Johnny Mathis: Time for a full-scale comeback?

Is the time right for a full-on comeback for Johnny Mathis?

An unlikely act stole the show last month at the annual all-star gala Clive Davis hosts the night before the Grammy Awards.

As usual, the veteran producer and record executive had assembled a cast of hot young hitmakers — among them Sam Smith, Pharrell Williams and Iggy Azalea — to perform for his A-list guests at the Beverly Hilton. But it was Johnny Mathis, the old-fashioned romantic crooner, who inspired the evening's biggest reaction with a four-song set of oldies such as "Chances Are" and "It's Not for Me to Say."

"Afterwards, I saw who was there — it was like a who's who of the music business," Mathis, 79, said recently, of an audience that included Joni Mitchell, Berry Gordy, John Legend and Taylor Swift. "Sometimes you get lucky. That was a lucky night."

Perhaps. Yet Mathis' assured performance also suggested that this long-standing figure in American pop has somehow become a vital talent hidden in plain sight. Though he hasn't stopped touring or making records in nearly six decades, Mathis isn't appreciated the way he ought to be, especially at a moment when two other experienced entertainers — Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett — are topping the charts.

Given how good he's sounding, might the time be right for a full-scale comeback?

"There was no question about the feedback I received from people: They were blown away," Davis said of Mathis' appearance at his party. "People in the audience who put on live shows were asking me, 'Where can we reach him? Why doesn't he perform more? Look what he does to an audience!'

"It reminded you why his album of greatest hits was on the Billboard Top 200 for 10 years straight."

After that glitzy reintroduction, Mathis will give everyone else the chance to see whether he's still got it when he headlines Walt Disney Concert Hall on April 4 in a concert pairing him with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It's his first engagement with the orchestra since two shows in 1987 at the Hollywood Bowl (with Henry Mancini conducting) and a rare hometown gig of any kind by an artist who plays 30 to 40 dates on the road every year.

"To have such an iconic singer at the concert hall — and to be able to reproduce the sound of the arrangements that people remember — it's like a dream," said Brian Grohl, who oversees the L.A. Phil's pop programming. "We've wanted to do this for many years."

Curious what all this means to Mathis, I visited the singer one morning this month at his house high in the hills above West Hollywood. His home for more than 50 years, it's modest by today's celebrity standards (even if the front door opens directly onto an indoor swimming pool).

In another room, a giant painting of Mathis wearing all white, familiar from the cover of his 1959 album "Heavenly," looms over a grand piano he said he bought years ago just in case his hero Oscar Peterson should ever stop by. One day the jazz pianist did, Mathis proudly recalled, and even tickled a few ivories. "Nice box," he told the singer.

In person, Mathis presents himself with the politesse of a bygone era. Yet he can be refreshingly frank too. And though he often chuckles in a self-deprecating way, there's no false modesty about him. Luck may have been working for him at the pre-Grammy gala, but he also knew he'd been great.

Dressed in a golf shirt and dark slacks with a glove hanging from the rear pocket — he had a round scheduled at the Riviera Country Club that afternoon — Mathis led me into a sunny sitting room for a long conversation about his life and career. I began by asking how he kept his voice in shape.

"It's part miracle and part maintenance," he said, describing a careful regimen of diet, exercise and rest. He said that when he was growing up in San Francisco, where the Mathis family moved from his father's native Texas, he'd frequent the opera with his music teacher.

"And one time I got the chance to see the backstage machinations of these extraordinarily gifted voices," he said. "They were absolutely crazy about it: 'Oh, there's a draft!'" He laughed. "I said, 'They're nuts.' But then when I started singing, I realized how eccentric you can get."

1950s stardom

It was Mathis' distinctive vocal tone, with its telltale quaver, that turned him into a recording star in the late '50s — forming a crucial bridge between Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building — and later drove his expansion into movies and television. Yet despite his success, Mathis says he doesn't consider himself a real musician.

"I've had too many distractions," he said. "I was an athlete as a youngster and spent a lot of time doing that."

Asked what distinguishes him from a musician, Mathis replied, "In practical terms, it's that I take 45 minutes to learn a song, whereas a musician could learn it in five." He wasn't schooled, in other words. "But once I learn it, I never forget it. So the fact that I'm not a good musician — I throw it around, tell people that — it doesn't matter that much. It only matters to me, because I idolized good musicians. I absolutely worshiped them."

He was referring to expert players such as Peterson and Nat King Cole. But he also described the effect of hearing singers like Mabel Mercer and Lena Horne, who were "a little more artsy-craftsy" in their approach to interpretation.

