Johnny Mathis: Wonderful! Wonderful!

There's no mistaking the voice of Johnny Mathis, but we're all apparently somewhat mistaken about his name, as he explained to Nancy Giles:

"It's the most personal thing that I do is sing," says Johnny Mathis. "Because I can't tell a lie. I want them to know exactly what I'm feeling."

Also, he prefers John to Johnny.

Chances are, if you're John Mathis, you've been revealing your feelings for a long time. "Chances Are" was his first #1 hit. He's been singing it since he made the recording back in 1957.

"I cannot tell you how lucky I am: the songs that I sing, I like!" he laughed.

The classic "Wonderful! Wonderful!" is also 60 years old:

Johnny Mathis - Wonderful! Wonderful! by CalangofCorona on YouTube

And being John Mathis means you sing a lot of Christmas songs -- at first, to please your mom. "My mom loved my Christmas music, so I did an awful lot of it!"

But Mathis felt it was time to enter this century. "I'm happy that I'm finally doing some contemporary music that was written shorter than 50 years ago! Now that I'm 81 years old, I can bust loose and have some fun!"

Though known for his lush ballads, Mathis does bust loose on his new album: "Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook," guided by Kenny Edmonds, the Grammy-winning singer and producer known as Babyface.

"Johnny's always had one of those voices that you'll never forget," Babyface told Giles. "It's part of our fabric of American history, American music."

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Johnny Mathis in the recording studio with producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Among the songs on his new album on contemporary classics like "Happy," "Hallelujah," and "I Believe I Can Fly."

CBS News

John Mathis was born in Texas, the fourth of seven children. The family moved to San Francisco when he was a small boy, where he grew up in a city without segregation. "It was heaven!" he said. "We knew nothing about racism. I never ever felt denied in any way."

He admired his father, a chef who played piano and had a beautiful voice. "He and I bonded because of music. The first time I heard him sing, that's it! That's you and me, pop!"

His father sent him to a voice teacher whose lessons included classical training. Mathis also excelled at basketball, hurdling and the high jump.

"I had a bad back, and every time I jumped, I felt it," he said.

So instead of pursuing a place at the Olympics, Mathis was invited to New York in 1956 to make his first records. His "Greatest Hits" album from 1958 was on the Billboard charts for nearly 10 years.

"It's Not for Me to Say" Johnny Mathis by catman916 on YouTube

It was only when Mathis achieved fame that he discovered the world was not like his idyllic San Francisco childhood. "When I went to Vegas I had to stay over there. And I said, 'You got this big hotel, why can't I stay there?' 'Oh, no, you have to stay over the railroad tracks, over in the colored section.'"

Giles asked, "Did it make you angry?"

"No, I laughed at it. I said, 'Don't be so stupid. What am I gonna do? I'm not gonna marry your daughter, you know? C'mon!'  And it's very funny, because everybody thought I was white! People told me that all the time. They said: 'We thought you were white.' I said, 'Oh, I'm not!'"

"But your picture was on your albums?"

"Yeah! There was a time when I was in the South, someone came to me before the show and said, 'There's been a threat on your life.' I was singing 'Chances Are,' and I kept moving, so that they wouldn't have a shot at me! And it was a few years before I felt comfortable going back to Atlanta."

In 1982, Mathis told Us Weekly something personal he has rarely discussed since. He said: "Homosexuality is a way of life that I've grown accustomed to."

He got death threats.

"Yeah, that was a revelation for me," Mathis said. "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. I didn't share, wanna, you know, anything about that.

"My dad had a wonderful, wonderful way about accepting things as they are, as opposed to the way we wish they would be. He said, 'Son, there a lot of people ain't gonna like you out there, you know?'"

"Well, that's an amazing thing, that he was so loving and so accepting," Giles said.

"He was my pal. I could tell him anything, and I did."

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Johnny Mathis with President and Mrs. Reagan at the White House, April 30, 1987.

CBS News

Former first lady Nancy Reagan was also a pal. "She invited me to sing at the White House on several occasions."

Mathis says Mrs. Reagan saved his life, after she saw him performing and grew concerned.  "We were sitting around," Mathis recalled. "I was drinking. And she suggested that I might have a problem. I said, 'Probably not, but what do you got in mind?' And so she sent me to a place called Havre de Grace in Maryland. 

"I was there with a bunch of Jesuit priests. I had three weeks of finding out why I drank, how I could stop. And it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life."

In November 2015, his Hollywood Hills home of 56 years was severely damaged in a fire. No one was hurt.

When times turn tough, Mathis remains determined, even upbeat: If your house is being repaired, just have the "Sunday Morning" crew and correspondent catch up with you at the golf course, your home away from home.

"Oh, what a terrible putt!"

Although we discovered his favorite sport doesn't really calm him.

Giles asked, "Does this relax you, the golf?"

"No. It's, it's …"

"What do you mean, no?"

"Well, it's very stressful," Mathis laughed. "You have to get the little ball in the hole all the time! Very stressful. But we love it."

While golf might be stressful, singing for millions of people makes John Mathis happy.

     
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