Singing Legend Johnny Mathis
By Nick Thomas
Chances are, every time velvet-voiced Johnny Mathis takes center stage during his current US tour, the atmosphere could turn Misty.
Sure, some devoted Mathis fans might swoon teary-eyed with waves of emotional nostalgia witnessing the 86-year-old singing icon in person, but many will just dutifully sway to the familiar soothing melodies as the veteran performer delivers his signature ballads such as “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” “Chances Are,” and, of course, his 1959 hit – “Misty.”
Interrupted briefly by the pandemic last year, Mathis continues his 2022 Voice of Romance Tour with stops around the country (see www.johnnymathis.com). Although the viral menace is still lurking, it has not deterred the soulful singer from performing this year.
“Well, it’s what I do,” said Mathis from his home in Los Angeles during a tour break. “Except for earlier in the pandemic, I’ve been touring since I recorded my first album in 1956.”
Currently in his 66th year as a recording artist, the Mathis career statistics are impressive, including 79 original albums, 43 singles on the Billboard Pop Chart, 5 Grammy nominations as well as a 2003 Lifetime Achievement Grammy and songs used in over 60 films and television shows.
Then there’s his historic 1958 Greatest Hits album, released just two years after his debut album, which became the first Greatest Hits album issued by any pop artist.
“Mitch Miller was responsible for that,” said Mathis, referring to the conductor and record producer best remembered for the 60s musical show “Sing Along with Mitch” on NBC. Mathis signed with Columbia Records in 1956 and to cash in on the growing Mathis phenomenon, Miller wanted to release a new album in the late 50s but the singer was in Europe. Mathis had scored big with recent hits, so Miller bundled several together on one record and “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” would spend almost 10 continuous years on the Billboard Top Albums Chart.
Ironically, Mathis’s signature song, “Misty,” didn’t appear on the 1958 compilation since it would be featured the following year on his “Heavenly” album. Written by Errol Garner (music) and Johnny Burke (lyrics), Mathis first heard the tune at the Black Hawk nightclub in San Francisco where he grew up.
“I used to go there as a teenager to watch the singers and the owner would let me sit in the back where no one could see me,” recalled Mathis who would eventually be discovered singing at the club. “Garner would perform several times a year and play this wonderful tune (Misty) on the piano with no lyrics. His piano introduction was about a minute and a half with all sorts of chord changes and, oh man, I loved hearing it.”
Later, Mathis learned Burke had added lyrics to the melody. “Columbia usually chose all the songs for me to record but as soon as I got a chance to select something, I recorded Misty.”
While Mathis acknowledges the influence of many professional and personal buddies throughout his career, one always stands apart.
“I began singing because my dad sang,” says Mathis. “He was my best pal and my true blessing is that he lived long enough to see my success as a singer.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, and has written features, columns, and interviews for numerous magazines and newspapers. See www.getnickt.org.