"Mabel, she took the song apart and put it back together again," he said. As an example, he sang a bit of "It Was Worth It," one of the English cabaret star's signature tunes, and demonstrated how she'd punctuate a lyric with a rueful laugh that deepened a sense of storytelling.

The character in Mathis' voice — and his skill at drawing out its shades and textures — is partly why he's been able to cover so much ground over his nearly 90 studio albums, moving easily from show tunes to R&B to bossa nova to Christmas music. In 2010, he even took on country for "Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville."

He maintains an impressive handle on that sprawling catalog. When I told him how much I loved "Open Fire, Two Guitars" — a beautifully stripped-down 1959 album with dreamy renditions of "My Funny Valentine" and "Bye Bye Blackbird" — he immediately revealed the album's sonic inspiration (the theme song from the early-'50s TV show "Danger"), then precisely reproduced a florid vocal riff from his take on "I'll Be Seeing You."

Today, the loss of some high notes to age hasn't diminished the drama in his singing; if anything, his voice, even with a slightly smaller range, has grown only more expressive. But Mathis said that what performing for more than half a century has taught him is that not every show can be his best.

"You realize, 'I don't have to kill 'em tonight,'" he said. "But what I can do is entertain them. Sometimes you have to go on pure professionalism."

Does that amount to sleepwalking?

"If you do what I do, there's no way you can sleepwalk," he said. "I would say three-quarters of what I do depends on the sincerity of it. You can croak, but if you croak good, they'll still listen."

Mathis' approach

Just as pop underwent countless shifts between the late '50s and the late '70s —- when Mathis scored his last big hit with "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," a slinky disco-soul duet with Deniece Williams — music has changed immeasurably over the last several decades too.

In a way, though, the current climate feels strangely suited to Mathis' cosmopolitan approach. Think of Bruno Mars or Kelly Clarkson, who jump freely from genre to genre, connecting with fans through their charisma and vocal ability more than through a fixed stylistic identity. Or consider how closely "Love Never Felt So Good" — the "new" Michael Jackson song completed and released last year to widespread acclaim — resembled Mathis' own rendition from 1984.

Still, Mathis says the experience of pop stardom today is virtually unrecognizable to someone who came up in his generation. Young stars have far more control over their music now than they did in his day, when he was subject to the ambitions of executives and producers.

"Mitch Miller knew exactly what he wanted me to sing," he said of the powerful popular-music boss at his longtime label, Columbia Records. "He didn't want me to improvise at all." Mathis said Miller was so adamant that he not swing his vocal in "It's Not for Me to Say" that the producer stood behind him as he sang and patted him on the back in time with the beat.

"Oh, he was a horror in the studio!" he exclaimed. "You have to be kind of young and dumb to accept that. If you were smart, you'd walk out of the studio, as some of the classical musicians did."

Yet the self-determination that Mars and Clarkson enjoy comes at a price, which in the age of social media is the sacrifice of a private life away from the cameras and the stage. Those artists live in near-constant awareness of the need for so-called content — songs, sure, but also photos and videos and tweets — to keep fan enthusiasm alive. That prevents them from "taking full advantage of their creative abilities," he said.

Mathis has always been more reserved. And though he was visible enough in the early '80s that his coming out made headlines, he's since happily lowered his public profile.

Even now, the thing he says delights him most about the Disney Hall concert is that he'll finally get to perform for his regular golf buddies — "guys who don't really know me for anything other than whether I can chip and putt."

A splashy new album could change that, of course.

"After Clive introduced me the other night, he kind of fell in love with me all over again," Mathis said, grinning. The two worked together decades ago when Davis was heading up Columbia, and the producer recently has found considerable commercial success with a series of covers discs by Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow. "He heard me sing and said, 'Come on, Johnny, let's do something!'"

Davis said he hasn't officially discussed the idea with Mathis but has brought it up with Columbia Chairman Rob Stringer, whose label issued one of last year's biggest-selling albums in Streisand's "Partners." "I'm very excited about it," Davis said.

And Mathis?

"I think there are certain things I can do well and certain things somebody wants me to do that I can't do well," he said. "And I have to be able to get that through to somebody like Clive, who's going to come up with a big head of steam — like, 'I've got your next hit record!' or something."

The problem is finding the right songs, he said, adding that he would need to sing better than he did on his last several albums. But he's ready to hear Davis' ideas.

"I wonder what he's coming up with."

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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