Johnny Mathis - Biography
By J Poet
Johnny Mathis is one of the most successful crooners in the history of pop music, selling more than 350 million albums, amassing dozens of gold and platinum albums. Johnny’s Greatest Hits (1958 Columbia) was the first greatest hits compilation ever released and it stayed on the charts for 490 weeks, just short of ten years and is still one of the best selling, multi-platinum albums of all time. He’s been making records for over 50 years, and is still in fine voice in 2009. He’s #3 on the list of top selling male vocalists and made more than 110 albums.
John Royce Mathis was born into a large family in Gilmer, Texas in 1935. The family moved to San Francisco while Johnny was a child, where his father taught him how to play piano and sing. He sang in the church choir, school functions, community events, and amateur shows and at age 13 started vocal lessons with Connie Cox, who taught him vocal exercises, projection, and classical and operatic singing. At George Washington High School, Mathis was a field and track star and basketball player. He studied English at San Francisco State College and continued his athletic career and was known as one of the best Bay Area athletes.
In 1955 he sat in with a friend’s band at the Black Hawk jazz club on Broadway. Helen Noga, co-owner of the club, became his manager and booked him at Ann Dee’s 440 Club and within months had him signed by Columbia Records. . In early 1956, Mathis was asked to try out for the 1956 US Olympic team. Instead he went to New York and cut his first album Johnny Mathis: A New Sound In Popular Song (1956 Columbia). The album’s jazz arrangements, provide by Gil Evens, weren’t suited to his style and the album was a poor seller.
In 1956, Mathis made two singles that raced up the charts and went gold, “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not For Me To Say”. He sang “It’s Not For Me To Say” in the film Lizzie, playing a piano bar singer. His third single, “Chances Are” was his first #1 hit and it went gold also. Mitch Miller, Columbia’s arranger and A&R man, saw how well Mathis projected his warmth on romantic ballads, and that became his forte. His first appearance on Ed Sullivan Show, in 1957, made him an instant star. His next two albums, Wonderful Wonderful (1957 Columbia) and Warm (1957 Columbia) started his golden era by selling a million copies each.
He moved to LA and bought the mansion built by Howard Hughes in 1946, where he still lives. He became a major concert draw and had a string of hits in 1957 and 58 including "The Twelfth of Never”, “Wild Is the Wind”, “No Love (But Your Love)”, “Come to Me” and “All the Time”. They were collected on Johnny’s Greatest Hits (1958 Columbia), still one of the best selling albums of all time. His other albums in 58 were Good Night, Dear Lord (Columbia), Merry Christmas (Columbia) a multi-platinum perennial, and the gold Swing Softly (Columbia).
Mathis continued his winning streak with three more romantic classics - the gold Faithfully (1959 Columbia), Heavenly (1959 Columbia) which went platinum and the gold Open Fire, Two Guitars (1959 Columbia). More Johnny’s Greatest Hits (1959 Columbia) also went gold.
Johnny's Mood (1960 Columbia) included “Misty” one of his most popular songs and earned a Grammy nod for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Mathis saw his sales diminish but he still hit the charts with A Portrait of Johnny (1961 Columbia), Rapture (1962 Columbia), Johnny (1963 Columbia), Romantically (1963 Columbia), The Ballads of Broadway (1964 Columbia), and The Rhythms of Broadway (1964 Columbia).
Helen Noga expanded her management company and bankrolled Phil Spector’s Philles label in 1961. Mathis later sued her to get out of his contract, and then set up Jon Mat Records, Inc. with Ray Haughn. The two co-managed Mathis’s concert, theater, showroom and TV dates, as well as all promotional and charitable activities.
With the advent of the British Invasion, Columbia was less interested in Mathis and he signed with Mercury. His albums for the label include Tender Is the Night (1964 Mercury), the Latin/Brazilian flavored Olé (1965 Mercury), So Nice (1966 Mercury), The Shadow of Your Smile (1966 Mercury) and Johnny Mathis Sings (1967 Mercury).
Mathis resigned with Columbia in 1968. His albums include Love Is Blue (1968 Columbia), Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet (1969 Columbia), People (1969 Columbia), Close to You (1970 Columbia) Mathis Sings the Music of Bacharach & Kaempfert (1971 Columbia), You've Got a Friend (1971 Columbia), The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face) (1972 Columbia), Killing Me Softly with Her Song (1973 Columbia), What'll I Do (1974 Columbia), Feelings (1975 Columbia), which went gold, I Only Have Eyes for You (1976 Columbia), Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1977 Columbia), and That's What Friends Are For (1978 Columbia), a duet album with Deniece Williams that went gold and spawned the #1 gold single “You're All I Need to Get By” and the platinum You Light Up My Life (1978 Columbia). In 1978, Mathis gave a command performance for the British Royal Family at The London Palladium.
Staring in the 80s, he slowed his recording schedule and limited his gigs to around 60 dates a year. His albums include Mathis Magic (1979 Columbia), Different Kinda Different (1980 Columbia), the gold Best of Johnny Mathis 1975 – 1980 (1980 Columbia), A Special Part of Me (1984 Columbia), Right from the Heart (1985 Columbia), Once in a While (1988 Columbia), In the Still of the Night (1989 Columbia), The Grammy nominated In a Sentimental Mood: Mathis Sings Ellington (1990 Columbia), How Do You Keep the Music Playing (1993 Columbia), The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis (1993 Columbia), another gold collection, All About Love (1996 Columbia), Because You Loved Me: Songs of Diane Warren (1998 Columbia), Mathis on Broadway (2000 Columbia), 16 Most Requested Hits (2000 Columbia), which went gold, Isn't It Romantic: The Standards Album (2005 Columbia), nominated for a Best Male Pop Vocal Album Grammy, and A Night to Remember (2008 Columbia).
Mathis received the Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy in 2003, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame honoring his early hits “Chances Are”, “It’s Not for Me to Say” and “Misty”.