Speaker Could you tell me what you thought the first time you heard Ella Fitzgerald say?

Speaker My recollection of Ella. It is a little foggy because I started listening to music at such an early age. I guess I was about. Three or four years old, my dad and all my brothers and I have six brothers and sisters and they owned pop music in the house.

Speaker And of course, Ella was one of the first people I heard singing, I don't quite remember when, but I remember it being one of the most.

Speaker Wonderful feelings in the world to hear her sing. It was so pleasing and so pleasant. And then. When I saw a picture of her. She looked like my mom. And that made it even more exciting because I picture my mom singing with this gorgeous, beautiful voice. And that was that was the first.

Speaker It was a wonderful way to get introduced to to a singer.

Speaker Did you have any idea at the time that you were facing?

Speaker No, I started singing for my father. He was a very good singer and piano player.

Speaker And I sang for him from the time I was three four until he said that he thought if I really enjoyed that, I should learn to sing properly, I should take a teacher. And so he he spent quite a lot of time. Looking for a teacher for. And he finally found a teacher. And I began. Rather. Formal training at about the age of 13.

Speaker So then that's you were going to pursue that career.

Speaker I wanted to be a teacher. I went to teachers college, I went to San Francisco State University and I have wonderful teachers. I think young people always greatly influenced by really good teachers and had good teachers all the way through junior high school, high school, middle school. And. And in my year and a half of college, I was very impressed with them. And so I wanted to be a teacher. I thought maybe that I teach music because I have a wonderful voice teacher. And I thought I could impart that to some young people. And and then I would coach an athletic team because I also was a high jump and a hurdler on the track team and got a chance to go to the Olympic trials as a high jumper. And so all that was woven in together. And somehow I thought I could have a career between the two things, athletics and teaching. It wasn't until about the age of 18 that I seriously thought I might have a chance to sing other than for my father. And that was when a man from Columbia Records came through San Francisco. His name was George Volkan. He heard me sing and said he'd come back in a year because I needed what he called the experience. And fortunately, he did. He came back the next journey, sign me to a contract. And that was the beginning of my recording career.

Speaker Now that you reached a point where you're going to do this professionally. Did you take anything from Ella?

Speaker I take everything from Allah. I, I tried to sound like her. All my great heroes is in singing. At an early age were women. I was taught by a woman. She was my teacher. Women had very flexible voices, very unlike my my men heroes, singers who were Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Sammy Davis Jr., Arthur Pricelock and the women had their voices were more flexible. So I had a closer kinship with him because as a youngster, my voice was very high and. I listened to Ella's music. The Decca recordings that she made, and I copied everything, every nuance. She was wonderful, of course, at improvers improvisation. And I grew up listening to a lot of her songs and she would improvise. And I thought that was the melody. So eventually when I recorded those songs, because I think I recorded almost everything I ever heard her saying, I recorded them the way she sang them. And it was a deviation of the melody. But of course, it it sounded wonderful because her choice of notes was as good as the author's.

Speaker When did you first see Ella?

Speaker I think I think I first maybe met her at a club called the Black Hawk in San Francisco. My lady who eventually became my business manager, Helen Noga, owned in conjunction with her husband and another partner, shown the most popular jazz club in San Francisco, which was called the Black Hawk. And Ella was there many times. I don't remember whether she ever performed there, but they came there after their their concerts. Usually Jazz at the Philharmonic, which was a touring show that they did. And that was the first time I ever heard her sing. And of course, she was almost always accompanied by the Oscar Peterson trio with Ray Brown and her Bellus.

Speaker And it was like the greatest. Thing that I had ever heard, there was there was nothing in the world like it for someone like myself who loved to sing. To listen to that music played and sung with such joy to read. And such a band. And it was it was like someone. Well, in fact, it was it was someone who had complete control of what they were doing. And they could do it upside down, backwards, forwards, round down anyway. And it was it was mind boggling to me.

Speaker What did you say to her? Her stage presence?

Speaker I loved her stage presence, so every time I'd read a review of her, they would always mention the fact that she was very shy and she was very reticent about what she did. But that's what I loved about her. I loved the fact that she had this magnificence, this God given ability, and then she went ahead and nurtured it and made it into this beautiful thing. And yet she was she was a little shy and. And not at all arrogant. I love that about her.

Speaker I love that about anybody when they have a great gift. And they treated with dignity.

Speaker I love the most of all.

Speaker What I love about her singing is that she has this this tier in her voice, a cry and wonderful. Sound that is is so touching. I like that. In a singer. I don't care for people who who know how marvelous they are. I like I like to hear the things that are unsaid sometimes.

