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Johnny Mathis
Johnny Mathis
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Johnny Mathis Interview

Grammy Hall of Fame

December 10, 2011
Washington, D.C.

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  Johnny Mathis

To millions of fans around the world you're a legend. How do you see yourself? What's it like to be Johnny Mathis?

Johnny Mathis: I'm really pretty much a regular person who just got very lucky. I got involved early on in my life with a lot of wonderful people who helped me and guided me. I found out what I really liked to do and that was sing. And I had a lot of help to accomplish most of my goals.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Take us back to the beginning of your life. You started singing very early. Where did it all start?

Johnny Mathis: I was born in Texas in a little town called Gilmer. I don't remember too much about it because my dad took the family from -- I guess I was about four when I left Gilmer, and we went to San Francisco and I started my schooling there, went to Roosevelt Junior High School. I went to Emerson Grammar School and then on to George Washington High School. Yes, I did sing. I sang for a year and a half to pay for all my books and my tuition at San Francisco State College, and I got odd jobs. But before that, when I was about 12, my dad asked me if -- my dad was a good singer and I learned all of his songs -- and then in order to progress a little bit more, he asked me if I'd like to take voice lessons. So we looked around San Francisco for someone to help me out and we found a wonderful lady in Oakland. Her name was Connie Cox. And Connie taught me for about seven years. Voice lessons free of charge. I would clean her apartment and run errands for her, and she was the angel. She was the one who guided me and said, "This is what I think you can do."

Was your voice at age 12 the same voice we hear now?

Johnny Mathis: No, I sounded like a little girl! I shared an old machine that made recordings. You would have to gather the residue from the vinyl. I heard myself for the first time and I sounded like a little girl. I was very disappointed, because my heroes at the time were baritone singers, people like Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, et cetera.

Did you have siblings growing up with you in San Francisco?

Johnny Mathis Interview Photo
Johnny Mathis: My mom and my dad raised seven of us: six brothers and sisters. I'm right in the middle, three older, three younger. I cherish my brothers and sisters. We had a lot of fun together. None of them really got too involved in music. My youngest brother, Michael, was quite enamored with it. He had a little band and sang and played for quite a while, and then he became ill and wasn't able to play anymore.

Was he the youngest?

Johnny Mathis: Yes, he was the youngest of seven.

Did he want to be just like his big brother?

Johnny Mathis: No, he didn't like my songs. He liked rhythm and blues, and did quite well with it. He was very talented, but he got sick very early on in life.

What did your dad do? You said he taught you songs. Was he a singer?

Johnny Mathis: My dad was an accomplished singer and pianist but he played by ear. He sang because it was something that he loved to do. He never had a career or anything singing. But he just had a wonderful way about him that was very pleasing, very pleasant. It wasn't intimidating for me as a little kid, and from the time I was five or six years old I was learning songs that he taught me.

How did he and your mother manage to raise such a large family during that time?

Johnny Mathis: You know, I think about that now and I'm amazed, because there was never a time that we didn't have what we needed. We weren't poor, we just didn't have any money! So my mom and my dad worked as domestic workers for all their lives, and supported the family that way. They were fortunate to work for people who were quite well off, so we had a lot of stuff that was given to us. I was, for instance, very fortunate to be taken under the wing by one of their employers. His name is Garfield Merner, and he was on the board of several Southern colleges and offered me scholarships. But unfortunately, I was never able to take advantage of them, because I only stayed a year and a half at San Francisco State College before I got an opportunity to make my first recording.

You speak very warmly of your parents.

Johnny Mathis: I love to talk about my mom and my dad, because they were my best friends. We had a wonderful, extraordinary relationship. They were the kindest, most generous people I've ever known, and I don't know how they managed with seven kids. I just don't know how.

They must have been very proud of you. I'm sure the whole family was.

Johnny Mathis Interview Photo
Johnny Mathis: The thing that I did, sort of inadvertently, was I wanted to include them in my life a little bit more, so I made my mom and my dad my fan club presidents. They would get all this mail from all over the world and sit down into the wee hours of the morning, writing in long hand these replies to all of these people from far off lands and what have you.

Was this at the beginning of your career, when you were only 19?

Johnny Mathis: Yes, I was 19, and I always wanted to include them. They were inclusive to all of their children. There was no mystery about what they did, or about the family. There was no discord. We were all just kind of people who got along together a lot. I think it's helped me a great deal in my life.

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