Which was two years ago. Mathis’s self-discipline extends to a practice of limited talking in the days before a concert to maintain his lustrous tenor, “which is everything” — his livelihood, his identity.
His music became the soundtrack for people’s lives, for their loves and heartaches. And literal soundtracks: “Goodfellas,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Mad Men.” In 2017, he recorded an album covering contemporary hits (Adele, Bruno Mars, Josh Groban) with smooth-jazz trimmings: “Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook.” But his fans require the classics. His crystalline enunciation, caressing every note, never quite jelled with rock-and-roll.
Mathis sports an enviable halo of sable hair. He’s trim, fit, natty and a surprisingly compact 5 foot 7. Little reveals his age except a slight shuffle (two titanium hips) and his 1950s songbook. At every concert, he performs “my holy grail” of hits — “Chances Are,” “The Twelfth of Never,” “Misty,” “It’s Not for Me to Say” — from the days when he held court on Ed Sullivan and headlined the Copa Room at the Las Vegas Sands.
“You have to take advantage of every opportunity,” Mathis says, flat on his back in socked feet while lifting 20-pound free weights. “New generations come along all the time who don’t know who you are. It gets very embarrassing. Go to the man behind the desk at the hotel. You go, ‘Mr. Mathis.’ And they say, ‘Who?’ ”
Here’s who: Columbia Records’ longest-running recording artist. An album-selling juggernaut whose 1958 “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” spent almost a decade nesting on Billboard’s chart.
A confidant of Nancy Reagan (“we talked about everything and everyone”), who nudged him to deal with his champagne habit at a rehab in Havre de Grace, Md. Collegiate high-jump champion whose 6-foot-5
record bested that of future NBA legend Bill Russell.
Winner of the Sinatra-vs.-Mathis “best make-out singer” debate, as adjudicated in the 1982 film “Diner.” The unlikely role model of high-camp maven John Waters, who once hailed him as “so unironic, yet perfect.”
Victim of Dr. Feelgood to the stars Max Jacobson, whose infamous amphetamine cocktail landed Mathis in the hospital and almost sidelined his career. A singer’s singer: Barbra Streisand proclaimed, “There are a number of good singers, a smaller handful of truly great singers, and then there’s Johnny Mathis.”
A black artist favored by predominantly white audiences. A gay man adored by female fans.
“Poised on the cusp of black and white, masculine and feminine,” Mathis’s finest songs “projected an image of egoless tenderness, an irresistible breath of sensuality,” critic Robert Christgau wrote.
Long before the terms “multiracial” and “gender-fluid” came into vogue, Mathis owned those spaces. He was a man in the vanguard but performing as a most traditional artist, with a catalogue of classics and a 29-piece band.
'I was cute'
And, why, yes, he was gorgeous.
The face, dimpled chin and all, matched the voice. “I fell in love with him immediately. He’s one of the most handsome men I’ve met,” says Deniece Williams, the R&B star who collaborated with Mathis in the ’70s.
“I was cute,” Mathis concedes, resting in a lounge chair in his furnished penthouse rental. “I had curly hair. I was not hostile. I was very agreeable. And I sang pretty songs. Most of the time, I sang them pretty good.”
Yet, he says, “fans were often surprised to discover I was black,” even though his face graced every album cover. White admirers perceived him as one of them. Mathis knew his past was more complicated than black and white, as was his place in popular culture. His maternal grandmother was part Choctaw, and he suspects that his grandfather, whom his mother never knew, was white.
“I had to find out who I was. So I decided that I was everything,” he says. “I was taught singing by my dad and by this white lady, my voice teacher.” He attended the opera and haunted jazz clubs. “I was comfortable with Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, Miles Davis, Cole Porter.”
Mathis revered Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Nat “King” Cole. He knew them all, and oh, honey, the stories. (Lena Horne was “the beginning, middle and end of everything, but she was a piece of work.”) Good luck getting the details, though; Mathis is quick to retreat to courtly discretion.
He’s a marvelous mimic but faultlessly polite. He has plenty of opinions. He prefers not to be known for them. Mathis has to like the person to respect the artist. So we will not speak of Sinatra, although he adores the man’s daughters. Of Streisand, he once confessed that he “was always a little frightened of her . . . she has a reputation for being difficult to work with.” Now, he calls her “one of my best pals. I love what she does. I love her work ethic.”
His singing voice is lush and seductive. His public persona remains remote and anodyne. At a post-concert meet-and-great, he’s dutiful and gracious, but both hands are shoved deep into his khaki pockets.
