I was quite the impressionist when I was a young boy, and that talent carried over into adulthood. One of the impersonations I did was the legendary singer Johnny Mathis. I grew up after he rocketed to global stardom, but I heard his songs constantly whether it was at home or while visiting friends and family.
Inevitably, through osmosis probably, I began to sing like Mathis, and at family parties, I was always called upon to mimic Richard Nixon, Rodney Dangerfield, and Mathis, to great adulation.
Thinking back, I’m convinced that Mathis was most likely one of my first celebrity crushes. At that time, even in his 40s, Mathis was a supremely good-looking man. And it wasn’t until later in my life, actually not that long ago, that I learned he was gay. Mathis has always been a little reluctant to talk about his personal life.
First, for those unfamiliar with Mathis, or for those who need a refresher course, here's a brief history of this music legend. Mathis began his singing career in 1956. In 1957, Mathis shot to stardom after appearing on the popular Ed Sullivan Show on CBS, and later that year released his first number 1 hit and one of his all-time greatest songs, “Chances Are.” He went on to record nearly 80 albums, 18 of which sold over 500,000, and 43 songs that made the Billboard top 100.
He has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Mathis was Justin Bieber before there was a Justin Bieber. He was an international superstar and heartthrob. He’s often been compared to legendary crooner Nat King Cole, and his contemporaries include other legendary performers such as Neil Sedaka, Andy Williams, and Barbra Streisand.
And, since it’s the holiday season, it’s worth noting that his Christmas albums have been best sellers for decades.
Thus, when the opportunity arose to speak with Mathis for this column, I switched my workout music station to his songs. I work out about two hours a day, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Johnny Mathis lately, and this time paying close attention.
It was remarkable how calm it made me feel. His voice, and his voice alone, carries his songs. There are no melodramatic bursts of guitars or drums, or screams of passion from the singer. It’s just that voice that evokes serenity and gentleness that to me, seems unmatched.
Mathis is celebrating 65 years in the business this year, and in September he marked his 86th birthday.
When I picked up the phone for our call, I heard that unmistakable voice, “Hi, it’s John Mathis.” That’s when it hit me that on the other end was a verifiable legend, an international superstar at one time, who is still crooning his way through life. I congratulated him on his 65th year. Does it seem like it was that long ago when you were mobbed by adoring crowds around the world? I asked.
“No, it doesn’t,” he said with a hearty laugh that popped up throughout our long conversation. “I look in the mirror every day and say that’s still you and you’re still here. Maybe I have a little less hair, but I have my health, and I go to the gym five days a week, and that habit stretches back all the way to when I was on my high school track team.”
Sixty-five years later, Mathis is celebrating by going back out on tour for the first time since before the pandemic. I asked him if he still looks forward to touring and getting up onstage to sing. “I still get excited about every performance, and always tell myself you gotta do your best,” he said.
For Mathis, his style was cultivated at a young age. “When I was growing up, ballad singing was everything. And a wonderful lady by the name of Connie Cox heard me sing when I was 13, and she worked with me for almost 16 years. It was my dad who pushed me to pursue singing. He was always my biggest supporter and my very best friend.”
Mathis had a happy childhood, with six brothers and sisters, and he was raised by parents who he adored, and who were a mixed-race couple. “My dad was white, and my mom was black. And my dad had a lot of Latin influence in him.”
What was it like for Mathis to grow up in a mixed-race household? Were there any issues or problems having a white dad and a black mom? “I wasn’t even aware that there was anything different about it until I started singing and traveling in the South,” he said. “They’d let me sing, and that was it. I couldn’t sit with them, or stay in their hotels or eat in their restaurants. I couldn’t do certain things, but I didn’t get angry."
Being a person of color and being treated differently, was something that Mathis experienced firsthand. And there was also the fact that he was gay, another attribute that could have been detrimental to his life and his career.
In 1982, Mathis was quoted in an Us magazine article, saying, “Homosexuality is a way of life that I've grown accustomed to.” He said after the publication of the article that the comment was supposed to have been off the record, and thereafter he did not speak publicly about his sexual orientation for many years. He later said that the reason he kept quiet was that he had received death threats as a result of that offhand comment.
Was life more difficult after the Us story became big news? “Yes, it was difficult. Back then, you didn’t talk about things like that; however, I never worried about it too much. I just kept thinking that being gay didn’t affect my performance or how the audience reacted to my singing. I just resolved to myself that everything was going to be OK."
“Over the years, I’ve had a lot of psychiatrist friends, many I met through golf. And I’ve had plenty of conversations with them about being gay. I’ve come to the realization at this age that my sexuality is always going to be a source of interest because I’m a public figure, and I just thank God that society has changed and that being gay is not such a big deal anymore and that society is more accepting.”
Have there been any serious relationships for Mathis along the way? “Absolutely, but I was never going to get married, mostly because I have been so busy all my life, and I mean that. My whole life I felt that my parents had the perfect marriage, so it would be hard to top that."
"Also, I’m lucky that I have so many friends that I can rely on emotionally as well as with my sexuality. I have had a lot of good buddies and pals where I don’t have the responsibility of living with them. It might be a generational thing, but I don’t feel like you always have to live with someone to love them.”
Mathis has had a lifelong love affair with golf. "Wherever I go, I bring my clubs. I hosted the Senior Tour for a number of years and sang at all the receptions. Lee Trevino is one of my best buddies. I’ve played with all the greats, Nicklaus, Palmer, and Player. It’s been a dream come true to be able to have had the chance to play with so many amazing golfers.”
When I asked what his handicap was, I almost fell out of my chair at the answer. “My game has really gotten better as I got older. Right now, I have a 2-3 handicap, so for someone my age, that’s pretty good. I always get razzed from my fellow golfers, who say, ‘Mathis, how do you do it?’ And by the way, just for the record, I don’t cheat,” he chuckled.
Was there anything left for Mathis to do? “I’m still searching for someone to sing with. The pandemic has changed things so we can’t socialize like we used to. But I’m waiting for someone. I love singing in tandem. I’ve been around a lot of great musicians and have plenty of great singing girlfriends, but in the end it’s up to the record companies to decide what will sell. But right now, God put me on this earth to sing, and so that’s what I intend to keep doing.”
Read more of this interview with Johnny Mathis in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of The Advocate.