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At 81, Christmas crooner Johnny Mathis is still going strong

At 81, Christmas crooner Johnny Mathis is still going strong
Legendary singer Johnny Mathis at his Hollywood Hills home in 2015. Mathis will perform Sunday at Segerstrom Center for the Arts during his 60th anniversary Christmas Concert Tour. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

He's known to fans as perhaps the last of the great musical Christmas icons.

With his vibrato-laden voice and youthful good looks, Johnny Mathis, the veteran crooner at 81, continues to defy his years.

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As he celebrates six decades in the music industry, Mathis credits two people who remain on his mind whenever he sings a holiday classic.

His parents.

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Childhood Christmases in San Francisco always felt magical even though he and his six siblings grew up on the wages of domestic workers.

His mother and father, who made a living by cooking dinner for wealthy families, created a holiday tradition of hanging nylon stockings above an electric fireplace and filling the hosiery with fruits and candies.

"My mom and dad always tried to make Christmas special for us," Mathis said, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "We were poor, but it's funny because we had no idea."

That is just one of his favorite early Christmas memories of the Mathis household and one that is likely to accompany him when he comes to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Sunday.

Mathis, best known for hits like "Chances Are," "Misty" and "It's Not For Me To Say," has never sung more than at Christmastime. He has a vast catalog of seasonal favorites, from "Silver Bells" and "Winter Wonderland" to "Silent Night, Holy Night" and "What Child Is This?"

Singing as a child during the holiday season was a custom for him, and he'd perform at several department stores with various choirs. He learned to appreciate music from his father.

Mathis was born in Gilmer, Texas, the fourth of seven children. Clem Mathis worked briefly as a musician in Texas and taught a young Johnny his first song, "My Blue Heaven."

After the family moved to San Francisco, and recognizing his son's talent, Clem bought an old upright piano. The instrument was so large that it didn't fit through the front door of the family's basement apartment. The younger Mathis remembers watching his father disassemble the piano, bring the pieces into the living room and rebuild it.

"Dad would come home from doing odd jobs and sometimes he'd come home late at night with lumber, and he'd rumble around with all this wood in our small place," Mathis said. "We'd finish putting it away and then we'd play that piano. I'll be eternally grateful to him."

When Mathis turned 13, his father found voice instructor Connie Cox, who gave Mathis lessons in exchange for work around the house. Under her tutelage, Mathis learned vocal exercises, scales and production, and he also learned to keep his vocal cords moist so they could expand.

Soon Mathis was performing at school functions, community events and clubs in the San Francisco area.

Record producer George Avakian heard Mathis perform and asked him to record his first album in New York City.

Mathis was 19.

And he had another option.

While a student at San Francisco State and a member of the college's track team, Mathis was asked to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team.

He chose to embark on a professional signing career.

Since that first album release in 1956, Mathis has recorded more than 80 albums — six of them Christmas-themed — received five Grammy nominations and is Columbia Records' longest-signed recording artist.

When not on a national singing tour or participating in charitable pursuits, Mathis said, he still carves out time for his athletic interests. He was an avid tennis player until the late 1960s. After friends suggested golf, Mathis turned to that game, playing a round almost every day when he's not traveling.

He has combined his love for the sport and singing by performing at golf banquets, like the Ryder Cup.

People will ask him if he has plans to retire, but Mathis said he has found enjoyment year after year, especially performing Christmas recordings. He said his favorite is "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

"It's always nice to hear people say, 'You sound the same,' when I know I don't," Mathis said with a laugh.

"I always felt like what I was doing wasn't selling toys; I was making a happy sound at Christmas. When people hear something so familiar, it brings them back to a special place, and that's been meaningful for me.

"How long is this going to go on? Who knows, but I've been blessed right from the beginning."

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IF YOU GO

What: "Johnny Mathis — The 60th Anniversary Christmas Concert Tour"

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 4

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $59

Information: (714) 556-2787; scfta.org.

Twitter: @KathleenLuppi

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