Johnny Mathis: 61 years of performing

Johnny Mathis
Johnny Mathis Eliot Lee Hazel

Silken-voiced Johnny Mathis, who prefers to go by his given name John, will perform at the Sacramento Community Center Theater on Sunday night, just shy of his 82nd birthday and the release of his latest album.

The album, “Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook,” was co-produced by Clive Davis and “Babyface” Edmonds and features songs previously recorded by such artists as Adele, Leonard Cohen and Bruno Mars.

Mathis’ 61st year in show business also includes a release later this fall of “Johnny Mathis: The Voice of Romance – The Columbia Original Album Collection,” which gathers 68 remastered albums and unreleased archival material into one hefty box set.

A recent phone interview with the affable, soft-spoken crooner and avid golfer touched upon as many personal and societal watersheds as musical milestones. He broke high-jump records in the 1950s competing against his rival, future basketball legend Bill Russell, while Mathis was a San Francisco State College student. He overcame drug and alcohol addictions, and sang for American presidents and European royalty. And he received death threats after his gay lifestyle was addressed in a 1982 Us Weekly interview.

Mathis is best known for such lush ballads and pop tunes as “Chances Are,” “Wonderful, Wonderful,” “Misty” and “It’s Not for Me to Say,” along with his Christmas albums. A June 1957 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” embedded him on the public radar. In 1958, only two years after his debut album dropped, “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” became the first “best of” recording in the industry and remained on the Billboard 200 top album chart for 490 weeks.

Mathis attributes his vocal longevity to Bay Area instructor Connie Cox. “I never realized until many years later how important those first four or five years of learning vocal techniques would be,” Mathis said. “My dad, my wonderful best pal in the world, suggested when I was about 12 or 13 that we take lessons and of course I thought (imitating a kid’s voice) ‘Pop I can sing.’ And he said, ‘Well son, let’s take some lessons and find out how to do it in the right way.’

“My big vocal heroes go back to some of the wonderful singers from the ’40s,” said Mathis. “There were the ones that I absolutely treasured, people like Nat Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. But my voice, I started out as a tenor, and it still retains a lot of the high stuff. But vocally I learned how to produce the tones from a woman so I think that has a lot to do with where I place my voice in the front of my face as opposed to a throaty quality like most of the baritones men have, and it’s kept my voice light and not moody.”

Mathis as an early teen watched some of his heroes perform in San Francisco jazz clubs. “The Blackhawk was the best one,” he said. “My dad would take me in the afternoon when the performers were rehearsing. We would stand in the back by the bar and as long as my dad was with me they would let me in. He found a way so that I could hear some people who I had records by, and all of them eventually, Erroll Gardner, you name it, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, everybody went through that little jazz club.”

“Quite a wonderful upbringing I had musically,” Mathis said, “because I would go from my voice lessons to hear what eventually I was going to have to do. If I wanted to continue to sing, I was going to have to perform. I watched different people’s mannerisms and it was quite an education. Of course, it meant nothing to me because when I started to sing in person people said I stood with my fist clenched and my eyes closed and sang. I had to get over that. I had to make some attempt at performing. But not much. I still don’t do very much, I think.”

Mathis will perform with his own conductor-pianist, bassist, drummer and guitarist, and about 24 local orchestra musicians. “I like to give (the audience) an idea of what I have been doing all these years musically,” he said. “I saw a film called ‘Black Orpheus’ years ago that stuck with me because the music was so haunting and beautiful. I ended up learning almost all the songs, by rote of course. I still don’t speak the language. But I do get a kick out of singing some of that music for my audiences. And my Portuguese has gotten better over the years.”

Johnny Mathis

When: Sunday, Sept. 24

Where: Sacramento Community Center Theater, 1301 L St.

Cost: $45.50-$135.50

Information: http://www.sacramentocommunitycentertheater.com