John Royce Mathis (born September 30, 1935) is an American singer of popular music. Starting his career with singles of standard music, he became highly popular as an album artist, with several dozen of his albums achieving gold or platinum status and 73 making the Billboard charts to date.
Although he is frequently described as a romantic singer, his discography includes traditional pop, Brazilian, Spanish, soul, rhythm and blues, soft rock, show tunes, Tin Pan Alley, blues, country, and even a few disco songs for his album Mathis Magic in 1979. Mathis has also recorded six albums of Christmas music. In a 1968 interview, Mathis cited Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby among his musical influences.
Mathis was born in Gilmer, Texas, United States, in 1935, the fourth of seven children of Clem Mathis and Mildred Boyd. The family moved to San Francisco, California, settling on 32nd Avenue in the Richmond District, where Johnny grew up. His father had worked in vaudeville, and when he saw his son's talent, he bought an old upright piano for $25 (US$340 in 2016 dollars) and encouraged him. Mathis began learning songs and routines from his father. His first song was "My Blue Heaven". Mathis started singing and dancing for visitors at home, at school, and at church functions.
When he was 13, voice teacher Connie Cox accepted him as her student in exchange for work around her house. Mathis studied with Cox for six years, learning vocal scales and exercises, voice production, classical, and operatic singing. He is one of the relatively few popular singers who received years of professional voice training that included opera. The first band he sang with was formed by his high school friend Merl Saunders. Mathis eulogized him at his funeral in 2008, thanking him for giving him his first chance as a singer.
Mathis was a star athlete at George Washington High School in San Francisco. He was a high jumper and hurdler, and he played on the basketball team. In 1954, he enrolled at San Francisco State College on an athletic scholarship, intending to become an English teacher and a physical education teacher.
In San Francisco while singing at a Sunday afternoon jam session with a friend's jazz sextet at the Black Hawk Club, Mathis attracted the attention of the club's co-founder, Helen Noga. She became Mathis' music manager, and in September 1955, after Noga had found Mathis a job singing weekends at Ann Dee's 440 Club, she learned that George Avakian, head of Popular Music A&R at Columbia Records, was on vacation near San Francisco. After repeated calls, Noga finally persuaded Avakian to come hear Mathis at the 440 Club. After hearing Mathis sing, Avakian sent his record company a telegram stating: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts."
At San Francisco State, Mathis had become noteworthy as a high jumper, and in 1956 he was asked to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team that would travel to Melbourne, Australia, that November. Mathis had to decide whether to go to the Olympic trials or to keep his appointment in New York City to make his first recordings. On his father's advice, Mathis opted to embark on a professional singing career. His LP record album was released in late 1956 instead of waiting until the first quarter of 1957.
Mathis's first record album, Johnny Mathis: A New Sound In Popular Song, was a slow-selling jazz album, but Mathis stayed in New York City to sing in nightclubs. His second album was produced by Columbia Records vice-president and record producer Mitch Miller, who helped to define the Mathis sound. Miller preferred that Mathis sing soft, romantic ballads, pairing him up with conductor and music arranger Ray Conniff, and later, Ray Ellis, Glenn Osser, and Robert Mersey. In late 1956, Mathis recorded two of his most popular songs: "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and "It's Not For Me To Say".
Also that year, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed him up to sing the latter song in the movie Lizzie (1957). Shortly afterwards, Mathis made his second film appearance for 20th Century Fox, singing the song "A Certain Smile" in the film of that title. He had small acting roles in both movies as a bar singer. This early visibility in two successful movies gave him mass exposure. His appearance on the popular TV program The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957 also helped increase his popularity. Critics called him "the velvet voice". Mathis also appeared during this period on ABC's The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, as did fellow African-American entertainers Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey.
During the summer of 1958, Mathis left San Francisco with the Nogas, who sold their interest in the Black Hawk club that year, and moved to Beverly Hills, California, where the Nogas bought a house. Mathis lived with the family.
