Mathis, Johnny (1935—)

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Mathis, Johnny (1935—)

Blessed with a superior vocal instrument, Johnny Mathis is a consummate vocalist who caresses romantic ballads with his tenor voice, imbuing them with a magical and vital quality. An accomplished and trained musician with credentials in opera and jazz, Mathis exemplifies the best in musical artistry. His four decade career as a professional recording artist has earned him many distinctions, including the third most successful recording artist of all time behind Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Mathis has few competitors as one of the most legendary artists in popular music. His 1958 Johnny's Greatest Hits album held the number one spot on the Billboard's pop album chart for 36 weeks, and Mathis has charted over 60 entries on Billboard's pop album chart. The term "Greatest Hits," a marketing tool, was created for Mathis and is now employed throughout the industry.

Mathis was born September 30, 1935, in Gilmer, Texas, and was raised in San Francisco. His father, Clem Mathis, had worked briefly as a vaudeville performer playing piano and singing back in Texas. When Mathis was eight, his father bought an upright piano and taught his son many songs and routines. Mathis also sang in the church choir, at school functions, and community events, and won a local amateur contest at age 14. Mathis studied with Connie Cox, an Oakland-based music teacher, who trained him in opera.

Music was not Mathis's only talent; he was an exceptionally good student, holding the office of student body president at Roosevelt Junior High School and treasurer at George Washington High School. In addition, he was an outstanding high school and college athlete, excelling in track and field and basketball. Mathis gave up the chance to try out for the 1956 USA Olympic Team in the high jump, instead choosing a musical career.

While a student at San Francisco State College, Mathis heard famous jazz musicians at the renowned Blackhawk nightclub in San Francisco. He began singing in local nightspots with a sextet led by Virgil Gonsalves, a local baritone saxophone player and fellow student. At a performance with Gonsalves's sextet at the Blackhawk, Mathis attracted the attention of the club's co-owner, Helen Noga, who was so impressed that she was determined to make him a success. George Avakian, a well known jazz producer, discovered Mathis in 1955 and convinced Columbia records to sign him. Mathis went to New York and performed at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel.

Mathis' first album for Columbia included jazz arranger Gil Evans and pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. This album, with jazz standards such as "Angel Eyes" and "Easy to Love," did not click. After Columbia teamed Mathis with Mitch Miller, who adroitly pointed him to singing romantic ballads, his career as a pop singer was secured. Mathis recorded "Wonderful! Wonderful!," released in 1957, it became his first big hit, and was followed by "It's Not for Me to Say" and the romantic "Chances Are." In 1959, Mathis recorded "Misty" his signature song and he quickly became a major concert attraction, with repeated performances on television shows. His film roles included singing the title song for Lizzie in 1957 and A Certain Smile in 1958.

Mathis' music had been marketed primarily to a white audience, although his "Misty" peaked at number ten on Billboard's R & B singles' chart. In 1978, his duet with Deniece Williams, "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," charted at number one on the R & B and pop charts, cementing his popularity with Black audiences. Since the first duet recording with Williams, Mathis has recorded numerous duets with singers, including Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Patti Austin, and Take 6. Mathis has been open to a number of diverse album projects, including Olé, a Latin-American outing with songs sung in Portuguese and Spanish, as well as Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bacharach and Kaempfert and albums of music by Michel Legrand and Duke Ellington.

In 1964, Mathis launched Jon Mat, his own company, to produce his records and Rojohn Productions to handle his concert, theater, club, and television appearances. A stylist of primarily romantic ballads, his contributions to popular music are significant. Mathis' resonant vibrant tenor continues to command the attention and admiration of both fans and critics. Since his recording career began in 1956, Mathis has recorded more than 100 albums and remains an international superstar who has performed throughout the world. When the jazz producer George Avakian first heard Mathis, he sent a telegram to Columbia Records stating, "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way." Mathis has gone all the way, carving out a unique niche in popular music with a distinct style, voice, and an enduring legacy.

—Willie Collins

Further Reading:

LaBlanc, Michael, Ed. Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music. Vol. 2. Detroit, Gale Research, 1990.

Larkin, Colin. Guinness Encylopedia of Pop Music. Vol. 4. Middlesex, England, Guiness Publishing, 1995.