By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Johnny Mathis is more versatile than you think, but he knows where his bread is buttered. He could branch out and try different styles of music — and he has, read on — but why mess with the mushy, easy-listening crooner formula that has given him nearly 80 top-40 hits over the course of a half-century singing career?
The Mathis hit parade started in 1957 with "Chances Are," "It's Not for Me to Say" and "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and continued for decades, mostly in the same vanilla template — soft strings, tender arrangements, the unequaled smoothness of Mathis' voice, lulling and languid — through "A Certain Smile," "Gina," "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" and all that Christmas music. His greatest-hits album, one of the first, logged a staggering 490 weeks on the Billboard albums chart (that's nine-plus years), a record beaten only by Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."
But Mathis himself at least once tried to rock.
"Well, yeah, when you're young and starting out, you want to do everything. I tried it all, believe it or not," Mathis says, adding a laugh. "I was fortunate at the beginning of my career to have a lot of hits right away. That gives you a little clout as far as the record company is concerned. Plus, in that day, as an artist, you made a lot of records." Mathis released four albums annually in both 1958 and 1959. "So you were always looking for material, and I used to go in to my producer and say, 'Check this out!' I'd show them a James Brown song. They'd say, 'You know, John, that's great, but let's try something else.' And thank goodness."
Does that mean in a record vault somewhere are tapes of Johnny Mathis throwing down like James Brown?
"Unfortunately, yes," Mathis says, no longer laughing. "I keep wondering when they're going to rear their ugly head. Fortunately, most of that stuff is well buried."
Then he starts chuckling again, remembering some of his off moments. There have been a few.
"One of the first songs I sang was a Burt Bacharach song," Mathis recalls. "Burt is a task master, always has been. He wants you to do it exactly as he hears it in his head. ... But I wasn't taking direction well. The song is called 'Warm and Tender'" — Mathis sings a few bars, sounding creamy and light even over the cell connection from his California home — "and I ended up sounding like Frankie Laine. It was so bad. It's on the other side of one of my biggest records, 'It's Not for Me to Say,' which sold a million copies. I hear it and think, 'How could he possibly have let me do that?'
"There's a lot of that. I made a few songs years ago under the care of a doctor who gave me amphetamines, and that didn't sound good, either."
Mathis, who tours only occasionally now at age 75 and spends most of his time at home and playing golf five days a week (he now boasts an impressive seven holes-in-one), credits his very straight-and-narrow style to a small group of good advisers, most notably Gil Reigers, his guitarist for more than 40 years.
But despite the gentle but firm guidance, the Velvet Voice occasionally has veered off the sweetened path, from trying his hand at Brazilian music ("The one place I'd like to get back to is Brazil," he says, "because I fell in love with the people there and their music, and I still sing a lot of Brazilian songs") to making frequent guest appearances with the Muppets (his duet with Rowlf the Dog on "Never Before, Never Again" during a 1979 TV special is worth YouTubing).
Two recent projects, in fact, have brought his varied tastes full circle.
Late last year, a Jewish organization called the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation compiled an intriguing CD, "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations." The album rounded up rare instances of notable black singers taking on Jewish music, such as Cab Calloway mixing Yiddish into his scatting during "Utt-Da-Zy" and Eartha Kitt's orchestrated delivery of "Sholem."
The society also dug up a relevant Mathis recording. One of the four albums he recorded in 1958 was "Good Night, Dear Lord," a collection of religious songs dedicated to his mother. Amid the expected Christian music — from spirituals ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Deep Night") to formal pieces ("The Rosary," two versions of "Ave Maria") — were three Jewish songs: the Yiddish hymn "Eli Eli"; a song about a Warsaw ghetto, "Where Can I Go?"; and the Yom Kippur prayer chant "Kol Nidre." The latter appears on "Black Sabbath."
"People ask me to explain why someone like myself would get involved with religious Jewish music," Mathis says. "It's the way you're brought up. Me, growing up in San Francisco, I had this extraordinary opportunity to listen to all kinds of music and studied voice for seven or eight years with a wonderful teacher. She first introduced me to it. As a singer, when you hear something extraordinary like that — and a lot of Jewish music is musically quite challenging — you want to sing it, you want to at least try it, to see if you can do it."
Back to his roots
Mathis' latest album, also released last fall, is off-track, too — "Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville." A good friend of the late Ray Charles, it may have been inevitable that Mathis — a native of Texas — would tackle a country record. But Mathis says this actually has more to do with his roots in rock 'n' roll.
"The first music I heard was country music. My father sang it for me," Mathis says. "That's the reason I started singing. This country album is really a throwback to what my dad taught me, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. Over the years, I've performed with extraordinary people always in the background of my arrangements, especially the guitar players. This time, they're in the forefront. It's a guitar record! It's such a joy to listen to the recordings when I stop singing and hear this extraordinary guitar music."
So he made a record that kinda rocks, after all?
"Is it so hard to believe?" Mathis asks, laughing again. "My little brother [Michael], you know, had a band and did mostly rhythm and blues. He did stuff with Sly Stone there in San Francisco. Michael got me involved with a lot of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. But I studied, as I mentioned, with a classical teacher, and most of the music I heard was pretty much Broadway and classical, and that's what I got involved with. In the household, my dad was singing country and Michael was playing rock 'n' roll, and I had six other brothers and sisters bringing in other stuff. If the slightest thing had changed, who knows, I could have been a rock 'n' roll star."
• When: 9 p.m. April 30
• Where: Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont
• Tickets: $65-$75, (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.