The movie Diner (1982) is set in Baltimore in 1959. The bulk of this film – my second favourite of all-time – features a group of guys sitting around and talking. One thing they debate is: which singer is better to listen to while on a date and lights are low? Sinatra or Mathis? This exchange was one of the first times I had ever heard of Johnny Mathis.
John Royce Mathis was born in Gilmer, Texas in 1935. Johnny is of Brazilian and Spanish origins and he and his family moved to San Francisco where Johnny split his time between singing lessons and high school sports. Excelling in high jump, hurdles and on the basketball team, Johnny attended San Francisco State College on a sports scholarship. Indeed, while at the school, Johnny set a high jump record that is still one of the highest jumps in the school’s history. This jump was only two inches short of the Olympic record at the time! His sporting exploits were featured regularly in the local press. One article from the San Francisco Chronicle spotlighted his high jump prowess and that of future NBA star Bill Russell; Bill was first and John second in the city at the time.
The Black Hawk was a jazz club that operated in San Francisco from 1949 until 1963. It was an essential stop for jazz musicians and just about every significant performer appeared there and/or released live albums recorded there. They include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Vince Guaraldi, Stan Getz and others. During casual Sunday afternoon jam sessions, Merl Saunders took his sextet to the Black Hawk to jam. This was a name I was unfamiliar with when I was researching this article. Saunders was a keyboardist who recruited John into his band. Saunders would later go on to enjoy a prolific career, notable for his collaborations with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. When Merl Saunders passed away in 2008, Johnny eulogized him, giving credit to Merl for giving his career its start.
While Johnny was singing with Merl’s group one Sunday afternoon, he was heard by the club’s co-founder, Helen Noga. Johnny’s sound excited Noga and she decided to enter the artist management business and took over John’s fledgling career. She arranged to have the head of Columbia Records, George Avakian, come to hear him sing. Avakian was taken with Johnny’s talent and offered him a contract. At the same time, Johnny was asked to join the U.S. Olympic high-jump team and travel with the squad to Australia. His choice to be a singer resulted in many happy listeners the world over.
Johnny’s first album was a jazz album of standards. Mitch Miller at Columbia then got a hold of Johnny and transformed him into a singer of lighter fare aimed at the pop market pairing him with staff orchestrators like Percy Faith and Ray Conniff. 1957 was Johnny’s year as he placed six songs on the charts including “Wonderful! Wonderful!” (#14), “It’s Not for Me to Say” (#5) and the #1 hit “Chances Are”. He would maintain a steady presence on the charts into the 1960’s until he reached the heights again at the close of 1962 with the Top Ten hits “Gina” and “What Will Mary Say”.
Johnny, though, became one of the preeminent sellers of LPs in the 1950’s. His album sales from 1957 until 1963 were astronomical and all but one of his 16 long-players from this era reached the Top 40 on the album charts, including 10 in a row reaching the Top Ten. Many of these albums remained on the charts for over a year. Notable is Johnny’s Greatest Hits, released in March of 1958. This album collected most of John’s recent singles and put them all together on one record. Which sounds like nothing, I know, but this really hadn’t been done in the industry before and subsequently Johnny’s Greatest Hits is considered to be the original greatest hits package. Which is remarkable considering that so much of the industry now is based on the release of “compilation” albums. That’s not all, though. Johnny’s Greatest Hits entered the album charts on April 14th, 1958 and went on to spend 490 weeks on the chart – over ten years – a record that stood for 15 years.
Johnny Mathis has made significant contributions to Christmas music, as well. His first of six albums of Christmas music was the legendary Merry Christmas from 1958. Upon initial release, the album reached #3 on the charts and charted again every Christmas for the next four seasons. Afterwards, this record of seasonal songs and carols regularly landed on Billboard‘s list of the top Christmas albums. As of 2016, the album ranks as the tenth highest-selling Christmas record. It is a staple of the season and has been reissued many times with different covers. His five subsequent Christmas albums span his different record labels and they span the decades and eras.
