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Q&A / with JOHNNY MATHIS : Respect for a Voice-Activated Career

October 12, 1995|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

\o7 Johnny Mathis is so square he's hip.

When rock 'n' roll was exploding onto American culture in the '50s, Mathis was an unabashed throwback--a Tin Pan Alley balladeer singing achingly romantic love songs in a voice that fairly dripped with passion. And what a voice it was, from the tremulous falsettos to the crystalline enunciation to the purely opulent tenor tone. Mathis had an amazing instrument, and a style that made teeny-boppers cry and housewives sigh, even if no self-respecting rocker would be caught dead admitting he or she listened to him.

In recent years, though, some of those rockers have admitted the truth.

In the meantime, Mathis has recorded more than a hundred albums and numerous hit singles (his No. 1 hits span 21 years, from "Chances Are" in 1956 to "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" in 1977) and definitive versions of such classics as Erroll Garner's "Misty" and Leonard Bernstein's "Maria." He continues to record (an album produced by Phil Ramone is due next year) and to tour (he is doing three shows with the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa this weekend), though at age 60 he has slowed down some from the days when he would record four albums a year and be on the road almost constantly.

On the phone last week from his home in Hollywood, Mathis talked about his life, his music and his sway in the world of pop.\f7

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Q: It seems that you've been an influence on a number of singers whose style is much different from your own. Arthur Lee, for one, has cited you as a big inspiration. Were you aware of that?

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A: Arthur Lee? Gosh . . . I don't know who that is.

Q: Arthur Lee was the singer in a group called Love, a psychedelic rock band from the '60s. You know, "My Little Red Book," "7 And 7 Is" . . .

A: Wow! I've had a lot of people say things like that. Al Jarreau said something like that to me once, and years ago, so did Bill Withers, strangely enough. I'm amazed. You know, when you're working, you don't stop to think about other singers listening to you, you're so concerned about making a living. I had six brothers and sisters, and my mom and dad were working for domestic wages, so I was thinking mostly about how I could make a buck by singing. After I got to a point where I didn't have to struggle so much, I started to work with some of these people and to perform with them, and I was amazed at what some of them told me. I sang with Leontyne Price a couple of times, and I sang with Beverly Sills, who were big influences on my life. I studied opera for about eight, nine years, not to become an operatic singer but to learn to produce tones properly. My teacher told me that after the age of 45--which, of course, I never thought I'd get to be [laughs]--your voice starts to deteriorate, and the better you take care of it, the better off you're going to be. So here at the age of 60, thanks mostly to my teacher, I've still got somewhat of a voice.

Q: It's strange to think of Johnny Mathis being 60. You seem like the eternally young, romantic balladeer.

A: Unbelievable, isn't it? I go to the doctor all the time; there's always some little thing bugging me. I've got a little bit of arthritis because I was an athlete most of my life, and I wore down my hips and my knees. I have to take a couple of Tylenols before I go golfing, but other than that, I'm in pretty good shape.

Q: You were something of an anomaly when your career began, during the initial explosion of rock 'n' roll. You were a romantic in an era when people were singing about taking the bull by the horns, but it seems like you've come to be appreciated more by the rock crowd in recent years. It's OK to like Johnny Mathis. You're hip now.

A: It's very subjective. A lot of people like this, a lot of people like that; they change their minds. I know I've changed my mind over a period of years. I especially used to like rhythm-and-blues singers. I thought they were really the true artists. Then, of course, I liked the operatic legends like Richard Tucker, and I like [Placido] Domingo. I like romantic music, I like people like Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway--they sing with such compassion and such soul, as if it's the last song they're ever going to sing. I know how hard that is to do, because you don't have much inspiration in a studio. You've got four walls, a guy sitting behind a bunch of knobs. Things were different when I was growing up. I had to sing with a big orchestra like Percy Faith's or Don Costa's and, fortunately, people like Nelson Riddle. It was get or no get: No matter whether you sang well or not, they'd still release the record. It was quite a change for me to go into a studio once all this synthesized music started. There's nobody there--they all recorded their parts weeks ago. And yet for me, the music--especially the R&B stuff--sounded much better before than it does now.

Q: Were you a fan of Donald Mills of the Mills Brothers? I hear a lot of him in your voice.

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