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.
Johnny Mathis, best known as a romantic balladeer, is one of the most successful recording artists of all time, exceeded only by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. His vast discography consists of jazz, pop, soul/R&B, soft rock, Broadway, Brazilian, Spanish, and numerous Christmas albums. As an accomplished and trained musician in jazz and opera he has captured the attention of the world's audiences for soul/R&B, soft rock, and Broadway for almost five decades. His smooth tenor voice delivers romantic ballads and brings to them a natural quality that has inspired audiences of all ages. This extraordinary ability along with the angelic quality of his voice touches the adolescent love in his listeners. Mathis is expressly recognized as one of the few artists who have recorded original material and continues as a popular concert attraction which began in the 1950s. His success was so swift and magnetic that his record and album sales place him as one of the first African American millionaires in the United States. Mathis is said to exemplify the best in musical artistry.
John Royce Mathis was born on September 30, 1935 in Gilmer, Texas. He was the fourth of seven children born to Clem and Mildred Mathis. Mathis's father, who briefly was a vaudeville performer playing piano and singing, moved his family to San Francisco, California. In his early years, Mathis and his family lived in a basement apartment in the Filmore District of San Francisco. Both of his parents worked as domestics for a San Francisco millionaire. His father was a chauffeur and handyman and his mother was a housekeeper. Even though the family was poor, Mathis's father saw the potential in his son. The elder Mathis purchased a second-hand upright piano for $25 when Johnny was eight. The piano would not fit through the front door of the small apartment so Johnny stayed up all night watching his father disassemble and reassemble the piano in their small living room. "My Blue Heaven" was the first song taught to young Mathis by his father. With encouragement and guidance young Mathis began to participate in local church choirs, school functions, talent competitions, and other musical activities. By the time Mathis was thirteen, he had attracted the attention of Connie Cox, an Oakland-based opera singer and voice teacher. She agreed to give Mathis voice lessons in exchange for doing odd jobs around the house. A year later Mathis had won several talent shows and was singing at weddings and other events. He studied classical voice technique with Cox for six years and continued their communications for years after.
Although shy, Mathis was an excellent student. He was the first African American president of the student body at Roosevelt Junior High School and later treasurer for his high school class at George Washington High School. He also excelled in athletics in the areas of track and field and basketball. Because of his success as an athlete in high school and earning four athletic letters, he was able to attend San Francisco State College on an athletic scholarship. Mathis hoped to become a physical education teacher or a track coach. While in college he was a basketball teammate of future Boston Celtic Bill Russell. He also ran hurdles and set a record of 6 feet 5 inches in the high jump. In 1956, Mathis was invited to the Olympic track trials held in Berkeley. Instead, Mathis gave up his chance for the U.S. Olympic team in the high jump to pursue a musical career.
While in college Mathis heard famous jazz musicians who performed at the renowned Blackhawk nightclub in San Francisco. He began performing in 1955 with a sextet led by Virgil Gonsalves, a local baritone saxophone player, and other students. During one performance at the Blackhawk nightclub, the co-owner of the club, Helen Noga, and her husband were so impressed by Mathis's "jamming" that she became his manager. Noga realized the magnitude of Mathis's vocal talent and appeal and was determined to make him a success. At an informal appearance at the 440 Club in San Francisco George Avakian, a well-known jazz producer and executive of Columbia, discovered Mathis. He had been repeatedly invited to see Mathis perform by Noga. After Mathis's performance, Avakian sent a telegram announcing that he had found an exceptionally talented nineteen-year-old boy. Avakian not only arranged for Mathis to perform at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel in New York, but he convinced Columbia records to sign him. Mathis's first album, recorded in New York in 1955, was titled A New Sound in Popular Song. It included jazz standards such as "Angel Eyes" and "Easy to Love." It also featured Gil Evans and pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The album used the kind of arrangements that Mathis had admired while at San Francisco State, but it did not do well commercially. Avakian teamed Mathis with producer and arranger Mitch Miller, who pointed Mathis toward singing lush ballad string arrangements, an approach that had worked before for Columbia records.
