Johnny Mathis has had tremendous success as a pop singer in his long career, particularly in the 1950's and 1960's. Before he was able to achieve such success, he was faced with a very difficult career decision while still very young.
John Royce Mathis was born in 1935. Some sources list his place of birth as Gilmer, Texas, others as San Francisco. He was raised in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. Mathis sang in his church choir and excelled at athletics when growing up. Mathis was a hurdles champion, a world-class high jumper, and an excellent basketball player. He also spent years in voice training, beginning at age 13. He received encouragement from his father, who had been a vaudeville singer, and from his voice coach, Connie Cox.
He came to the attention of Helen Noga, who was a co-owner of the Black Hawk Club, a popular San Francisco nightclub. Mathis had very good range in his voice and was quite good at breath control, giving him an advantage over other young singers. He performed at the Black Hawk. He also was an outstanding athlete at George Washington High School and accepted a track scholarship to San Francisco State College. Singing and athletics were his two passions as a young man, and he excelled at both at an early age. Mathis was invited to Olympic trials as a track athlete but had come to the attention of Columbia Records' George Avakian, who invited him to a recording session in New York City. Mathis very much wished to pursue both endeavors, but the time had come to make a decision. In 1956, he headed to Columbia Records in New York City. He began to record, primarily as a jazz singer.
Mitch Miller, the well-regarded A&R man at Columbia, recognized Mathis' talent and suggested a change to singing pop ballads. Mathis made a number of such recordings and in the spring of 1957 he had his first pop hit with Wonderful, Wonderful, a record that went to #14. Other hits followed as the year went on: It's Not For Me To Say, Chances Are (which reached number 1), The Twelfth Of Never, and Wild Is The Wind. On most of these hits, the orchestra was conducted by Ray Conniff. Mathis sang in a light baritone and with a fast vibrato, giving his recordings a unique sound and helping him to stand out from the crowd. The year 1957 was quite good for Johnny Mathis, and by the time it ended he had established himself as an outstanding recording artist, at the age of 22.
Mathis, an avid golfer, was strong-willed, focused, and very talented. Recording some songs with words that were composed by Al Stillman and music by Robert Allen, and with various orchestra directors including Ray Ellis and Glenn Osser, he continued to produce hits. Over the next six years some of his more notable ones included A Certain Smile (from the movie of the same name), Small World (from the Broadway Musical Gypsy), Misty (which had been a hit for Erroll Garner in 1954), Gina, and What Will Mary Say. Many could be classified as love songs.
Helen Noga continued to serve as Mathis' manager. She bought a house in Beverly Hills in 1958, and Mathis moved in to it with her and her family. Eventually Mathis and Noga had a falling out which resulted in the filing of some law suits and their split in 1964. Mathis purchased an elaborate home in the Hollywood Hills that had originally been owned by billionaire Howard Hughes, a residence that Mathis still owns. He began a business partnership with Ray Haughn which worked quite well for both of them until Haughn's death in 1984. After that Mathis assumed responsibility for his own bookings, promotions, etc., and has proved to be quite successful in his business dealings.
Mathis' success with top forty pop songs hit a lull after 1963, but he remained quite popular in concert, and recorded albums that are among the best-selling of all time. From 1957 to 1984 he had 64 albums that placed in the top 200. Some of these that were top ten in album sales include Johnny's Geatest Hits in 1958, Heavenly in 1959 (both #1), Rhythms And Ballads of Broadway in 1960, Portrait Of Johnny in 1961, and Johnny's Newest Hits in 1963. His first album, Johnny's Greatest Hits, remained on the charts for ten years and his Christmas Album, Merry Christmas, spent five consecutive years on the top ten album chart.
In 1964 Mathis switched to the Mercury Records label. He continued recording albums and they sold well, most notably The Shadow Of Your Smile in 1966. He developed a problem with pills but was able to beat it, and he returned to Columbia by the end of the decade. Since then he has remained with Columbia. In 1972 his album Johnny Mathis' All-Time Greatest Hits was not a big seller, but it endured and sold well over the years until it eventually went gold.
Mathis sold some singles in Great Britain in the 70's, some produced by Thom Bell, such as the disco-inspired I'm Coming Home, I'm Stone In Love With You, and his Christmas entry that went to #1 there in 1976, When A Child Is Born. He recorded two albums as a duet with Deniece Williams in the late 70's, You Light Up My Life and That's What Friends Are For. A track from the first of these, Too Much, Too Little, Too Late, went on to become his second (and last) number one single. His final top forty single was another duet, this time with Dionne Warwick titled Friends In Love, in 1982.
Johnny Mathis had at least one album on the charts nearly every year for over thirty years. Some might say that his music is timeless. He has proven to be adept at many diferent types of musical styles, and is among the best-selling album artists of all time.
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