Johnny Mathis,
The TVD Interview

Johnny Mathis’ music has become synonymous with romantic pop ballads. Since his early hits with “Chances Are,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” and “Misty,” he’s been recording and performing for decades, occasionally returning to the charts with things like his 1978 Number 1 “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” with Deniece Williams.

He’s released a truckload of albums along the way, evidenced by the massive 68-disc collection The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection which arrived in stores late last year. He’s not strayed from contemporary sounds, as his Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook, produced by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, includes hits from Pharrell Williams, Adele, and Bruno Mars among others.

This month, Real Gone Music and Second Disc Records have started a new series re-issuing Mathis’ albums from the 1970s. The series begins with Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, which includes covers of the title song as well as “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bacharach & Kaempfert, which includes his rendition of “The Look of Love” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” from Burt Bacharach, as well as versions of Bert Kaempfert’s work that includes “Danke Schoen,” “Spanish Eyes,” and “Strangers in the Night.” Both will be available as stand-alone CDs for the first time in the U.S., and both come with extra tracks.

We talked to Mathis about these recordings and more, from coming up through jazz to meeting The Beatles.

Your ’70s albums are just being reissued, starting last week with Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bacharach and Kaempfert and Raindrops Keep Fallen’ On My Head, a collection of songs from that period. What do you remember about those?

I had just started going to England on and off, and then on one of my occasions I just went on across the channel to Germany. I’d always been a fan of the music of Bert Kaempfert, and got a chance to work with him.

Ha! I hope I’m not giving out too much information but I had never had schnapps before. So I went over there and we got pretty heavy into schnapps before dinner and what have you. So now when I listen to that, I kind of remember that!

But, you know, you do so much in your life, especially at an early age when I was running all over the world singing. I even ended up in Brazil—places where I had to learn the language a little bit. It was fun to sing—some of it worked and some of it, ha ha ha, maybe…

You had worked with Bacharach quite a bit.

Yeah, Bert was really early on, he was very businesslike about his music, which I loved, and as I got to know him over the years, appreciated it. He jumped right in when I was available to sing single records and we became friends. I think he was in the publishing business with Mitch Miller, as some of the young writers were at the time.

Yeah, I got really lucky. He wrote a couple wonderful songs for me. I guess he wrote them for me—you never know, you know. I found out that later on, these people who came to me and said that they just wrote it just for me had written it 20 years before. But it didn’t really matter as long as we got the song.

They were waiting for you to come along.

I guess, I guess. Gullible as I was, I believed it.

The other album coming around had a lot of contemporary songs from that time, from Jimmy Webb to Paul Simon. Those songs really hold up don’t they?

Yeah. I’ve always enjoyed singing songs of the day, songs that people listen to over and over again, and I got a chance in my career to sing almost everything that I ever wanted to. And it’s fun because there are special recordings that I did, for instance religions albums, that were just for special people who wanted to hear that.

But then when you do the contemporary music that’s available all over the place, it sort of keeps you in the moment, and that was fun for me. I had certain responsibilities as a singer and also contractually to my record company to do as much as I could and wide-ranging, as far as musical genres were concerned. But when I sang the songs of the day, that constantly changed all the time.

On the Raindrops album, you have a version of “Something” by The Beatles, but in concerts you sing “Yesterday.” You seem to have had a long association with their music.

I started to go to Great Britain at a very early age. I think I went when I was 20 years old. I don’t know how I ended up there, but anyway, I did, and I got accustomed to going back every year. And on a couple of those occasions, I got to chance to meet The Beatles and hang out with them.

They were just kids, very talented kids I must admit. We kind of bonded and I wanted to sing some of their stuff because it fit my voice personally and the lyrics were always quite good too.

They were probably happy to have you sing them, too.

Well, yeah. They were business guys. I enjoyed that aspect of their personalities. They wanted to make a living, sure.

You continue to record contemporary music, most recently last year’s New American Songbook with Babyface doing Adele’s “Hello” and Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.” How do you go about choosing songs for those projects?

Oh gosh, it’s a little bit of everything. Sometimes I seek out people, very much like I did with the Bert Kaempfert stuff. I wanted to sing some of those lovely, lush songs that I had heard instrumentally. I was as in Germany for a series of concerts and I jumped at the opportunity.

Fortunately, the record company was supporting me and that was the way that happened. It all depends on if you’re in the moment and it’s important to stretch your thoughts and your wings as much as you can when you get those moments, because they certainly go by and you miss an opportunity. So that’s sort of what happens.