Speaker Over the years. She, of course, became aware of you and. You never really tried to meet her. Well, why was that one into?

Speaker I always felt very shy. I've always been shy all my life. And I. I'm deathly afraid of meeting my heroes. I've met a few over the years. And fortunately, I would say nine times out of 10. I've been very happy that I've met them the other time. I was kind of disappointed in in them to say, to be honest. And so I was sort of just wanted to treasure the fact that her music spoke for itself. I'll tell you one thing that that she did. And you never know who's listening to you. I never dreamed. First of all, that I have a career like I've had. But I was singing on a soap opera. I just wanted to do it for fun because I. I sort of like soap operas. And they asked me if I'd like to sing on one. And it wasn't really one of the biggies. But it was on for about six or seven years, I guess. I can't even remember the name of it, but they shot it in New York. And so I went to New York and I sang a song. I was a pretty little song. But nothing really sort of I could have sung it in my sleep. Really. And she heard it and she sent me a telegram. And she said, Johnny, you signed so pretty and signed Ella. And I went around showing it to everybody, all my friends. And this is, you know, when I was. Fifty years old. I'm. There's something about not growing up that I really kind of like keeping a little bit of the child like qualities. And she always I always felt that about her. She she had this wonderful.

Speaker A little girl quality. And it was. It was captivating for me.

Speaker Well, it's interesting to hear he she had contacted you. Do you sue?

Speaker I still even though she wrote me that telegram, I sent her a telegram back. I wouldn't call her. That's that's too much of invasion, I think. But I just wanted her to know that I loved her. And I told her that in the telegram. And she was she meant everything to me and my career. But I think she knows that. And I think she knew that all my life because of the recordings that I made over the years. I made a series of recordings and songs from Broadway shows that were. A lot of them were recorded simply because she signed them and was. I always felt that she she knew that I was around. That was enough, you know. I mean. How can you impress Ella Fitzgerald? You can't. There is no possible way. So I was just thrilled that she knew that I was alive.

Speaker You actually. The Society of Singers. Yes. I'm a member of the Society of Singers.

Speaker I'm a member of the Society of Singers. And of course, our big award each year is to some member of the musical society who has excelled and and done wonderful things.

Speaker And they named the award the Ella Award in her honor.

Speaker I signed for her. I didn't sing for her, but she was in the audience and I think at that time we were honoring 20 Martin.

Speaker I think. Because, I mean, Tony, Martin's brother was my was my music teachers.

Speaker Boyfriend. And so I thought that was kind of neat that I have that association with Tony Martin.

Speaker But Ella Fitzgerald was in the audience that night. I reminded her of. Of the fact that that she was so much a part of my career. And I think I sang a little thing that she got a chuckle out of because she recorded, Oh, Magic and she did the most wonderful together, loving you.

Speaker The love you. The love you. The lover I have waited for, you know, things like that. Just off the cuff. And it was so marvelous. That was the one thing that I remember. And I it flashed to me while I was on stage and I sang it for. And I saw her just chuckle a little bit. So that was nice.

Speaker See, over the years, of course. Voice changed. What did what did you think of that?

Speaker Every voice changes, and my teacher told me years and years ago that when I reach the age of about. 35 or 40 that my voice would be at its at its peak and it would stop maturing and it would start. If I didn't protect it, it would start deteriorating.

Speaker And, of course, most singers. Quite different, especially if they have a long career, like I've had it, like Ella has had, where they start singing in their teens and and sing until they're until they physically die.

Speaker And.

Speaker Of course, when when you love someone's music, as I loved her music, I saw no change in her voice. Of course, there was a distinct. At the very end. There was a stink wobble to her voice. As it happens with most people, because you get singing, it's very physical. And if you lose your your muscle tone, then the voice is going to wobble a little bit.

Speaker But it never bothered me at all costs. I'm a. You know, I'm I'm very loyal to the things that I love and the people that I love. Things like that never bothered me. I still have those wonderful memories. I have a record, for instance, that I play all the time. All my favorite musicians are as dear to me. If they're dead or if they're alive.

Speaker What did you think when? She came out with the songbooks. What do you think that did for her?

Speaker I thought when she recorded the songbooks and that. It was the it was the most wonderful thing that could have happened to a person who had grown up improvising the way she had improvised. And then she proved to the world that she could send the music that was written and she could sing it exactly as the writer wrote it. And this proved to the world that she was even a greater singer than most people gave her credit for.

