Mathis, Johnny 1935–
Johnny Mathis 1935–
Combining the microphone mastery of the crooners, the vocal depth and technique made possible by classical training, and the image of innocence connected with the teen idols of the 1950s and 1960s, Johnny Mathis has been one of the twentieth century’s most beloved vocalists. Mathis succeeded as a live club performer and as a prolific seller of record albums, cultivating a middle-of-the-road style at the height of the popularity of rock and roll music and its preeminent medium, the 45-rpm single. As a result, he was only intermittently a pop hitmaker, and the dimensions of his success are generally underestimated. By some estimates Mathis has been, next to Frank Sinatra, the most consistent album seller of the modern era. His Greatest Hits album of 1958 remained on the charts for an incredible 490 weeks.
Born John Royce Mathis on September 30, 1935, in San Francisco, Johnny Mathis exhibited musical talent from childhood. His parents were both household workers for wealthy San Francisco families and his father Clem, a onetime vaudeville performer from Texas, encouraged his musical abilities. When Mathis was eight-years-old, his father bought him a secondhand piano and steered him toward local musical activities such as church choirs and talent contests. At the age of 13, Mathis attracted the attention of an opera singer and voice teacher named Connie Cox, who offered him voice lessons in exchange for his work on household chores. Mathis studied classical vocal technique for six years, and he kept in contact with Cox for many years thereafter.
An excellent high school student, Mathis enrolled at San Francisco State College on an athletic scholarship in the early 1950s; he was a gifted athlete who hoped to become a physical education teacher or track coach. Mathis set a college record in the high jump and came close to breaking the U.S. Olympic high jump record of the time. In addition to athletics, he became immersed in jazz and began to make his mark as a nightclub singer. Helen Noga, co-owner of San Francisco’s Black Hawk club, became Mathis’s manager in 1955 and he eventually moved into the Beverly Hills home of Noga and her husband.
Mathis’ big break came in 1956 during an informal
At a Glance…
Born John Royce Mathis September 30, 1935, in San Francisco; son of Clem (a chauffeur and handyman) and Mildred (a housekeeper) Mathis. Education: Attended San Francisco State College. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Pop vocalist; has recorded over 75 albums and sold over 100 million recordings worldwide; sang with jazz groups in college, mid-1950s; nightclub performer, San Francisco area, mid-1950s; signed by Columbia Records, 1956; worked with Columbia pop producer Mitch Miller, late 1950s; recorded breakthrough hit “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” 1957; released Greatest Hits, which remained on charts for 490 weeks, 1958; extensive concert and nightclub appearances; established own production company, Rojon Productions, 1964; presented three sellout concerts, Carnegie Hall, New York, 1993; performed live concert on A&E cable television, 1998.
Addresses: Label — Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022–3211; Booking agency — William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
appearance at the 440 Club. In the audience was Columbia Records executive George Avakian, who immediately signed Mathis to the label. His first album, A New Sound in Popular Song, featured jazz arrangements of the kind Mathis had admired while a student at San Francisco State. The album did not sell well, so Avakian teamed Mathis with producer and arranger Mitch Miller. Miller’s lush, ballad-oriented string arrangements had helped Columbia maintain a long period of dominance in the pop music field.
The Mathis-Miller combination proved irresistible to pop fans, especially women, who were looking for an alternative to the brash rock and roll of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other contemporary performers. Mathis had a hit in 1957 with “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” and followed it up with such romantic successes as “It’s Not for Me to Say” and the million-selling single “Chances Are.” Record buyers loved the string sound of Mathis’s albums Warm and Greatest Hits, and his success as an album seller would continue for several decades. As his music became increasingly popular, Mathis was able to command top fees in the nation’s most exclusive nightclubs and appeared in several films.
Mathis’s popularity stemmed, in part, from his sheer vocal skill. This was especially evident in the variety of sounds he could coax from a microphone while appearing live in concert. His tenor voice, honeyed and smooth, was instantly recognizable. With his wavy hair and California good looks that suggested no affiliation with a particular ethnic group, Mathis’s music cultivated a soft romantic appeal that transcended social and racial barriers.
Throughout the 1960s, Mathis connected less with African American audiences than with other groups. Numerous concept albums, such as one based entirely on different fairy tales and another that explored the songs of composer Burt Bacharach, appealed primarily to middle-of-the-road white audiences. During the 1970s, however, Mathis began to seek out original material from African American composers like Linda Creed and Thorn Bell. In 1978, Mathis recorded a duet with rhythm-and-blues singer Deniece Williams, whose vocal virtuosity matched his own. Their duet, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” rocketed to number one on both the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts. Mathis and Williams also recorded a successful album, That’s What Friends Are For, in 1981.
