Singing legend Johnny Mathis still touring at 86

Every time velvet-voiced Johnny Mathis takes center stage during his current US tour, the atmosphere feels a bit… Misty.

Sure, some devoted Mathis fans might swoon, teary-eyed, with waves of emotional nostalgia witnessing the 86-year-old singing icon in person. Still, many will dutifully sway to the familiar soothing melodies as the veteran performer delivers his signature ballads, from “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” “Chances Are,” and, of course, his 1959 hit, “Misty.”

Photo by R. J. Alexander

Interrupted briefly by the Covid-19 pandemic, Mathis’s 2022 Voice of Romance Tour is making stops around the country (see www.johnnymathis.com). Although the viral menace is still lurking, it has not deterred the soulful singer from performing this year.

“It’s what I do,” Mathis said from his home in Los Angeles during a tour break. “Except for earlier in the pandemic, I’ve been touring since I recorded my first album in 1956.”

Now in his 66th year as a recording artist, the Mathis career statistics are impressive:
79 original albums, 43 singles on the Billboard Pop Chart, five Grammy nominations, a 2003 Lifetime Achievement Grammy, and songs used in more than 60 films and television shows.

Then there’s his historic 1958 Greatest Hits album, released just two years after his debut album. It was the first greatest hits album issued by any pop artist.

“Mitch Miller was responsible for that,” Mathis said, referring to the conductor and record producer best remembered for the 60s show “Sing Along with Mitch” on NBC.

Mathis signed with Columbia Records in 1956, and to cash in on the growing Mathis phenomenon, Miller wanted to release a new album in the late 50s, but the singer was in Europe. Mathis had scored big with recent hits, so Miller bundled several together on one record. “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” would spend almost 10 straight years on the Billboard Top Albums Chart.

Ironically, Mathis’s signature song, “Misty,” didn’t appear on the 1958 compilation. It was featured the following year on his “Heavenly” album. Written by Errol Garner (music) and Johnny Burke (lyrics), Mathis first heard the tune at the Black Hawk nightclub in San Francisco, where he grew up.

“I used to go there as a teenager to watch the singers, and the owner would let me sit in the back where no one could see me,” Mathis said. “Garner would perform several times a year and play this wonderful tune on the piano with no lyrics. His piano introduction was about a minute and a half with all sorts of chord changes. Oh man, I loved hearing it.”

Mathis would eventually be discovered singing at the very same club.

Later, Mathis learned Burke had added lyrics to the melody.

Said Mathis: “Columbia usually chose all the songs for me to record, but as soon as I got a chance to select something, I recorded ‘Misty.’”

While Mathis acknowledged the influence of many professional and personal buddies throughout his career, one always stands apart.

“I began singing because my dad sang,” Mathis said. “He was my best pal, and my true blessing is that he lived long enough to see my success as a singer.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, and has written features, columns, and interviews for numerous magazines and newspapers. See www.getnickt.org.

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