1986-present: Repertory singer
Mathis has focused on songbook style albums for the last 30 years with rare exception. From movie songs to Duke Ellington to 2010 era hits by Pharrell Williams, he continues to mine the riches of multiple eras and styles.
**=Highly recommended albums!
**#51: The Hollywood Musicals (with Henry Mancini)(1986): Though it is easy to frame Mathis as the king of ‘50s “makeout” music and dismiss his romantic crooning, the reality is that no one does dreamy, ethereal classic pop with the same flair and enthusiasm. Though rock critics rarely take this kind of music (e.g., film songs) seriously, the kinds of ballads composers like Vernon Duke, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Jerome Kern authored are a major touchstone in American popular music that continues to resonate. Partnering with the simpatico arrangements of Henry Mancini, with occasional choral backing, Mathis is completely in his element. His incredible vocal range combined with his interpretive persona as an eternally wide-eyed romantic gives new life to tunes like “When You wish Upon a Star,” and “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Mancini’s lush arrangements are surefooted, framing Mathis’s voice with the ideal level of cushioning for his voice to soar. A real triumph of taste and imagination.
**#53: Once in a While: (1988): Once you get past the very ‘80’s glossy keyboards, you will emerge impressed. Mathis sounds fabulous on an impressively varied group of songs from the Great American Songbook (“Once in a While”), ‘50’s pop (“I’m on the Outside Looking In”), Motown (“Ain’t No Woman [Like the One I’ve Got]”), and singer-songwriters Todd Rundgren (“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”) and Lauren Wood (“Fallen”) set to more contemporary rhythms. Astute at delivering the melodies and lyrics, Mathis sounds comfortably contemporary.
**#54: In The Still of the Night (1989): ‘50s nostalgia was big in the 1980’s so it seems obvious for Mathis to take a stab at it on this sweet and smooth tribute to '50's doo-wop, pre-rock pop, and early ‘60s pop. Because Mathis was at his vocal prime when many of these songs became hits, his approach feels informed by genuine enthusiasm for the songs and the artists rather than nostalgia. His producers blend acoustic instruments with '80's electronics to contemporize songs made famous by Jo Stafford (“You Belong to Me”), Brenda Lee (“All Alone I Am”), The Skyliners (“Since I Don’t Have You”), Ed Townsend (“For Your Love”), and even Buddy Holly (“True Love Ways”[!]). The result is a delightful confection, including two songs recorded with the vocal group Take 6.
**#56: In a Sentimental Mood: Mathis Sings Ellington (1990): One of Mathis’s most impressive vocal performances finds him focusing on the compositions of Duke Ellington, including songs by Billy Strayhorn (“Lush Life”) and Juan Tizol (“Perdido”) that were associated with his band. Though there are jazz soloists including pianist Fred Hersch, this is a ballad focused set with a few mid-tempo songs. Mathis’s voice is rich and clear throughout, and his performances are elegant and emotionally astute. This album was among the first nominated for the Grammy in the new Traditional Pop Vocal Performance category in 1991.
**#57: Better Together: The Duet Album (1991): Mathis is great on his own, but he definitely plays well with others. This unique compilation features eight duets from his various albums plus new duets with Patti Austin and Regina Belle, and a duet with Dionne Warwick on a song from the then unreleased album The Island.
#58: How Do You Keep the Music Playing? The Songs of Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (1993): Mathis, the romantic ballads of the Bergman-Legrands, and soaring strings are a logical match. Mathis actually recorded several of these songs in the late 60’s/early 70’s when they were new including, “What are you doing the rest of your life?” and “The Windmills of Your Mind.” That may be why it feels a bit anticlimactic. Most of the songs are well-worn, and aside from some jazzy piano playing and solid solos, trumpet and saxophone, nothing here is truly surprising musically. A lovely set of performances, but the familiarity of the material diminishes its impact.
#59: All About Love (1996): The one divergence from the repertory approach is this stab at mid-1990’s adult contemporary pop/soul. Aside from Stephen Bishop’s “One More Night” none of these songs are especially well-known. The production is smooth and Mathis is poised but nothing stands out.
#60: Because You Loved Me: Songs of Diane Warren (1998): In a return to his 1970’s approach, Mathis goes for covers of new-ish tunes here. Diane Warren’s sentimental ballads (“Look Away,” “Because You Loved Me,” “Un-break My Heart”) and peppy up-tempo songs (“Rhythm of the Night” Live for Loving You”) made her a staple of pop radio from the mid-1980’s through the late 1990s. Her songs are highly melodic, and feature undeniable hooks; but many music critics find her lyrics generic and dismiss her songs as L.A. pop hackwork. Undoubtedly, the commercial success of Michael Bolton, Toni Braxton, Peabo Bryson, Taylor Dayne, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, and others, drew Mathis to one of the songs of one of last bastions of sentimental romantic pop. Mathis is in great voice, but the songs vary in quality, and there’s a generic quality to the slick arrangements and repetitive background vocals that makes it blend into the background rather than standout.