Mathis went on to record duets with other popular female vocalists, including Gladys Knight, Jane Olivor, Angela Bofill, and Dionne Warwick. He continued to enjoy considerable chart success well into the 1980s. In 1993, Mathis enjoyed wide critical acclaim for the compilation album A Personal Collection, which brought together favorites from the singer’s many albums. This album also included a duet with Barbra Streisand, who had often claimed Mathis as an inspiration and influence. “This 86-song lovefest,” commented People magazine, “suggests why Mathis has often been blamed for the last 10 years of the baby boom.”
In 1993, Mathis made a triumphant appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In its review of this performance, Billboard remarked, “His trademark poignant expression was strong as he graciously smoldered, glided, and soared through two hours’ worth of songs….The years have affected neither the way Mathis hovers on the edge of a note nor the way he belts one out. He stands poised at the microphone, his stance never revealing whether the note will come from deep inside his belly or the tip of his tongue.”
In the late 1990s, Mathis was entering his fifth decade as one of America’s most renowned vocalists. Although he no longer goes on tour, Mathis maintained a vigorous schedule of live appearances. In 1998, he appeared on the “Live by Request” program on the cable-television network A&E. Although he is universally considered a pop-music legend, a romantic icon, and a master vocalist, Mathis remained humble. As he remarked to the Greensboro (N. C.) News-Record, “I really try just to go to the good opportunities that come my way.”
Warm, Columbia, 1957.
Swing Softly, Columbia, 1958.
Open Fire, Two Guitars, Columbia, 1958.
Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1958.
Heavenly, Columbia, 1959.
Faithfully, Columbia, 1959.
Johnny’s Newest Hits, Columbia, 1963.
Feelings, Columbia, 1975.
You Light Up My Life, Columbia, 1981.
That’s What Friends Are For (with Deniece Williams), Columbia, 1981.
Johnny Mathis Live, Columbia, 1984.
The Hollywood Musicals, Columbia, 1986.
The Music of Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection, Columbia, 1993.
All About Love, Columbia, 1996.
The Ultimate Hits Collection, Columbia, 1998.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness, 1992.
Romanowski, Patricia, ed., The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Billboard, October 23, 1993, p. 26.
Bergen County (NJ) Record, May 29, 1998, p. Y2.
Ebony, March 1994, p. 20.
Greensboro(NC)News Record, April 5, 1998, p. D15.
People, December 20, 1993, p. 27.
Village Voice, August 25, 1998, p. 118.
—James M. Manheim
"Mathis, Johnny 1935–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mathis-johnny-1935
"Mathis, Johnny 1935–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mathis-johnny-1935
Johnny Mathis is one of the most successful singers of ballads in the American music world. His recordings have been represented on the music charts for longer than any except those of famous crooner Frank Sinatra, and he has earned at least eight gold albums. Rising to the peak of his reputation during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mathis resisted the rock and roll phenomenon that swept the nation in those years and established a unique popularity for himself in the musical genre of easy listening. Perhaps because of the fact that much of his music celebrates the ideals of romantic love, Mathis is especially well-received by female listeners, but he has garnered critical acclaim as well. As reviewer Sidney Fields put it in the New York Mirror: “His voice has incredible range; he improvises on a theme in any tempo and mood with great originality; and he can move from a tender ballad to swing, to rhythm and blues, and even vehemence.” Despite Mathis’s longevity on the charts, however, he did not have a number one single until his 1978 duet with Deniece Williams, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.”
Though he was born September 30, 1935, into a poor black family in San Francisco, California, Mathis’s childhood and adolescence predicted his later success. His father, Clem, a former Texas vaudeville performer who Mathis calls “my biggest hero, the reason I started to sing,” according to R. Windeler of People magazine, was quick to recognize and encourage his fourth child’s talent. Clem bought Johnny a second-hand piano when he was eight, and taught him vaudeville routines for performance within the family. The young Mathis also sang in church, and won a local amateur talent contest when he was fourteen. The year before, he had impressed Oakland, California, music teacher Connie Cox so much that she offered him free voice lessons. The gesture was a helpful one because the Mathis family could not afford to pay for them; the lessons, primarily in classical and opera singing, continued for six years.
