“Chances Are,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” “Misty,” three songs that are immortalized in the Grammy Hall of Fame, songs that forged an indelible imprint on our musical heritage by Johnny Mathis. Like other musical icons whose voices are instantly recognizable, Mathis’ songs are notable for his distinctive sound, perfect pitch and sonorous vocals which seem to envelop you in a warm embrace. A national treasure at 86, Mathis exudes the kind of innocent exuberance of a man who seems more focused on gratitude for his many blessings than he is impressed with his own fame and vaunted status as the renowned voice of romance. Instead, he is a man who is deeply appreciative of the opportunities he was afforded from a young age and the people who came before him who paved the way. The son of domestic worker parents, Mathis scored his first recording contract by age 19. His path to stardom seems almost preordained, but this is part of the mystique of a man whose artistry and creative instincts are intertwined in a seemingly effortless way.
During our recent interview, Mathis reflects on his music, his upbringing, how he came to terms with his sexual orientation during an era where it was not socially acceptable, and the things that kept him grounded and healthy in mind, body and spirit.
Throughout our interview Johnny talked often and lovingly about his parents, particularly his father. One anecdote which seems almost too poetic to be true is how his father bought an upright piano for $25 when Johnny was a child. When he couldn’t fit it through the front door of their modest apartment, his father took it apart and reassembled it himself.
My father, God bless him, was my best pal. He is the reason I sing. He had seven kids, he and my mom. We used to drive around in the car all over San Francisco after he’d come home from work. We met a lot of different people who were appearing in nightclubs and what have you. And years later, they’d remember me. Oh yeah, I remember you, Johnny. You and your dad came in to see me. Lots of good memories.
While Johnny’s father taught him to sing as a young boy, Johnny explains that his father never sang above a whisper. Which is interesting given Johnny’s often delicate unforced phrasing. One of the more surprising things to come out of our interview was that when Johnny first listened to recordings of himself on a tape recorder, he did not like what he heard.
I got a chance to hear myself sing at an early age because we had a little recording device. And I would listen and try to correct myself because I always had sort of a high voice for a male. I thought I sounded like a girl and I hated it. I wanted to sound more like Billy Eckstein or some of these wonderful baritones. But it paid off later on in life.
Talk about an understatement. Mathis would go on to record 73 studio albums, 18 of which achieved Gold status, six of which earned Platinum status. He credits his father with having the foresight to encourage him to train with a vocal coach at an early age. Someone who Johnny credits with being responsible for his successful career.
My father said we have to find a voice teacher for you. And fortunately, I met this wonderful lady named Connie Cox. She was a wonderful voice teacher and she’s the one that I owe my career to because she took me on. I had no money, so I ran errands for her to pay for my voice lessons. I sat and I listened to her teach her students, which is when I really learned all about the technique of voice production. She taught me to sing in a manner without harming my vocal cords and that was a blessing for me.
You’ve had some incredible duet partners over the years. Women whose voices blended seamlessly with your own, people like Deniece Williams, Jane Olivor, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Barbra Streisand. If you had to choose one, who would be your favorite?
Oh gosh, my girlfriends will kill me if I didn’t mention them. I like them all for different reasons. And of course, they themselves are fantastic entertainers and musicians. It’s just fun to be with them and to try different approaches to different songs. I think the one that’s closest to me is Dionne Warwick. Dionne and I have been pals for a thousand years. She lives right down the street from me. But of course, I loved singing with Barbra Streisand. I even sang with Lena Horne. She was the first movie star singer that I knew and listened to.
What was it like recording with Barbra Streisand?
She was very professional. She told me years and years ago that I was one of the reasons that she was singing. And I was very flattered of course. We became good pals and did a lot of performances together.
One quote that has been attributed to Streisand: “There are a number of good singers, a smaller handful of truly great singers, and then there’s Johnny Mathis.” And in a Facebook post from 2015, Streisand wrote: “I saw Johnny Mathis on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was 15 years old. He was mesmerizing. Singing a duet with him was a dream come true!”
Can you tell me about your process in the recording studio? The songs that you’re so famous for, were you able to record them very quickly, like in one or two takes? Or did they take long to get it just right?
Oh, all of the above. You go in and you try something. I’d say nine times out of ten, it works. Sometimes, people in the hierarchy of the record company will suggest that maybe we could sell a lot of records if you sing this or you sing that. Their suggestions are usually driven by what’s worked in the past. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s fun to try all that stuff ‘cause you never know. I have one thought in mind when I sing. And it’s all about, is it a good song or not. And many times, I’ve sung songs that they suggested, and I didn’t particularly like the song, but it became a big hit. You just don’t know everything, but you have to have an open mind about it all.
Though Johnny was born in Texas, his family moved to San Francisco when he was four. The move from Texas to San Francisco would prove fortuitous given the cosmopolitan nature of the city with a thriving music scene and a relatively progressive attitude toward homosexuality, at least compared to Texas.
I was running around from the time I was 12 or 13 years old with some of my golfing buddies. And we would stop in at these nightclubs and music joints. I had a buddy of mine who was a horn player. His name was Virgil Gonzales. Virgil and I had a little band, and we would sneak into the nightclubs locally and practice in the afternoon when nobody was there. And then occasionally we would hang around and beg them to let us come in and see people like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, some of the great jazz musicians in the world. I was very fortunate to be brought up in that area.
Since you and your father were so close, were you open to him about being gay? Or was that something that was not discussed.
My dad, I saw him and some of his hunting buddies kissing and hugging, so it seemed very natural to me. And so it was like, “yeah, Pop, I do it too.” It’s no big deal. Being in show business, everybody says, ah that’s okay. Everybody’s a little bit gay.
