Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 3)

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!

Mathis has dedicated the majority of his albums from the late 1980's-present to exploring genres including doo-wop, jazz, country music, and contemporary pop.

Mathis has dedicated the majority of his albums from the late 1980's-present to exploring genres including doo-wop, jazz, country music, and contemporary pop.

**#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 them 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 ballads 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, such as 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.

The boxed set includes four special albums, three of which were never released. 1983's  Unforgettable  and 1989's  The Island  are two of the vocalist's finest recordings.

The boxed set includes four special albums, three of which were never released. 1983's Unforgettable and 1989's The Island are two of the vocalist's finest recordings.

1980’s Rarities: Unreleased albums

#46: I Love My Lady (1981): 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 listened 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 on this mix of live and studio performances. Though he and Cole have very different timbres, Mathis is in his element here imbuing some of Cole’s signatures with his own style. Mathis leans more toward ballads and mid-tempo songs than the swing songs in Cole’s repertoire, but he is as skillful an interpreter of this material as anyone. 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 on 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.”

 

Johnny Mathis has recorded five Christmas albums for Columbia and one for Mercury. He is the undisputed King of Christmas among popular vocalists.

Johnny Mathis has recorded five Christmas albums for Columbia and one for Mercury. He is the undisputed King of Christmas among popular vocalists.

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 the 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 a 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, including 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.
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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.

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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!

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 1)

For the last 30 years or so, we have been celebrating the third act of the luminous Tony Bennett’s career. His re-signing with Columba Records in 1986 brought him back to the mainstream, but his early 1990s tributes to Sinatra and Astaire, as well as a generation transcending performance in MTV Unplugged made him everybody’s favorite hip classic crooner. Few pop singers have their first number one album when they are 85, but Bennett has expanded our understanding of hip.

A singer of similar vintage who has never quire registered as hip is the enduring crooner Johnny Mathis. Mathis signed with Columbia only five years after Bennett in 1956, and like Bennett, he eventually came under the tutelage of producer Mitch Miller. Whereas Bennett rebelled against Miller’s questionable tastes and hungered for jazz credibility, Mathis and his manager trusted Miller’s commercial instincts and he quickly transitioned from a fledgling pop-jazz singer (his debut album is tentative) to a skillful pop crooner whose appeal transcended age and generation. Despite the common rock-ist narrative that Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, and Little Richard knocked all the crooners off the charts, Mathis was popular on the radio and the album charts. He currently stands among the top five most popular albums sellers of all-time. Mathis was one of the first black singers to have a chart-topping album in the mid-1950s, he was the first artists to ever release a Greatest Hits album, and his name is virtually synonymous with Christmas.

Unlike Bennett, he has rarely had jazz pretentions and is quite comfortable being pop and not being hip. For 62 years (!) he has soldiered forth, stolidly applying his delectable tenor to a staggeringly broad range of popular, and occasionally semi-popular, songs. He has sung torch songs, ballads, disco tunes, Brazilian pop, soft soul, folk-rock, gospel hymns, holiday material, showtunes, Jewish sacred music, country, soft rock, movie themes, and pretty much everything else. He has sung solo, in duets, and with choirs. He has sang in English, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish. This versatility is not part of a specific aesthetic strategy other than the old-fashioned notion, among his generation, that a popular singer is an entertainer who builds’ an audience by interpreting the songs of the day in their own vocal style.

I listened to all 68 albums featured in the 2017 Johnny Mathis boxed set  The Voice of Romance:   The Columbia Original Album Collection  (Sony/Legacy).

I listened to all 68 albums featured in the 2017 Johnny Mathis boxed set The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection (Sony/Legacy).

After releasing over 75 albums (excluding compilations!) albums, 65 on Columbia and 10 at Mercury Records during his 1963-66 stint, Sony/Legacy is honoring his legacy with The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Albums Collection. Within the pink box, a thick square book of liner notes, and 68 CD's in sleeves reproducing his album covers. One could easily track key trends in American male fashion and African-American hairstyles over the last 60 years gawking at the album covers (!), but the music is the most important stuff and there is a lot of it. In order to digest these recordings I decided to listen to them out or order.   Mathis’s Columbia recordings can be divided into a few phases including the following:

·         1957-63: Signature sound: These are the albums where he established his core vocal sound and repertoire. In addition, these albums first cemented his defining songs. At this time established composers such as New York cabaret favorite Bart Howard, and up and comers like Burt Bacharach regularly wrote new material for pop singers like Mathis to premiere.

