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If you like Johnny Mathis's story, you might also like:
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Johnny Mathis
Johnny Mathis
Profile of Johnny Mathis Biography of Johnny Mathis Interview with Johnny Mathis Johnny Mathis Photo Gallery

Johnny Mathis Biography

Grammy Hall of Fame

Johnny Mathis Date of birth: September 30, 1935

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  Johnny Mathis

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Johnny Mathis was born in the small town of Gilmer, Texas, but the family relocated to San Francisco before he reached school age. His mother Mildred worked as a housekeeper, his father Clem as a chauffeur. Of the seven children, Johnny took the greatest interest in music, to the delight of his father, who sang and played the piano. Clem Mathis taught Johnny his first songs, and soon the boy was singing in a church choir, at school assemblies, and on local television. By age 13, he was studying voice seriously with teacher Connie Cox, who gave him a thorough grounding in classical vocal technique.

The young Johnny Mathis was also an outstanding athlete, playing on the George Washington High School basketball team and competing in track and field. After high school, he enrolled at San Francisco State to study English and physical education, with the intention of becoming a teacher. In college, he continued to compete in track and field, excelling at the high jump. He also began to sing in local nightclubs with the jazz band of his friend Virgil Gonsalves. One club owner, Helen Noga, was so impressed she offered to manage the young man's singing career. Soon Mathis was singing every weekend.

Noga invited record producer George Avakian to hear Mathis sing. Avakian, who headed the jazz department at Columbia Records sent a famous telegram to the label's New York office: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts." After signing Mathis to a contract with Columbia Records, Avakian returned to New York to plan the singer's recording debut.

Johnny Mathis Biography Photo
Meanwhile, Johnny Mathis returned to his studies and continued to attract the attention of the local press with his feats as a high jumper. He was invited to attend the 1956 Olympic trials, but by then, Avakian had scheduled a recording session in New York and Mathis had a difficult choice to make. Music won out, and Johnny Mathis traveled to New York City to record his first record in March 1956. Avakian, who had only heard Mathis performing in a jazz context, produced an album in a similar vein, Johnny Mathis: A New Sound In Popular Music. Despite Johnny's obvious talent, and the accompaniment of first-rate musicians, the record attracted little attention. Mathis remained in New York over the summer, performing in the city's major nightclubs while Columbia reconsidered their approach.

Mitch Miller, the head of A&R (artists and repertoire) at Columbia, wanted to hear Mathis singing romantic ballads in a mainstream popular style, emphasizing the beauty of his voice and the clarity of his diction, rather than trying to make a jazz artist of him. Miller produced Mathis's second session, that autumn, and came up with two hit singles, "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and "It's Not for Me to Say." Soon Mathis made his first motion picture appearance, singing "It's Not for Me to Say" in the MGM film Lizzie. In June 1957, Mathis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, and the singles he had recorded with Miller soon became major hits. Later that year, he recorded his biggest hit of all, "Chances Are," which became the bestselling record in the country. It was followed quickly by his third Top Ten single, "The Twelfth of Never."

Johnny Mathis Biography Photo
In 1958, Columbia released a Johnny Mathis "Greatest Hits" collection. In subsequent years, such albums became a recording industry staple, but at the time they were unheard of, especially for a singer who had only been recording for two years. Johnny's Greatest Hits became one of the bestselling records of all time, remaining on Billboard magazine's Top Albums chart for nearly ten years. The same year saw the release of his first Christmas album; Merry Christmas would eventually sell over six million copies. Mathis made his second film appearance that year, singing the title song in A Certain Smile.

Helen Noga and her husband John moved to Beverly Hills in 1958, and Mathis joined them, living with the Noga family when he was not on the road performing. The year 1959 saw the release of another Mathis hit, the Erroll Garner song, "Misty." Columbia Records kept Mathis busy recording albums of romantic ballads, show tunes and pop standards. More hits followed, including "Gina" and "What Will Mary Say," but Mathis became dissatisfied with the direction of his career. In 1963 he moved from Columbia to Mercury Records and recorded a second Christmas album. The following year he brought legal action to be released from his management contract. Breaking with the Nogas, Mathis bought a house in the Hollywood Hills that would remain his principal residence for many years.

Mathis returned to Columbia Records in 1967, with a greater degree of control over his career through production companies he founded with a friend and business partner, Ray Haughn. The 1960s brought enormous changes to the music industry, and Mathis scored fewer hit singles than before, but his albums continued to sell phenomenally well. At one point, he had five albums on the charts simultaneously.

Johnny Mathis Biography Photo
A demanding schedule of recording and touring eventually exhausted the singer's formidable energy. An unscrupulous doctor prescribed amphetamines and other prescription drugs to keep Mathis going on the road. His efforts to quit the addictive medications without assistance undermined his health further. The combination of prescription drugs and excessive drinking threatened to derail his career. Mathis credits loyal friends with persuading him to seek the help he needed to free himself from his addictions.

A 1976 single, "When a Child Is Born," topped the UK pop charts and sold over six million copies worldwide. In 1978, Mathis returned to the U.S. pop music charts with "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," a duet with R&B singer Deniece Williams. The song swept the country, and 20 years after he first topped the charts with "Chances Are," Mathis scored his second Number One hit. The success of the song led Mathis to record a series of duets with singers such as Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole and Gladys Knight. His 1978 album You Light Up My Life sold over two million copies.

Since overcoming his health problems, Mathis has made more time for hobbies and charitable pursuits. From childhood days, he enjoyed cooking, and over the years he has developed a formidable expertise in the kitchen. In 1982 he shared this talent with the public in a cookbook, Cooking for You Alone. The same year, he founded the Johnny Mathis Invitational Track and Field Meet at San Francisco State University. An extremely accomplished golfer, he hosted his own golf tournament, the Johnny Mathis Seniors PGA Classic, held in Los Angeles in 1985 and '86. He later hosted a charity golf tournament, the Shell/Johnny Mathis Golf Classic, in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Johnny Mathis Biography Photo
In 1984, Mathis's longtime manager and business partner Ray Haughn died. Since then, Mathis has managed his career himself, from his offices in Burbank, California. Since turning 65 in the year 2000, Mathis has generally limited himself to between 50 and 60 live performances a year. He has continued to create successful recordings, including his five Christmas albums. It is estimated that Johnny Mathis has sold over 350 million records worldwide, more than any recording artists other than Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. To date, 73 of his nearly 100 albums have reached the Billboard Top Album charts, with 13 Gold Records (sales of over 500,000) and eight platinum, (sales of over a million copies), including three with sales of over two million. Of his 200 singles, 71 have charted worldwide. His recordings of "Chances Are" and "Misty" have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2003 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

The year 2006 was the 50th for Johnny Mathis as a recording artist, an anniversary marked by the release of the album Johnny Mathis Gold: A 50th Anniversary Celebration and a public television special, Wonderful, Wonderful. The same year, Mathis was honored by the Society of Singers with its Ella Award, named for Ella Fitzgerald, one of his early inspirations. Over the years, Mathis has recorded Spanish and Brazilian songs as well as jazz, pop, Broadway, soul, even disco. In 2010 he recorded his first country album, Let It Be Me -- Mathis in Nashville. The Grammy-nominated record included duets and collaborations with singers Alison Krauss and Vince Gill. In the seventh decade of his extraordinary career, Johnny Mathis remains the world's bestselling living recording artist.

This page last revised on Mar 28, 2014 16:51 EDT
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