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Pop Music Reviews : Mathis Shows Why He's Perennial Favorite at Wiltern

February 17, 1989|DON HECKMAN

What is it that makes Johnny Mathis so successful? How can such a soft-spoken, unprepossessing performer have managed to produce more than 50 gold and platinum recordings in a career that has stretched over more than three achievement-filled decades?

A few of the answers were on display Wednesday night at the Wiltern Theatre in the opening performance of a four-night concert run that ends Saturday.

Singing a program that ranged from a catalogue of hits (including "Misty," "Chances Are" and "It's Not For Me To Say") to bossa nova, ballads and a Duke Ellington medley, Mathis was in top form. If his 53-year-old voice has deteriorated, it was not at all evident on this evening, and his patented vibrato and trademark sob were as dramatically effective as ever.

More to the point, Mathis demonstrated--on songs like "Daydreaming," "Over the Weekend" and a "West Side Story" medley--that good material can spur him into performances well above the level of his more crowd-pleasing ballads. On the up-tempo tunes (especially in the Ellington medley) his phrasing, always rich with jazz accents, snapped and crackled with rhythmic electricity.

By the time he had completed a copious program of songs, the enigma of his success was far less puzzling. Mathis' style, despite the apparent modesty of its elements, is so strong that he can sing almost anything effectively. Soft-spoken though he may be, he clearly belongs in that small group of world-class interpretive performers who can bring vigorous life to almost anything they touch. And that's why Mathis is so successful.

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