But music was not Mathis’s only option for success. He was a good student with leadership quality. Mathis was the first black child ever elected student body president of San Francisco’s Roosevelt Junior High School, and when he graduated to George Washington High School he served as the treasurer of his class. He also excelled in athletics, winning six letters for his participation in various sports, including basketball, hurdling, and high jumping. Mathis entered San Francisco State College with the intention of becoming an English teacher, but his continued athletic achievements led him to contemplate teaching physical education or coaching track. He set a college record for the high jump, and was invited to try out for the 1956 Olympic
Full name, John Royce Mathis; born September 30, 1935, in San Francisco, Calif.; son of Clem (a chauffer and handyman) and Mildred (a domestic) Mathis. Education: Attended San Francisco State College. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Sang with a jazz group while in college; vocal soloist and concert performer, 1955—; recording artist, 1956—. Actor in motion pictures, including Lizzie (1957) and A Certain Smile (1958). Established Rojon Productions, 1964.
Awards: Eight gold albums.
Addresses: Residence —Hollywood Hills, CA. Office —Rojon Productions, 3500 West Olive Ave., #750, Burbank, CA 91505.
Games, but he turned this down to concentrate on his musical career.
While attending San Francisco State, Mathis became interested in jazz, and began singing in local nightclubs with a sextet led by one of his fellow students, Virgil Gonsalves. Performing at San Francisco’s Black Hawk club one night in 1955, Mathis attracted the attention of the club’s co-owner, Helen Noga. Noga was determined to make him a star, and became his manager. She helped Mathis obtain more nightclub bookings, during one of which, at a gay bar that also featured female impersonators, he was discovered by George Avakian, head album producer for Columbia Records.
Though somewhat regretful of leaving his college education unfinished, Mathis went to New York City to record for Columbia. While in New York, he also performed in some of the better clubs there, including the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. The first album Mathis made was flavored with jazz arrangements, and did not sell well. But Avakian had faith in his latest discovery, and sent him to work with the head of Columbia’s singles department, Mitch Miller. Miller realized that the young singer’s talent had been misdirected, and steered him away from jazz to the soft ballad style that became Mathis’s trademark. “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” released in 1957, became Mathis’s first big hit. He soon followed this up with “It’s Not for Me to Say,” and, perhaps his best-known recording, the romantic “Chances Are.”
Mathis also became involved in films, singing the title song for the 1957 film “Lizzie,” and making an appearance in the picture as a nightclub singer. He had a slightly larger role, also as a nightclub singer, in “A Certain Smile,” released in 1958. Most sources assert that Mathis’s presence in “Smile” was the only thing that saved it from box office failure; he did, however, score a hit with the title song. More recently, Mathis and singer Jane Olivor had a popular success with “The Last Time I Felt Like This,” the theme from the film version of playwright Neil Simon’s “Same Time Next Year.”
Mathis continued to have many successes throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, including “Small World,” “Misty,” and “What Will Mary Say,” but then his popularity as a recording artist waned. He became dissatisfied with Noga’s handling of his career in 1964, and established his own company, Rojon Productions, in order not only to become his own manager but to promote new talent.
Mathis has remained in demand as a concert performer, however, and his 1978 return to the charts—his duet with Deniece Williams, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” —was a milestone for him. It was his first number one record, and, because of Williams’s following, made Mathis popular with black audiences for the first time; his previous Columbia hits had been aimed primarily at whites.
Major single releases; on Columbia, except as noted
“Wonderful! Wonderful!” 1957.
“It’s Not for Me to Say,” 1957.
“Chances Are,” 1957.
“The Twelfth of Never,” 1957.
“Wild is the Wind,” 1957.
“No Love (But Your Love),” 1957.
“Cometo Me,” 1958.
“All the Time,” 1958.
“Teacher, Teacher,” 1958.
“A Certain Smile,” 1958.
“Call Me,” 1958.
“You Are Beautiful,” 1959.
“Let’s Love,” 1959.
“Small World,” 1959.
“The Best of Everything,” 1959.
“My Love for You,” 1960.
“How to Handle a Woman,” 1961.
“Wasn’t the Summer Short?” 1961.
“Sweet Thursday,” 1962.
“What Will Mary Say,” 1963.
“Every Step of the Way,” 1963.
“Sooner or Later,” 1963.
“I’ll Search My Heart,” 1963.
“Your Teen-Age Dreams,” Mercury, 1963.
“Come Back,” Mercury, 1963.
“Bye, Bye, Barbara,” Mercury, 1964.
“Taste of Tears,” Mercury, 1964.
“Listen, Lonely Girl,” Mercury, 1964.
“On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” Mercury, 1965.
“I’m Coming Home,” 1973.
“Life is a Song Worth Singing,” 1973.
(With Deniece Williams) “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” 1978.
(With Williams) “You’re All I Need to Get By,” 1978.
(With Jane Olivor) “The Last Time I Felt Like This,” 1979.
Mirror (New York), August 26, 1962.
People, October 23, 1978.
"Mathis, Johnny." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mathis-johnny
"Mathis, Johnny." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mathis-johnny