In 1958, Johnny's Greatest Hits was released. The album spent an unprecedented 490 consecutive weeks through 1967 (nine and a half years) on the Billboard top 100 album charts including three weeks at number one. It held the record for the most number of weeks on the top Billboard 200 albums in the US for 15 years until Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon reached 491 weeks in October 1983.
Mathis had two of his biggest hits in 1962 and 1963, with "Gina" (#6) and "What Will My Mary Say" (#9).
In October 1964, Mathis sued Noga to void their management arrangement, which Noga fought with a counterclaim in December 1964. Mathis purchased a mansion in Hollywood Hills, which was originally built by billionaire Howard Hughes in 1946, where he still maintains a residence.
After splitting from Noga, Mathis established Jon Mat Records, Inc., incorporated in California on May 11, 1967, to produce his recordings (previously, he founded Global Records, Inc. to produce his Mercury albums), and Rojon Productions, Inc., incorporated in California on September 30, 1964, to handle all of his concert, theater, showroom, and television appearances, and all promotional and charitable activities. His new manager and business partner was Ray Haughn, who, until his death in September 1984, helped guide Mathis's career. Since that time, Mathis has taken sole responsibility for it.
While Mathis continued to make music, the ascent of the Beatles and early 1970s album rock kept his adult contemporary recordings out of the pop singles charts, until he experienced a career renaissance in the late 1970s.
In 1978, Mathis recorded "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" with singer Deniece Williams. The lyrics and music were arranged by Nat Kipner and John McIntyre Vallins. Released as a single in 1978, it reached number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, number nine on the Canadian Singles Chart and number three on the UK Singles Chart. It also topped the US R&B and adult contemporary charts. "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" was certified gold and silver in the US and in the UK by the RIAA and the British Phonographic Industry respectively. It was his first number one hit since his 1957 chart-topping "Chances Are."
The duo released a follow-up duet, "You're All I Need to Get By," peaking at number 47 on the Hot 100. The success of the duets with Williams prompted Mathis to record duets with a variety of partners, including Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Jane Olivor, Stephanie Lawrence, and Nana Mouskouri. A compilation album also called Too Much, Too Little, Too Late, released by Sony Music in 1995, featured the title track among other songs by Mathis and Williams.
During 1980-81, Mathis recorded an album with Chic's Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, I Love My Lady, which remains unreleased in its entirety, though three tracks appeared on a Chic box set in 2010 and a fourth, the title track, on Mathis' Ultimate Collection in 2011 and the Chic Organization's Up All Night in 2013.
Mathis returned to the British Top 30 album chart in 2007 with the Sony BMG release The Very Best of Johnny Mathis in 2008 with the CD "A Night to Remember" and again in 2011 with "The Ultimate Collection"
Mathis continues to perform live, but from 2000 forward, he limited his concert performances to about fifty to sixty per year.
Mathis, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Bruce Springsteen carry the distinction of having the longest tenure of any recording artist on the Columbia label. With the exception of a four-year break to record for Mercury Records in the mid-1960s, he has been with Columbia Records throughout his career, from 1956 to 1963 and from 1968 to the present. (Dylan spent a couple of years at Asylum Records then resigned to Columbia; Streisand and Springsteen have never left Columbia.)
He has had five of his albums on the Billboard charts simultaneously, an achievement equaled by only two other singers: Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow. He has released 200 singles and had 71 songs charted around the world.
Pieces of music from numerous Mathis albums continue to be used in motion pictures and television. For example, "Chances Are" was played during an extraterrestrial visit in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), "Wonderful! Wonderful!" in The X-Files episode "Home", albeit performed by a sound-alike singer. Various Mathis songs have been played more recently in the TV series Mad Men, which also features a recurring minor character named "John Mathis". Mathis's "Wonderful! Wonderful!" was used in the conclusion to the long running TV series Desperate Housewives as "Karen McClusky" died.