Mathis rarely speaks about politics or race, sexuality or gender politics. He was the child of domestics, and he remains respectful of tradition, even while being a trailblazer in the industry, and grateful for his success. He never delighted in being a symbol or a pioneer. Public speaking has never been a forte.
At his concerts, Mathis is typically one of the few black people in the theater. “My crowds have long been 90 percent white. It’s all about the perception of the music,” he says. “There must be a thousand reasons, but none of them are valid.”
Mathis maintains that racial bias never affected him growing up in the 1940s and ’50s — not until he toured the South, but again, he shies from the details. Although he helped raise money for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, Mathis never felt comfortable putting himself out there or making a ruckus.
“I’m not one for being told what to do,” he says. “I’ll find a way of helping. I had to dodge people who wanted me to do something I wasn’t ready for.”
He’s been guided by discipline and restraint, both in his private life and career. Some critics have argued that Mathis’s affability and modesty — his deference to producers, his self-perception as a voice but not a musician — held back his artistry.
“Mathis had the greatest voice of his generation — one that was far better, technically, than Frank Sinatra’s or Tony Bennett’s or even Nat ‘King’ Cole’s,” Jesse Green wrote in the New Yorker in 2000. “And yet this did not mean that he was the greatest singer. He was too recessive for that, too hidden behind his amazing technique.”
Even now, Mathis seems in awe of more assertive artists like Streisand, a recording-studio perfectionist. “She knows what she wants and doesn’t want. I never did. I know it when I see it, and when I hear it. I would be uncomfortable being that outspoken.”
With age, Mathis has become more forthcoming. This morning, the crooner is expansive on subjects that he has long swatted away with enigmatic responses, including politics, and an hour stretches into four.
“I’ve been to the White House thousands of times,” he says. Part of a politician’s job is “to be gracious. When you’re not gracious, people don’t vote for you,” he says. Mathis gestures toward President Trump, looming nearby on a massive screen, with CNN tuned to mute. “How did he slip by?”
His private life stayed private
Mathis answers to John. “Johnny is somebody else. It’s the guy who sings,” he says. The nickname stuck, as did the sunny, childlike disposition. At 82, he speaks constantly of his parents, who died decades ago, in late middle age, far younger than their rigorously health-conscious son is now.
“My father was my best pal,” he says. “To this day, he’s the reason that I’m the way that I am. . . . I admired him so much. And I try to emulate him.”
His parents worked as a housekeeper-cook and a handyman for a wealthy San Francisco family and lived in a basement apartment with their seven children, Johnny smack in the middle. They sacrificed for their children, in his view, including moving the family from Texas early in Johnny’s life to a city celebrated for tolerance. When Clem Mathis discovered that his 13-year-old son had talent (“I was the only one of seven who has the voice”), he procured an upright piano and lessons with a classical voice teacher. He quickly secured a manager and gigs with San Francisco clubs.
“Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts,” Columbia’s famed jazz producer George Avakian cabled New York. The first album debuted the next year, 1956. “Chances Are” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” quickly followed. In 1958, Mathis released his behemoth, “Johnny’s Greatest Hits.”
“The thing that saved me,” he recalls, “is that I had a hit record right away. They understood the essence of my musical education.” Columbia executives, he says, “were embarrassed to bring me something that was less than quality.”
Although he was raised in San Francisco — and performed an early gig at a drag club — Mathis was long guarded about his sexual orientation. The times demanded it. Unlike other young celebrities of his day, he was never forced to go on publicized dates with starlets. But his private life remained private. It still does.
“I was comfortable with my sexuality,” he says. “I had a talk with my dad when I was about 16, 17. I said, ‘People are talking about me that I’m gay.’ He said, ‘Son, I’m your dad. I know these things.’ ” For years, he adds, “I was warned by everyone: Don’t let them know you’re gay.” In 1982, he told Us Weekly, “Homosexuality is a way of life I’ve become accustomed to.” Later, he said that the comment was supposed to be off the record and that he received death threats as a result of being outed.
Now, Mathis regrets being so secretive. “I had blown this thing out of proportion about being gay,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt me. I know myself. It didn’t hurt my parents. They knew from the beginning. My friends know. It was the times. And time marches on. And now it doesn’t matter.”
He starts to sing: “Time heals everything . . . ”
Mathis has sung of love for more than six decades, the soundtrack for fans’ amorous escapades. “If I had a dollar for every stranger who has told John they were conceived to his music, I would be a multimillionaire,” says Mathis’s A&R man, Jay Landers, who has executive-produced 12 of his albums.
