By Steven Rosen / Cincinnati Enquirer / 2013
At age 77, Johnny Mathis still makes it look easy – “it” being the effortlessly warm and friendly singing of romantic ballads in a voice that is the aural equivalent of a confident smile.
He’s been a remarkably consistent singer — and concert presence — since 1957, when he first made his impact with a string of gently crooned pop hits: “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” “It’s Not For Me to Say,” “Chances Are” and “The Twelfth of Never.” Tonight at Downtown’s Aronoff Center for the Arts, he’ll be singing to orchestral accompaniment some of those and many others from a long career that has seen the release of 100 albums so far (including greatest-hits packages).
But keeping his golden vocals — and his body — in shape takes much rigorous, ongoing work. Fortunately, his first voice teacher in San Francisco (where he grew up after being born in Gilmer, Texas) impressed upon him the importance of staying in shape.
“I had a background as an athlete as a kid, so I got accustomed to exercise routines early,” he said by phone from his Hollywood home. “I do workouts five days a week with a trainer. I do it not only to physically be able to sing, but when you walk out on the stage and look like you can do what you say, people are going to be a little more relaxed. If you don’t, it takes a while to get them on your side.” Mathis neither smokes nor drinks alcohol to preserve his voice.
Singing smoothly enunciated romantic ballads was a natural choice for Mathis because that’s what he first heard on the radio – Nat “King” Cole and Billy Eckstine were favorites. That was how popular singers of the time expressed emotion.
“I think the music perpetuated now on radio and that kids hear, structure-wise, is not geared for pretty sounds,” he said. “It’s geared for pyrotechnics. They get a big kick out of it, but they’re just kids. It takes a while for other influences to get to a younger crowd.”
Mathis has, from time to time, tried to record outside what would seem his natural comfort zone. His last album, 2010’s Grammy-nominated Let It Be Me, was recorded in Nashville and includes country-music instrumentation in addition to strings.
And back in 1981, he recorded what he calls some “hip stuff” with the dance-funk producers of Chic (“Le Freak”), but it was shelved because the record company thought it too rhythmic. “I loved it,” he said. (Tracks can be heard on YouTube.)
Another time, a newly assigned producer asked him to record some harder-edged rock songs written by younger writers. “So we did tip-toe around that,” Mathis said. “But after hearing myself singing” — and here he shouts like James Brown — “’Good God,’ I went, ‘Oh no.’ We decided it wasn’t very good.”
It’s only been in the past few years that Mathis, as he’s grown older and societal prejudices have lessened, has been able to talk about being gay. “It’s prevalent enough that people aren’t shocked,” he said.
“Young people today are very, very open about what they do and they don’t like people who are close-minded. That has been an openness that has pleased me a great deal.”
But his private life is not a comfortable topic for him. “It’s something very difficult for people who are reticent anyway,” he said. “I think it confuses people to know too much about you. I like to keep the focus on what I’m doing.”
Mathis also thinks gay marriage is a good thing — but probably not for him. “Unfortunately, over the years I’ve never had a relationship that strong. My friendships have always been enough to satisfy my situation.”
If You Go:
Tickets for today’s 8 p.m. An Evening With Johnny Mathis concert at Aronoff Center for the Arts range from $35-$125 and are available at 513/621-2787 or www.cincinnatiarts.org.