Johnny Mathis hasn't reached the iconic status of other singers from the 20th century.
And this is a guy who has sold 350 million records worldwide, making him, arguably, the third biggest selling artist of the 20th century.
Perhaps it is because he is still around, perhaps it's because his music is often dismissed as easy listening (which it is but, so?), perhaps it's because he never revolutionised anything musically, perhaps it's because he was a great trad pop singer in the wrong era, perhaps it's because he never had a notable crossover film career, perhaps it's because of the fact that, despite tackling many genres of music, he really only had one style.
Perhaps it's a little bit of each of these.
But, it is undeniable that whatever he sings and whererever he records, there he is, sounding as smooth as ever … and always in excellent voice.
I've always needed music to sooth the brain. Electronic ambient doesn't do it for me, whale sounds don't do it for me, soft rock doesn't do it for me, very few rock balladeers do it for me.
Traditional pop singers and lounge do work.
And what could be more trad pop and lounge-ier than Johnny Mathis.
Admittedly his lounge can be velour rather than leather and have shag pile rather than parquetry and rugs (ie: he came after the great lounge singers) but his romantic balladry, really does belong at a relaxed cocktail party or as dinner music.
And that's not criticism. Music sets mood, creates good vibes, and doesn't always have to intrude on peoples lives, after all some people just aren't into music that much (regardless of what they say, or think)
Johnny, also, came at a time when the industry and some of the public needed an antidote to Elvis Presley. Both were born in 1935, both were influenced by black and white musicians, both came to prominence in the mid-50s, and both, had long chart careers. The joke of course is that Elvis and Johnny admired each other s talents and covered each other (as well as doing many of the same standards).
Wikipedia: "Mathis was born in Gilmer, Texas, United States, 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 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 … In San Francisco while singing at a Sunday afternoon jam session with a friend's jazz sextet at the Black Hawk Club, Mathis attracted the attention of the club's co-founder, Helen Noga. She became Mathis' music manager, and in September 1955, after Noga had found Mathis a job singing weekends at Ann Dee's 440 Club, she learned that George Avakian, head of Popular Music A&R at Columbia Records, was on vacation near San Francisco. After repeated calls, Noga finally persuaded Avakian to come hear Mathis at the 440 Club. After hearing Mathis sing, Avakian sent his record company a telegram 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 released 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"."
Those songs placed at #14 and #5 on the US charts respectively and his career was underway. Within a year he had a #1 ("Chances Are") and another Top 10, one Top 20 and six Top 40 songs. And this was during the Elvis Presley chart juggernaut.
In a 1968 interview, Mathis cited Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby among his musical influences.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Mathis) and this isn't the case of some pop star name dropping what he thinks will make him look cool. You can hear all three of those singers in Johnny's voice regardless of the genre of music he tackles.
Rock and Roll is just about the only style of music that Mathis hasn’t done. “I put my toe in the water" Mathis said of rock and roll. “But said, okay, you don’t do it very well". (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Mathis)
But he did record rock songs in his easy listening trad pop style as he did jazz and Broadway standards, country, Christmas tunes, gospel, Brazilian and Spanish songs, R&B, soul, and disco.
He subsumed all musical genres into his musical style and temperament.
The trouble was, from the late 50s on, the adult contemporary audience (his main audience) was shrinking. So, from about the mid 60s through to the mid 70s Johnny's albums reflected the need to appeal to as many people as possible, as long as that didn't go outside his style. The albums, of this period, are predominantly cover versions of contemporary song hits combined with popular film themes of the day.
And, this I love. As a kid trawling through op shops I came across dozens of Johnny Mathis albums (did I mention he has sold in excess of 350 million records world wide) and when I flipped them over there he was singing The Beatles, Kris Kristofferson, The Hollies, The Fifth Dimension, Neil Diamond, Simon & Garfunkel and The Doors (!).
All done in trad pop romantic style.
What's not to like.
I bought a handful of these and have no dramas playing them for others.
This album, from 1970, fits into this era perfectly. Covers of the day and film themes done in Johnny's style.
Things may have been burning, figuratively and literally in 1970 but Johnny was there to ease the pain.
And he's still out there touring.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head – (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – The theme to the film "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" (1969) and a #1 (US) for B. J. Thomas (1970). A corny but undeniably catchy song.
- Honey Come Back – (Jimmy Webb) – Glen Campbell's #2 country hit (US) in 1970. The spoken segments aren't as convincing as the vocals but it is wonderful cheese.
- Watch What Happens – (Norman Gimbel, Michel Legrand) – One of the songs from the French film "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964) and done by Tony Bennett in 1965 and Frank Sinatra in 1969. Nice but ….
- Something – (George Harrison) – The Beatles #1 from 1969. One of the greatest Beatles ballads. This is given the big band sound which works really well with the uber emotional performance like Elvis gave it in 1973. Johnny performance is somewhere in between the original and that. Like George Harrison being back by a big band. Still, the song is great …
- Alfie – (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – From the 1966 film "Alfie". The song was a major hit for Cilla Black (UK#1 1966) and Dionne Warwick (US#15 1967). A love song to a bloke sung by a bloke. Well , it was when first sung by the chicks, though it can be said that here it could be one bloke giving advice to another. No need to Freud-erise over this.
- Midnight Cowboy – (Jeff Barry, Jack Gold) – From the film "Midnight Cowboy" (1969). The song was a harmonica instrumental by Toots Thielemans. It was covered by instrumental duo Ferrante & Teicher (#10 US 1970). Lyrics were added. The haunting music comes through successfully, lyrics or not.
- A Man and a Woman – (Pierre Barouth, Jerry Keller, Francis Lai) – From the French film "A Man and a Woman" (1966) with English lyrics by Jerry Keller. A beautiful song.
- Odds and Ends – (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – Dionne Warwick's #7( Adult Contemporary ), #43 (The Billboard Hot 100) hit from 1969.
- Jean – (Rod McKuen) – Oliver had a #2 (US) hit with this great Rod McKuen song in 1969. A great song.
- Everybody's Talkin' – (Fred Neil) – From the film "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) and a #6 (US) for Nilsson in 1969. Written well before being used in the film (about a male hustler). Another great song.
- Bridge over Troubled Water – (Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel) – Simon & Garfunkel's #1 from 1970. Some interesting keyboards with a Fisher Price vibe give this a distinct quirky edge but Johnny's vocals are good.
Very good … I'm keeping it which increases my Johnny Mathis collection to five or six albums. Hopefully, this doesn't mean I will start collecting all though there are a couple …
1970 Midnight Cowboy #20 (Easy Listening chart)
1970 Odds and Ends #30 (Easy Listening chart)
1970 The Billboard 200 #38
Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head
Honey Come Back
Bridge over Troubled Water
My favourite Johnny song
Done live later
- Song References