A Conversation with Johnny Mathis
SUN: First we want to say congratulations! This is your 50th year as a recording artist. How does that feel?
MATHIS: Oh my goodness! I have no recollection of 50 years passing. I was visiting my guitar player, who’s been playing guitar for me 36 years now and he said “Sit down I want you to see something.” So we sat for about an hour and we watched some video tapes that he had of us singing in Brazil, Germany, Australia and all over the place. And I said, “We really did that! I can not believe it!!” So unless you have something tangible, like a recording that you made or a video tape, it sort of gets lost.
SUN: You will be playing Turning Stone Casino on July 19. Will this be your fi rst time there?
MATHIS: No, this is the second time. It’s a lovely venue. They’ve got a really wonderful place there and for me it’s very important that the audience be comfortable and this is a lovely place to sing.
SUN: Your voice lends itself so well to a full orchestra. Will you have an orchestra at Turning Stone and if yes, how many pieces?
MATHIS: I never thought twice about using an orchestra and nowadays it’s kind of a little unique. Most artists now are what they call “self contained.” In other words they have about fi ve musicians who play synthesized music. But I never have thought of using anything other than an orchestra because that’s what people remember hearing. I’ll have four musicians who travel with me and they form the rhythm section. Then when I get to different parts of the country, we hire, usually from the symphony, the string section and a harp, and from the local jazz clubs and what have you, we get the horn sections and the reeds. We’ll have about 26 or 27 pieces on stage.
SUN: Oh great! A lot of entertainers seem to take advantage of local orchestras and musicians. Would you say that romantic ballads are your passion?
MATHIS: It sort of happened by accident. I don’t really know how all the romanticism got involved with my career, but when I started listening to some of my music I thought, it does sound kind of romantic or I tend to sing songs like ballads, which I’m known for more than fast songs, up tunes. And most ballads that are written are about romance. I guess you get labeled and it’s a nice label. I don’t mind it.
SUN: Early in your career, “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” had it’s beginning. Which we want to mention spent an unprecedented 490 continuous weeks on Billboard’s Top Album charts. Did you ever think that “Greatest Hits” type albums would become such a tradition with other artists and record companies?
MATHIS: Isn’t that amazing?
SUN: It is amazing!!!
MATHIS: The way it happened is, I was scheduled to record some music at the time for Columbia Records and I wasn’t available. I think I was in Europe or someplace, and they desperately wanted some music from me. So Mitch Miller, who I was working with at the time, decided to take the fi rst four recordings that I had made, which would make eight songs, and then add a couple more to make 10 and put them in a compilation, and call them what he came up with which was “Johnny’s Greatest Hits.” And it sparked a whole trend by musicians. I even think Beethoven has a “Greatest Hits” now. (laughs)
SUN: (laughs) You’re right. But we don’t think anybody’s come close to 490 continuous weeks though. Your fi rst number one hit was “Chances Are.” Has anything ever compared to that for you?
MATHIS: Oh gosh. That’s the song that everybody sings when they look at me and they go “Uh hah! Chances are… (as Johnny starts singing to us). And that’s a good song and it’s always nice to be associated with good songs and fortunately I can still sing it.
SUN: What is your personal favorite song of the ones you’ve recorded, your sentimental favorite?
MATHIS: Sentimental is the word, yes, because when I was about 12 or 13 years old I used to go on Sundays to a local jazz club in San Francisco. They didn’t sell liquor on Sundays, and they had a jazz jam session and usually the people who were performing during the week there would rehearse. I met Erroll Garner, one of the great jazz pianists of all time, and I used to sit and listen to him rehearse, and he always played this song that I loved, but it didn’t have a title and it didn’t have any words to it. Later on Johnny Burke, a wonderful lyricist, put lyrics to it and it came out “Misty.” And to this day when I sing that song on stage it means a lot. Also for the fact that Erroll Garner was very nice to me at 12- 13 years old and he took the time to sit and talk to me just as a person talking to another person. So, when I was able to record my own music I certainly wanted to include one of his just out of respect for him, never thinking that the song would become part of my life as much as it has. Not only to me but a lot of the people. In fact one of the ladies that checks out my groceries in the market for me is named Misty.