Mathis had his first big hit in July 1957 with the album Wonderful Wonderful, fourteenth on the charts, which sold in the millions. He followed this with the hits: "Chances Are" (1957), first on the charts and a million-selling single; "It's Not for Me to Say" (1957), fifth on the charts; "Twelfth of Never" (1957), ninth on the charts; "Misty" (1959), twelfth on the charts and Mathis's signature song; and "What Will Mary Say" (1963), ninth on the charts. His singles were produced on the 45rpm which was the premier music medium of the day. The string sound on his album Warm in 1957 began the longstanding success of Mathis as an album seller. In 1958 the album Greatest Hits remained on the charts for 490 weeks, or nine and a half years. Similar chart success was achieved with Heavenly in 1959 which stayed on the charts for 295 weeks, or over five and a half years. With the release of Misty in 1959, Mathis became a major concert performer and appeared in films and television shows. He appeared in films, singing the title songs, such as "Lizze" in 1957 and "A Certain Smile" in 1958. With the network television show American Bandstand devoted to rock 'n' roll, Mathis's appearance gave some alternative to the show's musical style.
Mathis's popularity came from his extraordinary vocal skill and his naturally smooth tenor voice. His sound was immediately recognizable, laden with soft romantic appeal, depth and technique. His wavy hair and California good looks placed him in no immediate ethnic group, thus allowing him to transcend social and racial barriers. His music reached all types of audiences. In his first successful year when he was twenty-one he earned $100,000 and by age twenty-nine he was earning $1 million per year. He is ranked among the first African Americans in the United States to become millionaires. Mathis spent the first six years of his career with Helen Noga as his manager, and he also lived as a guest in the Noga home. Although appreciative of the excellent business skill and the development of his career, Mathis decided to manage his own legal and personal life and moved out of town. Noga was known to be overbearing and domineering. Mathis launched his own company, Jon Mat, in 1964 to produce his records, and Rojohn Productions to handle his appearances. The Hollywood Hill area became Mathis's new home in the mid-1970s. Most of Mathis's early hits appeared in the1950s and 1960s, and his marketing strategies were primarily aimed toward middle-of-the-road white audiences. During these years Mathis struggled with drug addiction, but he was able to overcome it.
- Born in Gilmer, Texas on September 30
- Takes professional opera lessons from Connie Cox
- Discovered and signed by George Avakian of Columbia Records
- Invited to Olympic track trials in Berkeley
- Performs first hit "Wonderful Wonderful" on American Bandstand
- Releases Greatest Hits, which remains on charts 490 weeks
- Records "Misty," his signature song
- Launches own company, Jon Mat
- Receives star on Hollywood Walk of Fame
- Performs first of successful duets with artist Deniece Williams
- Performs at Carnegie Hall, New York for three sold-out concerts
- Appears on Live by Request by popular demand
- Receives Academy Lifetime Achievement Award from Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences
In the United States Mathis depended on concept albums to support his career as the pop music of the 1960s made ballads even more difficult for commercial success. Concept albums became the major focus with themes, such as Away from Home (1965), concentrating on songs of European countries; Ole' (1965), sung in Portuguese and Spanish for a Latin-American audience; and Wonderful World of Make Believe (1964), which consisted entirely of songs based on fairytales and albums dedicated to composers, such as Bert Bacharach and Bert Kaempfert. In 1974, the United Kingdom's singles chart included Mathis's song "I'm Still in Love with You," and two years later Mathis had the number one Christmas song in the U.K., "When A Child Is Born." His sales were always within market success levels but a fresh look was needed.
In an effort to connect with the African American audience, Mathis sought out original material from African American composers, such as Thom Bell and Linda Creed. In a duet with African American rhythm-and-blues singer Deniece Williams, the hit "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" rose to number one on the pop and soul charts in 1978. Her vocal virtuosity matched his and resulted in the successful album That's What Friends Are For in 1981. The duo also recorded "Without Us," which was used as the theme song for the television show Family Ties. In the late 1980s, after several attempts at disco and other rock forms, Mathis returned to his signature romantic ballad style and continued to do more duets with other popular female stars. This work resulted in considerable chart success as he teamed with artists such as Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Angela Bofill, and Barbara Streisand.
Personal Life and Choices
Mathis's songs, which have been so popular with the baby boomers ever since the 1950s, shed little light on his personal life. The only biography of Mathis is the British work published in 1983 as The Authorised Biography of Johnny Mathis by Tony Jasper. Respectful of Mathis's privacy, this biography presents the only book-length look at Mathis's life as a whole.