Truth be told, Johnny Mathis frustrates me. The tones that Johnny’s voice can achieve are strikingly clear and could be considered without flaw. From a technical standpoint, there is nothing inherently wrong with his singing voice. On the contrary, it is magnificent. However, Johnny’s constant use of vibrato can sometimes drive me up the wall. I was going to say that this is a purely subjective assessment but I need to reconsider that. I think that an argument can be made that a non-stop vibrato can detract from the enjoyment you get from a singer. Sometimes you are distracted by it; you can’t not hear it. The beauty of the orchestral settings and the soaring majesty of the notes he hits and the way he puts a song over – while wonderful – can be lost in this distraction. I hope now I haven’t ruined him for you – just keep in mind that this beef of mine does not necessarily undermine the listening experience he provides.
The other issue I have with Johnny may be my own problem, too. Or it may be the industry’s problem. Or neither. Anyways…with the onslaught of the British Invasion beginning in 1964, many singers of Johnny’s ilk found themselves barred from the pop charts. What most ended up doing was turning to a “hits of the day” format for their album releases while basically giving up the idea of having a hit single. Johnny’s records of the mid-to-late ’60’s featured songs like “Michelle”, “Up, Up and Away” and “Sunny” and while they may not have been successful these albums were well received by his hardcore fans and kept Johnny and singers like him in the public eye. Mathis himself continued to release two or three albums per year at this time.
Things got worse as the 1960’s gave way to the 1970’s and music began to change yet again. Johnny’s albums tried to identify with popular songs by bearing titles like You’ve Got a Friend, Song Sung Blue and Killing Me Softly With Her Song. In 1977, Johnny hit a low point. His Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me album reached only #201 on the charts making it the lowest chart position that any of his albums achieved.
His next album seemed like more of the same. Titled You Light Up My Life, it featured Johnny again essaying a recent hit, this time Debby Boone’s legendary easy listening staple. The rest of the album seemed familiar, as well, mixing standards (“Where or When”) with current hits (“How Deep is Your Love”). However, this time Johnny joined forces with Deniece Williams, a soft R&B chanteuse who had enjoyed only middling success. Williams and Mathis duetted on “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” which became a smash hit. The song served as a comeback of sorts for Johnny and became his first #1 song since “Chances Are”, also reaching the top of the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. My problem is with the song itself. Let’s just say that it has not aged well.
My problem here is that, with a song like “Too Much…”, Johnny has adopted a sound that panders to the audience. Indeed, he tried to milk a good thing by making his next record a full album of duets with Williams. And then his next album featured disco arrangements and a “Special Disco Version” of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”. It irks me when singers of Johnny’s era and quality demean themselves by adopting the sound of a later era in the hopes of gaining relevancy. Johnny’s not alone here, though. Check out Andy Williams’ 1986 album Close Enough for Love or his atrocious We Need a Little Christmas (1995), Miles Davis’ last album, 1991’s Doo-Bop, Quincy Jones’ Back on the Block and even Francis Albert released a “disco version” of “Night and Day” (poor Cole Porter again!) in the late ’70’s.
When I say that my problem here may be with the industry itself, I mean to say what else were these singers to do? Sticking to orchestral versions of the Great American Songbook was not going to move units in the ’70’s and ’80’s – Tony Bennett notwithstanding. So – like they had always done, really – they put out their own takes on songs that were popular at the time; a continuation of the “covering” of a song that had been going on since the 1940’s. I guess I need to give these guys a break here – but that doesn’t mean I’ll be listening to their latter-day material.
In 1983, country/rock singer Linda Ronstadt teamed with Nelson Riddle for a (supposedly terrible) album of standards called What’s New. The album sold incredibly well and started a trend of singers across all genres recording American Popular Standards that continues to this day. Johnny jumped on board a train that suited him much better than disco. To be fair, Johnny had been doing these songs on his albums since the beginning.
The 73 albums that Johnny Mathis has released have “sold well over 360 million copies” which ranks him second only to Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Interestingly, 16 of Johnny’s first 18 albums reached the top 40 and 10 of his first 11 hit the top ten. Only two of these 18 did not chart at all; his first anomalous album and a Christmas album. By comparison, of Frank Sinatra’s first 18 albums, 15 hit the top 40 and three did not chart. Six of the 100 biggest selling records of the ’50’s were Johnny Mathis records, two of the top 10. The facts don’t lie. Johnny Mathis is a record-seller of the highest order. And he is still performing live. Check out John’s Facebook page to see this engaging man in action.