SUN: Oh really?
MATHIS: And to this day I still haven’t gotten the nerve to ask her “Oh Miss... (laughs) why did your mom name you Misty? Is it because of the song or what?” One of these days I’ll get up enough nerve. I don’t think she knows who I am anyway.
SUN: (laughs) We don’t know about that. Everyone knows who you are. Or you could sing it to her.
MATHIS: (laughs) Oh no… as I’m holding up the line?
SUN: (laughs) We don’t think anybody would mind Johnny. Your father taught you your fi rst song “My Blue Heaven.” Do you do that song today in your show?
MATHIS: I don’t. And you know it’s one of the few that I haven’t recorded. Over the years I’ve recorded most of the songs that my dad taught me. The one that comes to mind is “Always.”
SUN: We love that song!
MATHIS: Yes! But I never got around to “My Blue Heaven.” Who knows? Maybe I still will. I still have a recording contract.
SUN: We know you love to cook.
MATHIS: I cook… mostly because I like to eat good food. (laughs) I have a room just off the kitchen and it’s fi lled with cookbooks. I do shop everyday and I do cook all my own food.
SUN: Have you ever thought of writing a cookbook?
MATHIS: No. That’s a lot of trouble because you have to go someplace and prepare the food many, many times to make sure it works. Somebody gave me a whole list of the things you have to do and I went, “Oh no!”
SUN: With the interest on Broadway for musicals based on an artist's songs such as “Movin’ Out,” based on Billy Joel and now “Jersey Boys” based on The Four Seasons, have you entertained the thought of a musical based on your music? Or have you been approached?
MATHIS: No, but things like that happen. You wouldn’t think that Frankie Valli's life would be a Broadway production, but you never know what the public wants to hear or wants to see. That might happen. I love Broadway music. In fact my whole career has been based fundamentally on the music that comes from the American Musical Theatre, with the exception of the songs that were written specifi cally for me. It certainly has been a big part of my life.
SUN: You recorded “Over The Rainbow” in 2004 with Ray Charles. It was his wish that this be played at his memorial service. Did you know that was his wish ahead of time?
MATHIS: I didn’t, no.
SUN: That must have been something to hear that.
MATHIS: Oh gosh! I have listened to this man over the years and like everyone else, realized the icon he was. And I listened to him like everybody else… with jaw dropping awe. And the way the recording came about is I had a conductor, who went on to work with other people, that I stay in contact with named Victor Vanacore. He went on to work with Ray right up until the time Ray passed away. And he said, “John, Ray sings “Over The Rainbow” so often on stage and he mentioned that he would love to do a duet with you.” (laughs) I said, “WHAT?” It was out of the blue and of course it did come to pass, and he actually sat in the studio with me and sang with me. And it was a great, great thrill and I was over the moon about it! And it was a good recording. He was only about two weeks away from dying when he made that recording. It was extraordinary.
SUN: Most of the entertainers we talk to have some sort of a Buffalo connection. Do you?
MATHIS: There was a wonderful venue in North Tonawanda that I played at many, many years. I can’t remember the name of it.
SUN: Melody Fair?
MATHIS: (laughs) Yes! OK! Oh yes, for years and years I worked there. There was a… Wurlitzer… a plant that made organs. We used to love to go there. And we’d have picnics out in the picnic area. And now I play the wonderful, wonderful hall downtown called Kleinhans. I love it there!
SUN: You’ve had so many accomplishments in your career. Is there anything at all that you haven’t done that you would still like to do?
MATHIS: Well you know… when I was young, Nat King Cole was very kind to me and he was my hero. He was the one that I thought was the best. And to this day, I still feel that way because of his musicianship, he was a great jazz pianist and he sang absolutely perfect. I never heard a fl aw in any performance he ever did. I have almost every recording he’s ever made. Even just for my own personal listening pleasure,I would love to digitally, you know the way they do it now, sing a duet with my hero. But I’ve done so much and have sung with so many people like Ray Charles, Lena Horne, Gladys Knight, Vince Gill, Larry Gatlin and so many others that I’m in awe of that. I really have done just about everything that I’ve ever wanted to do.