Mathis once claimed that he never experienced a lasting romance beyond a few months. Today he maintains, “I’ve fallen in love thousands of times with men and women in different situations, different places. But they died. They get married. They move. But you have to remember that I’m totally, absolutely besotted with what I do.”
Anyway, he adds, “I’m at a point in a life where sex is not that important, because it’s minimal at most, and probably not very entertaining.” He laughs uproariously at this. “So I get by on my reputation.”
He has other pastimes. Says his valet and right-hand man of a dozen years, Ricky Robinson, “John loves to sing. He loves to play golf. And he loves to cook, in that order.”
Mathis resides in this insistently beige rental because, three years ago, his Hollywood Hills home of 56 years caught on fire. It’s the only house he has ever owned and lived in on his own. (He recently moved back in after an extensive renovation.)
Mathis was on tour at the time of the fire. Robinson recalls him asking, “Is everyone okay? Nobody’s hurt?” Everyone was fine, but smoke damaged all of his possessions. Mathis put his headphones back on, Robinson says, and went back to sleep, saying, “It’s only stuff.”
'He loves to do it'
Mathis never learned to play an instrument. For him, the lyrics of a song were paramount. They had to mean something.
“John can only sincerely perform songs that are well written, and that he happens to like personally,” says guitarist and tour manager Gil Reigers, Mathis’s accompanist for 48 years. “He is very aware and respectful of the gift that he has been given and doesn’t wish to waste it.”
Although primarily known as a solo artist, Mathis has occasionally performed with other singers. He had a hit duet album, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” a collaboration with Deniece Williams that reached No. 1 in 1978. Their song “Without Us” became the “Family Ties” theme.
“I had been singing along to his records so, in a sense, I had been in rehearsal for the album for years,” Williams says. “He came to the studio and said: ‘You’ve been harmonizing for years. Can you just tell me what to do?’ Here was the newbie telling the legend what to do.” Williams recalls that they recorded their hit in two or three takes.
“The one thing that separates him from a lot of other artists is that he isn’t threatened by contemporary music,” Jay Landers says. Although he dabbled in recent songs on last year’s album, Mathis’s concerts resemble musical vacations back in time. Which is, perhaps, why he gets “Johnny who?” from hotel clerks.
He averages 35 concerts each year. His core four-member band has been with him forever; the “new guy,” pianist Scott Lavender, joined 27 years ago. Why keep touring? What does Johnny Mathis have left to prove?
“He loves to do it. Working keeps us all young, our brains active,” Lavender says. “I think it’s fun being Johnny Mathis.”
At a spring concert in Lancaster, Pa., the crowd lists decidedly toward AARP. The Lentz sisters, Joyce and Judy, are celebrating Joyce’s birthday. Judy drove seven hours from Eden, N.C., and Joyce two hours from Freehold, N.J. “He is as magnificent as ever,” says Joyce, a retired history teacher and fan since her 1960s high school days. “He brought out the romantic in me. If you liked Johnny Mathis, you knew there was hope around the corner.”
Between songs, Mathis is barely more than monosyllabic onstage. As he sees it, “they didn’t pay money to hear me talk.” Although a natural athlete, who studied dance with the great Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s movie collaborator, Mathis barely moves. It’s 140 minutes of music, covering about 38 tunes.
If he doesn’t sing the hits, Mathis says, “they’ll tear the house down.” He sings the hits. A standing O, every time.
After several thousand renditions, he’s grown less tender about his signature songs.
“Misty”? Mathis shrugs. “That was just a song on an album that I did.”
“Chances Are”? Sigh. “Just okay. Some of the worst songs I ever sang were big hits.”
He’s stuck with them forever. Or until “The Twelfth of Never.”
Given a choice, what song would he prefer to be remembered for?
His face brightens. The Victor Young and Edward Heyman 1952 standard “When I Fall in Love,” he says, which he first recorded almost six decades ago. “Not only is it a pretty song, the lyrics to me are especially wonderful.”
Then Johnny Mathis begins to sing:
When I fall in love, it will be forever,
Or I’ll never fall in love.
In a restless world like this is,
Love is ended before it’s begun.
And too many moonlight kisses
Seem to cool in the warmth of the sun.
When I give my heart, it will be completely.
Or I’ll never give my heart.
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way, too.
Is when I fall in love with you.
“It’s me,” he says. “That song is me.”