Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Johnny Mathis

Today's person of interest is a cool singer in the style of Nat "King" Cole, who has sold over 350 000 000 records around the world, making him the third biggest selling artist of the 20th century. He is also an accomplished athlete, who once (in 1956) had to choose between going to the Olympics and his recording career: he chose the latter. He's considered to be the first black millionaire. Also, he was really sexy in his youth. He is Johnny Mathis.

Mathis was born in Texas in 1935, the fourth of seven children. When he was 4, the family moved to San Francisco. His parents were domestic workers (professional cooks). His father also worked in vaudeville. He was a singer and played the piano and Johnny was fascinated with him. Here he is, discussing his early life, in a 2014 interview for the UK paper, The Guardian:

"I got involved early and extensively in singing in every capacity of my daily life – I sang in church choirs and in choirs at school. I took music lessons. My dad taught me my first songs, took me fishing, hunting – a lot of outdoor activities, free activities; that was the main thing, it didn't cost anything.

My oldest brother was sick for a very long time before he died. I forget the disease but he was hospitalised for a long time and he needed care. He was a wonderful guy and he died too soon. And mum and dad, they died very early because I think they just worked too hard. Mum was just 56 when she died and Dad was 64 but the impact of their deaths on us was muted. We're a little reserved in our emotions and although I think we felt it and it had a great bearing on our lives, we didn't show any outward signs. But their legacy, as far as I was concerned, was extraordinary. Mum taught me to cook and Dad taught me a lot of things, mostly how to sing."

In 1954, he enrolled at San Francisco State University on an athletic scholarship, intending to become an English teacher and a PE teacher. A few months later, while singing at a jam session with a friend's jazz sextet at a club, he attracted the attention of the club's co-founder, Helen Noga. She became Mathis' music manager and in September 1955, having learned that George Avakian, head of Popular Music A&R at Columbia Records, was on vacation near San Francisco, she managed to persuade him to come hear Mathis at the Club that he was singing. After hearing Mathis sing, Avakian sent his record company a telegram stating: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts."

Turning down the chance to compete in the Olympics for his singing career, Mathis released his first album, a slow-selling jazz album, in late 1956. His second album was produced by Columbia's vice-president and famous producer Mitch Miller, who helped define the Mathis sound, consisting now of soft, romantic ballads.

The first single to come out of this collaboration, in early 1957, is actually my favorite Mathis song. Wonderful, Wonderful is a great song and a million seller. It peaked only at #14 in the US Pop chart, but its influence was much bigger than that. It was used in many films and TV shows, more notably in The X-Files and Desperate Housewives.

It's Not for Me to Say, which followed, was as influential. Its chart fortunes were even better (#5 US) and established Johnny Mathis as a force to be reckoned with. Here's a live version of the song:

His next single really upped his game: Chances Are was a #1 hit, became a gold record and was inducted in the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1998. Johnny was now a superstar.

The B-side to Chances Are was almost as popular: The Twelfth of Never also reached the US Top 10 (at #9). 16 years later it was a #1 hit in the UK by Donny Osmond.

Near the end of 1957, a great year for Mathis, came this Oscar-nominated song: Wild Is The Wind, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, appeared in the celebrated movie of the same name, starring Anna Magnani, Anthony Quinn and Anthony Franciosa.

His biggest hit for 1958 was another Oscar-nominated film song: A Certain Smile was from the movie of the same name starring Joan Fontaine and Rossano Brazzi. It was written by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster and made #14 in the US, while it was also his first big UK hit, reaching #4.

During that very same year, his album Johnny's Greatest Hits was released. It went to #1 and stayed in the US Albums chart for 490 non-consecutive weeks (last chart appearance was in 1968). For 15 years it held the record for the most number of weeks on the US album chart, until this record was broken in 1983 by Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon.

1959 saw the release of another classic from Johnny: Misty, composed by Erroll Garner with lyrics from Johnny Burke, made #12 in both the US & the UK.

In 1960, My Love for You was yet another Top 10 for him in the UK.

Gina, in 1962, returned him in the US Top 10 after 5 years. It was a tribute to Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida.

What Will My Mary Say was also a US Top 10 hit, a few months later, in 1963.

In 1965, here he is with another Oscar-nominated song: The Sweetheart Tree was written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer for the Blake Edwards' film starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, The Great Race.

In 1966, this time he picked an Oscar winner to sing: the classic The Shadow of Your Smile came from the Taylor-Burton vehicle The Sandpiper.

In 1967 he covered Folk troubadour Tim Hardin's Misty Roses (there are also great versions by the 5th Dimension and the Zombies, among others).

In 1968, still putting his faith in movie songs, there was the Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet (A Time For Us), the Nino Rota theme arranged by Henry Mancini.

In 1975, he returned to the UK charts with I'm Stone in Love with You, a song that was previously an international hit by the Stylistics.

