A Conversation with Johnny Mathis
Johnny Mathis is the longest-running recording artist on Columbia records. In addition to releaseing 79 studio albums and six original Christmas albums, he has 50 hit songs to his name on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts. Mathis also has five Grammy nominations and three Grammy Hall of Fame inductions. Simply stated, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime artist whose productivity and influence knows no bounds. Since taking the musical world by storm 62 years ago, Johnny Mathis has become the indisputable voice of romance. If you’ve yet to see this vocalist extraordinaire or you simply want to see him again, Johnny Mathis is performing at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City on June 2. Mathis was kind enough to take the time to speak with me about his remarkable career. I hope you enjoy our discussion, and don’t forget to buy tickets to his June 2 show in Atlantic City while you still can.
Your career has spanned more than 60 years and you’ve worked with a diverse group of artists during that time period. I’m sure you have some amazing stories to tell. Have you considered writing an autobiography? If so, when can fans expect it?
Yeah, I’ve started and sputtered two or three times with different people – a couple of ladies from Great Britain who made themselves available to me, and a couple here in the U.S. I’ve never made up my mind to get it done. It requires a lot of time spent. Yet, I know, for someone like myself, I know that it’s important. But (laughs) I keep putting it off. Hopefully I’m going to do it pretty soon.
We have a mutual friend, Dionne Warwick, and I love your duets with her. Your voices blend together beautifully. What are your thoughts on Dionne as a friend and as a musician?
We had a lot of fun recording songs together in the studio, early on; and we did a lot of performances together too. She’s a great musician and that doesn’t always hold true for singers. Some of us – and I’m one of the culprits – we get away with our voice and don’t have to learn too much about the music other than singing. I never learned to read music in all of my voice lessons. She is the exception. Dionne can read music and she’s sung harmony all her life, and she started off singing gospel music. Dionne is so special in my life, musically. We were such good friends and still are. I remember traveling all over the place with her. There were so many performances that we did, singing in tandem. I would come on first and sing for half-an-hour. Then I’d introduce her and she’d do an hour. Then we’d have an intermission and I’d come back on and sing. Then I’d invite her back on and we’d do 15 or 20 minutes together. It was a wonderful performance. People loved it.
You mentioned not being able to read music. Have you ever wanted to?
I never wanted to put in the work, so I just got by on my voice. Over the years I’ve taken lessons from various people, and I really would love to learn to read music. I think it would make me better at what I do. It would probably open some doors for me musically that I haven’t thought of before. I spoke to Pavarotti once and he told me that he couldn’t read music so I figure I’m in good company (laughs). I’ve got all my excuses for not being able to read music. Otherwise, I would have loved to learn.
My all-time favorite musician is Barry Manilow, and he has covered several of your songs over the years. What are your thoughts on Barry and his music?
He’s a wonderful singer and songwriter. I see him all the time. He’s always very concerned about performances. Barry is a wonderful person, and he loves what he does. He’s a terrific singer.
I was raised by my Father and his husband, and I’m thrilled that in 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling that extended the right to marriage to same-sex couples. It was a landmark ruling that came about because of an effective social movement that was inspiring to witness. However, the world hasn’t always been so progressive. You admitted to being gay in a 1982 interview with US Weekly. What kind of reaction did you get when you revealed that piece of information?
I think people like myself who grow up in the public eye are very concerned about our privacy because that’s really all we’re left with, since everybody knows everything about you – except for a few things that are special that you don’t necessarily want to share. Once everybody knows the last little ins and outs of your life, then you go with it. I don’t like everybody knowing everything I do. However, I’m a public figure so I deal with it. You always think that someone isn’t going to like you because your black or white or straight or gay. You don’t like to confuse things. You present yourself as this entity that sings, and that’s that. Once people start getting into your private life, it’s nerve-wracking but that goes with the territory.
What are your thoughts on gay rights and the progress that has been made since you first came out?
My goodness gracious. If you’re going to be a part of society, you’re going to have to enjoy all of the wonderful attributes that are available. Nobody should be denied anything because of their sexual preferences or because they’re black or white or from this country or from another country. We’re all in this world together and we need to be thought of as good upstanding people, as long as we’re not going in the street and fighting the horses. (laughs)
It’s been said that, at one point, you were labeled as the successor to Nat King Cole. What are your thoughts on Nat King Cole and what was your relationship like with him?
He was the dearest, sweetest, nicest man I ever met in my life. I adored him. From the very beginning of my career, I would tell everybody I met that he was my favorite singer. We got on really well and I loved being in his company. He was the nicest human being and the greatest singer I ever heard. He was as good a musician as anybody in the world.
You’ve recorded and released nearly 80 albums, which is a monumental accomplishment most artists can’t even dream of. At this point in your career, is it difficult to come up with new ideas for albums or do you always have something in mind?
The only thing that is important to me as a singer is the availability of quality songs. The record companies like me to sing songs that people know, and sometimes it’s not easy. There are songs that suit my voice well, and other times it’s a harder fit. Hopefully I’ll be able to find quality songs for the rest of my career. I was talking to my buddy Tony Bennett the other day, and he’s in his 90s now. He’s still performing and he’s a wonderful example of an enduring artist that’s still singing great songs and I’m glad we’ve remained pals through the years.
