Johnny Mathis, ‘the Voice of Christmas,’ is still caroling
With his velvety vibrato, a youthful Johnny Mathis melted midcentury America with “Chances Are,” a feathery love ballad that rose to the top of Billboard’s pop charts in 1957. The singer from San Francisco notched a number of hit singles early on in his recording career and an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when he decided to take a chance of his own with Columbia Records.
A very merry Mathis wanted to record a Christmas album next for his loving mother and father.
“After I had success in the beginning of my career, all I ever wanted to do was to sing something for them,” Mathis said. “The only thing that came to mind was the fact that they made Christmas so special for me and my six brothers and sisters.”
The balladeer, now 86, remains effusive with praise for his late parents.
Clem, his father, briefly moonlighted as a musician and imparted his passion for singing to his impressionable son. He took a teenage Mathis to apprentice under Connie Cox, a vocal teacher who honed his talents in those early years. Mildred, his mother, reared his siblings with unconditional love.
Later on, Mathis became a fixture at San Francisco’s jazz club scene, first in the audience and then onstage. He met Nat King Cole, a musical hero who was to become a friend, after a performance one night at the Black Hawk.
“Nat King Cole was, to me, the epitome of excellence in not only vocal qualities but musicianship,” Mathis said. “Most people never realized what an extraordinarily gifted pianist he was. He also sang better than anybody in the world.”
Helen Noga, the Black Hawk’s co-owner, took notice of Mathis’ own gifts. After headlining acts cleared the smoky corner nightclub, the young crooner took the stage along with a pianist friend. Noga liked what she heard and introduced him to music industry bigwigs, including Columbia jazz talent scout George Avakian.
The rest is still unfolding history; Mathis remains the longest-running recording artist with the label.
In 1958, with Avakian’s help and producer Mitch Miller’s blessing, Columbia granted Mathis’ Christmas wish. The singer headed into the studio to record “Merry Christmas,” that spring and brought Percy Faith, a conductor and fellow label mate, along with him.
“He was a brilliant musician and became a very close friend of mine,” Mathis said. “I begged him to accompany me on the Christmas album because I loved his orchestrations. I was blessed because he ended up accompanying me and making one of the best Christmas albums I’ve ever heard.”
The collection, with spirited renditions of “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride,” has withstood the test of time and has earned new accolades along the way. “Merry Christmas” quickly peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart before becoming certified gold two years after its release.
By 1999, Mathis’ “Merry Christmas” sold 5 million copies and cemented its place among the top 10 best-selling Christmas albums of all time.
He’s since recorded six Christmas albums, most recently 2013’s “Sending You a Little Christmas.”
And thanks to the release of “A Sentimental Christmas With Nat King Cole and Friends,” off Capitol Records this year, Mathis had the opportunity to join his late friend and early inspiration for a “Deck the Halls/Joy to the World” duet, which serves as the lead-off track of reimagined classics.
He deemed the studio session with Cole’s voice in his headphones a “special occasion.”
With the return of live music, Mathis is heading out of the studio and back on the road for a tour celebrating the 65th anniversary of his musical career, including a Christmas concert at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa on Dec. 21.
“I hear ‘65th year’ and think, ‘my goodness, gracious,’ but singing to me has always been as much a part of my life as getting up in the morning and going to bed at night,” Mathis said. “I’ve done it from the time I was a little kid. It’s been such a big part of my life that it’s very difficult to explain to people why I do what I do musically.”
The tour will take him nationwide through 2022.
Mathis credits his stamina as an octogenarian to habits honed as a prolific high school athlete, back when regular calisthenics and exercise routines conditioned him to be an almost Olympian; in 1956, at the guidance of his father, Mathis chose to head to New York to work with Columbia Records instead.
Another piece of advice he’s heeded from friends in the music industry since is that if he wanted to continue performing, he had to take care of himself physically.
“I’ve continued with that until how old am I now?” said Mathis with a laugh. “I still get up in the morning and go to the gym five days a week.”
Mathis has much to celebrate over the span of 65 years. In that time, he has recorded nearly 80 studio albums, earned five Grammy nominations, seen three of his songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and received a lifetime achievement award in 2003 from the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Between all his accolades and endurance, “Merry Christmas” continues to occupy a special place in Mathis’ heart.
“It meant so much to my parents to have that recording that I made of Christmas songs, especially at Christmastime, of course,” he said. “All of their friends and neighbors congratulated them on the success of my Christmas music. There’s been so many blessings along the way, in my career, and that’s been one of the finest.”
What: Johnny Mathis Christmas Concert
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesday, Dec. 21, 7:30 p.m.
Cost: Tickets start at $69
Information: (714) 556-2787; scfta.org
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