Piece by piece

Piano led Johnny Mathis to six-decade career

Johnny Mathis, courtesy photo

Johnny Mathis, courtesy photo

It begins with a piano.

To little Johnny Mathis, just a young boy at the time, it looks like a bunch of lumber his father is bringing into his family’s basement apartment on Post Street in San Francisco. The story goes that the piano was so big, Clem Mathis had to dismantle it outside to get it into the living room, where he begins playing old Western tunes he learned while growing up in Texas. It quickly annoys his wife and six of his kids.

But to little Johnny, it’s an awakening.

Flash forward 70-odd years.

That love of music has taken Mathis on a touring and recording career spanning six decades, and it brings him to the Embassy Theatre Oct. 16.

The 81-year-old singer’s repertoire through the years includes a litany of jazz and romance tunes as well as Spanish, Brazilian and soul music, rhythm and blues and Broadway theater. He even once recorded some disco songs for an album.

“I was just thinking about how this all got started, and it goes back to my dad,” Mathis said. “That was the beginning of a lifelong love of music.”

Mathis’s father would play country and western tunes for the family but would also take his now-famous son to nightclubs and bars to hear jazz singers at night, stashing the boy in the back to avoid breaking any liquor laws.

By the time he was 15, Mathis was taking voice lessons. He was also, however, becoming an accomplished athlete. He went to San Francisco State University, where he was a part of the track and field team, set a school record in the high jump and  even had his sights on possibly making it to the Olympics.

In 1954, a classmate who was part of a band brought Mathis to a club one Sunday afternoon for a jam session. There, he so impressed the club’s co-owner she decided to manage his career. Gigs at other clubs followed. Mathis gave up a bid for the United States Olympic team and focused on music.

In 1956, Columbia Records released Mathis’s first album – a collection of jazz standards that were not big sellers during that era.

“Gosh, we might as well have done it in Swahili,” Mathis jokes. “Nobody heard it.”

More than a year went by with Mathis singing at clubs in New York City until another Columbia producer, Mitch Miller, had Mathis focus on romantic ballads. Those included “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not for Me to Say,” both of which would become huge hits during the next year.

Mathis was in a cab in New York when he first heard “Wonderful, Wonderful” on the radio.

“I almost caused an accident,” he said. “I kept going, ‘Pull over! Pull over!'”

More hits followed as Mathis’s star continued to rise. Through the decades, he’s racked up Grammy nominations, appeared before several heads of state, was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and even had a greatest-hits album that stayed on the Billboard charts for more than 10 years.

Even early success, though, granted him a lot of freedom in the studio.

While not being an an avid churchgoer, Mathis wanted to record a religious album based on songs he heard from Jewish friends he grew up with. In 1958, he released “Good Night Dear Lord,” which included a rendition of “Kol Nidre.”

“The thing I was most surprised about and kind of overtly proud of was the fact after I had some success with my recordings, the people in charge of the record company gave me carte blanche for some reason,” he said.

While early reviews of his live shows were less than positive – ”I always read about how uncomfortable I looked, how I stood and clenched my face and how I would not amount to anything as a singer,” he says – Mathis eventually overcame his nerves on stage to become the extremely popular live act he is today.

One of his fondest memories, he says today, was when he read a review once that mentioned how relaxed he looked.

“It took me years to get over my nervousness,” he added.

His mother and father have long since passed, but they were still alive to see him become big, which Mathis calls a blessing. Whenever he’s on the stage, memories of how it began never stray far – the piano his father had to bring into that small San Francisco apartment piece by piece.

The piano where Mathis got his first taste of music.

“That really is the reason I’m a singer,” he says.

First appeared in the October 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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