50 Years Of Johnny Mathis

Johnny Mathis in New York, April 2000
AP Photo
"Music," singer Johnny Mathis said, "is a wonderful memory maker ... it'll take you immediately out of yourself and out of the present and put you where you want to go."

If anyone should know about music and memories, it's Mathis, who this year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first recording. In honor of this milestone, he has released two anniversary albums, one containing Christmas music (including his popular renditions of "Sleigh Ride" and "The Christmas Song"), the other hits like "Chances Are."

Mathis, 71, grew up the son of a housekeeper and a chef in San Francisco. He was one of seven kids, and the family struggled financially. His father was the first person to recognize his talent, he told Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver.

"We had no money," Mathis said. "My dad always told people, we weren't poor, we just had no money."

It was his dad, Clem, who taught Mathis his first song, "My Blue Heaven." When he was 12, Mathis's father took him to a voice teacher, Connie Cox, with whom he studied for six years. Since the family was short on cash, Mathis ran odd jobs to pay for lessons.

It paid off. Mathis' voice has been likened to velvet or silk gliding over honey and he still credits Cox.

"My voice hadn't really changed yet," Mathis said. "And I'd come in one day, I sounded like Ella Fitzgerald and the next day I sounded like Billy Eckstine. And she said, 'You want to keep them both.'"

When Mathis was 19 and singing in a club, a talent scout from New York came to hear him and his legendary career was born.

He sent to Columbia Records a telegram which said: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way ... Send contracts!"

"Yeah, I still have that telegram," Mathis said. "It somehow ended up in the hands of my older sister and she begrudgingly gave it to me as a gift one day."

But Mathis was also a gifted athlete who had set college records in the high jump. To his dismay, at the very moment he was invited to New York for his first recording session, he was also scheduled to try out for the 1956 Olympic track team.

"Because I really wanted to have a shot at high jumping in the Olympics, but one look at my dad and I knew that he wanted me to make my first recording and he figured that ... if nothing really happened with the recording that I could always high jump next year," Mathis said.

But he never did go back. He got his big break in New York, when conductor and arranger Mitch Miller told him to look over a stack of music and choose three or four songs. He chose "Wonderful, Wonderful," the song that launched his career and his luxurious lifestyle.

For 44 years, Mathis has lived in a lavish house which is said to have been built by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

Over the years, he has released more than 100 albums. In 1958 — only two years into that career — Mathis released "Johnny's Greatest Hits," which featured songs like "It's Not for Me To Say." The album stayed on the charts for 9½ years.

"But I didn't think too much of it, except now that I'm older, I do; I think quite a lot of it," he said.

His 1978 duet with Denise Williams, "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," also hit number one, but personally, Mathis endured some serious problems. He struggled with and overcame prescription drug and alcohol addiction and now finds stress release in playing golf.

Mathis's personal life has always been subject to speculation but he says none of his relationships ever evolved into something permanent, but he is a "happy guy."

His voice is still strong, and he never gets tired of performing classics like "Misty," though he acknowledges those high notes are a bit harder to hit.

"It's a high wire act and every night I go out on stage and wonder if I'm going to hit the high note," he said.

Still, Mathis has no plans to retire and still marvels at his enduring career.

"How on earth does something like that happen?" he said. "But it has happened, and I think it is up to me to see how long I can drag it out."