Singer Johnny Mathis is a record breaker. Known for his velvety voice, he’s been charming his audiences since the 1950s with singles like “Chances Are,” “It’s Not For Me To Say,” and “Misty.” His greatest hits album is noted in the Guinness Book of World Records for staying nearly 10 years on the Billboard Top Albums Chart. As a young athlete he broke the San Francisco State College record for high jumping and was invited to go to the Olympic trials. He’s been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame twice, and helped open doors for black entertainers throughout his career.
But these days, Mathis, who just turned 80-years-old on Sept. 30, is more interested in reminiscing about his humble beginnings than stroking his own ego. He’s as kind and cordial as you could possibly imagine and still working hard. Chances are, he’ll be breaking more records in the years to come.
See Johnny Mathis live at Pantages Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 8. Tickets are $89-$169. It is a benefit concert in support of arts education.
What did your parents do for a living, and how did they influence you as a kid?
My dad and my mom are my big heroes really. They raised seven children on domestic wages and we came out unscathed. I had the wonderful fortune of standing next to my dad while he played piano and sang. And that’s how I got involved in singing.
Tell me a little about your voice teacher Connie Cox? Would you be a singer without her?
Connie Cox had several students she taught free of charge. She was an opera singer herself and she had several students that were talented that she knew she could help who didn’t have any money like me. She worked with me for six or seven years and that was the foundation of my musical beginning. (Mathis also did odd jobs around her house in exchange for lessons).
You were high jumper and asked to attend the trials for the 1956 Olympic teams but at the same time Columbia Records requested you come to New York. Why did you choose music over sports?
I think most people who are involved with athletics will tell you that they love what they’re doing but something is always bothering them whether it’s their legs, their back, their ankle. I was in that category, I was a high jumper and a hurdler and I wanted to try out but that same week I got lucky enough to go to New York to make my first recording. And I was kind of happy!
Are you still an athlete today? Do you still play sports?
I don’t. But I think my athletic endeavors got me interested in workouts. The last 25 years I’ve been working out with a trainer five days a week and I’ve kept that up and it seems to agree with me.
Johnny’s Greatest Hits went on to become one of the most popular albums of all time. Did you ever expect that kind of success?
Oh gosh no … I was out of the country at the time that they wanted to make a new album. I wasn’t available. So they put the first four or five recording singles that I had made together on an album and called it Johnny’s Greatest Hits and I think it might be my biggest selling album. I’m not sure. That was the beginning of my album career and it’s very, very gratifying.
How do you so stay humble?
Haha! I have a lot to be humble about. Mostly I’ve spent my life learning to sing. And that is the thing that I really love to do. I can’t really think of anything else I know how to do. I cook. I cook all my own meals but a lot of people can do that!
What are you good at cooking?
My mom and my dad made their livings and supported us by cooking for a lot of wealthy people… I kind of watched over them and wanted to cook. I have a lot of cookbooks and love the idea of spending 5 to 6 hours doing nothing but cooking one meal.
You’ve sang for many presidents. What was that like?
I’ve sang at the White House quite a lot for one, two, three and four Presidents and that was interesting and kind of nerve wracking because the room that I sang in is called the East Room. It’s all made out of hardwood and it’s very small and everybody sits on hardback chairs. It’s kind of nerve wracking and not very comfortable.
Do you ever get nervous still?
Yes I think most people that do what I do get a little bit nervous. As the years go on you learn tricks and ways to kind of get rid of the nervousness. A little bit of nerves is good because it’s like a cat with its paws out, you’re all ready to do it.
So what’s one of your tricks?
Exercise before I sing! I do 15 to 20 minutes of exercise before I sing and that helps a great deal.
You sang “Over the Rainbow” with Ray Charles on his “Genius Loves Company” album. What did it feel like when you found out Charles requested that song be played at his memorial service?
That was one of the most gratifying things in my career. I have great respect for Ray Charles.
You’ve been in the music industry for so long, you’ve seen this country go through some turbulent times, especially when it comes to race. Did you ever feel discriminated against? And how did you combat that?
I came along, the celebrity aspect of my career, after so many extraordinary people had gone before me and had broken the barrier in race relations especially in the South. People like Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, and on and on. And so when I came along that area had been opened. People were more accustomed to black performers like myself. But yes, there were a few instances when I had to sing in the South where there was some unpleasantness. The first thing I did was say, ‘Well I don’t have to sing in the South, I can sing in North the whole time.’ But that was the easy way out. I got accustomed to trying to do my best as far as breaking down racial barriers. And fortunately things have gotten much better.
You’re known for your Christmas music. How did that come about?
The reason I started singing Christmas music was because in school I sang in the choirs and at Christmas time the teacher would take us to the local department store and we would go way up in the back where no one could see us and we would sing Christmas carols to all the people downstairs shopping. So that’s how I got involved in Christmas music but I’ve always loved it. The first thing that I did when I had a couple of hit records is ask the record company if I could sing some Christmas music because my dad and my mom made Christmas for us so special … Now every year at Christmas time I hear my music on the radio and it’s very gratifying.
What do you think of music these days?
The stuff nowadays in the United States is kind of, oh, it’s not particularly interesting to me. I’m trying to compile an album of songs of current popular music in the United States. And it’s a little difficult. It’s not great music; it’s fun music.
How do you listen to music? Do you have an iPod?
I have an iPod and I also have a wonderful car that has a great system in it for playing records.
Do you sing every day?
I don’t spend much time singing if I don’t have to but I’m very, very aware of whether my voice is in good shape or not. (He’ll test scales as he walks around).
You have many nieces and nephews (over 15!). Are you the super cool uncle to them?
Oh, I am! I spoil them rotten. But you know what, they’re the children of my brothers and sisters so they’ve grown up listening to me. They know everything that I’ve ever sung. And so music has brought us really close together. And some of them are really quite wonderful children, and people. A lot of them are all grown up now.
Have you ever been to Tacoma?
Yes I have. I don’t remember when but I had a wonderful promoter in that part of the country. He has since died but he was really quite wonderful and he presented me in concert many, many times in the great Northwest. I’d I’m looking forward to my concert very much.