At his penthouse in Beverly Hills, Johnny Mathis has no objection to a 9 a.m. interview — he has been up for five hours already, and at the gym for a long-standing regime of pulley stretching and leg lifts. “Anything to get the juices flowing and also get me into my stage clothes,” says the 81-year-old singer. “I look at myself in the mirror and go, ‘Well, not bad,’?” he adds with a laugh.
Mathis has been donning those stage clothes all year, on a tour marking the 60th anniversary of his debut album. He is a singular vocalist whose classic hits from the 1950s — “Chances Are,” “Misty,” “It’s Not for Me to Say” — established an enduring style of pop romance. In Barry Levinson’s Oscar-nominated 1982 film Diner, set in the postwar era, the character Eddie Simmons memorably asks his pals, “When you’re making out, which do you prefer, Sinatra or Mathis?”
Around that same time, however, while performing at a San Francisco nightclub, Mathis caught the ear of George Avakian, head of jazz A&R at Columbia Records, who was vacationing in the city. “Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way,” Avakian telegrammed his label. “Send blank contracts.”
In the six decades since, Mathis has charted 43 hit singles and sent 74 titles, including numerous Christmas releases, onto the Billboard 200. In 2003, The Recording Academy presented Mathis with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. It was recognition for an artist who has long sung of romance— but also has supported civil rights and gay rights, from singing with activists at the Salute to Freedom concert in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 to acknowledging his own sexual orientation two decades later.
You were part of a generation of racial pioneers in pop in the ’50s who crossed over to white fans. What’s your perspective on Black Lives Matter and race relations today?
The world changes. The world is completely different now from when I was growing up. Back then you didn’t say things like they say now out loud, about race and things. But that’s just progress. When are we going to find out that we’re all the same, we’re all absolutely, without a doubt, the same? It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or straight or gay.
You’ve seen a lot of change in attitudes toward being gay since you were getting death threats in the 1980s. [The threats followed a 1982 interview in Us Weekly in which Mathis was quoted as saying, “Homosexuality is a way of life I’ve become accustomed to.”]
Things take time. People are stubborn about what they perceive to be the right thing or the wrong thing, and it takes a long time to filter this human condition. There’s a waiting period until people catch up. But if you have patience — which it takes when someone thinks differently from you — everybody always catches up. That patience is a wonderful virtue.
You have declined to talk about your own relationships, and it seems that you prefer to lead by your presence rather than speaking out.
I’ve been very happy to see some of the success that I’ve had along the way in opening the eyes of people, especially people who listen to music.
Looking back, what do you remember about George Avakian discovering you at San Francisco’s 440 Club?
I didn’t realize he was in the audience, and unfortunately he had a bad case of poison oak or poison ivy. So he was not in a very good mood. But he heard me sing and said, “I think you’re ready to make your first recording.” George is still with us; He’s now 102 years old, and I saw him not too long ago. He counseled me for many years.
But you pretty quickly switched to working with Mitch Miller, who was a pop producer at Columbia then.
He liked my voice, but he didn’t like what I was singing and didn’t like the way I was singing it. He was very opinionated, you might say. But, thank goodness, he put me on the right track and gave me some [songs] that were more suitable for my voice. He gave me a stack of music that was as tall as I was and said, “Find four songs.” So I found “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” a song called “Warm and Tender” — by a guy nobody ever heard of called Burt Bacharach — and “Wonderful! Wonderful!”
“Chances Are” is a signature for you. How did the song come to you?
I was crossing the street in New York one day, and I met Al Stillman. He wrote “It’s Not for Me to Say” [with Robert Allen]. Now, I had no idea who wrote the songs I was singing at that time. But he said, “Oh, by the way, we’ve had so much success with that song that I’ve written another,” and it was “Chances Are.” And that was the beginning of my association with songwriters. I never thought I would actually meet the people who wrote the songs.
What is the key to really selling a song with your vocal?
I’m always thinking about songs and how I can sing a song that would resonate with my voice, my persona. I want it to be a pleasant experience that’s not just about hearing my voice. I remember some singers whose voices were so pretty it didn’t matter what they sang, you loved it. And I thought, Well, wouldn’t it be nice to have a double whammy: a great voice, but also being witty in the interpretations of the song. Mabel Mercer was a good friend of mine. I just worshipped her, and that’s what she did with songs.
Sony’s Legacy Recordings marked your 80th birthday in 2015 with Johnny Mathis: The Singles, a four-disc anthology. Are you also recording new material?
I’ve recorded four songs of a new album we’re doing with Babyface. He has introduced me to some wonderful writers. It’s hard to find stuff that I really love, but it’s there. I’m looking forward to finishing this and getting it out there.
Who do you listen to today?
Oh, gosh, I listen to the ones that I love and grew up listening to. Lena Horne, I worshipped her, followed her and embarrassed myself by applauding too loudly when I was in the audience listening to her, so she had this love/hate relationship with me. She thought I was a pest because I was always trying to see her or be near her. Nat “King” Cole was my favorite singer of all time, not only because of his music but also because of the kind of person he was. There’s Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Larry Gatlin, Deniece Williams — those are some of the more contemporary ones, and that’s really what I gravitate to.
You worked in the early ’80s with Chic on an album that never came out in full. What was that like?
I had no idea Nile [Rodgers] even knew who I was, but I loved working with him. After we’d do a song, he loved to celebrate. He’d say, “We’re going out! We’re going to get in a limo!” And he would play me the finished record I had done that afternoon. It was the most interesting thing I’d done in my life, and Nile and I have remained friends all these years. But I will say I wasn’t quite sure about the lyrics. Most of the lyrics were kind of rhythmical; it didn’t matter what you said so long as you said it in the right phrasing. But I was happy because I was still learning.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.