The way the media have toasted cabaret-style balladeers Michael Feinstein and Harry Connick Jr., you'd think that they invented the idea of dusting off old standards and performing them with integrity and reverence.
The irony: Johnny Mathis has been singing many of these same chestnuts for 33 years, but has long been taken for granted by the media. Feinstein and Connick have attracted more attention in the past year than Mathis has in more than a decade.
Mathis, who headlines the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim tonight and Saturday, is philosophical about the situation.
"Michael and Harry are young and look the part that the kids want to see," Mathis said this week, sitting by the indoor pool in his Hollywood Hills home.
"Kids don't want to see a guy who's 54 years old sitting up there, and I understand that. I've been on the other end too. I've gotten a part when Nat King Cole would have been better for it. He could have sung the songs as well or much better, but it's an age preference that people have."
Mathis remembers the first time he saw Feinstein sing on television. "He did one song and it was wonderful, so I went out and got his album. He's brilliant--clear and precise and terrific. I hear him sing and I hear an awful lot of Johnny Mathis."
In a separate phone interview, Feinstein said that the comparison is made often.
"A lot of people compare me to Johnny Mathis, which has always been the greatest compliment that anybody can pay me," he said. "I've never heard a Johnny Mathis record that I didn't think was first-rate. And there are very few other people I can say that about. Even Sinatra made some terrible records. But Mathis has never compromised himself. He really knows what he's about and that is why he has survived."
Feinstein acknowledged his debt to Mathis by invoking comparisons that drew on his background as a musicologist and historian of pre-rock pop.
"If it wasn't for Johnny Mathis I might not exist today, just as if it weren't for Al Jolson, Bing Crosby might not have existed, and if it weren't for Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra might not have existed, and I guess if it weren't for Nat Cole, Johnny Mathis might not have existed. There is a lineage and there are always those influences."
(Feinstein noted that he, too, is now on the other end with these comparisons. "With Harry Connick Jr.'s success, several people have said to me, 'Michael, you paved the way for him.' I didn't pave the way for anybody. I just did what I love to do, which is exactly what Johnny did. It's just that if somebody hasn't done it in the public eye for a few years, people say it's suddenly new.")
Mathis' most recent album, "In the Still of the Night," a collection of romantic ballads from the late '50s and early '60s, hardly made a ripple, but Mathis is already looking ahead to his next album--a collection of songs made famous by Duke Ellington.
The San Francisco-reared singer has recorded about 80 albums in his career--not counting compilations--but he said that he isn't concerned with record sales.
"I care about what I sing as opposed to how many records it's going to sell," he said. "I want the people who really like me--who like my singing and like what I stand for--to hear it and be proud of it, but I don't consciously think about how to make a record that sells."
One reason for Mathis' attitude is that the last big hit he had--the No. 1 single "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" in 1978--had little impact on his career or his drawing power.
"It had absolutely none, and I was very surprised," he said. "I don't know what I thought was going to happen, but nothing happened. That tells me that things are as they are. People perceive you as being one thing and that's the way they always think of you. You're never going to really change that.
"In the past, I have recorded some contemporary-type songs, but they didn't get on the radio and the fans didn't particularly think they were extraordinary. So Jay Landers, my producer at Columbia Records, said that I should do what I started doing in the beginning: sing classic, popular music written by the best writers."
Mathis said that that's fine with him.
"I'm grateful that my fans like the sedate, thought-provoking type of music because at this point in my life, that's what I enjoy doing the most."
Mathis said that he once feared being considered too old-fashioned, but he no longer worries about it. "It's a matter of chronological age," he said. "Your values change. You learn to face reality.
"I enjoy being this age and not having to hustle and struggle for hit records and good reviews. It meant so much when I was growing up but I'm not 19 anymore. I'm 54 now. I wear certain clothes on stage and I have to sing songs that suit the clothes that I'm wearing."
Johnny Mathis sings tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim. Tickets: $26.50. Information: (714) 999-9536.