Remember the wonderful moment when the house shakes and an eerie glow appears under the front door as a record player fills the place with the sound of Johnny Mathis singing Chances Are as we have the first ET encounter in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)?
Mathis was well represented in my parental units’ LP collection. I have loved his velvet voice for six decades. You kids know that I don’t go for the term “guilty pleasure”. I figure that in this world, we get to like what we like and I hold my Johnny Mathis Fan Club banner high.
Here is Johnny Mathis by the numbers:
In 1958, Johnny’s Greatest Hits was released after just a half decade of Mathis making records. His was the first ever Greatest Hits album in the music industry. It began the whole Greatest Hits thing, copied by every record company since. Johnny’s Greatest Hits spent an unprecedented 490 consecutive weeks (9.5 years) on the Billboard album charts, a feat earning him a place in the Guinness Book Of World Records and not broken until the 1980s by Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon.
Then in 1981, with the release of his 25th Anniversary Album, a double LP, it happened again with 500 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Top 100, staying there for a decade and giving him another record for that Guinness Book.
Mathis has had six of his albums on the Billboard charts at the same time, an achievement equaled by only Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow. He has recorded 66 albums, released 200 singles and had 72 songs charted around the world. Mathis is the third bestselling recording artist in this country. He had an album released in 1957 and he has a new one to be released in October of this year.
He has done 12 television specials and has had over 300 guest appearances on variety series and talk shows, 35 times on The Tonight Show alone. Johnny Carson named him the best ballad singer in the world. His 1998 Live By Request broadcast on A&E had the largest viewing audience of the series, bigger than Kurt Cobain‘s.
He is Barbra Streisand‘s favorite singer and one of mine.
Mathis was one of the first African-American pop singers to gain wide acceptance with white audiences in America. He also kind of came out of the closet in a 1982 US Magazine article where he said:
“Homosexuality is a way of life that I’ve grown accustomed to.”
Mathis received death threats because of that magazine article and he no longer advertises his concerts, which somehow still continue to sell out. In the early 1990s, a group of Gay Rights activists were planning to “out” Mathis, when they suddenly discovered that he had already revealed his gayness.
Mathis has lived in the same house in the Hollywood Hills that he purchased in the early 1960s. He has been with the same record label, Columbia, for more than 58 years (he is Columbia’s longest serving artist). He has been my make-out music for 50 years.
In Barry Levinson’s Academy Award-nominated film Diner (1982), set in the postwar era, the character Eddie Simmons memorably asks his pals: “When you’re making out, which do you prefer, Sinatra or Mathis?”
Check out the chapter about Mathis in John Water‘s terrific memoir Role Models (2010). In the Mathis essay, Waters remembers seeing a basement full of his friends French kissing to Johnny Mathis music. Waters explains:
“I knew then that not only did I want to be a teenager… I wanted to be an exaggeration of a teenager.”
Like me, Waters remains a fan of the singer and he writes that he was beyond thrilled to actually meet and interview the singer at his home. Waters positively gushes in his book.
At San Francisco State University, Mathis was a celebrated track star. In 1956, he was invited to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team as a high jumper (that’s not a euphemism). He had to decide whether to go to the Olympic trials or to keep an appointment in Manhattan to make his first record. Things worked out for him.
Like many others, he was not immune to career-wrecking perils, including becoming a favorite client of Dr. Max Jacobson. Dubbed “Doctor Feelgood”, the good doctor became notorious for administering his “miracle tissue regenerator” injections which were just vitamin B and amphetamines to his many famous patients. Mathis:
“I went to see him because I was doing five shows a night at the Copacabana in New York and got laryngitis. Everyone on Broadway went to him and so did the Kennedys. He gave me vitamin shots which brought my voice back beautifully but left me addicted. It was very traumatic but I just had to stop. I also drank too much, only champagne, and I never thought too much about it until I was talking to Nancy Reagan. We were sitting around chatting and having a drink and she asked if I always drank so much. I said yes and she said: ‘Well, don’t you think it’s bad for you?’ and I said: ‘Yes, but I don’t know how to stop’.’The next thing I know she collared the Chief of Staff and I’m on a plane to a rehab facility. I stayed three weeks and I haven’t drunk since.”
He gives Nancy Reagan the credit for turning his life around, which is weird, because she made me want to do drugs. Wouldn’t you know it, he is an African-American gay Republican (but not a Trumper). But he also has been vocal in his support Civil Rights and LGBTQ Rights, singing at the Salute To Freedom Concert in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
He continues to record and do concert dates. I have seen him live a dozen times. Once, I saw him in concert at a symphony hall and later that night I also caught The Pogues at a club. How about that for diverse taste in tunes?