Full name, John Royce Mathis; born September 30, 1935, in San Francisco, Calif.; son of Clem (a chauffer and handyman) and Mildred (a domestic) Mathis. Education: Attended San Francisco State College. Religion: Roman Catholic. Addresses: Residence --Hollywood Hills, CA. Office --Rojon Productions, 3500 West Olive Ave., #750, Burbank, CA 91505.
Johnny Mathis is one of the most successful singers of ballads in the American music world. His recordings have been represented on the music charts for longer than any except those of famous crooner Frank Sinatra, and he has earned at least eight gold albums. Rising to the peak of his reputation during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mathis resisted the rock and roll phenomenon that swept the nation in those years and established a unique popularity for himself in the musical genre of easy listening. Perhaps because of the fact that much of his music celebrates the ideals of romantic love, Mathis is especially well-received by female listeners, but he has garnered critical acclaim as well. As reviewer Sidney Fields put it in the New York Mirror: "His voice has incredible range; he improvises on a theme in any tempo and mood with great originality; and he can move from a tender ballad to swing, to rhythm and blues, and even vehemence." Despite Mathis's longevity on the charts, however, he did not have a number one single until his 1978 duet with Deniece Williams, "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late."
Though he was born September 30, 1935, into a poor black family in San Francisco, California, Mathis's childhood and adolescence predicted his later success. His father, Clem, a former Texas vaudeville performer who Mathis calls "my biggest hero, the reason I started to sing," according to R. Windeler of People magazine, was quick to recognize and encourage his fourth child's talent. Clem bought Johnny a second-hand piano when he was eight, and taught him vaudeville routines for performance within the family. The young Mathis also sang in church, and won a local amateur talent contest when he was fourteen. The year before, he had impressed Oakland, California, music teacher Connie Cox so much that she offered him free voice lessons. The gesture was a helpful one because the Mathis family could not afford to pay for them; the lessons, primarily in classical and opera singing, continued for six years.
But music was not Mathis's only option for success. He was a good student with leadership quality. Mathis was the first black child ever elected student body president of San Francisco's Roosevelt Junior High School, and when he graduated to George Washington High School he served as the treasurer of his class. He also excelled in athletics, winning six letters for his participation in various sports, including basketball, hurdling, and high jumping. Mathis entered San Francisco State College with the intention of becoming an English teacher, but his continued athletic achievements led him to contemplate teaching physical education or coaching track. He set a college record for the high jump, and was invited to try out for the 1956 Olympic Games, but he turned this down to concentrate on his musical career.
While attending San Francisco State, Mathis became interested in jazz, and began singing in local nightclubs with a sextet led by one of his fellow students, Virgil Gonsalves. Performing at San Francisco's Black Hawk club one night in 1955, Mathis attracted the attention of the club's co-owner, Helen Noga. Noga was determined to make him a star, and became his manager. She helped Mathis obtain more nightclub bookings, during one of which, at a gay bar that also featured female impersonators, he was discovered by George Avakian, head album producer for Columbia Records.
Though somewhat regretful of leaving his college education unfinished, Mathis went to New York City to record for Columbia. While in New York, he also performed in some of the better clubs there, including the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. The first album Mathis made was flavored with jazz arrangements, and did not sell well. But Avakian had faith in his latest discovery, and sent him to work with the head of Columbia's singles department, Mitch Miller. Miller realized that the young singer's talent had been misdirected, and steered him away from jazz to the soft ballad style that became Mathis's trademark. "Wonderful! Wonderful!," released in 1957, became Mathis's first big hit. He soon followed this up with "It's Not for Me to Say," and, perhaps his best-known recording, the romantic "Chances Are."
Mathis also became involved in films, singing the title song for the 1957 film "Lizzie," and making an appearance in the picture as a nightclub singer. He had a slightly larger role, also as a nightclub singer, in "A Certain Smile," released in 1958. Most sources assert that Mathis's presence in "Smile" was the only thing that saved it from box office failure; he did, however, score a hit with the title song. More recently, Mathis and singer Jane Olivor had a popular success with "The Last Time I Felt Like This," the theme from the film version of playwright Neil Simon's "Same Time Next Year."
Mathis continued to have many successes throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, including "Small World," "Misty," and "What Will Mary Say," but then his popularity as a recording artist waned. He became dissatisfied with Noga's handling of his career in 1964, and established his own company, Rojon Productions, in order not only to become his own manager but to promote new talent.
Mathis has remained in demand as a concert performer, however, and his 1978 return to the charts--his duet with Deniece Williams, "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late"--was a milestone for him. It was his first number one record, and, because of Williams's following, made Mathis popular with black audiences for the first time; his previous Columbia hits had been aimed primarily at whites.
by Elizabeth Thomas
Johnny Mathis's Career
Sang with a jazz group while in college; vocal soloist and concert performer, 1955--; recording artist, 1956--. Actor in motion pictures, including Lizzie (1957) and A Certain Smile (1958). Established Rojon Productions, 1964.
Johnny Mathis's Awards
Eight gold albums.
- Major single releases; on Columbia, except as noted
- "Wonderful! Wonderful!" 1957.
- "It's Not for Me to Say," 1957.
- "Chances Are," 1957.
- "The Twelfth of Never," 1957.
- "Wild is the Wind," 1957.
- "No Love (But Your Love)," 1957.
- "Come to Me," 1958.
- "All the Time," 1958.
- "Teacher, Teacher," 1958.
- "A Certain Smile," 1958.
- "Call Me," 1958.
- "You Are Beautiful," 1959.
- "Let's Love," 1959.
- "Someone," 1959.
- "Small World," 1959.
- "Misty," 1959.
- "The Best of Everything," 1959.
- "Starbright," 1960.
- "Maria," 1960.
- "My Love for You," 1960.
- "How to Handle a Woman," 1961.
- "Wasn't the Summer Short?" 1961.
- "Sweet Thursday," 1962.
- "Marianna," 1962.
- "Gina," 1962.
- "What Will Mary Say," 1963.
- "Every Step of the Way," 1963.
- "Sooner or Later," 1963.
- "I'll Search My Heart," 1963.
- "Your Teen-Age Dreams," Mercury, 1963.
- "Come Back," Mercury, 1963.
- "Bye, Bye, Barbara," Mercury, 1964.
- "Taste of Tears," Mercury, 1964.
- "Listen, Lonely Girl," Mercury, 1964.
- "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," Mercury, 1965.
- "I'm Coming Home," 1973.
- "Life is a Song Worth Singing," 1973.
- (With Deniece Williams) "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," 1978.
- (With Williams) "You're All I Need to Get By," 1978.
- (With Jane Olivor) "The Last Time I Felt Like This," 1979.
- Mirror (New York), August 26, 1962.
- People, October 23, 1978.