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(Soundbite of song "Wonderful, Wonderful")

Mr. JOHNNY MATHIS (Singer): (Singing) Sometimes we walk hand-in-hand by the sea and we breathe in the cool salty air. You turn to me with a kiss in your eyes and my heart feels a thrill beyond compare...

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From "Chances Are" to "Wonderful, Wonderful," the voice of Johnny Mathis has been the soundtrack to many of our lives. It might be hard for some to believe that his unmistakable sound has been with us now for 50 years. His talent was recognized almost from the start. He became the first black entertainer to become a millionaire before the age of 21. He's received three Grammy awards in his career. He's performed around the world and before more heads of state than any other performer, and he's recorded with many of the greats in the music industry: Gladys Knight, Denise Williams, Liza Minnelli and Lena Horne.

Johnny Mathis is celebrating his 50th anniversary with a television concert and two retrospective CDs. He joins us in the studios of NPR West. Good morning, Johnny Mathis.

Mr. MATHIS: Good morning.

SEABROOK: Fifty years in show business, but you're not planning one of these gigantic, you know, big event tours. How come?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: Celebrations have always been a little - you feel grateful, but, you know, a little embarrassed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: So I don't - I did have quite a celebration recently, I must admit. I was given an award that was named in honor of Ella Fitzgerald, and when I was growing up as a child in San Francisco, there was a very famous nightclub called the Black Hawk, and it was quite near the big amphitheater there where all of the great jazz artists came through. There was Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins, and Ella Fitzgerald always sang.

And she became not only one of my favorite singers, I can name them on one hand, but she was one of the nicest ladies I've ever met in my life. So to have an award given to me in honor of her was really - so far has been the highlight of my award ceremonies.

SEABROOK: You grew up in a family with six kids. Your father, Clem Mathis, was a vaudeville performer. Did he encourage you to sing?

Mr. MATHIS: Dad was my mentor. He was not only my mentor, but he was my best buddy. He played the piano, which I never realized until he bought one for $25 and tore it apart to get it into this tiny little apartment that we all lived in. And by the time he did it, it was after midnight, and he started to play, and all of my brothers and sisters were agog because we never knew he could play.

He played every night of his life after he came home from work. No matter how late it was, he would sit down at the piano in his work clothes. He sang what he called sweet songs, songs like Irving Berlin's "Always," and it was rather sophisticated for a black man with a large family to know music of that nature.

He had lots of interests, and he was a great, great inspiration to me. He used to tell me that I really wouldn't have any fun if I became too famous, and I said, well, I don't think you have to worry about that, Pop.

SEABROOK: It's funny, because you could have had many careers, couldn't you have? I mean, in school you were a star athlete in track and high jump, in 1956 invited to join the Olympic team for the games to be played in Australia that year.

Mr. MATHIS: I have to tell you that Bill Russell is a very close friend of mine, and the reason that I wanted to go to the Olympics - I had a chance to go to the Olympic trials as a high-jumper, and the reason I wanted to go was because Bill was going, along with Casey Jones. They were, I think, co-captains of the basketball team for the U.S.A., and eventually brought home the gold record - the gold album - the gold medal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: Listen to me. I'm equating everything to music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: But they like music. They like my music.

SEABROOK: But as I understand it, a jazz producer named George Avakian had heard you sing in a club in San Francisco and sent a telegram to Columbia Records, saying, Have found phenomenal 19-year boy who could go all the way. Send blank contract.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: Sounds like I'm rich already, doesn't it? But I wasn't, because I think I got a penny on every record sold, or something to that nature.

(Soundbite of song)

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

SEABROOK: Do you remember what it was like going into the studio at 19 years old?

