Bing Crosby is one of the few great singers that even young people have heard of due to his recording of “White Christmas” that is heard every holiday season; however, few know of Johnny Mathis, the last of the classic male pop singers of the 20th century, who has recorded six Christmas albums of his own. And he still performs at age 87.
Born in Gilmer, Texas in 1935, Johnny Mathis grew up in San Francisco where he developed into an impressive athlete and singer.
In 1954, Mathis attended San Francisco State College and set a high jump record that was just two inches short of the Olympic record at the time.
In 1955, Mathis began singing in nightclubs and in the audience for one performance was George Avakian who was a top executive for Columbia Records. After hearing Mathis sing, he sent the following telegram to his company: “have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way.”
One year later in 1956, Mathis had to make a major decision. He was invited to the Olympic trials and, at the same time, Columbia Records invited him to record his first song. His father helped him make the decision. (No, his father did not recommend the Olympics.)
Known for imbuing lush romantic ballads with his rich, velvety-smooth voice, Mathis had so many hit records in his first two years as a recording artist that in 1958 Columbia Records released an album called Johnny’s Greatest Hits, which was the very first time a record company compiled any singer or group’s most popular songs. This Greatest Hits collection spent 490 continuous weeks on Billboard’s albums chart (that’s nearly 10 straight years), a record that still stands to this day.
Keep in mind that at this point in music history, all of Johnny Mathis’s peers such as Elvis Presley were recording rock ‘n’ roll music so for him to successfully record love ballads was quite unusual.
His most famous records include“Wonderful, Wonderful,” “Misty,” and “Maria.”
One song not as well known that he recorded was “Never Never Land” from the famous Broadway musical Peter Pan. Full of haunting emotion, Mathis’s phrasing and octave range make this recording a treasure that any aspiring singer should study. Mathis’s amazing breath control allows him to sing without taking a breath for long passages, one lasting 19 seconds.
However, if you were to ever just listen to one song by Mathis, go to YouTube and watch his 1978 performance of “Pieces of Dreams” on the Johnny Carson show. At the end, he holds one note for nearly ½-minute. At age 43, Mathis was only halfway through his life at that point, yet at the peak of his singing powers.
I have been fortunate to have hear Mathis perform several times. He is such a gracious man and is still able to carry a tune.
This December he will give five Christmas concerts at five different venues from Ohio to California. There is even a December date already set in Illinois for 2023 when he will be 88 years old.
If you have never seen him live, don’t overlook the opportunity to see and hear an icon.