In a 1982 interview with Us magazine, Mathis commented on his sexuality. Previously he had deflected questions regarding his bachelor status. During the interview he spoke about his first love at age sixteen and said that being gay was "a way of life that he had grown accustomed to." In 1993 in an interview with the New York Times, Mathis stated that the 1982 interview with Us magazine was to be off the record. Mathis has declined any further comments regarding his sexuality.
In the 1990s, Mathis was still going strong, headlining in Atlantic City and Las Vegas resorts and selling out three concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York in October 1993. He also received critical acclaim for his album Personal Collection, which is a compilation of 86 popular ballads. Mathis's music, which spans every decade from the 1950s to the early 2000s, has consistently pleased listeners from all over the world. Mathis sang for the president of Liberia in 1973. In 1978 he sang for the British royal family in "A Command Performance" at the London Palladium, and in 1987 he performed for the prime minister of Japan. United States presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have also heard Mathis perform. One of Mathis's special performances was in May 1994, when he sang to President Clinton, along with his wife and five former first ladies.
In 2000 Mathis returned to a thematic album of contemporary materials, focusing on Broadway. He included selections from Rent, Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera, and updated versions of some of his original material. He also included Mathis on Broadway, updates on Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries with the cast of Forever Plaid and Leiber-Stoller's On Broadway from Smokey Joe's Café. In September 2005 Mathis told John Benson of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that a Brazilian album was planned. Some fifteen years earlier he had recorded with Sergio Mendes and famed Latin songwriter Don Caymmi, but the record was never released. Again, the idea of a Latin recording appealed to Mathis.
Mathis has received numerous awards over the years. In June of 1972, he received his own star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has received two Grammy nominations. His first Grammy nomination was for "Misty" in 1960 in the category of Best Vocal Performance on a Single Record or Track Mate and the second was in 1992 for "In a Sentimental Mood Sings Ellington" in the category of Best Traditional Pop Performance. Mathis was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame twice. He received his first induction in 1998 for the song, "Chances Are" (1957) and again in 2002 for "Misty" (1959). In 2003 Mathis was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Mathis performed a duet with Ray Charles in 2004. They sang "Over the Rainbow," which was released on Charles's album Genius Loves Company. At Ray Charles's request, the song was played at his funeral. Over the years, Mathis still commands attention for his international superstar status. He joins a distinguish group of Columbia and Epic artists who have been inducted into the Essential Series of double-CD's. He is in the company of artists such as Tony Bennett, the Byrds, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Neil Diamond, Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, Sly & the Family Stone, Luther Vandross, and Earth, Wind & Fire. With two LP's listed in the Top 10 as well as the Top 25 on historian Joel Whitburn's Albums of Longevity chart, Mathis has set new heights in record sales. He has recorded more than one hundred albums of original music, sold more than 215 million albums and singles worldwide, and has approximately $130 million in sales in the United States and $50 million in sales from the United Kingdom. The term "Greatest Hits" was a marketing tool created for Mathis in 1958 and is now used throughout the industry.
Even after choosing music as his career, Mathis remained a sports enthusiast. He is an avid golfer and has a minimum of five holes-in-one. He also hosts several golf tournaments, such as the Johnny Mathis Seniors PGA Classic held in Los Angeles and The Shell/Johnny Mathis Golf Classic in Belfast, North Ireland. Mathis's other favorite pastime is cooking. He is a gourmet cook. In 1981 Mathis published the cookbook Cooking for You Alone. The book contains Mathis's favorite recipes and is designed for people who do not want to spend hours in the kitchen.
Mathis continued to tour and maintain a vigorous schedule of appearances in the early 2000s. The year 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of Mathis's singing career. He released on average one album a year and had two or three concerts a month with time for golf. His concerts appeal to longstanding fans and a new generation of listeners, all of whom enjoy "the holy trinity" as Mathis calls them: "Chances Are," "The Twelfth of Never," and "Misty." As the magical quality and smooth tenor voice of Mathis continues to interpret the music of love, "chances are" he will remain one of the twentieth century's most cherished and loved singers.
