Masculine, Direct, Romantic, Swooning: the Greatest Hits of Johnny Mathis’s Early Career

By Daniel Garrett

Johnny Mathis, Greatest Hits
Sony Music/TGG Direct, 2010

There are strings, of course, in Johnny Mathis’s interpretation of “The Look of Love,” but there is also an odd rhythm underneath, possibly the sound of brush on a drum, nearly a scrapping sound, that reminded me, with some surprise, of some of the experimental effects on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album. The center of the song remains Mathis’s voice, in which he is in excellent control: it is masculine and direct and yet more than a little swooning. In “The Look of Love” and “Heavenly” the Texas-born John Royce Mathis presents love not only as attraction, affection, and desire, but as dreaminess.

John Royce Mathis, who as Johnny Mathis has recorded more than seventy-five albums, may be an institution: he has survived changes in musical taste and cultural history that have rendered other performers not merely irrelevant but laughable. The particular talent and taste of Mathis has gratified his audience, and attracted new listeners who appreciate musical appeal built on charm, intelligent lyrics, romance, and a soaring voice. Mathis is both fashioned in an old, traditional mold and timeless. I admired Johnny Mathis’s interpretation of the songs of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (In a Sentimental Mood), and his duets with Deniece Williams (including “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late”), but did not know much about his earlier recordings. I would hear snippets of his popular song “Chances Are,” and thought it embodied a very different time: but now hearing that composition about a probable romance, with Mathis’s clean, warm tone, lacking aggression, lacking crudity, its time and place seem that of the heart, a hope that the human spirit forever remembers. The song “Chances Are” is pretty, and so is Mathis’s voice. Johnny Mathis’s latter-day duets with Lena Horne and Barbra Streisand were recorded in an atmosphere of mutual admiration: each recognized that the other was holding on to a standard, a vision, that others had abandoned. Johnny Mathis’s accomplishment has been documented by the 1993 box set A Personal Collection, but it is an achievement Mathis continues to augment. I was surprised to realize that his performance of Diane Warren songs allowed me to take them more seriously.

When does a practitioner become a master? It seems to have happened some time ago for John Royce Mathis, who moved with his family from Texas to San Francisco when he was a boy, and in San Francisco studied with a classical voice teacher for six years. In college, Johnny Mathis, a gifted runner and jumper, was interested in both English literature and physical education, but Mathis, who liked Billy Eckstine and Nat Cole, joined a jazz band that presaged his early jazz recordings (A New Sound in Popular Song), which did not find an audience, leading him to move toward a more mainstream sound, that of romantic ballads. By the late 1950s, the African-American Mathis was famous, scoring many popular songs in 1957, songs that remain among his greatest hits. His work transcended the cultural barriers of the time. In “Wonderful, Wonderful,” the verses seem to have an Asian, specifically Chinese, rhythm, although the refrain is exultantly western. It is amusing to be reminded of how cultures are always gesturing across borders, and even oceans.

Mathis is considered to have a tenor voice, but sometimes he sounds like a baritone. His vibrato is distinct. Johnny Mathis’s phrasing is both formal and expressive, with long drawn-out notes, supported by strings, in “The More I See You.” The full, rich, warm way Mathis lets notes fill and hover gives testament to the text, but this is also singing that is about singing. His voice is tender, though with a hint of belt, in “It’s Not for Me to Say,” which has short, bright piano phrases, quite lovely piano playing. The simple focus and force of popular music, sometimes belittled, sometimes taken for granted, are yet what allow for the transference of energy from musician to listener. Mathis creates his own reality and shares that with his admirers.

Johnny Mathis’s mastery of enunciation and tone are consistently good, really impeccable, in “Up, Up and Away” and other songs; but “Up, Up and Away” can seem personable without being that intimate, and the choral voices in it are too loud and bland for my taste. Mathis gives the high notes in “Spanish Eyes” beauty and tenderness. “Where or When” is a romantic belter. Mathis’s voice is deep in “The Twelfth of Never,” a composition both formal and passionate, giving its higher, softer notes more effect; and his sound in “This Guy’s in Love with You” is precise, perfect. “This Guy’s in Love with You” has a slow, sultry somewhat swinging rhythm, patient but persistent, sexy. The yearning ballad “A Time for Us,” the love theme from the film Romeo and Juliet, offers the future possibility of utopia—but then much of Johnny Mathis’s music does.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.