·         1967-77: The “covers” era: Former Columbia Records executive Clive Davis is usually maligned for his baldly commercial strategy of directing Columbia veterans like Mathis and Andy Williams to cover the biggest hits of any given year rather than record new untested material. Though Mathis did not adhere strictly to this, for example Thom Bell and Linda creed wrote new songs for him on 1973’s Coming Home and 1975’s Mathis Is, this is the era of albums mostly titled after number one hits for other singers including like Song Sung Blue, Killing Me Softly with Her Song, You Light Up My Life, etc. Theoretically, these should represent the nadir of his career, but because most are being released on CD for the first time, and because he actually worked with arrangers to tweak them, they may be one of the biggest finds of the set. Toward the mid-to-late 1970s he began sprinkling pre-rock standards in with more contemporary hits, but updating them for the slick pop-soul lushness of the era.

·         1978-86: Mathis gets (adult) contemporary era: After having a #1 pop, R&B and adult contemporary hit with “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” with Deniece Williams, Mathis began recording more new songs and having hits with original material. His work with Williams was among his most popular material of the decade and he began the 1980s strongly, making appearances on the pop, adult contemporary and R&B charts.

·         1986-present: Repertory singer: Having recorded most of the major new pop songs of the '60s and '70s, and scored with contemporary lite FM and quiet storm type material, Mathis recorded mostly songbooks dedicated to composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Alan and Marilyn Bergman to Diane Warren (now that’s a leap!), as well as sets devoted to Broadway, countrypolitan classics, and of course Christmas music.    

·         1980’s Rarities: One of the intriguing aspects for a singer as recorded as Mathis is the relative abundance of unreleased material. Several albums, especially from the '70s and '80s, have the occasional bonus cut. Beyond these are three sets of particular interest to Mathis fans. One is 1982’s I Love My Lady a funk-pop recorded with Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers of Chic but never released. Second is 1983’s Unforgettable: A Musical Tribute to Nat King Cole, a recording from a live BBC performance featuring a medley by Natalie Cole. Third, is 1989’s unreleased Brazilian pop set The Island, produced by Sergio Mendes. Stray tracks have appeared on previous compilations, but this is the full set featuring versions of songs by Ivan Lins, Dori Caymmi, and Mendes, among others.

·         1958-2013: ‘Tis the Season: Johnny Mathis does Christmas! Since 1958, Mathis has recorded six holiday albums including five at Columbia and one for Mercury Records. He is probably the signer most associated with Christmas, alongside Perry Como and Bing Crosby. He has recorded a holiday album in nearly every decade since the 1950s warranting special critical attention.

Below in Part 1 I trace Mathis’s discography chronologically, from 1956 through his including his 1963-67 Mercury Records tenure. Part 2 explores his career from the 1967 covers era through the 1980's. Part 3 addresses his career from the late 1980's-present when he focused more interpreting music thematically. I also explore the three unreleased albums featured in the box set, and his signature affinity for Christmas albums. The (#) refers to the numbering of CD’s featured in The Voice of Romance boxed set. Albums highlighted are albums I recommend as essential Mathis recordings.

**=Highly recommended album!

 

Johnny Mathis established his distinctive sound from 1956-59 during his first few years recording for Columbia Records.

Johnny Mathis established his distinctive sound from 1956-59 during his first few years recording for Columbia Records.

1950’s “Signature Sound” Albums

Mathis established himself as one of the premier new voices of the 1950s by carving out unmined territory that sandwiched him between generations. His crooning style, which blended crooning with his classical training and technique, drew on the ballad repertoire of his idols, such as Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, was framed successfully by arrangers such as Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, and others whose lush, romantic approach resonated with his generation in parallel to rock and roll and other emerging forms.

 

#1: Johnny Mathis (1956) was an attempt to present Mathis as a jazz-oriented singer, but it is really a pop album, which for the 1950s meant pop standards with minimum vocal improvisation, featuring jazz musicians. Nothing here really distinguished Mathis. By 1957, when he released **#2:Wonderful Wonderful, (1957) arranged by Percy Faith, Mathis as we know him was emerging. Wonderful is a luscious and highly listenable album of ballads with a few uptempo songs for balance. The lush approach is predictably lush and sentimental; an approach that complements his voice and sensibility perfectly. #3:Warm (1957) continues the Mathis sound; it too is lush, orchestral balladry. There is probably a bit more reverb and echo than is necessary but it makes for very moody, enveloping listen. Besides, this was a production style of the ‘50’s. Mathis’s rendition of “Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” was selected for The Smithsonian’s seminal  1984 five disc American Popular Song collection as an exemplary interpretation of the standard. Aside from Christmas music (see Part 3!) Mathis is not generally associated with sacred music. But he, arranger Percy Faith and Columbia apparently thought his voice was well-suited to classic religious songs from multiple faith traditions on **#4 Good Night, Dear Lord and…they were right. Though people associate Mathis with a high, refined tenor sound he sings in a slightly lower range and he sounds gorgeous and in control. On selections like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for example, he does not cover other singers’ approaches. He instead sings in a key and tempo well suited to his distinctive voice and interpretive approach. “Where Will I Go,” is among the standouts, and two refreshingly varied versions of “Ave Maria” round out the set. A genuinely unexpected and moving performance.  **#5: Swing Softly (1958) is my favorite Mathis album. Though Mathis prefers to sing melodies as written, and does little improvising, he has a great feel for light swing and mid-tempo material and gives one of his most energetic and endearing performances here. Highlights include wonderful versions of “Like Someone in Love,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and “Love Walked In.” After recording albums with orchestras and big bands Mathis approached things more intimately on **#7: Open Fire Two Guitars (1959) featuring just his voice supported by two guitars and bass. He is at his most sensuous on Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” and at his romantic best on “You’ll Never Know.” A surprising approach in his vast catalog. Mathis’s legendary performance of Errol Garner’s “Misty” is featured on **#8: Heavenly (1959). Surrounding this classic performance are warm, relaxed renditions of gorgeous ballads such as “That’s All” and “More Than You Know.” In the span of three years, Mathis went from a new voice pitched awkwardly between vocal jazz and pop to a distinct new sound of late 1950’s pop.

 

1960-63 @ Columbia

1959’s Faithfully (#9) and 1960’s Johnny’s Mood (#12) reiterated the style of moody ballads bathed in strings and echo. Slightly more interesting conceptually, was 1960’s #10: Ballads of Broadway, packaged with #11: Rhythms of Broadway, which were sold separately and as a combined “deluxe edition” album.  Broadway had always informed Mathis’s repertoire. He was especially fond of songs from Westside Story, for example. But, these two sets brought together some of pop music’s most distinguished songs drawn from the theatrical stage. Mathis is at his best on ballads, such as “Isn’t it a Pity.” He sounds less sure of himself on some of the more uptempo songs where he vacillates between awkwardness, strangeness, and bombast. Mathis’s pairings with the renowned arranger for Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, on 1961’s I’ll Buy You a Star (#13) (1961) and Live It Up (#14) are also uneven. His ethereal tenor seems designed for dreamy songs such as “Magic Garden,” but is a mismatch for the lustier “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street.”  A year later, however, he and arranger Don Costa recorded a Mathis masterpiece with sensuous and appropriately titled **Rapture (#15) (1962). The Costa connection persists well on 1963’s Johnny (#16), and **Romantically (#17) (1963).

 

In the 1960's Mathis recorded a broad range of themes with a variety of arrangers.

In the 1960's Mathis recorded a broad range of themes with a variety of arrangers.

1963-67: Mathis @ Mercury

From 1963-67, Mathis left Columbia for Mercury Records. He recorded 10 albums including sets dedicated to Broadway, Christmas, Latin American music, and established and contemporary standards, such as The Beatles’ “Michelle” and “Yesterday.” He also continued with contemporary fare ranging from new showtunes such as “The Impossible Dream,” (from The Man from La Mancha) to bossa nova songs such as “So Nice,” and recent movie themes, including “More,” and “Somewhere My Love.” Sonny/Legacy compiled all of these recordings on 2014’s The Complete Global Albums Collection.

In 2012, the record label Real Gone Music reissued several Mercury era Mathis albums in their entirety. These sets include 1964’s **The Wonderful World of Make Believe and Tender is the Night, 1965’s Love is Everything (featuring an unreleased album Broadway), 1965’s This is Love and Olé, 1965’s Sweetheart Tree and The Shadow of Your Smile and 1966’s So Nice and Johnny Mathis Sings. Hopefully, these will shed additional light on Mathis’s prolific career and inspire more critical assessments of his work. **Love is Everything is an appealingly lush and romantic set. He lives up to the title of Everything giving his all emotionally and vocally. He belts out the opener “Never Let Me Go” with tenacious vigor; “Young and Foolish” has an intense, meditative quality as does “This is All I Ask.” Pop songs were usually about three minutes in 1965 but at 3:40 (“Young”) and 4:04 (“This”) the arrangements provide room for him to stretch out. Broadway finds Mathis in his element, show tunes, but it has a very eclectic feel atypical of Mathis’s albums. He delivers some of his funkiest phrasing on a horn-laden version of “Ain’t It De Truth” (a Lena Horne number from Jamaica). “Manhattan” has a charmingly naïve romanticism via his vocal coloration choices. He chews through “Don’t Rain on my Parade” enthusiastically and delivers on fresh tunes like Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Once in a Lifetime.” It is puzzling why this album was not released.

**Wonderful World focuses on the dreamy ballads like “Beyond the Sea” and “When You Wish upon the Star”; Tender features more familiar ‘50s and ‘60s fare like “Call Me Irresponsible” and “Somewhere.”  As a whole, these recordings refute the sometimes-hysterical assertions that the mid-50s rise of rock ‘n’ roll “killed” romantic American pop. Most the songs featured on these albums are proof that many excellent songs of high melodic, harmonic and lyric qualities emerged throughout the 1960s; and Mathis recorded many of the most credible and enjoyable renditions.

1997’s double-disc compilation Global Masters was the only place to go until Collector’s Choice’s 2009 reissues. In 1969, Columbia allowed Mathis to repackage some of his best Mercury recordings on the compilations **The Impossible Dream and People. Dream is one of the finest crooner “cover” albums of ‘60s pop. Granted, “Strangers in the Night” and “Eleanor Rigby” are not exactly “Roll Over Beethoven”—which is to say not a great stretch for an experienced balladeer. However, this suite coheres amazingly well. Mathis’s performances are rich, impassioned and confident and the material is a strong match. 1960s era movie themes (“I Will Wait for You,” “Strangers,” “Somewhere My Love,” “Moment to Moment”) and showtunes ( “On a Clear Day,” the title track) balance tradition and modernity in their musical and lyrical style in a manner perfectly suitable to a singer who followed the decline of traditional pop and preceded the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. His covers of “Rigby,” “Go Away Little Girl,” and the standard “The Very Thought of You” are also satisfying.

People feels more forced and less coherent. He transforms Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” into an impressively emotional orchestral epic, gently soars on “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (sang in Portuguese), and gives a sprightly performance of “A Wonderful Day Like Today.” However, his robust voice and overripe arrangements almost overwhelm seemingly appropriate material like “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “People.” Other performances such as “What the World Needs Now” are routine retreads.

 

Listeners interested in Mathis's four-year stint at Mercury Records can purchase or download  The Complete Global Albums Collection .

Listeners interested in Mathis's four-year stint at Mercury Records can purchase or download The Complete Global Albums Collection.

Closing out the 1960’s

Albums #18-#22, recorded from 1967-69 find Mathis wavering between the tried and true and newer fare. Whereas some crooners departed major labels altogether but the end of the 1960's Mathis transitioned into a successful career in soft rock. 1967’s **#18 Up, Up and Away is a delightful collection rife with delicate textures, subtle choral backing, and naturalist vocal performances of mellow pop. Among its highlights are a laid-back rendition of the title track, the languorous “Drifting” and the surprisingly agreeable country and folk-flavored songs “Misty Roses” and “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.” He also turns in fine renditions of the standard “The More I See You” and the Dr. Doolittle theme “When I Look in Your Eyes.” Though hardly a monumental recording, it is a tasteful and accomplished set of modern crooner pop. 1968’s Love is Blue (#19) is a similar suite of light pop. He sings four Bacharach-David songs well, gently croons on Lennon-McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere” and delivers a fine “Moon River.” The rest is lighthearted; the only misstep is an awkward cover of Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” which feels out of place.

Mathis concluded the 1960's with  1968’sThose Were the Days (#20),  1968’s Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bert Kaempfert (#21), and 1969’s Love Theme from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (#22). Days rises and falls based purely on the material. The hokey title song, the umpteenth cover of the silly pseudo-homily “Little Green Apples” and a reprise of Skeeter Davis’s “End of the World” seem like wastes of Mathis’s vocal resources. Jim Morrison, Paul Simon, and Rod McKuen are not compatible composers for Mathis’s sensibilities even if he turns in technically competent renderings of their material. Kaempfert is best known for MOR classics such as “Spanish Eyes,” “”L-O-V-E,” and “Strangers in the Night.” Mathis performs these, and other Kaempfert tunes, competently, but it is a pretty stock easy listening pop and does not make the case for the composer as a first-tier songwriter.  Love Theme is far more satisfying. Some of the more notable torch ballads from the era featured include fine versions of the Bergmans’ “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young,” and Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We.” He is also quite appealing on “Live for Life” and his hit rendition of Bacharach and David’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Whereas his renditions of film and musical theater tunes are generally reliable, the title track is epically schmaltzy and his version of the Fifth Dimension’s medley from Hair, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” feels forced. The remainder is agreeable pop material.

Part 2 examines Mathis's recordings from 1970-85!

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