Singer Johnny Mathis's Long Career

Johnny Mathis

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Ed Gordon talks with balladeer Johnny Mathis about his long and storied career. Mathis has enjoyed a string of number-one pop hits in the past four decades.

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ED GORDON, host:

We, of course, will continue to cover the devastation and aftermath of Katrina. But now we turn our attention to the lighter side. For almost half a century, people have fallen in love to and fallen in love with Johnny Mathis' signature sound. Mathis is best known for light, swinging, romantic ballads, but his latest CD includes many kinds of music, including Tin Pan Alley standards, show tunes and bossa nova classics.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNNY MATHIS: (Singing) It's not for me to say you'll always care.

I sang when I was a little kid. I started singing actually in public when I was about five or six.

GORDON: I've read that 2006--and this is hard to believe--will mark your 50th year in show business. Is that right?

Mr. MATHIS: Fifty years of probably recording, yeah.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, before we get into your latest project, Johnny Mathis really has crossed so many social, economic, race boundaries through his years. I think that some would be very surprised that you are a native of Texas.

Mr. MATHIS: Yeah. Well, I was born in Texas, born in a little town called Gilmer, but my dad had the good fortune of moving all of us--I have six brothers and sisters--and he moved us to San Francisco, and I grew up there. I sang in jazz clubs and then at a very early age, I met people like Lena Horne and Billy Eckstine and Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Many, many of them are still very, very close friends of mine to this day.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) Chances are, 'cause I wear a silly grin the moment you come into view.

GORDON: You had a number one hit with "Chances Are." Some almost 21 years later, you and Deniece Williams had another number one hit, "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late."

(Soundbite of "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late")

Ms. DENIECE WILLIAMS and Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) Too much, too little, too late to ever try again. Too much, too little...

GORDON: And that again goes to that longevity, and much of that, I think, has to do with the material you pick, which gets me into the latest project. Talk to me about why you decided to do a CD of standards.

Mr. MATHIS: Well, I've been singing standards all my life. All of a sudden, they became popular through Rod Stewart and...

GORDON: Natalie Cole and many others.

Mr. MATHIS: Yeah. And my goodness, I said, `Oh, this is right down my alley. This is what I've been singing all my life.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MATHIS: They said, `We want you to sing the most popular songs from the American musical theater that you haven't sung in the past.'

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) And day by day, my love seems to grow.

I called the office and said, `Have I ever sung that?' and they said, `Oh, yes, you sung that for so-and-so and so-and-so' and so I sat down and finally came up with a list of nine songs that I hadn't recorded that were very familiar to the public.

GORDON: Do you have a favorite on the CD?

Mr. MATHIS: Yeah. I do. My favorite is "Dindi" by Tom Jobim.

(Soundbite of "Dindi")

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) Don't you know, Dindi, I've been running and searching for you like a river that can't find the sea, I could be without you, my Dindi...

And I also like Paul Williams' song, "Rainbow Connection."

(Soundbite of "Rainbow Connection")

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) ...illusions. Rainbows have nothing to hide...

I like that. I like them all. You know, I rem...

GORDON: So it's almost like asking you about your favorite child, right?

(Soundbite of "Rainbow Connection")

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) ...connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me. Well, who said that...

GORDON: Finally, let's talk about the tour that you're on. I know that September 8th, you'll be in San Diego at Humphrey's Concerts By the Bay. Talk to me about this particular tour and the rigors of touring and whether you still look forward to getting out on the road.

Mr. MATHIS: Well, that's a very bittersweet thing with me. Oh, traveling used to be kind of glamorous. You know, you dress up and you'd go to the airport and people would maybe take a picture of you walking off the airplane. But it's gotten so rigorous and so difficult now that it is, in fact, the most difficult thing that I do. The concerts that I do, I try to at least get a direct route or I try to sing a little bit closer to home, which is what I'm doing now. I'm singing at Humphrey's, which is a lovely little setting. And then I'm also singing in Cerritos at the Performing Arts Center, which is a wonderful venue. In case people haven't seen it, they should take a look because it's a wonderful place to sing. They can change it and make it into whatever kind of venue they need to. And that's very cool.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) ...that's where you'll find me.

GORDON: Well, Johnny Mathis, it's been a true pleasure. For one who has sustained in, as I said earlier, a business that takes no prisoners and ofttimes throws away who is not the latest hit-maker, you have shown that cream does rise to the top, and we greatly appreciate you being with us today.

Mr. MATHIS: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Johnny Mathis' new CD is called "Isn't It Romantic: The Standards Album."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) Yes, it's over. Call it a day. Sorry that it had to end this way. No reason to pretend. We knew it had to end someday this way.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Guess it's over. The kicks are gone. What's the use of trying...

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) ...so little left for you and me, and it's clear to see...

Ms. WILLIAMS and Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) ...too much, too little, too late to lie again with you. Too much, too little, too late...

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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