Singer Johnny Mathis

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Grammy Hall of Fame singer explains why he made the decision to release a CD in country music 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: 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 – I’ve heard (unintelligible) 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.” 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 (unintelligible) 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. 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.
Tavis: In the same week.
Mathis: Yeah. I was a high jumper and a hurdler, but I also played a little basketball and I had the great fortune of going up and playing basketball with Bill Russell and Casey Jones, who went on to become Celtic phenomenons.
Tavis: Let me just cut in. That would have pushed me into the music direction. (Laughter) Casey and Bill Russell?
Mathis: Yeah.
Tavis: You have to be pretty good to even be in that company.
Mathis: I know, I know, and I even talked Bill into high-jumping a little bit. His basketball coach didn’t appreciate that, he thought he was going to break his legs. But Bill was a good high-jumper and we’ve remained friends all these years.
But during that same week that I was to go to the Olympic trials as a high-jumper, I got a chance to go to New York. Over the years I’d had little inklings where people had come through towns, San Francisco, and a lot of jazz artists and what have you, and I often – I got one opportunity to go on the road with not a big band – Woody Herman comes to mind, Louis Armstrong – but I was 13, 14 and my dad said, “No way.”
So when the recording contract came along, he felt that was a good idea. I could either have some success or go back to school. But it was a lovely time for me and eventually things worked out with the recordings.
Tavis: That’s an understatement. They more than worked out, 350 million records later. But I’m still curious, though – how did you make that decision? What were your considerations between, again, Columbia or the Olympics? How did you make that decision?
Mathis: Well, it was such a traumatic little situation, because a week, one week I had to eight 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, Mannie Albert (sp). 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 about 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 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 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. This is the new one – gosh, how many has it been? Who knows? But this recording I did to sort of honor my dad. My dad was a wonderful singer and piano player. He was born and raised in Texas so he listened to a lot of country music, and that was the first music that I listened to, was that my dad taught me. It’s kind of nice to have this – it reminds me a lot of my dad.
Tavis: Why, from ’56 until 2010, given that you were raised on this stuff, did it take you to 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 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: Some of these songs, when you glance at the CD – I’ve had a chance to hear it, so I know what you’ve done here – but for example, a song like “What a Wonderful World” does not strike one first and foremost as a country hit. But it is the treatment that you have given these songs, so take me inside the studio and tell me how Johnny Mathis takes a song that at first glance, at first listen might not strike one as a country-western song, but you give it a certain kind of flavor that puts it in that puts it in that country-western genre. How do you do that?
Mathis: Most of the – if you consider something country or pop or R&B or soulful – comes from the accompaniment, what you put behind the singer. Get a bunch of guitar players together and you come up with something of this nature.
Tavis: What is a Johnny Mathis show like, for those who have not had the privilege of seeing you in concert? I raise this because you and I first met, as you know, sitting on an airplane. You were coming back from Atlantic City and I was coming back from Philadelphia, so we were on the same flight back to L.A. I perhaps should apologize for talking your ear off that day (laughter) because I was jus so excited to meet Johnny Mathis and sit and talk to you on that flight back home.
But you were just coming from a show. What’s a Johnny Mathis show like, with all the hits you have in your pocket?
Mathis: Year ago I went to I guess it was a rock show and the featured artist didn’t show up for hours and hours and hours. Finally, they trashed the place. Well, I decided then and there that I’d come on first, so in my performances I come on first. I sing. There’s no fanfare or anything. I come on and I sing what I think the people really want to hear one song, and I just sing it with all my heart.
I sing for about a half an hour, and then I introduce – usually we have a comedian or some lighthearted person on the show with me, or someone like Dionne Warwick, extraordinary people that I’ve worked with over the years. But I do come on first, and really, it’s just kind of a polite way of saying, “Thank you for coming,” and sing a little for you.
Tavis: See, but hear again, that’s unheard of, though, because the headliner never comes out first.
Mathis: Mm. Yeah, well, I (laughs) I don’t want to wait. Things might go bad before I go on. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’re like, “I can control this if I come out (unintelligible).”
Mathis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, okay.
Mathis: After that there’s a short intermission for the comfort of the people and then they come back in and I sing for about an hour and 10 to 15 minutes. I sing songs that I really like and it seems that the people like them. I do sing what I consider the holy trinity – “Chances Are,” the “12th of Never” and “Misty,” and then after that I can really sing anything I want to.
Tavis: You’ve got to give them what they want, though – they want those three.
Mathis: Yeah.
