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Helen Noga, 88; Club Owner Made Johnny Mathis Into a Star

April 10, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Helen Noga, the feisty music industry player who discovered the young Johnny Mathis and tough-mindedly developed his extraordinary singing career, has died at the age of 88.

Noga died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of heart failure, according to her publicist, Warren Cowan.

In the mid-1950s, Noga and her husband, John [who died in 1999], owned two San Francisco jazz clubs, the Black Hawk and the Downbeat. The clubs attracted to their small stages many of the world's finest jazz musicians, including Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday.

A San Francisco State sextet, fronted by a 19-year-old singer named Johnny Mathis, was eager to try its chops in Sunday afternoon jam sessions at the Black Hawk.

Noga's ears perked up at Mathis' high-ranging voice, which would soon weave itself into national consciousness with such recordings as "Wonderful! Wonderful!" "It's Not for Me to Say," "Chances Are" and "The Twelfth of Never."

Noga immediately established herself as Mathis' manager, arranged other club bookings and called George Avakian, head of jazz at Columbia Records.

Avakian heard Mathis sing a haunting version of "Tenderly" and, as the legend goes, cabled his record company's home office: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts."

The Nogas sold their clubs and moved to Beverly Hills, where the young singer lived with them from 1958 until he severed their business relationship in 1964. During that time, Helen Noga launched him, making certain he got the career-boosting attention he needed, even if it meant dressing the non-tennis-playing Mathis in tennis whites for photo shoots.

Insisting on proper treatment for her protege, Noga refused to sign a contract for Mathis with the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas unless they allowed him to come and go through the front door--a privilege denied earlier African American performers, including Nat "King" Cole.

After her decade of working with Mathis, Noga wrote a novel, "Ayisha," published in 1972, the story of a love affair between a Turkish Muslim and an Armenian Christian.

In her long career, Noga also worked with Phil Spector to found and fund Philly Records.

She is survived by a daughter, Beverly; a granddaughter and two great-granddaughters.

Funeral services are planned at 1 p.m. Friday at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in the Hollywood Hills.

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