Speaker Those sort of the things that I I really admired her for, as is say, OK, I'm going straight ahead. I'm not going to improvise one way or the other. And she did that so magnificently. And for the first time I heard I heard the verses to songs written by Rodgers and Hart to Gershwin that I had never heard before. And of course, I picked them up and I I began to sing them on stage and to record them and read merely because she presented them to me in a way that I could accept.

Speaker I didn't have the the, you know, the gumption to go and look up the the music and to learn it myself, but to hear her sing these wonderful verses.

Speaker And the same with the second chorus, the second choruses, other lyrics. And what happened afterwards was thrilling.

Speaker And I was I was so proud of her and I'm so happy for her because I think it got to a much larger audience for her. And then when, of course, she she would to sing these songs precisely as the composer wrote it. And then, of course, when she'd get on stage in person, then she'd improvise and make them even better. I used to love to stand out the door and listen to the people comment about her and they came out of the theater. That's that's a wonderful feeling for someone that you love.

Speaker What was that like?

Speaker Oh, it was amazing. They say she's the greatest thing I ever heard in my life. Of course, I you know, I knew that.

Speaker And and everyone said that. Everyone said that.

Speaker It's the greatest thing I've ever heard in my life. I never knew she could do this. I never knew this. I never knew about her.

Speaker It's funny, you know, because she didn't want to do this song, especially versus learning on it.

Speaker You know, it must it must have been a big, big task for her to learn all those those songs. Yeah.

Speaker I'm so. Did you hear? Very much about her health declining.

Speaker I knew that she had problems with her eyes. That was the first time that I was ever told about her health problems. And then I heard that I think she had diabetes. And that was that didn't sound too bad to me. I didn't know what diabetes was anyway, and it didn't sound so bad. It sounded like if she rested and if she took care of herself, she would be all right. So I never worried too much about her until the amputations and that sort of thing happened. And then it was so.

Speaker It was.

Speaker What can you say? You just you just hope right there that they've gotten out of life as much.

Speaker As you think that they deserve and and I think she had a really full life and I think she was happy, very happy even when she was ill, because I received my telegram when she was very ill. And so she she she must have had moments when she was very happy.

Speaker I hope so. Why do you think the. She she didn't dress to take care of herself, she worked. Right, until her doctor said absolutely. Yeah, I'm working that terrible. What do you think?

Speaker I don't know why my mom and dad worked the way they did. They had seven kids. They had to support us. But I never saw them once. Complain about it. They just did it. Ella is from the same generation, that was what she did. And I feel the same way.

Speaker I've been fortunate enough over the years to have people constantly telling me that if I don't take care of myself physically, I won't be listening. So from an early age, as I've been rather cautious about my physical health, knowing that if I don't take care of myself, I won't be the same. I think she felt that that is what she had to do. Without reservations, there's some things you do and you don't.

Speaker I think other people may wonder, you know. But.

Speaker I think Joe Williams said something to the effect that he he's saying not because he wanted to, but because he had to. It was part of him, had something he had to do. It's like it's like it's it's as much a part of you as as conversant talking.

Speaker It's a way of showing people how you feel expressing yourself in a way that is a.

Speaker That's 100 times more effective emotionally than than just talking. And you don't really think about it even when when you don't sing well, you still sing. Oh, when you don't when you physically aren't aren't able to sing, well, I still sing, you figure out some way of getting around it. And I think she she did that because that's what she wanted to do. And I think that's that's good. I think it's nice.

Speaker To the rally, you heard about her. Maybe I don't remember.

Speaker I don't remember. It's funny because I think I've like things like that.

Speaker I don't remember when she died and I don't remember who told me or how I heard it, but I don't remember when my mom died. Exactly. And I don't remember who told me, I don't remember when my dad died, who told me. It's just something. That I probably. Don't want to hear. And so I don't remember it. No, I don't care to. I care to remember her the way she was. So it wasn't.

Speaker It wasn't really and hasn't been kind of important to me. But. I know it it means something to. You know, dates and things like that, but no, I. I don't remember.

Speaker But did somebody is there somebody who. Fall follows L. Filled. Yes. Is there an L.A.?

Speaker No, music is so subjective. It's is. And once you fall in love with someone.

Speaker Nobody can take their place. Other people can come along and they may be, according to others, just as good. But not to you. Not to me. She was the best. She was the best there ever was amongst all of us who sang.

Speaker She was the best.

Johnny Mathis
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 31 Mar. 1999,
(1999, March 31). Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). March 31, 1999. Accessed June 28, 2022


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