**#61: Mathis on Broadway (2000): 40 years after releasing two sets of songs from the Great White Way, not to mention an enduring penchant for Broadway fare, Mathis focuses on 10 songs from musicals of the late 1980's-mid 1990's including Into the Woods, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Rent. He, and duet partners Betty Buckley and Nell Carter each featured on one cut apiece, sound glorious.
**#63: Isn’t It Romantic: The Standards Album (2005): Released during a resurgence of “standards” albums by rock singers such as Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper and Boz Scaggs, Mathis outshines then all. He is at his best here, soaring on a jaunty on “Day By Day” and delivering lovely renditions of classics like “Our Love is Here to Stay.” “Rainbow Connection” and “There’s a Kind of a Hush” are debatable “classics” but Mathis delivers warm, assured performances.
**#64: A Night to Remember (2008): This is a highly enjoyable cover album of “soft soul” material from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80's ranging from Bacharach and David’s “Walk On By” to DeBarge’s “All This Love.” Though hardly an advance of Mathis’s firmly cemented style, it reminds listeners of his ability to apply his core sound to a range of contemporary balladry across multiple decades, which he previously proved on several ‘70's “soft-soul” albums. Mathis is nearly unrivaled among singers of his generation for maintaining his vocal chops and bridging stylistic and generational gaps in his choice of material. Unlike slightly older peers like Tony Bennett and the late Rosemary Clooney, Mathis often sounds very comfortable singing post-60's pop/R&B material. In this sense, the album is an entertaining confection featuring a few high profile duets and in sleek, state-of-the art adult contemporary arrangements. It reiterates Mathis’s endurance as one of pop’s most pliable voices.
**#65: Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville (2010): Despite the rural cover art and the song selection, this is more of a country flavored pop set—strings with pedal steel accents--than a true country album. Regardless, the listener is struck by the consistency and strength of Mathis’s singing, especially since the set was recorded live in the studio. He begins with a wistful “What a Wonderful World”—which never really sounds countrypolitan—and then delves into more predictable material including pop-country standards like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Crazy,” and “Let it Be Me.” His performances are uniformly warm, and he projects a palpable yearning in “Crazy,” “Lovin’ Arms” (with Vince Gill’s harmonies), and “Let It Be Me” (recorded with Allison Krauss). His most surprising performances include an impassioned “Please Help Me I’m Falling” and a tender rendition of the folk standard “Shenandoah.”
#68: Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook (2017): Always one to keep his ear open to new sounds Mathis sifts through the catalogs of contemporary performers, including Adele, Bruno Mars, and Pharrell Williams (“Happy”) for his latest interpretive adventure. He also visits tunes made famous by some pop, soul and country stalwarts such as Whitney Houston (“Run to You”), R. Kelly (“I Believe I Can Fly”), Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah”), and Alan Jackson (“Remember When”), among others. The results vary, in part because of the intrusive use of pitch correction on several tracks. He is at his best on Peter Allen’s classic “Once Before I Go” and country singer Keith Urban’s charming 2016 hit “Blue Ain’t Your Color” where he can sing the story without competing with the original versions or production effects.
1980’s Rarities: Unreleased albums
#46: I Love My Lady: I know—the idea of someone with Mathis’s genteel, almost florid approach might seem like a misfit for the guitar-based funk of Chic, but the singer and group coalesce unexpectedly here. More in the vein of Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” funk-ish balladry than disco Mathis, who is openly gay, sometimes sounds a bit distant singing the very straight lyrics. However, the rhythms perk along in a way very familiar to people who listed to black radio circa 1980-82. A dated, but intriguing set of songs and performances.
**#48: Unforgettable: A Musical Tribute to Nat King Cole (1983): Mathis understandably idolized Cole, and like his idol, he has a warm tone, thoughtful phrasing, and a natural, emotionally restrained way with a lyric. Though he and Cole have very different timbres, Mathis is in his element here imbuing some of Cole’s signatures with his own style. Though he leans more toward ballads and mid-tempo songs than the swing songs in Cole’s repertoire, he is as skillful an interpreter of this material as anyone is. Natalie Cole sounds lovely and in command here, though she shows even greater aplomb on her 1991 blockbuster tribute.
