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Spotlight Artist - Johnny Mathis

 

Johnny MathisJohnny Mathis has sold over 350 million records over the course of his career.  He became highly famous for being an album artist with a dozen achieving platinum or gold status and 73 making the Billboard Charts. He is frequently described as a romantic singer, his discography includes jazz, traditional pop, Brazilian music, Spanish music, soul music, rhythm and blues, soft rock, Broadway theatre, Tin Pan Alley standards, some blues and country songs, and even a few disco songs for his album Mathis Magic in 1979. Mathis also recorded five albums of Christmas music. In a 1968 interview, Mathis cited Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby among his musical influences.

Johnny Mathis was born in Gilmer, Texas, in 1935, the fourth of seven children of Clem Mathis and his wife, Mildred Boyd. The family moved to San Francisco, California, settling on 32nd Ave. in the Richmond District, where Johnny grew up. His father had worked in vaudeville, and when he saw his son's talent, he bought an old upright piano for $25 and encouraged him. Mathis began learning songs and routines from his father. When he was 13, voice teacher Connie Cox accepted him as her student in exchange for work around her house. Johnny studied with Cox for six years, learning vocal scales and exercises, voice production, classical, and operatic singing. He is one of the few popular singers who received years of professional voice training that included opera. The first band he sang with was formed by his high school friend Merl Saunders. Mathis eulogized him at his funeral in 2008, thanking him for giving him his first chance as a singer.

Mathis was a star athlete at George Washington High School in San Francisco. He was a high jumper and hurdler, and he played on the basketball team. In 1954, he enrolled at San Francisco State University on an athletic scholarship, intending to become an English teacher and a physical education teacher.

 Mathis was spotted at a jam session by Helen Noga, the former head cocktail waitress and co-owner of the Black Hawk Club in San Francisco and The DownBeat Club, along with her husband John and Guido Caccienti. She became his musical manager. The clubs attracted the world's finest jazz musicians, including Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday. John Noga and Guido Caccienti had opened the Black Hawk in the fall of 1949. In September 1955, after Noga had found Mathis a job singing weekends at Ann Dee's 440 Club, she contacted the jazz producer George Avakian, who she had found out was on vacation near San Francisco. Avakian came to listen to Mathis sing, and after doing so, he sent a telegram to Columbia Records stating: Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.

At San Francisco State, Mathis had become noteworthy as a high jumper, and in 1956 he was asked to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team that would travel to Melbourne, Australia, that November. Mathis had to decide whether to go to the Olympic trials or to keep his appointment in New York City to make his first recordings. On his father's advice, Mathis opted to embark on a professional singing career. His LP record album was published in late 1956 instead of waiting until the first quarter of 1957.

Mathis's first record album, Johnny Mathis: A New Sound In Popular Song, was a slow-selling jazz album, but Mathis stayed in New York City to sing in nightclubs. His second album was produced by Columbia Records vice-president and record producer Mitch Miller, who helped to define the Mathis sound. Miller preferred that Mathis sing soft, romantic ballads, pairing him up with conductor and music arranger Ray Conniff, and later, Ray Ellis, Glenn Osser, and Robert Mersey. In late 1956, Mathis recorded two of his most popular songs: "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and "It's Not For Me To Say".

Also that year, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed him up to sing the latter song in the movie Lizzie (1957). Shortly afterwards, Mathis made his second film appearance for 20th Century Fox, singing the song "A Certain Smile" in the film of that title. He had small acting roles in both movies as a bar singer. This early visibility in two successful movies gave him mass exposure. His appearance on the popular TV program The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957 also helped increase his popularity. Critics called him "the velvet voice". Mathis also appeared during this period on ABC's The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, as did fellow African-American entertainers Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey.
Johnny Mathis in 1960.

During the summer of 1958, Mathis left San Francisco with the Nogas, who sold their interest in the Black Hawk club that year, and moved to Beverly Hills, California, where the Nogas bought a house. Mathis lived with the family.

In 1958, Johnny’s Greatest Hits was released. The album spent an unprecedented 491 consecutive weeks through 1967 (nine and a half years) on the Billboard top 100 album charts, earning him a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Mathis had two of his biggest hits in 1962 and 1963, with "Gina" (#6) and "What Will Mary Say" (#9).

In October 1964, Mathis sued Noga to void their management arrangement, which Noga fought with a counterclaim in December 1964. Mathis purchased a mansion in Hollywood Hills, which was originally built by billionaire Howard Hughes in 1946, where he still maintains a residence.

After splitting from Noga, Mathis established Jon Mat Records, Inc., incorporated in California May 11, 1967, to produce his recordings (previously, he founded Global Records, Inc. to produce his Mercury albums), and Rojon Productions, Inc., incorporated in California September 30, 1964, to handle all of his concert, theater, showroom, and television appearances, and all promotional and charitable activities. His new manager and business partner was Ray Haughn, who helped guide his career until his death in September 1984. Since that time, Mathis has taken sole responsibility for his career.

While Mathis continued to make music, the ascent of the Beatles and early 1970s album kept his adult contemporary recordings out of the pop singles charts, until he experienced a career renaissance in the late 1970s.

In 1978, Mathis recorded "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" with singer Deniece Williams. The lyrics and music were arranged by Nat Kipner and John McIntyre Vallins. Released as a single in 1978, it reached number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, number nine on the Canadian Singles Chart and number three on the UK Singles Chart. It also topped the US R&B and adult contemporary charts. "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" was certified gold and silver in the US and in the UK by the RIAA and the British Phonographic Industry respectively. It was his first number one hit since his 1957 chart-topping "Chances Are."

 

The duo released a follow-up duet, "You're All I Need to Get By," peaking at number 47 on the Hot 100. The success of the duets with Williams prompted Mathis to record duets with a variety of partners, including Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Jane Olivor, Stephanie Lawrence, and Nana Mouskouri. A compilation album also called Too Much, Too Little, Too Late, released by Sony Music in 1995, featured the title track among other songs by the duo.

During 1980-81, Mathis recorded an album with Chic's Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, I Love My Lady, which remains unreleased in its entirety, though three tracks appeared on a Chic box set in 2010 and a fourth, the title track, on Mathis' Ultimate Collection in 2011 and the Chic Organization's Up All Night in 2013.

Mathis returned to the British Top 20 album chart in 2007 with the Sony BMG release The Very Best of Johnny Mathis and again in 2008 with the Columbia CD "A Night to Remember".

Mathis continues to perform live, but from 2000 forward, he limited his concert performances to about fifty to sixty per year.

He has the distinction of having the longest tenure of any recording artist on the Columbia Records label. With the exception of a four-year break to record for Mercury Records in the mid-1960s, he has been with Columbia Records throughout his career, from 1956 to 1963 and from 1968 to the present.

He has had five of his albums on the Billboard charts simultaneously, an achievement equaled by only two other singers: Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow. He has released 200 singles and had 71 songs charted around the world. Recordings historian Paul Gambaccini confims Mathis's recordings have sold well over 350 million copies worldwide, and he is the third most successful recording artist in the US. This makes Johnny Mathis the third biggest selling recording artist of the 20th century, after only Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

 

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