For instance, I met a guy when I was 19 years old and just got into New York—Bob Allen was his name and I don’t know how he knew who I was because I hadn’t met anyone yet. And he said hello to me and that was the beginning of singing “Chances Are” and “It’s Not for Me To Say.”

I imagine you sometimes hear a song and think “I would love to sing that.” Is that a process you use?

Mostly it’s about genres, I think. I grew up in a house full of kids. My mom and dad had seven kids and my dad was a singer. He and I were the best pals in the world. I still miss him greatly because, not only was he my dad, but he was also doing the same thing I wanted to do, and that’s sing. Those things, they’re so part of your whole being that they stay with you at all times. So when I decided to stretch out as far as my singing was concerned, I just threw things up in the air to see which one stuck.

I got involved later on in life, after I had a couple of hit records and I wanted to sing some music for my mom and my dad, and turned out to be an album of religious songs, Good Night, Dear Lord. But I wanted everyone to know I had schooling, and as part of my schooling in San Francisco, I went to school with a lot of Jewish kids and I went to temple with them on many many occasions. I wanted to sing the “Kol Nidre” and “Eli Eli” and all that happened to me because I lived in San Francisco and there was an amalgamation of people and all sorts of lives and religions and what have you.

All of that was just sort of what I wanted to do to make sure that I didn’t just have one kind of thing to sing. I wanted to sing a lot of stuff and find out which one stuck, as far as the public is concerned.

And ballads turned out to be your strong suit.

You know what? I never understood that. Because I was singing all kinds of stuff, and yet the ballads were what became, like, “Oh yeah, Johnny Mathis sings the ballads.” I was always a little…not annoyed, but, “Did you ever hear the other stuff that I did?”

Of course, I realized people had their likes and dislikes. And when you think about Nat King Cole, I think about his ballads too, but he was a great jazzer and he sang a lot of up tunes, yeah.

You started out in jazz too, right?

Well, I was raised in San Francisco and all the famous jazz musicians in the world came to San Francisco to just about three venues. One was The Black Hawk, which was owned by the lady who eventually became my business manager; there was the Downbeat, and there were a couple more.

I grew up in household of nine people, and had all sorts of music that they liked. My dad of course was my greatest influence, and he would take me from the time when I was a little kid, wherever he was going to listen to music, he’d take me. And a lot of places that were available in San Francisco were mostly jazz clubs.

Did you listen to music at home on records?

We listened to free music on the radio. It was all available according to whatever station you were listening to. But we had few and far between recordings. We just didn’t have any money. But other than that, everything was free.

A lot of your music is coming out on vinyl LP records again rather than CDs, what do you think of that trend?

I think it’s a great idea. Young people have been accused, and I think wrongly so, of having short attention spans. This will certainly prove the public to be wrong, because you really do have to put a little effort into listening to an LP rather than just a single record.

And I’m constantly amazed when I ask people for some reason or another what they liked as far as my music is concerned, and they always come up with a single record. They never know all the work that went into albums, and those thousands and thousands of songs that were involved in the album. They always come up with, “Oh, ‘Chances Are,’ ‘Misty.’” But those are all single records.

I’m grateful that I was able to do, vocally and musically, as much as I have. I lucked out being with Columbia Records. I don’t know, but I think that I’m maybe longest tenure of anybody at Columbia Records.

You’ve seen them all come and go, haven’t you?

Well, yeah. I keep saying, “Where’s so and so” as far as my contacts at Columbia Records are concerned. “Oh he’s dead! He left a long time ago!” “Well, who’s there? I gotta talk to somebody.” But the company is going strong and I’m very fortunate.

They released a 68-CD boxed set The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Albums Collection in December.

It was the most flattering thing I’ve ever seen in life. My whole life comes before me when I open that box set.

What was it like to see all of that together?

I was always wondering—what’s going to happen to my stuff that I did? I’m sure anyone who is involved in music and recordings feels that way—we don’t want to throw it away, how can we make it have a life still? And the minute I looked at that, I said, Oh my god, this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me musically.

Finally, my music is available—everything that I’ve ever done musically on records. And it’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever had in my musical life. It was an eye opener and I said, well, fortunately I won’t be forgotten musically by the record company. And that’s a great, great feeling. I just hope they do it with other people, because it’s so gratifying.

