STANDARD BEARER: As one of the last great pop vocalists, Johnny Mathis' enduring music has come to definitively represent an era.
Christmas then and now with Johnny Mathis
By Gabe Meline
When Johnny Mathis returns this year to the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa for his Christmas show, he'll be joined onstage by a full orchestra, a resplendent set of holiday furnishings and a living miracle of natural preservation: his voice.
At age 74, Mathis' distinctive, high-pitched singing voice has exactly the same gilded sheen of his biggest hit, "Chances Are," recorded over 50 years ago. His pitch control, gossamer tone and upper register are resiliently unblemished by the vagaries of time; at last year's show in Santa Rosa, a collective gasp of disbelief ran through the audience when Mathis nailed with grace and precision the sublime, high-octave third verse of "Misty."
How does he do it? "I think a lot of it just has to do with good luck!" laughs the legendary singer, on the phone from his Southern California home. "I haven't had any major problems, vocally, along the way, and I've been lucky to meet people who've helped me."
Those people include a kinesiologist who oversees Mathis' daily exercise regimen, and surprisingly, several vocal teachers. The thought of Johnny Mathis, who's sold over 180 million records worldwide, taking voice lessons is a little like, say, Jack Nicklaus signing up for a class on how to play golf. Shouldn't it be the other way around?
Mathis, an avid golfer with seven hole-in-ones in his lifetime, laughs again. "These golfers that I've played with in these celebrity tournaments, like Jack Nicklaus, they all take lessons constantly," he points out. "It just seems like a good idea."
Even if his voice one day up and leaves him—which it shows no sign of doing—this would still be Mathis' time of year. December has been kind to his career, having yielded him seven successful Christmas albums out of a vast discography. Oprah Winfrey, echoing the sentiment of households nationwide, has famously said, "I feel like there's no Christmas in my house without this man. If you don't have Johnny Mathis, you don't have Christmas."
And, yes, Mathis still gets excited hearing his voice all over the radio, on television and in department stores during December. "That's always a thrill," he says. "If you're lucky in this business, you get one hit song, but over the years, I've had so many. It's a special thing when they recognize it enough to play it on the radio."
It was not always so for the singer, growing up in San Francisco. Mathis had six siblings, and the house was so small that when his parents brought home a piano one year it had to be disassembled before it could fit through the door. Christmas, then, was especially close-knit. What Mathis remembers most is the aroma in the air.
"My God, the smells, always around the holidays! My dad was an avid hunter and fisherman, and we were always fascinated by the stuff he would come back home with, when he and my mom would prepare it," Mathis remembers. "And then the smell of the Christmas tree when they first brought it in, the pine, the abundance of fruit around all the time—that all had a nice smell to it."
Of course there was music. As a member of various choirs, Mathis annually sang carols at social functions and department stores, and he was especially fond of the Christmas music of Nat "King" Cole. When he was just 19, he landed a job at the Blackhawk, a jazz club in North Beach, and at the incessant urging of the nightclub owner, Columbia Records producer George Avakian reluctantly came to see Mathis sing.
In one of the great Cinderella stories of the music business, Avakian immediately wired a now-famous telegram to the record company offices back in New York: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts."
Since then, Mathis' life has never been the same. Just like the mid-century modern décor from the cover photo of Open Fire, Two Guitars, his beautifully pared-down 1959 album eschewing the lush Mitch Miller production of his largest hits, Mathis' enduring music has come to definitively represent an era. During the late '50s and '60s, his records conquered the national consciousness. No wonder, then, that they've recently been featured several times in the hit period television show Mad Men.
"It's Not for Me to Say," "Wonderful! Wonderful!," "The Twelfth of Never"—Mathis crafted these silken singles on the cusp of the Beatles' rise, but looking back, the prolific interpreter doesn't denigrate rock 'n' roll the way many rock 'n' rollers then denigrated him. "Beginning my career, rock 'n' roll was coming up, and it was loud and it was forceful and it was everything that I wasn't, musically," he says. "It was difficult for me to understand. But then I got to know, through my travels and performing, some of these people who did this music, and it wasn't foreign and it wasn't weird and it wasn't bad. It was sometimes just loud! But otherwise, it was fine."
Though he's never recorded straight-up rock 'n' roll, Mathis' current performances show his great versatility in the years since. From the eerie "99 Miles from L.A." to the wild favela twists of "Brazil," the electric-guitar beat of the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New" and the South American élan of "A Felicidade," Mathis has a way with making a song his own. Last year, when he sang "Christmastime Is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas in Santa Rosa, the rapt theater basked in the sound of total command. It felt, as so many other Mathis performances, like the definitive version.
No longer a young boy in San Francisco, Mathis spends Christmas day more reflectively these days. "I've long gotten over the act of having to buy everybody a Christmas present," Mathis says. "I really get into the spirit of having spent a whole year and what I've done, really, to cement relationships with close friends—looking back at what's gone before. It's a wonderful reflection."
With unemployment and foreclosure looming for many out there this year, Mathis is sensitive that the holidays can sometimes be salt in the wound of bad times for others. And he's quick with advice.
"Listen to music. Music takes you away," he implores. "I realize that times are difficult, but there are a few things, and music is one of them, that really will help you get over some difficult times. Over the years, I've received so many wonderful letters from people who've told me my music helped them over difficult times. There's nothing in the world that beats that. That's the greatest tribute in the world—that somehow, someway, what you've done has meant a great deal to someone that you don't even know."
Johnny Mathis performs on Thursday, Dec. 10, at the Wells Fargo Center. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $30–$100. 707.546.3600.
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