Johnny Mathis is so square he's hip.
When rock 'n' roll was exploding onto American culture in the '50s, Mathis was an unabashed throwback--a Tin Pan Alley balladeer singing achingly romantic love songs in a voice that fairly dripped with passion. And what a voice it was, from the tremulous falsettos to the crystalline enunciation to the purely opulent tenor tone. Mathis had an amazing instrument, and a style that made teeny-boppers cry and housewives sigh, even if no self-respecting rocker would be caught dead admitting he or she listened to him.
In recent years, though, some of those rockers have admitted the truth.
In the meantime, Mathis has recorded more than a hundred albums and numerous hit singles (his No. 1 hits span 21 years, from "Chances Are" in 1956 to "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" in 1977) and definitive versions of such classics as Erroll Garner's "Misty" and Leonard Bernstein's "Maria." He continues to record (an album produced by Phil Ramone is due next year) and to tour (he is doing three shows with the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa this weekend), though at age 60 he has slowed down some from the days when he would record four albums a year and be on the road almost constantly.
On the phone last week from his home in Hollywood, Mathis talked about his life, his music and his sway in the world of pop.
Q: It seems that you've been an influence on a number of singers whose style is much different from your own. Arthur Lee, for one, has cited you as a big inspiration. Were you aware of that?
A: Arthur Lee? Gosh . . . I don't know who that is.
Q: Arthur Lee was the singer in a group called Love, a psychedelic rock band from the '60s. You know, "My Little Red Book," "7 And 7 Is" . . .
A: Wow! I've had a lot of people say things like that. Al Jarreau said something like that to me once, and years ago, so did Bill Withers, strangely enough. I'm amazed. You know, when you're working, you don't stop to think about other singers listening to you, you're so concerned about making a living. I had six brothers and sisters, and my mom and dad were working for domestic wages, so I was thinking mostly about how I could make a buck by singing. After I got to a point where I didn't have to struggle so much, I started to work with some of these people and to perform with them, and I was amazed at what some of them told me. I sang with Leontyne Price a couple of times, and I sang with Beverly Sills, who were big influences on my life. I studied opera for about eight, nine years, not to become an operatic singer but to learn to produce tones properly. My teacher told me that after the age of 45--which, of course, I never thought I'd get to be [laughs]--your voice starts to deteriorate, and the better you take care of it, the better off you're going to be. So here at the age of 60, thanks mostly to my teacher, I've still got somewhat of a voice.
Q: It's strange to think of Johnny Mathis being 60. You seem like the eternally young, romantic balladeer.
A: Unbelievable, isn't it? I go to the doctor all the time; there's always some little thing bugging me. I've got a little bit of arthritis because I was an athlete most of my life, and I wore down my hips and my knees. I have to take a couple of Tylenols before I go golfing, but other than that, I'm in pretty good shape.
Q: You were something of an anomaly when your career began, during the initial explosion of rock 'n' roll. You were a romantic in an era when people were singing about taking the bull by the horns, but it seems like you've come to be appreciated more by the rock crowd in recent years. It's OK to like Johnny Mathis. You're hip now.
A: It's very subjective. A lot of people like this, a lot of people like that; they change their minds. I know I've changed my mind over a period of years. I especially used to like rhythm-and-blues singers. I thought they were really the true artists. Then, of course, I liked the operatic legends like Richard Tucker, and I like [Placido] Domingo. I like romantic music, I like people like Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway--they sing with such compassion and such soul, as if it's the last song they're ever going to sing. I know how hard that is to do, because you don't have much inspiration in a studio. You've got four walls, a guy sitting behind a bunch of knobs. Things were different when I was growing up. I had to sing with a big orchestra like Percy Faith's or Don Costa's and, fortunately, people like Nelson Riddle. It was get or no get: No matter whether you sang well or not, they'd still release the record. It was quite a change for me to go into a studio once all this synthesized music started. There's nobody there--they all recorded their parts weeks ago. And yet for me, the music--especially the R&B; stuff--sounded much better before than it does now.
Q: Were you a fan of Donald Mills of the Mills Brothers? I hear a lot of him in your voice.
A: Oh, God yes. Those brothers, I'm telling you, they had a blend that was so extraordinary, they sounded like one person. But my favorite singer of all time is Nat (King) Cole, because he not only was a great singer--he had the best phrasing of anybody in the world--but he was also a great, great jazz pianist. I was very fortunate to meet people like him and Oscar Peterson at an early age, because I hung around the jazz clubs in San Francisco. To listen to him was a complete joy. In fact, I still listen to him and try to learn. I never knew until recently that he sang a song of mine and mentioned me onstage--he sung "It's Not for Me to Say" on his television show. I was very pleased to learn that. In fact, his daughter Natalie and I did an hour's retrospective on his music for British television. We sang a lot of duets together and played a lot of his songs, and it was the greatest thrill of my life.
Q: You're a jazz fan?
A: A big jazz fan. When I was 13, I met Erroll Garner, and he had a song called "Misty" that he played that was really beautiful. It didn't have any lyrics to it, and finally, about five years later, Johnny Burke wrote a lyric, and I was so thrilled about that. Quincy Jones and Sarah Vaughan recorded it on an album called "Vaughan and Violins," and I said, "Thank God there's a lyric now." So I decided to record it the next time I went into the studio, and I'm so happy that I did because it's meant such a great deal to my career.
Q: Do you have any other songs that stand out for you, either for what they meant to your career, or for your performance of them or for their emotional impact?
A: After my first few hit records, I never thought about my career too much. What I thought about was being able to sing well. A lot of people I've met over the years really, really, really wanted to be big stars, they wanted to be famous. But I wanted to be good at what I did because all the people I admired were so good at what they did. There are some songs that I recorded that, when I hear them, I get a little misty-eyed, mostly because of an association with the people I recorded them with. The songs I recorded with Nelson Riddle I was very proud of, simply because at the time we recorded them, he was on top of the world. I never thought that Nelson would ever bother recording with me. When I hear some of those songs, I get very nostalgic.
Q: Are you still recording and performing regularly?
A: I do less than I used to, mostly because I have a few other interests. I love to travel. I've met a lot of wonderful people over the years all over the world, and I have the chance now to visit with them and to learn a little bit more about what life's all about. From the time I was 13 years old until maybe five years ago, what I did was perform or record. It was fun and exciting and interesting, but it was kind of one-dimensional. Now, I enjoy myself a little bit more.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* Who: Johnny Mathis and the Pacific Symphony.
* When: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m.
* Where: The Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
* Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to the Bristol Avenue exit north. Turn right from Bristol onto Town Center Drive.
* Wherewithal: $12 to $65.
* Where to call: (714) 755-5799.
POP LISTINGS, Page 18