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Preview: Johnny Mathis on racism, and how Nancy Reagan saved his life

Preview: Johnny Mathis
Preview: Johnny Mathis 01:12

Legendary singer Johnny Mathis credits Nancy Reagan with saving his life and opens up to Nancy Giles about racism and a new collection of contemporary music, in an interview with CBS' "Sunday Morning" to be broadcast May 14.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mathis, 81, recalls the former first lady saw him performing and was concerned about him.

"We were sitting around, you know. I was drinking and she suggested I might have a problem," Mathis says. "I said, 'Probably not, but what do you have in mind?' And so she sent me to a place called Havre de Grace in Maryland, and 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."

Singer Johnny Mathis arrives in London in 1961. Brian Calvert/AP

Mathis has been making music since the 1950s. Indeed, his 1958 album "Johnny's Greatest Hits" was on the charts for nearly decade. But despite the success, Mathis still had to deal with racism on the road. He recalled a time performing at a hotel in Las Vegas, though he was forced to stay in another place because of his color. 

"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.' God bless my mom and dad; they said, 'Son, so what?'"

It wasn't something he could avoid, however. "There was a time when I was in the South, singing, and someone came to me before the show and said there's been a threat on your life. Someone had phoned in and said they were going to shoot you if you go on stage," Mathis tells Giles. "I was singing 'Chances Are' and I kept moving, so they wouldn't have a shot at me."

Mathis also talks with Giles about his new collection of music produced by Kenny (Babyface) Edmonds; how he rebounded after his home burned in 2015; and the fallout from a 1982 magazine interview where he said, "Homosexuality is a way of life that I've grown accustomed to."

Johnny Mathis with Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds in the recording studio. The two have collaborate don a new album, "Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook." CBS News

The Emmy Award-winning "CBS Sunday Morning," hosted by Jane Pauley, is broadcast on CBS Sundays beginning at 9:00 a.m. ET. Executive producer is Rand Morrison.

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