He has taped twelve of his own television specials and made over 300 television guest appearances, with 33 of them being on The Tonight Show. Longtime Tonight Show host Johnny Carson said, "Johnny Mathis is the best ballad singer in the world." He appeared on the show with Carson's successor, Jay Leno, on March 29, 2007, to sing his song "The Shadow of Your Smile" with the saxophonist Dave Koz. Through the years, his songs (or parts of them) have been heard in 100 plus television shows and films around the globe. His appearance on the Live by Request broadcast in May 1998 on the A&E Network had the largest television viewing audience of the series. Also in 1989, Johnny sang the theme for the ABC daytime soap opera Loving.
Mathis served as narrator for '51 Dons, a 2014 documentary film about the integrated and undefeated 1951 San Francisco Dons football team. The team was denied a chance to play in a bowl game because it refused to agree to not play its two African-American players, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, who were childhood friends of Mathis.
Despite missing the Olympic high jump trials, he has never entirely abandoned his enthusiasm for sports and today is an avid golfer who has achieved nine holes-in-one, and has hosted several Johnny Mathis Golf Tournaments in the United Kingdom and the US. Since 1985 he has been hosting a charity golf tournament in Belfast sponsored by Shell corporation, and the annual Johnny Mathis Invitational Track & Field Meet has continued at San Francisco State University since it started in 1982. He also enjoys cooking and in 1982, he published a cookbook called Cooking for You Alone.
Mathis has undergone rehabilitation for both alcohol and prescription drug addictions, and he has supported many organizations through the years, including the American Cancer Society, the March of Dimes, the YWCA and YMCA, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the NAACP.
Mathis was quoted in a 1982 Us Magazine article, stating "Homosexuality is a way of life that I've grown accustomed to." However, he made no further comments on this, and Us Magazine later retracted the statement. In 2006, Mathis revealed that his silence had been because of death threats he received as a result of that 1982 article. On April 13, 2006, Mathis granted a podcast interview with The Strip in which he talked about the subject once again, and how some of his reluctance to speak on the subject was partially generational. During an interview with CBS News Sunday Morning on May 14, 2017, Mathis discussed the Us Magazine article and confirmed he is gay. "I come from San Francisco. It's not unusual to be gay in San Francisco. I've had some girlfriends, some boyfriends, just like most people. But I never got married, for instance. I knew that I was gay." Johnny spoke to many news sources, including CBS about his sexuality and his story about coming out. 
Honors and awards
In 2003, the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded Mathis the Lifetime Achievement Award. This Special Merit Award is presented by vote of the Recording Academy's National Trustees to performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artist significance to the field of recording.
Grammy Hall of Fame
|Grammy Hall of Fame Awards|
|Year Recorded||Title||Genre||Label||Year Inducted|
|1957||"It's Not for Me to Say"||Traditional Pop (Single)||Columbia||2008|
|1959||"Misty"||Traditional Pop (Single)||Columbia||2002|
|1957||"Chances Are"||Traditional Pop (Single)||Columbia||1998|
Great American Songbook Hall of Fame
On June 21, 2014, Mathis was inducted into the Great American Songbook Hall Of Fame along with Linda Ronstadt, Shirley Jones, and Nat King Cole (his daughter Natalie Cole accepting the award on his behalf). The awards were presented by the Center for the Performing Arts artistic director Michael Feinstein. Defined on their website, "Conceived as an enduring testament to the Great American Songbook, the Hall of Fame honors performers and composers responsible for creating America’s soundtrack."
In 1978, his hit duet "The Last Time I Felt Like This" from the film Same Time, Next Year was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Mathis and Jane Olivor sang the song at the Academy Awards ceremony, in his second performance at the Oscars. His first occurred 20 years earlier in 1958, when he sang "Wild Is the Wind" by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington from the movie of the same name. He was also awarded the Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. In 2007, Mathis was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame. In 1988, Johnny appeared as a guest vocalist, accompanied by Henry Mancini, on Late Night with David Letterman to sing Henry's theme to the "Viewer Mail" segment.
In 2017, Mathis's alma mater San Francisco State University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree. Mathis attended San Francisco State for three semesters before withdrawing in 1956 to pursue his music career.