Like a fine wine, balladeer Johnny Mathis just gets better with age.
The smooth singer returned to Pittsburgh for a two-night intimate engagement to sing with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall.
“I have spent a lot of years playing in different venues in Pittsburgh. I love playing at Heinz Hall because it is the most elegant place I have ever seen,” said Mathis, 76. “I started singing in Pittsburgh at the Twin Coaches and then at the Civic Arena and at a bar and then I worked with the PSO and we did some summer concerts.”
“I love singing with orchestras because I get to sing a lot of different things. I try to find songs that have orchestral moments in them. Singing with an orchestra allows me to do songs I’ve never done before. It’s a joy to sing with the wonderful men and women of your Pittsburgh Orchestra each night,” said Mathis who was born in Gilmer, Texas.
After receiving a standing ovation from the audience when he first set foot on stage, Mathis serenaded them with more than 36 of his most popular romantic jazz, R& B and pop hits and those of other popular balladeers including “Chances Are,” “My Foolish Heart,” “When I Fall In Love,” “Moon River,” “It’s Not For Me To Say,” “Gina” “Until the Twelfth of Never,” and “Yellow Roses on Her Gown.”
Mathis learned an appreciation for music after his family moved to San Francisco and his father taught him his first song, “My Blue Heaven,” and subsequently purchased an old upright piano for $25.
The mammoth instrument could not fit through the Mathis’ front door and Johnny stayed up all night and watched his father, Clem, dismantle the piano and reassemble it once he got it into the living room of the family’s basement apartment.
For a short while, Mathis’ father worked as a musician and singer in Texas and taught the impressionable Johnny numerous songs and routines.
Johnny was quickly bitten by the singing bug and began to perform in school productions, in the church choir and at community events in the San Francisco area.
At the age of 13, his father took him to see San Francisco Bay area voice teacher Connie Cox who agreed to teach the eager young singer the ropes of the game in exchange for doing odd jobs around her home.
“It’s so gratifying to be able to sing music that people like. My dad got me to a good voice teacher and I got into music because of him,” Mathis fondly recalled. “It was so gratifying for him to see the success that I’ve had. He always gave me a lot of encouragement. I miss him a great deal. I learned a lot of songs from him. We had a lot of love.”
Mathis studied under Cox for six years, learning how to maneuver in and out of numerous musical genres including voice production, classical and operatic.
While enrolled at San Francisco State College as an education major (he planned on becoming an English and physical education teacher), a classmate’s sextet was working at a nightclub and brought Mathis in for a Sunday night jam session. After getting a taste of his vocal ability, the club owner decided she wanted to be his manager.
By 1955, Mathis had landed a steady job singing at a club on weekends. During that time, his manager convinced George Avakian, the head of Jazz A&R at Columbia Records to hear Mathis.
After hearing the young heartthrob sing, Avakian sent this famous telegram to Columbia Records, “Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.”
In 1956 Mathis traveled to New York to begin recording his first album, “Johnny Mathis: A New Sound in Popular Song.” The Jazz-influenced album only garnered moderate success but Mathis was not daunted.
He remained vigilant and soon recorded two of his most popular songs, “Wonderful. Wonderful” and “It’s Not For Me to Say,” both of which reached high spots on the Billboard pop charts in 1957. That was followed by “Chances Are,” his first number one hit.
Mathis certainly did go all the way. He is one of only five recording artists to have Top 40 hits that spanned four decades. In 1958, two years after being signed to Columbia Records, he released “Johnny’s Greatest Hits,” which started the greatest hits record trend, which is typically done by every record company.
He has earned his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame twice and received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2003. Mathis is the third largest selling recording artist behind Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
“Today in order for artists to get heard, it’s all about distribution. I was very, very lucky to be working with Columbia Records because they had the best distribution and they had access to TV shows like ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and you could go on there and sing one of your songs. After I recorded my music, Columbia distributed it worldwide,” Mathis said.
“Whether we like it or not, popular music services the people who like it. However, with the invention of the Internet, people can find any kind of music they want no matter what the music of the day is. But I think no matter where music goes, it won’t affect me because melodic music will not go away, there’s just other stuff out there to compete with it,” he added.
In 2010 the consummate performer recorded a county western album with guest artists Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert and Allison Kraus.
“The songs are about romance. They have a romantic feel to them. Even though they were cowboys, they had romance in their lives,” Mathis said with a laugh.
He recently signed a contract to do an album of duets with some of today’s hottest singers like Cee-Lo Green, Blake Shelton, Michael Buble, Sting, Smokey Robinson and Mary J. Blige.
“It’s great calling up these people and saying ‘hey do you want to sing with Johnny Mathis?’ Some are excited and some are busy, but with the ones who sign on, I will do whatever they want to do. Some of them want to do my songs and some want to do something different. I hope to make it happen soon,” Mathis said.
When he isn’t entertaining people with his amazing voice, Mathis enjoys working out, playing golf and cooking.
“I prepare my own food after coming from the gym and then I’m off to the golf course,” said Mathis who enjoys listening to Marvin Gaye, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Donna Summer and Christmas music on his iPad.