For a lot of people, seeing a boxed set like that, artists might think their career is complete. But I guess you released a Greatest Hits album two years into your career.

That was Mitch Miller’s idea. That was the first time I had a chance to go out of the country and go to Great Britain. And they wanted me to go in the studio and make some more recordings. I had had some success with “It’s Not for Me to Say,” but I wasn’t able to record, so he threw the first four recordings that I did, but both sides on them, and called them Johnny’s Greatest Hits.

That was a little flamboyant, because it was not the greatest hits, yet. But he seemed to call it that. And that was a great beginning for a lot of people. Even Mozart has a Greatest Hits now. Good idea from Mitch Miller.

Miller was a key person in your career it seems.

The guy that I am most beholden to is George Avakian. George Avakian, they’re having a retrospective of his life in a couple of months that I’m going to go to. He was a jazzer. He was the head of jazz at Columbia Records. He came to see me sing in San Francisco at a jazz club with one of my pals when I was 16 or 17 years old. He liked what he heard but he thought that I needed whatever a kid at that age needs to facilitate a recording contract. And sure enough, he came back the next year and heard me sing and signed me up. I think I was 18 years old.

I just have the most wonderful feeling about what we tried, because I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. But I was singing with people like John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Teo Macero, Bob Prince, Gil Evans—the great jazzers of all time. They threw this little kid, me, into the mix and we did what we did at that age. And of course it was hit and miss. But musically, as far as the arrangements were concerned, from John Lewis, some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. I was way out there.

It wasn’t until I was heard by Mitch Miller. We were all in the same building, but each floor was a different musical genre, and they never met each other at this building in New York. I wondered why it took a year and a half or two before Mitch Miller knew that I was even a recording artist. And someone played him this jazz recording that I did and of course, we ended up working together and he found a niche musically for me that suited me, and we had a lot of success.

Do you still enjoying going on tour at 82?

Yes, I do, because each place that I go is different for me. You go to Philadelphia, there’s stuff in Philadelphia. You go to New Orleans, there’s stuff in New Orleans. The whole thing—and I’m not preaching—but I had a good start with athletics in high school. I was pretty successful as a high jumper, almost got an invitation to the Olympics as far as that was concerned. But I’ve kept up my enthusiasm about physical training over the years. And it’s a good thing I did. Because you get old, and your bones creak, as you’re tired. You know, if your muscles don’t work, you don’t work.

So the rest of my life I owe to the importance of the people along the way who have really, really insisted that along with my musical training that I had to physically keep myself in shape. And god bless them, they’re absolutely right. I still go to the gym every morning. I get up at an ungodly hour and spend an hour with trainers, and it all matters. It’s all very important.

Of course there are songs of yours that people will always want to hear. Are there certain songs that have most meaning to you when you perform them?

I think so. I really wish that vocally I could sing some of the ones that were eye-openers to me. For instance, when I got to New York, the most eye-popping, sound wise, was when I would walk by these Broadway production theaters, and see My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Brigadoon—all these great Broadway shows, with all these great live singers in the building. I’d walk by the stage doors, just in hopes that maybe they would let me in sit in the back and listen, which happened on several occasions.

When I sing them, all of these memories flash into my head about where I was when I learned this song, why I sing it. And mostly I sing songs that I remember as eye-openers. For instance, I saw a production of Gypsy, and I heard Ethel Merman sing “Small World,” and all these songs—that all flashes through my mind as far as what I want to sing.

Fortunately I’ve been able to move around and go all over the place. I remember the first time I went to Brazil, and my Portuguese was not very good at all. And I had not even considered singing in Portuguese the way the Brazilians do—until I got there. Then I got enthusiastic about it, and now I’ve recorded over the years, and every performance I do I sing some Brazilian songs in Portuguese.

I’m still wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as far as music is concerned. And I get a little bit sad, because music doesn’t seem to be as available as it was. In order to hear the music, I have to go to the source now. I can’t hear it on the radio or places like that because they just don’t play a wide variety of stuff on the radio any more.

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PHOTO: ELIOT LEE HAZEL

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  • Doreen Skelton

    John mentions that composers of a certain caliber just aren,t as available ; must go to the source. Melodies aren,t a priority apparently. We have Grands & Greats that don,t understand how even the romance is missing in songs – so much noise being passed to them makes me so sad ! My days are free now to expose them to as much Good music as I can. We are truly blessed that John cares to look after self.

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