Pop stars and pop music fashions come and go. But a select few performers endure through the years. At the top of that short list is Johnny Mathis. Recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, member of that organization’s Hall of Fame and an artist with more than 70 albums placing on the Billboard charts, at age 84 the singer remains active as both a performer and recording artist.
Mathis released his self-titled debut album in 1956; it didn’t chart, but his follow-up album released a year later was a hit. Wonderful Wonderful established Johnny Mathis as a top-line artist; the title track was his first hit, the first of more than 40 of his singles to chart on Billboard‘s Hot 100. His third single, 1957’s “Chances Are” made it to the #1 spot on the charts. More than 60 years later – and with nothing to prove – he still does studio work. Mathis’ most recent album, Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook, was released in 2017.
He says that making records is “something that I’ve been doing all my life; I’ve been doing it so often and so long that if I don’t do it, I think something’s wrong.” Mathis says for him, album releases are “a way to keep in touch with audiences that constantly change. There are always new people to try to get to listen to you. And I have one thought in mind when I sing: and that is to try to sing for as many people as I can.”
Recording techniques have changed a great deal since Mathis began his career. At the beginning, everything was cut live in the studio with the musicians playing while he sang. With a chuckle, he calls that method “get or no get: whatever was there when you finished, that was what they were going to release!”
As technology advanced – and as Mathis’ stature grew to a point at which he could call the shots – he says that a different approach was used. “You would go in and record, take it home and listen to it and call them back and say, ‘I want to change this, I want to change that,’” he recalls.
Today, audio recording is even more advanced, with pitch-correcting processing like Auto-Tune, and the ability to alter and correct even the smallest nuances. “Nowadays it’s really quite wonderful,” Mathis enthuses. “Because if you don’t get it right, you can do it over a thousand times. There are all sorts of ways of taking one little part of the song from this one and put it on that one.”
When it comes to Johnny Mathis, though, all that studio trickery need only be applied judiciously. Though he’s at an age when most singers’ voices have lost some of their luster, Mathis’ voice remains mellifluous, capable of delivering his trademark range of material that encompasses romantic standards as well as other styles. Asked what he does to keep his voice in shape, Mathis has a ready answer: “You don’t do anything!”
But then he explains what he means. “You don’t stay up late, you don’t drink, you don’t all sorts of crazy stuff,” he says with a hearty laugh.
Though he’s made gospel and disco albums (and even had a minor hit with a swinging, uptempo cover of Santana’s “Evil Ways” in 1970), Mathis is best known for his romantic balladeering, a characteristic that earned him the playful nickname “Johnny Mattress.” But he has a long history with Christmas music, too. Mathis released his Merry Christmas album in 1958; that blockbuster album (more than 5 million copies sold) would be the first of six holiday-themed albums. The holiday remains a centerpiece of his concert schedule as well: he put on four special Christmas shows for the 2019 season.
Mathis has already started booking Christmas shows for 2020, too. “My voice still sounds good, and I’m still excited about the next project,” he says. But in the meantime, he has a busy touring schedule with dates across the U.S. “Music is like this great big elephant in my life,” he says. “Only, it’s a pink elephant. And it’s lots of fun.”
You may also enjoy: a “Johnny Mathis playlist” essay I put together in 2017.