**#55: The Island (1989): Contemporary listeners may find the sleek keyboard laden production a bit retro, but the vocal performances on these mostly Brazilian classics are some of Mathis’s best. The lithe nature of his voice is well suited to the gentle melodies and slinking rhythms. He also makes true lyric poetry out of the best lyrics here. In terms of the quality of the material, especially wistful songs like “Photograph,” “Your Smile,” and “Flower of Bahia,” and the passion in his voice, this is easily one of his most cohesive and enjoyable recordings.
#66: Odds & Ends: That’s What Keeps the Music Playing (2017): This 17-track compilation is exclusive to the boxed set. Interesting, if not essential, it features alternate takes of the Mathis hits “Teacher, Teacher” and “Wild is the Wind.” There are also five previously released tracks including his 1993 Westside Story duet with Barbra Streisand (“I Have A Love/One Hand, One Heart”), a 2007 version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” (recorded with saxophonist Dave Koz), and three Spanish tracks released previously on a 1993 Mathis boxed set Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection. The key tracks are 10 songs recorded from 1960-76. Most fall within the conventions of ‘60s pop yearning, such as the Anglicized French ballad, “Now That You’ve Gone” or ‘70s soft rock, most notably his take on jazz composers Johnny Mandel and Dave Frishberg’s “You Are There.”
1958-2013: ‘Tis the Season: Johnny Mathis does Christmas!
In the rock era, roughly beginning in 1955, the vocalist most associated with Christmas music is Johnny Mathis. Mathis, whom I have described previously in a 2010 essay (“Shaking the Closet,” Popular Music & Society, December 2010, pages 597-623) as an exemplar of the Rock Era Crooner (REC) genre, has released six Christmas albums since 1958 including five on Columbia Records and one during his Mercury Records tenure. These include Merry Christmas (1958), Sounds of Christmas (Mercury, 1963), Give Me Your Love for Christmas (1969), Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (1986), The Christmas Album (2002), and Sending You a Little Christmas (2013). Over the course of these solo albums, he has sung 67 songs (!). Aside from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home” and novelty songs (e.g., “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”) there are few major songs associated with Christmas that he has not recorded.
I have listened to all of his Columbia sets in their entirety. Their appeal depends on your mood. 1958’s Merry Christmas (#6) set has an innocent, lighthearted ‘50s feel. He mixes giddy (“Sleigh Ride”), the sacred (“O Holy Night”) and the torchy (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) in a lush, echo-laden production. Give Me Your Love for Christmas (#23) is a bit brassier and more up-tempo, including the selections “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” In between are lovely ballads such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The key cut is a stellar rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” that displays the impressive power of his formidable pipes. By 1986, synthesizers and keyboards were a cheaper way to record than full orchestras so he goes for a sleeker, more streamlined approach on Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (#52). Singing in a lower range than his ‘50s and ‘60s era albums he sounds as elegant as ever on a program mixing new holiday songs with standard fare such as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “The Christmas Waltz.”
My personal favorite is 2002’s #62 The Christmas Album. Mathis covers some songs he has surprisingly never sung including “Joy to the World,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “We Need a Little Christmas.” It is very jovial album full of pleasant atmospheric production choices. No Mathis holiday album is complete without good ballads and his “Snowfall/Christmas Time is Here” fulfills this need. On 2013’s Grammy nominated Sending You a Little Christmas (#66), his voice is slightly less limber; he recorded it when he was 78 (!) and he still sings beautifully. He also shares the microphone on several selections including duets with Susan Boyle, Natalie Cole, Gloria Estefan, Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and Billy Joel. Highlights include his version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” Karen Carpenter’s “Merry Christmas Darling,” and an “I’ll Be Home For Christmas/White Christmas” medley sung with Gill and Grant.
If you are truly hardcore about it, try 2014’s The Classic Christmas Album a compilation album of unreleased performances, several cuts from his Columbia holiday albums and a duet with Bette Midler from her 2006 Christmas album Cool Yule. In 2015, Real Gone Music released five seasonal sets from 1958-2010 on the three disc boxed set The Complete Christmas Collection 1958–2010 which features four relevant bonus cuts from his catalog.
Listening to his earnest style over the course of 65 years, Mathis is one of the most talented and least self-conscious singers I have experienced. If he is sometimes overly earnest and reverent to his material, there is no trace of pretentiousness in his work. There is a fascinating integrity of style in his oeuvre, something intangibly artful and distinctive about his singing.
Check out Part 1 and Part 2 on the Riffs, Beats & Codas blog for discussions of his 1956-69 and 1970-85 recordings.
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