So, your father was very open-minded.
I understand both of your parents were domestic workers, correct?
Once you started making a great living at a fairly young age, how did it feel to be able to give them the kind of life that they could have only dreamed of?
It was the joy of my life. We were raised in a little basement flat and there were seven of us children and we often had relatives that were passing through, and my dad would take them in. They would be sleeping on the floor and what have you. My dad was one of the kindest human beings I’ve ever met. From the time I was a little kid, I learned what it was like to share the opportunities you have that other people don’t. And that was a great learning process for me.
Despite having an accepting and loving family, the deeply ingrained societal pressures inhibited Johnny from being able to freely experience relationships with men. For someone whose music is so closely identified with romance, it seems particularly poignant that he himself was unable to fully experience it in his own personal life.
In those days, being gay was not commonplace. People didn’t think very highly of it. And so, I was kind of a loner. I couldn’t really associate with people because I knew the way I felt sexually. I was afraid that somebody would find out and I wouldn’t be able to pursue my life as a singer because of that. In those days, you didn’t talk about it and people thought it was strange or weird or crazy or something. But I eventually talked to my dad about it. And he said, everything’s cool, son, don’t worry about it. Go about your life, God loves you. And once I got that into my head, I relaxed and said, okay, maybe I’m a little different than most people. But as long as my dad doesn’t mind, I’m okay.
Johnny also talked about how the years he spent living outside the United States played an important role in his outlook and coming to terms with his sexuality.
I was fortunate enough to spend a number of years in Europe early on in my career. I lived in England, France and Germany. I learned a lot of things that you can’t know if you don’t travel. I became very understanding about things that people thought were not de rigueur or something of that nature. It was a real godsend. I began to like myself and know the important thing was that I didn’t harm anybody. I made my dad very very proud of me because he’s the reason I sing. And as long as I do just that, go about my business, don’t do any bad things to people, I’m okay.
Were there any other closeted celebrities during the era that you came of age that you were on good terms with?
Thousands. Girls, boys, all of ‘em. Later on in life, I found out. But you know, things change, society changes. Everything’s cool.
What was it like? I imagine at that time a lot of these clubs were almost like speakeasies. Did you go to some of those clubs where you were granted a certain degree of anonymity?
You name it, I did it.
Mathis recalls the positive impact of his travels abroad as his career took off and how liberating it was to see others embracing their sexuality.
I cannot tell you what a joy it was at a young age, because I started traveling when I was 18 years old all over the world. I met all these people involved in show business – actors, performers, dancers, singers. They were all absolutely embracing in every respect. I felt comfortable and at ease about every aspect of my life because of these people whom I admired. It was a revelation for a young person like myself and I became very relaxed and found out that about half of them felt the same way that I did about their personal life or sexual life.
Here I am at this age in my life, still healthy and mentally straight with the God in my life. I’ve been more or less religious all my life and made my association with Jesus and God. I used to go to church and talk to my ministers about being gay and being in the public. And they would remind me that Jesus loves you no matter what.
I know you also had a brief struggle with addiction.
I had a little run-in with drugs. But after hearing myself while recording, I said, whoa, I can’t do that anymore. It was a process. Fortunately, it didn’t hamper my success or my career. When you start getting successful as a performer, everybody knows every little nuance about you that comes out. And I didn’t want to embarrass my dad.
Mathis still performs regularly (38 concerts a year) and is an avid golfer. He also works out with a trainer 5 days a week, starting at 5am. He talked about the relationship between his active lifestyle and his health and his music.
I’ve been involved in athletics all my life, just as much as my music. And the two of them went hand in hand. I even competed in track and field as a high jumper and a hurdler.
I would be remiss not to set the record straight to compensate for Mathis’ modesty. Not only was he a competitive track and field athlete, but he attended San Francisco State College on an athletic scholarship and was offered the chance to try out for the U.S. Olympic team in 1956. But as fate would have it, he was offered a recording contract with Columbia Records that same year and decided to pursue a career in music.
We’re living in such divided times. Music has a way of bringing people together. Has your relationship with your fans evolved over the years?
I embrace everybody. I get opportunities to do good things, or to help people in so many ways. And over the years, some of the best things that I’ve ever done were not at all concerned with my music but embracing people who come to me. People who come to my performances and want to meet me and talk to me personally and privately. It’s not only put me at ease about my own way of life but being able to give them some sort of compassion when they come to me – because music is so personal. And I tell you, I’m at a happy place in my life.
Johnny also spoke about his friendship with one of America’s pre-eminent composers Cole Porter who was famously gay despite being married to a woman.
One of my favorite people in the world was Cole Porter. He was an invalid most of his life. But he was one of the greatest songwriters of all time. And he was very kind to me at an early age. I think I was about 12 or 13 years old when I met him. He had to be wheeled around in a wheelchair. I went on to record so many of his songs and I felt so blessed to know him on a personal level. Things like that have kept me progressing in life and realizing that I wasn’t the only one who went through all these traumatic things in life.
Johnny Mathis’ rendition of “A Time for Us” from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie Romeo and Juliet has always been a song I found hauntingly beautiful. The lyrics spoke directly to the forbidden love between two lovers from feuding families. With lyrics like “A time for us, someday there’ll be, when chains are torn by courage, born of a love that’s free,” I was curious to know if, as a gay man, the lyrics held a special meaning for him when he recorded that song.
I never equated it to me personally. My singing always encompassed everybody. I didn’t sing for one section of the world or one type of person. I sang for everybody. And that’s what it’s all about as far as music is concerned.
Finding what’s universal to all people.
That’s what music does.
Last modified: August 2, 2022