Me: Mathis in Nashville.” Got some good stuff on it. What a delight to have you on this program to talk about your life and legacy, which is a long way from over. Thank you for coming to see us.
Mathis: Thank you, Tavis, nice to see you.
Tavis: Oh, glad to have you here. Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm