Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 2)

“Cover” Albums (mostly): 1970-1977

Mathis is the rare singer of his generation who relied almost entirely on cover albums of contemporary popular radio hits for the 1970s and survived. In the ‘70s he was able to author some new songs that made an impact, such as “I’m Coming Home,” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” (with Deniece Williams), and transitioned into the '80s as a contemporary singer. Few of his ‘70s cover albums have been in print so the boxed set is a coup for Mathis fans. Sony/Legacy will release several with bonus tracks as CD's and digital downloads. Most of the albums recorded from 1970-77 are uneven, but there are some exceptions. Keep reading…

 **=Highly recommended album!

 The 1970's was a prolific decade for Mathis who released 20+ albums during the decade!

The 1970's was a prolific decade for Mathis who released 20+ albums during the decade!

#24: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (1970): The artistic potential and the expressive limitations of the covers formula are readily apparent here. On romantic ballads such as “Watch What Happens” and “A Man and a Woman,” Mathis’s interpretations exemplify why such '60s era pop songs are regarded as standards today. Some of the material is either silly, such as Jimmy Webb’s “Honey Come Back,” or inappropriate. The quasi-existential almost solipsistic lyrics of “Midnight Cowboy” (Mathis’s producer added words to the Midnight Cowboy instrumental theme) and Nilsson’s hit from the film, “Everybody’s Talkin’” are not the kind of songs that made Mathis famous.

 #25: Close to You (1970): A very mixed bag of logical covers such as the nostalgic “Yellow Days” and “Pieces of Dreams” and material either too bombastic (“The Long and Winding Road”) or too below standard (Ray Stevens’s icky “Everything is Beautiful”) for a singer with Mathis’s voice.

 #26: Love Story (1970): Every singer alive had their turn at the theme from Love Story in 1970/71 so why not Mathis?  To his credit “Where Do I Begin?” and other late 60's/early 70's ballad fare, especially, “It’s Impossible” and “What are you doing the Rest of Your Life” are well suited to Mathis’s voice and sensibility. A true crooner, he makes these melodies melt. A few songs, like “Rose Garden” and “My Sweet Lord” are too poppy to cohere with the ballads.

 #27: Today’s Great Hits You’ve Got a Friend (1971): Despite the cheesy title (it literally screams for an obnoxious TV announcer proclaiming “Todays Great Hits!”) this set of high quality pop songs from everyone from Carole King to Kris Kristofferson is surprisingly amenable. Easy melodies, slick arrangements, and poised vocals—most of it slips on by, true easy listening. Mathis sings his heart out on Jacque Brel’s “If We Only Have Love” and he sounds absolutely at ease on a bonus cut of The Beatles’ classic “Golden Slumbers.”

 **#28: In Person (1971): Mathis’s approach to Vegas-style entertainment is very different from Elvis, Engelbert Humperdinck, or Wayne Newton—and that is a good thing. Taking sum of his ‘50's classics and his new role as a conduit for ‘70's soft pop, he represents the past and present quite strikingly on this live set. Mathis’s self-effacing style runs counter to the Vegas schlock aesthetic and allows the songs to shine. If the “Close to You/We’ve Only Just Begun” medley plays to the hit status of these songs in the early 70’s (hence the immediate applause), his medley of Errol Garner’s “Misty”/”Dreamy” and several signatures is for the ages. He also showcases a refreshing sense of humor on Ivor Novello’s “And Her Mother Came Too,” some soulful grit on “Come Runnin,’ ” and showcases his robust vocal mettle on Brel’s “If We Only Have Love.” If you want a quick summary of what he is capable of as a vocalist, entertainer, and artist, this is an excellent start.

**#29: The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face) (1972): One of Mathis’s best early ‘70's albums hues to the covers formula and yet, succeeds. He sounds like himself on contemporary fare like the title track and “Betcha By Golly Wow,” and renders a fine rendition of the standard “Since I Fell for You.” There are several movie themes including the ubiquitous “Brian’s Song,” “Theme from “‘Summer of 42,’” and “Speak Softly Love” from The Godfather. As sappy as these songs are, his renditions are appropriately lush and respectable. There are a few redundant covers (“Without You,” “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All”), and some forgettable tunes, but as lush romantic pop this works.

 #30: Song Sung Blue (1972): Some songs reflect the personae of their authors so strongly that covering (or even interpreting) them is borderline absurd. Neil Diamond’s imprint is all over the title song and “Play Me” making Mathis’s versions seem truly rote. A more general note is how morose songs were in the ‘70s.  In the right context songs like “Where is the Love” and “Along Again (Naturally)” are listenable enough, but listening to such songs in a steady state is enervating. Relief is here in the form of a Nat King Cole oldie, “Too Young,” and a deliciously lovelorn version of the doo-wop classic “I’m on the Outside Looking In.”

 #31: Me & Mrs. Jones (1972): The idea of Mathis sneaking around with the infamous secret mistress in the title track is beyond ridiculous. More enjoyable are his takes on softer, and less scandalous, songs from Bread (“Sweet Surrender”) and James Taylor (“Don’t Let Me Be lonely Tonight”) that place him on a continuum between crooning and a more polished version of folk singing.

 #32: Killing Me Softly with her Song (1973): The redundancy theme reaches an apex here. Overly familiar hits like the title song seem to drag onward with little deviation or surprise. Interestingly Mathis, not Al Wilson, debuted “Show and Tell,” though Wilson made it a #1 hit.

 **#33: I’m Coming Home (1973): Thom Bell and Linda Creed were two of the most creative songwriters of the period and their collaboration with Mathis bridges crooning and “soft” Philly Soul very comfortably. The backstory is that they interviewed Mathis to craft songs around his experiences and point of view. Whether this “story song” concept comes through is less important than Mathis’s subdued yet involving approach. There is a yearning quality to “Coming Home,” a measurable calm to the melodious “And I Think That’s What I’ll Do,” and a grandeur to “Life is a Song worth Singing” that offer signs of life that Mathis was not ready to surrender to covers completely.

 #34: Heart of a Woman (1974): On the cover Mathis is wearing all denim with his shirt fully unbuttoned, holding a microphone and standing in various poses ranging from the buoyant to the crouched over. Is this supposed to be sexy? Is this him singing in the studio? Are these physical manifestations of discomfort? Who knows, but the songs here, mostly originals, cast Mathis in a kind of “lover man” role that never quite works. Most of the songs and the production is more pop-soul than anything, but it’s an awkward, unfocused affair.

 **#35: When Will I See You Again (1975): Maybe it was Bell and Creed having Mathis sing in his lower range, or just a desire to mix things up, but When is among the more enjoyable of his cover projects. Once again, fit is everything. Mathis sounds just as comfortable singing “Nice to Be Around,” “You’re Right as Rain,” and “You and Me Against the World” as he does on many of his signatures. Frankly, he makes many of the songs here sound better than they are. That’s a gift.

 #36: Feelings (1975): Mathis continued When’s winning ways bringing out the best in good radio fare like “Midnight Blue”  and “99 Miles from L.A.” and showing how smart arranging can work on a contemporary rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” From this point forward more pre-rock standards start to show up on his albums, which is usually a good thing.

 #37: I Only Have Eyes for You (1976): The title track is modernized quite skillfully here and is the standout performance. There are two lightweight originals, “Do Me Wrong But do Me” and “Ooh What We Do,” and cover songs ranging from interesting schlock (“Theme from Mahogany”) to pretentious irredeemable schlock (“I Write the Songs”).

 **#38: Mathis Is (1976):  Re-teaming with Thom Bell, this sequel to I’m Coming Home is lush, delicate, and modern. While no one song necessarily stands out, the songs sound like they were written for his voice, and there are some appealing instrumental touches throughout especially the interplay of strings, vibes, and percussion. Easily one of his most appealing and listenable sets.

 #39: Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1977): Mathis fuses a little bit of this and little bit of that from various eras and genres resulting in an eclectic and mostly entertaining set. The title is appropriately bubbly and romantic, and he navigates the very tricky modulations of “All the Things You Are” seamlessly.  Both make you long for a full album of standards…but alas. Mathis turns to Broadway on fine versions of “One,” from A Chorus Line and “Tomorrow” from Annie. Chorus has aged well, whereas Annie dated itself instantly, but he was trying to be progressive. On the pop side, Boz Scagg’s “We’re All Alone” and Streisand’s “Evergreen” showcase Mathis the torch singer and the romantic. Less pressing is his stab at “When I Need You” and the dreadful TV them song-ish “Don’t Give Up on Us.” The reissue is rescued toward the end by two excellent finds. One is a dynamic disco tune called “Experiment” (no composer is listed) that gels quite well with Mathis’s natural exuberance.  The other is a splendid version of Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic.” The idea that they put something this good aside so Mathis could cover David Soul and Leo Sayer boggles the mind, but we should be grateful it has now surfaced.

#40: You Light Up My Life (1977): Mathis’s most commercially successful album of the ‘70s replicates the covers formula with everything from Debby Boone to Bee Gees to “If You Believe” from The Wiz.  The main draw here is his hit duet with Deniece Williams on “Too Much Too Little Too Late” a frothy song that topped the pop, R&B and easy listening charts. Their duet version of the Bee Gees’s’ “Emotion” is very fun as is his modernized solo version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Where or When.”

 

 Mathis pursued adult contemporary/soft rock, and adult R&B/soft soul in the 1980's.

Mathis pursued adult contemporary/soft rock, and adult R&B/soft soul in the 1980's.

1978-88: Mathis gets (adult) contemporary

At the tail end of the decade, Mathis began shifting gears from overt covers toward more original material. Mathis’s 1980s recordings are surprisingly varied. Though he consciously pursued the adult contemporary and adult soul markets, many of his better recordings found him experimenting with new material, such as the Brazilian pop on The Island (unreleased), or revisiting songs from previous eras including a Nat “King” Cole tribute, interpretations of classic Hollywood musicals, and a nod to 50s and 60s pop, R&B, and doo-wop.

**#41: That’s What Friends Are For (1978): Mathis and Deniece Williams built from “Too Much Too Little To Late’s” success by recording a whole album of pop-soul duets. They harmonize beautifully together and complement each other emotionally.  They revisit Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” and reimagine songs associated with Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel. There are some frothy originals that showcase their chemistry plus an interesting reprise of the Williams penned title song which she recorded only 2 years earlier solo. The boxed set also features other Mathis-Williams pairings including the theme from Family Ties “Without Us.” Understandably popular, this is a delightful confection for the ears.

#42: The Best Days of My Life (1979): Other than discofied versions of “As Time Goes by” and “Begin the Beguine” and Mathis and Jane Olivor’s duet on the film theme “The Last Time I Felt Like This” (from Same Time Next Year) there’s not much here. Mostly disco and forgettable ballads.

 #43: Mathis Magic (1979): An uneasy mix of schmaltzy ballads (“She Believes in Me”), forgettable disco (“My Body Keeps Changing My Mind”), and oddball experiments. The disco versions of the standards “Night and Day,” “That Old Black Magic” and “To the Ends of the Earth” work better than they should, but are ultimately timepieces. The highlight is easily his warm, straight-ahead version of “New York State of Mind.”

 #44: Different Kinda Different (1980): A combo of soft balladry, disco, and a few numbers with a Latin tinge.  This set is more ambitious than the typical cover outing Mathis was recording at the time.  There are more original songs on the album, but none of them became staples of his performing repertoire.  Highlights include a fine version of “Deep Purple” set as a waltz, and a gentle version of “With You I’m Born Again.” Not an embarrassment, but not especially memorable.

#45: Friends in Love (1982): This album is notable for spawning Mathis’s last top 40 pop hit single in his duet with Dionne Warwick on the title track. A glossy adult contemporary pop album, it is most notable for a) not being a cover album and b) good renditions of some pop semi-classics including a pop version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory,”  a sleek version of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” and one of the first versions of “Warm” a ballad many singers, such as Jane Olivor, have covered. The bonus features a weird '50s semi-waltz version of “We Kiss in a Shadow.”

 **#47: A Special Part of Me (1984): This is one of Mathis’s best contemporary pop-soul sets circa the 1980's. Highlights include two of Mathis’s strongest duets, including a hit cover of “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” with Deniece Williams and “You’re a Special Part of Me” with Angela Bofill, and believably perky pop songs, “Simple” and “Love Never Felt So Good.” Few of these songs became Mathis classics a la “Misty,” but he is in great voice throughout and the material fits his ‘80's persona well.

** #49: Johnny Mathis Live (1984): Recorded in London in 1983 this is a tight focused concert. He mixes some contemporary songs of the late 70's/early 80's variety such as Kenny Loggins’s “I Believe in Love” and Albert Hammond’s “99 Miles from L.A.” with Mathis signatures (“A Certain Smile,” “The Twelfth of Never”) and a few surprises like “Orange Colored Sky,” the Nat King Cole hit. Mathis is flawless vocally, and his audience is with him every step of the way, especially on his signatures. A few of the songs, such as “Try to Win a Friend,” are mundane, but Mathis is poised, spirited, and highly listenable. 

 #50: Right From the Heart (1985): The sleek, anonymous sound of the DX-7 keyboard and the hook-driven nature of '80's “adult contemporary” music pervade this 10 song 45 minute pop-soul set. Instead of covers or standards, these are new but generic, anonymous songs vaguely reminiscent of George Benson and Al Jarreau’s early ‘80's radio hits. Mathis sounds good, but the generic production sheen washes over the eccentricities that make him unique.

Part 3 examines Mathis's recordings from 1986-present + Rarities & Christmas albums!

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