Johnny Mathis

By Gaydos, Steven | Variety, January 4, 2019 | Go to article overview

Johnny Mathis


Gaydos, Steven, Variety


THAT TIMELESS VOICE YOU HEARD CAROLING YOU THROUGHOUT THE past 60 holiday seasons first came to national attention when the legendary singer Johnny Mathis released his debut album 65 years ago. Mathis was spotted in 1955 by Columbia Records, a promising "jazzer" as Mathis calls jazz artists, performing at San Francisco's Black Hawk nightclub and first noted in Variety in early 1956 at New York's Blue Angel.

When his first album failed to chart, his magnificent voice was soon put in the hands of Columbia's Mitch Miller, and the 1957 hit single "Wonderful Wonderful" was the beginning of Mathis' ascent to the top of charts and his status as beloved American balladeer. Credited with creating the first "greatest hits" album 60 years ago, Mathis is now ranked by Guinness as the third-biggest selling recording artist of the 20th century, with 360 million records sold. Mathis is touring and Feb. 24 plays Southern California's Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Your first gig at the Blue Angel was in March 1956 and you were recording your first album in New York City around that time. That was a big step up from the Black Hawk in San Francisco.

I was a little anxious about the fact that I was alone for the first time. I had spent years in my home base, which was San Francisco, and I was in a band with Merl Saunders beginning when I was about 13. He played piano and I sang and it was big deal. We used to dream, "Which one of us is going to get signed first?" It was all a big fantasy to us in those days.

Do you remember your first gig in New York?

I think I played the Vanguard before I played the Blue Angel. I was really on my best behavior. The Blue Angel was a very small room and everything was padded, quilted like the inside of a coffin. I remember I was warned, "Don't sing too loud." And only a piano for accompaniment. I only did about 10 minutes, but I was blessed because the accompanist was a man named Bart Howard, who was incredible. He wrote songs that Mabel Mercer did and her accompanist and he became famous for a song that back then was called "In Other Words. …

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