Tavis: When you sing this holy trinity that you speak of, when you sing these songs as many times as you’ve sung them over the years, do you ever come to hate your own stuff? You get tired of singing the same?
Mathis: Yeah, it’s talent to get the enthusiasm night after night after night. But the intangible thing that is kind of difficult for people to understand is that the audience is completely different every night, and you get this incredible energy level from people. Their attention span is jus amazing when they come to these performances that I do.
So I really don’t have – and by the way, when I sing these songs, even though I sing the same notes and with the same accompaniment, there’s never once that emotionally it’s the same, so it’s a puzzle, it really is.
Tavis: Can I tell your age?
Mathis: Seventy-five.
Tavis: I don’t have to, you just did. (Laughter) How is it that you look this good at 75?
Mathis: Oh, dear. I don’t know, but I met a guy on the golf course once a long time ago. He was an iconic exercise guru and oh, gosh, his name escapes me now, but I grew up in San Francisco and he was on television all the time.
He said, “What do you do, John?” Other than singing. (Laughter) I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Oh, John, you’ve got to take care of that body.” He says, “You’ve got a good body, take care of it.”
And it just kind of stuck with me, what he said. I didn’t think – I said, “Well, I look okay, I’m fine.” (Laughter) I didn’t know that you had to keep doing it, otherwise you’d fall apart.
So that kind of got me interested, and about 20 years, and then another guy on the golf course he said the same thing, more or less. He was what they call a kinesiologist. I looked up the word, found out that it had something to do with the movement of the body, and I worked with him for a while.
He just passed away recently, he was 92 years old, and after he did I found other people. I work out five days a week for an hour and a half. I’ve been doing it for a long time. But I want to do it. I know it’s difficult, most people, to find the time to exercise, but I enjoy doing it.
Tavis: You obviously are an avid golfer. You still playing regularly?
Mathis: I do. I go to the gym in the morning, come back home, fix something for dinner, and then go to the golf course and play golf all day long. What a life. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, after 300 million records you deserve to spend your day the way you want to.
Mathis: Thank you.
Tavis: It occurs to me now that you don’t start with Columbia, or any record label, for that matter; in your case, Columbia, in ’56 and navigate yourself successfully to 2010 without a number of hiccups along the way, and there are two that I want to get your take on now because you survived these two things.
Seems to me that anybody that comes along during that time frame is challenged by two things – this guy named Elvis Presley, and the Beatles. I’ve talked to many artists over the years who survived both, but when they come on the scene it changes the game in so many different ways.
Everybody got impacted by the onslaught of Elvis Presley. Everybody got impacted by the Beatles. Take them one at a time. How did you survive Elvis, how’d you survive the Beatles?
Mathis: I lived in a house in Beverly Hills, right next to 20th Century Studios. Elvis Presley did all his movies there. I used to go over there at lunchtime and sit and talk with Elvis. He was a really nice guy, worked very hard at what he was doing and got to know him and got that element out of the way.
So when somebody’s a nice guy you don’t really think about competing with him. You think about oh, good, he’s got another hit record. Oh, man, that guy, he’s got a million of them. That’s kind of the way I thought about Elvis. I never wanted to sing his music but I never felt that we were in competition.
I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I knew him and he seemed a super, super nice guy.
The Beatles, I think I was in London doing some performances when they had their first hit record. Ah, I’m really old. (Laughter) They asked me if I would present them with this gold record of theirs.
So I went to lunch and we had a nice lunch, and I presented the Beatles, two or three of them were there, with this gold record and got to sit with them and found out they were just a bunch of crazy, nice guys who really were killing everybody, knocking everybody out.
So it took the edge off of things and I was rooting for them all the time. So instead of feeling any kind of negativity towards them, I felt like they were nice guys.
As far as what we were doing musically, I’ve been so lucky to have people along the way – producers and arrangers and wonderful musicians who just focus me on what I’m doing, and I love to listen to other people. I’ve got a list of people on my iPod that are amazing, and so I was never challenged or I never thought of them as competition.
We were all in the same business and they work so hard, very, very hard, and that’s – I know that anybody that successful works very hard at it.
Tavis: There are so many different directions I could take that comment, I know the viewers are smart enough to pick up on it themselves; I don’t need to dig down on it. But your answer, I did not expect – that when I’m asking a question thinking that these folk are competition and you just totally pushed back on that. “No, no, no, no, I met with them, I talked to them.”
In a world where everybody seems to be competing against each other, it’s a powerful answer and I appreciate that. 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 Eckstein, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Earl 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 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