Early on in your career, you released albums at a very quick pace. For example, between 1963 and 1967 you released 11 albums on Mercury Records. How did you keep recording and releasing new material so frequently, while also touring? I imagine it must’ve been exhausting.
It all depends on what the music is, if it suits you vocally, and how many albums you’re contracted to do. The record companies make it clear how many they expect from you during a particular period of time. Over the years, I’ve had very good relationships with my record companies: Columbia and Mercury. They know what I’m capable of doing and I know what they’d like from me. I’ve never had any problem with that. I totally enjoy what I’m doing and I’m able to keep up with what I’m obligated to do. If you can do what the record company wants you to do, it’s fun and you don’t mind it. Of course, if you’re not capable of doing so, that’s a different story.
Today, you, as well as other artists, spend much more time on albums before releasing them. Do you miss the old days or do you think this new approach makes more sense?
Well, it is a record business and it has changed over time. There are times when you’re prolific all the time. And there are other times when that isn’t the case, so you do what you do. Recording is only one aspect of my abilities. Most of what I do is perform all over the world. Recordings are a big part of my career but there are times when you have to go with the flow. When I’m not recording, I’m touring. It’s a constant ebb and flow. In the early part of my career, all the music was right up my alley so I got a lot of recordings. Later on, not so much.
Jack Blades, the lead singer and bassist for Night Ranger, once said that “All artists should keep creating because if you stop, you die inside.” What are your thoughts on this sentiment?
It revolves around whether or not you’re physically able and in good health. That’s the most important thing because you won’t feel like doing anything if you’re not healthy. And being a vocalist, you have another thing to worry about. The vocals cords are flesh and blood so anything can happen to them. Sometimes it’s your fault as the singer, other times it’s not. Once the voice is gone, it’s gone and you might not be able to get it back. You take care of the thing that got you to the dance. It’s a cut-and-dried situation.
In 2017 you released Johnny Mathis Sings The Great New American Songbook and I think it’s fantastic. When Babyface brought you these songs to record, were you already familiar with all of them or did you have to learn some of them from scratch?
Mostly I keep up with what’s available to me. People like Babyface know what works for me, and I’m always in that mindset as well. The record company knows what it can sell and what it can’t. It’s a joy to be in his company. He’s a wonderful man and I hope he’s still interested in working with me. He’s an amazing person that sings, a wonderful guitar player, a producer. Just a wonderful musician and a pleasure to be around. I’m looking forward to working with him again.
What can fans expect from the next Johnny Mathis album?
You got any ideas!? (laughs) That’s about the way it is. We get ideas from all kinds of places and people. It’s always fun to provide my interpretation of songs people know. However, once in a while we’ll come up with something no one has ever heard and I can go with that. You’re never quite sure what’s going to be asked of you as a singer. The most important thing is that you have to be ready at all times, as a singer, to take advantage of music that comes along that suits you.
Your Christmas albums have been immensely successful. In your opinion, why do you think Christmas music is so special and why does it resonate with so many people?
I’m very lucky that way. After having a few hit records, they asked me what I wanted to do next. I said that I wanted to record Christmas music for my mom and my dad. I come from a large family and the most important thing for kids is Christmastime. They made that time of the year special for me and my siblings. The only way I could think of paying them back was by singing some Christmas songs. I was in a very lucky position with the record company to be able to do that, and I was very fortunate that people enjoyed my Christmas music. I think it will probably be my legacy. People know my Christmas music just as much as they know my pop music.
I love musicals, and you’ve recorded a few albums of Broadway tunes. What are some of your favorite musicals?
Oh, gosh! Maybe, West Side Story. My Fair Lady, South Pacific, and on and on and on. I’ve performed so many songs from Broadway shows. Lately, I’m a little devastated because I haven’t heard any music from Broadway shows that interest me. I’m always looking because Broadway songs have always been a part of my catalog of music.
Hamilton is immensely popular. However, I don’t have any interest in seeing it because I grew up on classic musicals like the ones you’ve mentioned. Since Hamilton doesn’t fit into that mold, I have no interest or motivation to see it. It doesn’t sound like a musical to me, if you know what I mean.
Those are my thoughts exactly. Popular music is about change. If you wait long enough, it changes. The listening public has a tendency to want to hear what they hear on the radio and sometimes, as you mentioned, musically, it’s not very good. (laughs) That’s the quandary of every singer. You keep looking and looking and eventually you find something worth recording.
What have you yet to accomplish in your career that you’d like to do?
The most fun I’ve had over the years is singing with my girlfriends: Dionne Warwick, Barbra Streisand, Gladys Knight, and on and on. That’s so fulfilling as a performer – working in tandem with someone else. That’s what I really cherish and hopefully I’ll get to do more of that.
Speaking of great female voices, I think Melissa Manchester is underrated as a vocalist and a lyricist. She has a gorgeous and powerful voice. What do you think of Melissa?
I love Melissa. I was on an airplane with her a long time ago and she and I hit it off together. We’re very much vocal people. I have sung with her and loved it and we said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if it could happen again?” We all go in our different directions. If someone comes up with the right time and the right music, we can always get together. That’s always in the back of your mind, even if it doesn’t happen for whatever reason. People who make music – we’re always happy when we get the chance to work together.