Collins, Willie. "Johnny Mathis." In St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Eds. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 3. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
George-Warren, Holly, and Patricia Romanowski. "Johnny Mathis." In The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 2001.
Manheim, James. "Johnny Mathis." In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 20. Ed. Shirelle Phelps. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.
Berry, William Earl. "Millionaire Mathis Comes Home to Black Music." Jet (10 January 1974): 56-63.
Carpenter, Bil. "How Johnny Mathis Keeps the Music Playing." Goldmine Magazine (28 May 1993): 14-28.
Petrucelli, Alan W. "Celebrity Q & A." Us (22 June 1982): 58-60.
George, Iris Gross. The Mathis Chronicles. http://www.themathischronicles.net/jonbio.html (Accessed 20 January 2006).
Lean'tin L. Bracks
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.
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, b. San Francisco, Sept. 30, 1935. If Frank Sinatra is the Chairman of the Board, Johnny Mathis must be the CEO. Mathis is not just one of the world’s most successful male vocalists: he is a living bronze institution. His Greatest Hits LP spent over nine years on the best-selling album charts. The wiry crooner with the tremulous, distinctively clipped phrasing is also commonly believed to be one of the first African American millionaires, which is ironic because Mathis grew up around wealth—his parents worked as domestic help for the upper crust of San Francisco. Though he began taking opera lessons at the age of 13, Mathis was determined to become a physical education teacher; quite an athlete in his own right, he was invited to the 1956 Olympic track and field trials. But Mathis made it neither to the Olympics nor the gymnasium. His vocal talent simply could not be overlooked, and while singing at San Francisco’s 440 Club he was discovered by a Columbia Records executive and signed to a recording contract. He went to N.Y. in 1956 and began his career doing jazz, but Columbia A&R chief Mitch Miller (yes, that Mitch Miller) convinced him to switch to the material that would ultimately make him famous: romantic pop ballads. That did the trick. A year later, Mathis scored three consecutive hits, including his unforgettable #1 “Chances Are.” Mathis soon was considered the crown prince of pop music, right alongside King Frankie. Mathis landed the rest of his hits in the 1950s and 1960s, then stopped being a popular radio sensation and transformed into a cultural icon. He sold millions and millions of albums around the world and became the undisputed champion of bedroom balladry. He returned to the charts in 1978 with Deniece Williams in the duet “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” a #1 R&B hit, and shortly thereafter joined Williams again to record “Without Us” which became the theme of the TV series Family Ties. His subsequent rock and dance adventures were dismal failures, sending him back to his familiar ballad turf. Mathis continues to ply his craft in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, N.Y., and other large venues, to sellout crowds. He and his catalog of timeless romantic rhapsodies have fused into the American fabric like baseball, apple pies, or making out in the back seat of a convertible while the car stereo plays “The Twelfth of Never.”
Johnny Mathis (1957); Good Night, Dear Lord (1958); Heavenly (1958); Johnny’s Greatest Hits (1958); More Johnny’s Greatest Hits (1959); Open Fire, Two Guitars (1959); Merry Christmas (1960); I’ll Buy You a Star (1961); Johnny (1963); Christmas with Johnny Mathis (1972); Killing Me Softly with Her Song (1973); That’s What Friends Are For (with Deniece Williams; 1978); Best Days of My Life (1979); The Best of Johnny Mathis 1975–1980 (1980); Silver Anniversary Album: The First 25 Years (1981); Friends in Love (1982); Johnny Mathis Live (1983); A Special Part of Me (1984); Hollywood Musicals (with Henry Mancini; 1986); Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (1986); 16 Most Requested Songs (1987); You Light Up My Life (1988); Once in a While (1988); Love Songs (1988); Heavenly (1989); 16 Most Requested Songs: Encore! (1989); In the Still of the Night (1989); In a Sentimental Mood: Mathis Sings Ellington (1990); Better Together: The Duet Album (1991); How Do You Keep the Music Playing? (1993); The Music of Johnny Mathis: Personal Collection (1993); This Heart of Mine (1993); The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection (1993); The Essence of Johnny Mathis (1994); Heavenly/Greatest Hits/Live (1995); All About Love (1996); The Global Masters (1997); Because You Loved Me: Songs of Diane Warren (1998); The Ultimate Hits Collection (1998); Mathis on Broadway (2000).