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Mathis, Johnny(1935–) - Singer, Chronology, Personal Life and Choices

mathis’s album charts

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.

Chronology

1935

Born in Gilmer, Texas on September 30

1948

Takes professional opera lessons from Connie Cox

1955

Discovered and signed by George Avakian of Columbia Records

1956

Invited to Olympic track trials in Berkeley

1957

Performs first hit “Wonderful Wonderful” on American Bandstand

1958

Releases Greatest Hits , which remains on charts 490 weeks

1959

Records “Misty,” his signature song

1964

Launches own company, Jon Mat

1972

Receives star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

1978

Performs first of successful duets with artist Deniece Williams

1993

Performs at Carnegie Hall, New York for three sold-out concerts

1998

Appears on Live by Request by popular demand

2003

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 Page 456  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.

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about 3 years ago

I would love to know what Johnny Mathis is doing now , has he retired? Is there an email address where I can contact him

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over 2 years ago

Mr. Mathis. My husband (of almost 57 years) and I had the pleasure of hearing your concert at the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, November 6th.



Wow - you are an unbelievable talent and we hope and pray that you will be able to continue your tours for many years entertaining people so much.



My Dad was a professional singer and he was the first singer on the Hit Parade and Studio Champions. His professional name was Stuart Allen. I truly hope he had the privilege of hearing your wonderful voice. So many of you songs brought me to tears as your voice so reminded me of my wonderful father and his talent.



Again our best wishes for continued good health and success. You are an unbelievable talent.



Sincerely,



Eileen and Miles Remer

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almost 3 years ago

How can I join the Johnny Mathis fan club?

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over 2 years ago

SORRY... I HAD TO STOP READING. IF YOU CHECK, I BELIEVE YOU WILL FIND THAT MR. MATHIS SPOKE QUITE OPENLY ABOUT HIS HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE PAGES OF THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE DURING THE 199O'S.

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over 2 years ago

I live in Canada and am wondering if Johnny Mathis will be touring Canada in the new year or if and when? Please advise. Thank you.

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over 3 years ago

Johnny Mathis and Bill Russell were friends but not college basketball teammates. Mathis attended San Francisco State and Russell the University of San Francisco. Mathis set the San Francisco State school record with a jump of 6 ft, 5 1/2 inches at a dual meet against Nevada at Reno on May 7, 1955. That broke the Mackay Stadium record of 6-5 set by Bill Russell a year earlier.