That wonderful timeless voice you heard caroling you throughout the past holiday season (and throughout all the holidays seasons for the past half-century-plus) first came to national attention when the legendary singer Johnny Mathis signed up with Columbia Records and released his debut album, the jazz effort “Johnny Mathis” 65 years ago. Mathis was initially spotted in 1955 by Columbia’s George Avakian while still 19 years old, a promising “jazzer” as Mathis calls jazz artists, performing at the Blackhawk nightclub in San Francisco. He was first noted in the pages of Variety in early 1956 when he began playing New York’s Blue Angel nightclub and was prepping to record for Columbia.
Mathis may still have jazz in his heart, but when that first album failed to chart, his magnificent voice was soon put in the hands of Columbia’s fast-rising pop music producer and their first effort together, the 1957 hit single “Wonderful Wonderful,” was the beginning of Mathis’ ascent to the top of charts and his status as ubiquitous beloved American balladeer. Credited with creating the first “greatest hits” album 60 years ago, Mathis is now ranked by Guinness as the third-biggest selling recording artist of the 20th century, with 360 million records sold. Mathis is touring and Feb. 24 plays Southern California’s Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
Your first gig at the Blue Angel was in March 1956 and you were recording your first album in New York City around that time. That was a big step up from the Black Hawk in San Francisco.
I was a little anxious about the fact that I was alone for the first time. I had spent years in my home base, which was San Francisco, and I was in a band with Merl Saunders beginning when I was about 13. He played piano and I sang and it was big deal. We used to dream, “Which one of us is going to get signed first?” It was all a big fantasy to us in those days.
Which quickly became reality.
When I got to New York City my first question was, “Who do I see?” The No. 1 guy was Billy Eckstine. And I was a big fan of all the girl singers: June Christie, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne; all of my favorite singers were performing. Lena, whom I worshipped, became a friend later in life and she once told me, “We all remember you. You were there every night yelling, screaming and clapping and making a fool out of yourself.”
Do you remember your first gig in New York?
I think I played the Vanguard before I played the Blue Angel. I was really on my best behavior. The Blue Angel was a very small room and everything was padded, quilted like the inside of a coffin. I remember I was warned, “Don’t sing too loud.” And only a piano for accompaniment. I only did about 10 minutes, but I was blessed because the accompanist was a man named Bart Howard, who was incredible. He wrote songs that Mabel Mercer did and her accompanist and he became famous for a song that back then was called “In Other Words.” It became famous when Peggy Lee recorded it and changed the title to “Fly Me to the Moon.”
It’s interesting that a scout from New York signed, but Capitol Records was on the West Coast and they missed out.
I don’t think they had a scout in San Francisco.
So many greats like June Christie and Nat King Cole were on Capitol. Was Cole a big influence on you?
Yes he was, and he became my mentor.
Maybe an unfair question, but could you define what made Nat King Cole one of the greats?
No. 1: He was a great musician. No. 2: He had a limited voice and he only sang one way. He didn’t get out of his register, and it was always musically sound. And it was always pleasing. He was so technically perfect, yet it always sounded simple. No. 3: he applied this style to all his songs, so he sang up-tempo songs so they sounded like ballads.
Your first album was a jazz record, but you shifted to pop music very quickly.
Jazz musicians are fabulous musicians and also the lowest paid. It’s a fact and it’s annoying to me as hell. My inspirations were all jazzers. My inflections were always jazz-inspired. And San Francisco was all jazzed up at the time. But my first manager, Helen Noga, refused to let me have anything to do with jazz.
But your first album for Columbia was a jazz record.
And it laid dormant for about a year. I think the only person who heard it was Mitch Miller.
But George Avakian was a big jazz producer and you had jazz players like Teo Macero, Milt Hinton and Art Farmer.
I remember looking at the record label and noticing all the funny names of the musicians. They were all on other labels and they were moonlighting for George, who was a very good musician himself. We recorded the whole album in the Columbia Studios, which had been an old church that Columbia bought and converted into a recording studio. It was a wonderful place with lots of natural reverberation.
Helen Noga must have gotten along with Mitch Miller at Columbia. He famously hated rock and roll and it doesn’t sound like he was too fond of jazz.
You know Mitch had been a concert oboist and he’d had enough of that. He was just starting out when we worked together and he wanted to make some money.
Those first few tracks you cut with Mitch proved him right.
He gave me a big stack of songs and he said, “Find four that you like.” So I came up with four songs and that included “Wonderful Wonderful,” “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “It’s Not for Me to Say.”
So you switched from jazz to pop and the rest is history.
Mitch knew what he wanted. I remember that while I was singing, he was behind me, patting me on the back, on the beat, saying “Stay! On! The! Beat! No slipping and sliding!”
So Mitch’s music was easy, but the man was tough.
I remember Percy Faith and Glenn Osser both hated Mitch Miller. It was like a comedy of errors for them to find ways to make sure they were never in the same room with him.
What else did you learn in your first days in the Columbia recording studio?
From the time I was little kid and I was studying voice, I was learning about microphones. But when I started working at Columbia, I made sure I was ready and I went in early for my sessions and watched the artists who were recording before me. I remember Mahalia Jackson was recording with her accompanist, Mildred Falls. It is still vivid in my mind. She was very fussy with Falls, doing the songs over and over. “No, Mildred, that’s too fast.” But they were bound at the beat.
What about your love of jazz? Did you miss it when you switched to pop?
Thankfully, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole were there when I started my search for standard songs. Ella made them live and come alive for me with those recordings she started making with Norman Granz back in the ’50s. Ella was a jazzer, but when she made those records with Granz she sang the songs straight, absolutely the way the guy wrote it.
She had been huge, but her popularity exploded and she was bigger than she’d ever been, just by rediscovering Cole Porter and the Great American Songbook.
That’s where I looked for songs when I started making albums.
On the hit TV “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” there’s a character performing on TV in the ’50s and he seems a lot like Johnny Mathis.
My first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” lifted my salary way up and I never had to play the local dumps again. I started singing in the main rooms of the big hotels and I could sing what I wanted and where people wanted to hear it.
You broke through at exactly the same moment rock and roll exploded. Were you ever tempted to try that route?
No one loves rhythm and blues more than me, but here’s how it works: When those singers open their mouths, that’s what you hear. When I open my mouth, this is what you hear. You know, I originally studied singing with an opera singer. You want to know the worst thing you’ve ever heard? That’s when a great opera singer tries to sing popular songs. I hear that and it’s like, “Oh dear. Oh, no.” You’ve got to stick to what you do best.