Wednesday, November 30, 2011
His father had worked in vaudeville, and when he recognized his son's dancing and singing abilities, he bought an old upright piano for $25 and encouraged his efforts. Mathis began learning songs and routines from his father, such as the popular song "My Blue Heaven." Mathis soon began singing and dancing for visitors at home, school and for church functions. When Mathis was thirteen, Connie Cox, a voice teacher, accepted him as her student in exchange for his work around her house. He studied with her for six years, learning vocal scales and exercises, voice production, classical and operatic skills. Mathis is one of the few popular singers who received years of professional voice training that included opera.
In 1955, Mathis landed a job singing weekends at Ann Dee's 440 Club. Jazz producer George Avakian came to hear him sing, and subsequently sent a telegram to Columbia Records noting: “Have found phenomenal 19-year old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.”
At San Francisco State, Mathis had gained fame as a high jumper, and in early 1956 he had been asked to attend the trials for the 1956 Olympic teams that would travel to Melbourne, Australia that summer. Mathis had to decide whether to go to the Olympic tryouts or to keep an appointment in New York to make his first recordings, which were subsequently released in 1956. With his father's blessings, Mathis opted for a recording career. To date Johnny Mathis has sold 350 million records worldwide, most of them romantic ballads delivered with a somewhat breathy, tremulous tenor voice. His extraordinary singing career has spanned 55 years.
In the mid 1960s Mathis purchased a mansion in the Hollywood Hills that was originally built by billionaire Howard Hughes in 1946. Later owned by hotel owner Hyatt R. Von Dehn and oilman Robert Calhoun, that house is where Mathis still maintains his residence.
The 1981 release of his 25th Anniversary Album, a double LP, spent an unprecedented 491 consecutive weeks – nine and a half years – on the Billboard top 100 album charts, earning him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records . He has had five of his albums on the Billboard charts simultaneously, an achievement equaled by only Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow. Mathis is the 3rd most successful recording artist in the USA.
In a 1982 Us Magazine article, Mathis was quoted as saying, "Homosexuality is a way of life that I've grown accustomed to." Mathis later revealed in a 2006 interview that he received death threats as a result of that 1982 article. In the early 1990s, a group of gay rights activists were planning to “out” Johnny Mathis, when they discovered that he had already revealed his homosexuality in that 1982 Us Magazine article.
Mathis continues to record and performs live today, at the age of 76. His most recent album is Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville, released 14 months ago.
In this video, out gay saxophonist Dave Koz tells the story of the ballad, The Shadow of Your Smile, from the 1965 film The Sandpiper, starring Elizabeth Taylor. Then he and Mathis perform a duet version, which appeared on At the Movies, a huge hit album for Koz in 2007. The voice of Johnny Mathis is in amazingly good form, considering that he is nearly 30 years older than Koz, now 48. Listen for trumpeter Chris Botti, who performs in the background, without appearing in the video. Update: Dave Koz today earned his seventh Grammy nomination in the category of Best Pop Instrumental Album for his album Hello Tomorrow.