johnny mathis

Legendary crooner Johnny Mathis was born to sing
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK

Columbia Archives photo

Even via phone from his home in Beverly Hills, the showstopping smile that made crooner Johnny Mathis a heartthrob among heartthrobs early in his career comes through, loud and clear. In his pitch-perfect enunciation, he introduces himself as John, not Johnny — he is 82 now, after all.

On this particular morning, when asked how he’s doing, he responded, without missing a beat: “Oh, I’m old!” followed by a raucous belly laugh.

“I wondered when I was a little kid about when people got old, I wondered what they did, and now I’m finding out,” Mathis said. “Not much. You try to make your day nice and easy, and that’s about it.”

That may be true of most people his age, but here, it’s a stretch. A recent Washington Post article revealed Mathis, a former champion high-jumper, gets up at 5:30 a.m. to work out with a personal trainer whenever he’s at home.

He’s about to embark on a series of tour dates marking his 62nd year in the music business, during which time he’s recorded 79 albums, including last year’s “Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook.” It’s a rare feat for an active entertainer’s career to reach its sixth decade, and Mathis has spent most of it on Columbia Records as the label’s most tenured artist. His 1958 record “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” pioneered the greatest hits format. He’s netted five Grammy nominations and three Grammy Hall of Fame inductions.

These are formidable laurels, yet Mathis isn’t resting on them. He is, as he put it, “born to sing,” and the rest? All in a life’s work.

“Great New American Songbook,” helmed by Clive Davis and produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, typifies Mathis’ gentlemanly, even passive, approach to making records, as well as the tremendous trust he puts in his collaborators to guide his choices.

“I grew up having to record songs that were popular of the day. That was a very big part of my life as a young performer,” Mathis said. “People are always playing songs for me. I have no idea what would sell, and people will only buy what they want to hear, so I might as well try to sing that.”

“Songbook” includes tracks made famous by everyone from Whitney Houston and Adele to Pharrell, Bruno Mars and even Keith Urban, all delivered in Mathis’ polite, laser-focused tenor. As far as how to approach performing newer pop songs in his traditional style, Mathis says there isn’t much to it.

“You don’t really have to worry about it, because you open your mouth, you sing the same song the same way somebody else did it, and it just sounds like you. You can’t help it,” Mathis said. “The fun part is when you sing one that has been done well by someone else, and yours comes out good, too.”

He credits Edmonds with keeping him on track in the studio, because, despite that “here goes nothing” approach, even Johnny Mathis has his doubts.

“Whenever I would ask, ‘Really? You want me to sing that?’ he said, ‘Come on, give it a chance.’ I need people around me like that because my head is all over the place as far as music is concerned,” Mathis said. “Recording is, I’m telling you, it’s a puzzle, because you think you’re doing it and it sounds OK, and then six months later, you listen to it and say, ‘Oh, why did I do that way?’ But that’s just de rigueur, I guess, for most people.”

He noted that, because he’s gone from, “I sound like a girl, oh no!” to “That’s my favorite song!” about the same recording over time, he is not dogmatic about turning down suggestions. The record company wants him to sing songs people will know. He want to sing songs he thinks people will like. He calls where they land each time “a happy medium.”

Mathis is both pragmatic and deferential, two traits that speak to his longevity. He knows how to keep a label happy and to cater to longtime fans who, let’s face it, are in the room to hear the hits. And they keep showing up, year after year. As jobs go, this is one of the better ones, and Mathis hasn’t lost sight of that.

“I know that I have to repeat a lot of the songs that have been popular over the years like ‘Chances Are,’ ‘Twelfth of Never,’ ‘Misty’ and things like that, but while they’re not watching, I throw in a lot of stuff that I really love,” Mathis said, laughing.

He credits his first voice teacher with teaching him how to preserve the nuances of his voice, particularly in the higher ranges.

“She insisted that I maintain the soft, high notes, so over the years I’ve had a lot of fun singing songs that were a little bit different, and that keeps my interest level up,” Mathis said. “I get the freedom of performing in so many ways, in so many venues, whatever the songs call for.”

His career has been based solely on his uncanny ability to interpret great songs with incredible technical skill and emotion. He is not the sort of famous many of his contemporaries sought to be, calling the prospect of being the topic of conversation “boring” and likening record promotion to “beating the bushes.” Even more unusually, he is not his own producer, songwriter or accompanist. He makes clear the line between what he does, which is sing, versus everything else.

“When I was young, I’d say, ‘Oh I think I should record this, and I think I can hear the accompaniment,’ and a couple of times, without ruining my career, I’ve done that, and it’s a pitfall,” Mathis said. “I was born to just sing. It’s really not a crime to say that I don’t have a handle on (selling records) … and I’m not a good musician; I’m really a singer who is learning to be a better musician.”

People who’ve heard his albums may have their doubts about this particular point of his modesty. Whether he’s feigning a limited understanding of the ins and outs of musicianship or not, he knows what’s good when he hears it. When asked what record he’d listened to most recently, he named Earl Klugh, calling him “par excellence” and “kind of a jazzer, but he plays so beautifully that most people don’t even know.”

Tasked with making plans for his next album, he recently asked longtime accompanist and collaborator Gil Reigers, as if he weren’t Johnny-freaking-Mathis, “Do you think Earl Klugh would make a record with me?”

Reigers contacted Klugh, and he agreed, to Mathis’ apparent surprise.

“I said, ‘Oh wow!’ And so hopefully, my next recording will include at least a couple of songs with the great guitarist Earl Klugh,” Mathis said.

Until then, he has roughly 20 tour dates across the country, spanning through January 2019, during which Mathis, as always, will be doing what he loves, what he knows best, what he was born to do.

“I’m interested in singing a good song and singing it as best I can.”

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