While the legendary record executive is brash and prone to hyperbole, the 82-year-old crooner is humble to a fault, deflecting praise for his career to luck, longevity, and a little help from his friends.
Asked about whether Davis was “kick-starting his career,” Mathis laughs, “I wish he would.”
The ever-youthful Mathis is sitting in an office at the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A., where he, Davis, and producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds are about to take part in a panel discussion – at the Clive Davis Theater, no less — to mark the release of his new Columbia album, “Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook,” less than 24 hours before Yom Kippur, which brings to mind that he once recorded a version of the sacred “Kol Nidre” prayer.
“I used to go to shul with two of my high school classmates, Jerry and Stan Rosenberg,” says Mathis. “The cantors’ voices were so wonderful, I had to know, ‘What are they singing about?'” His voice teacher – an opera singer — introduced him to the “Kol Nidre,” and hearing a version by Perry Como inspired him to sing it himself.
Turning down an invitation to try out for the 1956 Olympics team as a high jumper alongside his University of San Francisco classmate Bill Russell, Mathis instead signed a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1956, and except for a three-year stint at Mercury in the mid-60s, he has been at the label ever since over the course of a 60-plus-year career. The relationship between Davis and Mathis goes back to when Davis, then at Columbia, introduced him to the Philadelphia International stable of songwriters Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell.
“I wanted to remind everybody Johnny is in a rarified class by himself, with only Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett in that pantheon,” says Davis, who invited Mathis to perform at his famed pre-Grammy soiree two years ago, where he proceeded to steal the show and wow the likes of Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. “To my mind, he should be playing Madison Square Garden.”
Urged on by Sony Music chiefs Doug Morris and Rob Stringer, Clive set about choosing what he calls “new” standards for Mathis to cover, everything from Adele’s “Hello” and Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” to a pair of country copyrights (Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color” and Alan Jackson’s “Remember When”) to the Leonard Cohen warhorse, “Hallelujah,” the perfect match of Mathis’ whispery benediction and the song’s ethereal grace. Clive then put him in the studio with longtime colleague Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, hoping to duplicate his successful pop reinventions of Barry Manilow, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana and Rod Stewart.
“A great voice should be able to go anywhere,” says Babyface. “If it’s a great song, that voice should be able to hold its own. I’ve recognized Johnny’s as one of those voices of life, from the first time I heard it on ‘Chances Are.’ I wanted to do the right thing for it. The best part was, Johnny wasn’t going to sing anything that didn’t feel right, nor would Clive let him. So there was at least those safety nets.”
And while Mathis has been honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, boasts three of his songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame (“Chances Are,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” “Misty’) and five nominations (the first in 1961 and the last in 2015 for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for “Sending You A Little Christmas”), Mathis has never received a competitive Grammy. A singer’s singer who has only notched one chart-topping single in his career, Mathis claims that feeling of being underappreciated has been “the catalyst for everything I’ve ever done since I was a little kid singing with my dad… proving myself. I just love surprising people.”
As he’s always done, defending the likes of interpreters like Whitney Houston, Davis insists the fact that Mathis doesn’t write his own material shouldn’t be held against him. Clive points to Johnny’s passion for golf and reluctance to tour in major cities for his relative lack of recognition.
“When people see him perform, he blows everybody away,” says Davis. “He brings gas to every song, not just the trademarked hits. The cognoscenti know he’s a master. Now, it’s time for everybody else to realize it.”
The soft-spoken Mathis admits the only time he attempted to write a song was after getting drunk in Australia, then boasting about it to a fan seated next to him on an airplane flight, though it turned out “a mess.” Instead, he remains grateful for all the help he’s received along the way over the course of a six-decade-plus singing career.
“I’ve never done anything by myself,” he claims. “It’s always been in tandem with others. I’ve been so lucky that people have always been drawn to my talent and wanted to help me. It was always through the kindness of others that I succeeded.”
Admitting he appreciates precisely the level of recognition he has and no more, Mathis nevertheless is riding the enthusiastic support of Clive Davis in reintroducing him to the spotlight.
“Hopefully, he’ll incorporate some of these new songs into his set,” says Clive, ever the promoter. “I think it shows his freshness and openness to new material. I want the public to see how Johnny continues to evolve as an artist.”
As for Mathis, the goal isn’t to win a Grammy or even sell out Madison Square Garden. “I just want to keep being able to make more albums,” he says.
“He’s just one of the great voices,” adds Babyface. “And there are only so many of them.”