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Johnny Mathis Updates His Image as Courier of Courtly Valentines in Concert at the Hollywood Bowl

August 24, 1987|PAUL GREIN

Johnny Mathis burst on the pop scene 30 years ago with a series of old-fashioned ballads that made him a star overnight but also typecast him as a courier of courtly romantic valentines. The best of these songs, 'Misty," transcended the genre, but the least interesting--the impossibly sweet "The Twelfth of Never"--created a lingering impression that Mathis sang of a candy-cane world in which everything was, well, wonderful, wonderful.

Though the quaintness of some of those early hits makes Mathis seem a bit of an anachronism in the '80s, he fleshed out his musical image Friday at the Hollywood Bowl, where he opened a two-night engagement with Henry Mancini.

Mathis balanced the idyllic nature of his early hits by including several songs that address real-life, grown-up concerns. He offered a wonderfully modulated performance of "How Do You Keep the Music Playing," which deals realistically with sustaining a romantic relationship. And he perfectly captured the exquisite yearning of the stark ballad "99 Miles from L.A." on which he was backed by just a guitarist.

Mathis was accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for most of his set, which opened with a medley of Mancini songs. The warmth and compassion that are central to the singer's style were ideally suited to the melancholy "Days of Wine and Roses," with its rueful acknowledgment of vanished opportunity.

But Mathis' tour-de-force remains his 1959 hit, "Misty." The song's gossamer beauty belies a compelling lyric about hopeless, obsessive love. Mathis developed the song brilliantly, from its valentine-like beginning to his final, reluctant admission that he is "too much in love."

Mathis showed a great deal of tenderness and gentleness, but also brought a surprising amount of passion to such songs as "Maria" and "Begin the Beguine." It's that vocal power and intensity that leaves would-be challengers like Julio Iglesias in the dust.

The singer also revealed a light comic touch on Frank Loesser and Jule Styne's "I Said No," and on the witty, seldom-sung opening verse to "As Time Goes By." Mathis capped his set with a superb medley from "West Side Story."

Mathis has had only one Top 30 hit since the early '60s, but he's managed to transcend nostalgia. He's not a strong personality like Frank Sinatra, or an all-around entertainer like Liza Minnelli, but he continues to sell out major concert sites--as he did the Bowl--all these years later. The reason is simply the quality and the integrity of his performance.

Mancini opened the show by conducting the Philharmonic in a set of his movie themes (plus John Barry's Oscar-winning "Out of Africa"). He capped his set with a spirited salute to pops concert pioneer Arthur Fiedler.

The only unexpected entry--and the clear highlight--was the Bangles' hit "Walk Like an Egyptian." Mancini's symphonic interpretation brought out all the James Bond-like intrigue of Liam Sternberg's quirky pop song, and gave it a wide-screen scope. It would have been great over the credits to "Ishtar."

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