Ageless Johnny Mathis to bring holidays to Green Music Center (w/video)
Johnny Mathis seems almost ageless. The 79-year-old musician remains fit, slender and vocally strong, thanks in large part, he says, to his training as an athlete.
He was a star high jumper at San Francisco State University, sometimes even out-jumping future NBA star Bill Russell and setting a college record that was only 2 inches shy of the Olympic mark.
In an interview for the Academy of Achievement, a Washington D.C. museum, Mathis said he learned at an early age “how to take care of my body physically, so that I’ll be able to sing when I’m required to. I learned to exercise regularly so that I could be strong physically to support the tones.”
He was invited to Berkeley to try out for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, but instead chose to go to New York for his first studio session, with Columbia Records. An appearance the following year on “The Ed Sullivan Show” helped vault him to fame.
By the late 1950s, he was playing at big Las Vegas hotels such as The Sands, but wasn’t allowed to stay there because in those days, African Americans were denied rooms.
The Dec. 19 show at the Green Music Center is virtually sold out, though a few tickets remain online at Stubhub.com. Tickets are still available for Mathis’ appearance in Cupertino on Dec. 21.
Born in Texas, Mathis moved with his family to San Francisco when he was about 4 years old, according to Mathis’ website. He now lives in a Hollywood Hills mansion built by Howard Hughes.
He grew up idolizing Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine and Lena Horne (whom he saw perform in the Venetian Room at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel), citing them as trailblazing African American performers.
Mathis said his dad noticed his talent and bought young Johnny an upright piano for $25. When they couldn’t get the instrument into their San Francisco home, Mathis’ dad took apart the piano and spent all night reassembling it for Johnny.
Voice teacher Connie Cox, who worked with Mathis from age 12 until he began college, helped the prodigy develop his vocal range. The Mathis family couldn’t afford to pay Cox, so Mathis helped her with odds jobs around her house and did errands for her.
“She was the angel,” Mathis said in the Academy interview. “She was the one who guided me and said, ‘This is what I think you can do.’ ”
The first band Mathis joined as a singer was with his high school friend, keyboardist Merl Saunders, who went on to play frequently with another San Francisco legend, Jerry Garcia.
Cox’s optimism was right on the mark. When he was 19, Mathis was discovered by jazz producer George Avakian who, according to Mathis, sent a now famous telegram to Columbia Records stating: “Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.”
Starting with standards, Mathis has ranged from jazz to pop, soul to show tunes, but mainly he’s known as a balladeer. His holiday show, which has become a local tradition, features many Christmas songs alongside his classics.
With his velvet-smooth voice, Mathis has become one of the top-selling artists of our time. He’s sold more than 350 million records and was the third-highest-selling artist of the 20th century, according to the Academy of Achievement.
“I’m known for mushy music,” he’s said, songs like “Misty” and “Chances Are,” but he’s interested in songs from around the world.
“Years ago I went to Brazil and fell in love with it. I really like the music, samba, bossa nova, the language and the people,” he told the British newspaper Express last February. “I’ve recorded in Portuguese, too. I didn’t set out to just sing ballads or romantic songs.”
He’s sung for presidents (Reagan and Clinton) and for royalty (Prince Charles and Princess Diana).
But the demands of touring sometimes took a toll. Mathis said that while in his 20s, a doctor prescribed amphetamines to combat fatigue, and he got addicted. But Mathis went to a rehab clinic and quit, he said in the Academy interview.
Mathis had problems with alcohol in the 1980s, he told the Express. “I drank too much, only champagne” but went to a rehab clinic to get sober.
“I stayed three weeks, and I haven’t drunk since. That was 30 years ago.”
Michael Shapiro, author of “A Sense of Place,” writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Contact him through his site: www.michaelshapiro.net.