A year later, he had his first #1 in the UK with the Xmas hit When a Child Is Born.

In 1978 came his biggest hit ever: #1 in th US Hot 100, #1 US R&B and #1 in the UK. It was a duet with Deniece Williams called Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.

In 1982 came a duet with the great Dionne Warwick called Friends In Love: it was to be his last US Top 40 hit.

Johnny Mathis wasn't too vocal about his sexuality. He never attempted to pass as straight, but he didn't proclaim his gayness until an interview in Us Magazine in 1982, where he was quoted as having said, "Homosexuality is a way of life that I've grown accustomed to." On April 13, 2006, Mathis granted a podcast interview with The Strip in which he talked about the subject once again, and how some of his reluctance to speak on the subject was partially generational.

In an interview for UK Saga Magazine in 2011, Mathis said of his sexuality: "Well, there was a time when it was perceived as such a negative, then Elton and others came out and it became “What’s the big deal?” I got over that a long time ago but I used to be concerned people would think it made my music not as good as that of others."

Bucknell University's Vincent L Stephens wrote an interesting article called Shaking the Closet: Analyzing Johnny Mathis’s Sexual Elusiveness, 1956-1982, in which he says:

"Though pop crooner Johnny Mathis inadvertently revealed his homosexuality in a 1982 “off-the-record” interview his sexuality had long been an open secret prior to this disclosure. “Shaking the Closet” argues that the notion of “the closet” is insufficient for understanding Mathis’s career and those of many other seemingly “closeted” queer public figures. The presentation suggests that the non-threatening sexual image Mathis presented in the 1950s was an overt commercial strategy intended to appease white audiences and adhere to an imperative for public respectability, an enduring theme within African-American cultural politics. Despite these seeming compromises close critical attention to his musical choices, visual imagery, and press clippings reveals a complex performance of sexual elusiveness that is as available to a queer gaze as the racialized heterosexual gaze implicit to pop music. The presentation offers Mathis’s career as an exemplar of queer subjectivity informed by a combination of racial, sexual, and commercial contexts that define sex and gender disclosure beyond the typical verbal rituals associated with “coming out,” and transcending the usual connotations of the sexual closet."

Johnny Mathis, now an octagenarian, is still alive and well and performing: 5 months ago he performed to a sold out audience in Florida's The Villages as part of his “60th Anniversary Concert Tour." There's life and there's music in him yet.


  1. You're certainly on a roll lately with your columns on Rudy Lewis, Van the man and now another favorite of mine, the great Johnny Mathis. Wonderful, Wonderful is also in my top 2 JM songs along with the gorgeous Misty and the others you mentioned are also great easy listening classics. I always suspected he batted for our team but he's another from that era who was granted a degree of secrecy where his sexuality was concerned, at least to the general public. We should all be thankful for that since it allowed his shining talent to flourish at a time when being gay was a certain career killer.
    You offered the tune I'm Stone In Love With You and I'd like to add two others from the same lp that are favorites from the 70s:
    I'm Coming Home

    Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart

    The album was produced by Thom Bell who helmed all the major hits by The Stylistics and The Spinners. Johnny did them proud.
    For a completely different take of ICH, here's the Spinners version that reached #18 in 1974:

    1. Happy to hear from you again, RM! Thanks for introducing me to these two Johnny Mathis gems. I already knew the well-known version, the one by the Spinners and the one by Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye.

      I'd say Mathis' version of ICH adds more gravitas to the song and helps you "get" the lyrics better, so I find it superior to the one by the Spinners (a group that I appreciate immensely).

      As for SLLTYH I find both versions equally good: Mathis' version tinged ever so slightly with melancholy, while Diana & Marvin's version is more playful and erotic. Both great!

  2. JM's version came out a little before The Spinners so that's the version I was used to and is the best.
    They were clearly trying to cast him in that Stylistics, Philly soul crooner mold. It suited him and was much more interesting than that Too Much, Too Little dreck. Sorry, not my cup of tea.

    1. Too Much, Too Little, Too Late is not my cup of tea either, RM. It's ironic that this was his biggest hit internationally and many people will remember him for this. I'd rather they remember him for Wonderful, Wonderful, Chances Are, Misty and It's Not For Me To Say.

  3. Oh, I forgot to mention another song I've always loved from his early years - Maria from West Side Story. It is quite lovely, boasts a grand arrangement and some of his best vocals. Just listen to the note he holds at the close of the song. They simply don't make 'em like this anymore.

    And here's a live version from a French TV special in 1977. The man knew how to sell a song!

    1. I love his version of Maria: I left it out because there are so many songs to choose from, some had to be "sacrificed" in order to keep this story at an acceptable length. I wasn't aware of the live version from French TV though. Thanks for introducing it to me, it's great!