Mr. MATHIS: Well, I was frightened to death because I was discovered, as you mentioned, by George Avakian. And George was the head of jazz music at Columbia Records at the time that I was signed, and he wanted me to become a jazz singer. This is the first recording that I made, with all these jazz musicians, and I sang things like "Babalu" in a language that was supposed to be Spanish, but it turned out to be gibberish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: What else did I record? I recorded "Caravan" because I admired Dizzy Gillespie so much. So I got connected with a man by the name of Mitch Miller, who was in charge of popular music, and he didn't like they way I sang, he didn't like what I was singing. Nobody did, as a matter of fact. And then later on, when I met Mitch Miller, I sort of fell into a niche whereas I wasn't trying to impress anybody, I just sort of sang what - the way I sounded naturally, and out came songs like "The Twelfth of Never," "Wonderful! Wonderful!", "Chances Are," "Misty," "When Sunny Gets Blue" - I always liked that because that was kind of the jazziest song that I sang.

(Soundbite of song "When Sunny Gets Blue")

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) When Sunny gets blue, her eyes get grey and cloudy. Then the rain begins to fall. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, love is gone so what can matter? No sweet love of mine comes to call. When Sunny gets blue, she breathes a sigh of sadness like the wind that stirs the trees, wind that sets the leaves to swayin' like some violins a playin' weird and haunting melodies...

SEABROOK: With hits like "Wonderful! Wonderful!", "It's Not for Me to Say," Hollywood came calling to you, putting you in a couple of films. You were a top pick to sing movie title songs, and you turned those songs into hits, like "A Certain Smile," like "Wild is the Wind." How did it feel to have that kind of instant celebrity?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: Well, you know, I had no intention, unfortunately, against the wishes of my business manager at the time, of becoming an actor, because I couldn't act. I just was not an actor. I was a singer. We had several scripts. One was about the first black saint. The other one was about a pimp in Harlem, and so I said well, hmm, got any singing in there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Which is it? Are you - did you play the pimp or the saint?

Mr. MATHIS: I didn't play either.

SEABROOK: Good for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: No, no.

SEABROOK: You said that you sort of hide from the fame a little bit these days, and did you do that when you first came out in movies? I mean, you were gigantic.

Mr. MATHIS: Yeah, I did. In the beginning, it was difficult to get started because I wasn't old enough to have the savoir faire of someone like Nat Cole, who, by the way, is my favorite singer, or someone like Vic Damone, Tony Bennett. They were a little bit older than I was, and so they got to sing in these big, lush nightclubs. But I was too young. Some of them, I was too young to even go into. So what I did was I went to colleges, universities, all over the United States, and I sang in gymnasiums, and we charged maybe 25, 50 cents, and that's the way I got my start.

(Soundbite of Atlantic city concert)

ANNOUNCER: Live from the elegant Tropicana Resort in Atlantic City, home of the critically acclaimed The Quarter, a celebration of 50 years of the music and memory of the great Johnny Mathis.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MATHIS: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening and welcome, welcome to our performance. I'm going to sing some of the oldies, so it would be a nice intro if I could say let's hear one now.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) Chances are 'cause I wear a silly grin the moment you come into view, chances are you think that I'm in love with you...

SEABROOK: You recently recorded a concert in Atlantic City marking 50 years in show business. That will be shown on public television in December. Tell us about that show, and how did the audience respond to seeing you?

Mr. MATHIS: Well, they were very nervous, because most of the people in the audience were fans of mine who had been to every concert and they were a little nervous for me because they didn't want to get in the way of the camera angle. They wanted me to be the star.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: After all this time, is there a song or two that are favorites of yours to perform, or is there a song or two that the audience won't let you off the stage unless you sing?

Mr. MATHIS: Well, there's what I call the holy trinity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATHIS: I can sing "Chances Are," "The Twelfth of Never," and "Misty," and if I sing those three songs, then I can sing anything I want to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Johnny Mathis, we're happy you took the time away to spend some time with us. Thank you so much for 50 years of great music.

Mr. MATHIS: Well, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) Let's go, let's go...

SEABROOK: The Johnny Mathis concert special is on public television stations this month. His CDs, "A 50th Anniversary Celebration" and "A 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration," are in stores now. Also, there's music, video and more on our Web site, npr.org.

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