Prepare to abandon all preconceived notions about Johnny Mathis, every last one of the retarded impressions lurking about in your squalid little limbic cortex. You know you have 'em, Elwood—know you approach Mathis the way you do Neil Diamond, as lame.
And this would be your first mistake, Skippy. Though often lumped together in the public consciousness as Vegas-camp-geezer acts, Diamond is to Mathis as gefilte fish is to fresh-seared ahi. There's nothing camp, embarrassing, cheap or even vaguely amusing about Mr. Mathis, and one should never suffer any guilt in deriving great pleasure from this man's singing—among the most magnificent, emotionally honest treasures in the history of recorded music. Johnny Mathis is a goddamned musical and cultural giant, okay? He's a man who deserves to have his bust placed alongside the likes of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.
It all starts, of course, with That Voice. Johnny Mathis' singing is a layer of whipped honey spread over a mocha truffle, wrapped in lush Turkish velvet and stored in a chest of aromatic cedar, got me? Mathis' voice wafts—like the smell from a cartoon pie—sensuously inside your orifices, tugs seductively at your genitals and heartstrings in equal measure, leaches all negative thought from your brain, and makes you fall deeply in love with life. His power borders on the mystic. It's a fucking drug, okay?
So now you must listen to a set of Mathis magic (allow me to suggest “Chances Are,” “Twelfth of Never,” “Maria” and the only version of “Misty” that matters), and you shall see that this force of which I speak is real and true. Yet you, Horace, remain so shallow that you still won't admit to your friends hanging out at the skateboard park, jamming on Monk over at Steamers, moshing at the Slipknot concert or blues-greaser posing at the Blue Caf that you have seen the light and it was geeky little Mathis who flipped the switch. This would leave you in piss company, Abel. In the many years I've been interviewing professional musicians, funk godfather George Clinton, garage psychedelia loon Arthur Lee and Jesus of Motown Smokey Robinson have been among those to cite Mathis as a prime inspiration and favorite performer. Oh, and there's another fan Mathis told me about when we were yakking on the phone the other day:
“I grew up listening to jazz, and one day, I finally met Miles Davis at one of my performances,” he relates. “Miles came back to tell me how much he loved my music, and I was agog. I was absolutely floored. That left an impression on me. But, you see, I give people a lot of credit. The people who tell me they're fans, it just amazes me sometimes.”
Beyond the artistry, beyond the plaudits of the heavies, let's examine Mathis' cultural significance. When he was anointed king of make-out music in the late-'50s, Mathis sold so many records he became one of America's first black millionaires. This not-insignificant feat is all the more remarkable for the lack of trouble it caused him; no trailer-park Buford endeavored or even threatened to shoot the uppity cullid boy, as one might have imagined. This was, I'm convinced, the result of Mathis' refreshing humility, easy personality and lack of an ostentation gland. Had he been a prizefighter instead of a singer, Mathis would have been Joe Louis rather than Muhammad Ali.
“Sure, I made a lot of money early on, but I was too busy singing to pay much attention to that,” Mathis reflects. “I worked a lot, I had a lot of hit records, and I'd sing 100 one-nighters in a row. But when I came along, all these great artists—Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan—had already opened all the doors. By the time I got to places like Las Vegas and New York, everything was cool, there were no problems, and it was all because of these people who came before me, to whom I owe so much. There were a few places down south that, through my own ignorance, I wasn't prepared for. I couldn't get room accommodations or things like that. But that was about the extent of the trouble I experienced.”
A vexation Mathis did experience was an incessant sniggering and whispering that he was gay. The rumors floated about for years, silently tainting his rep among breeders who suddenly became a bit little less comfortable with the breathless romance Mathis expressed and embodied in song. How did Johnny deal? Without any fanfare or hype, he simply emerged from the closet in 1982, forever ending the speculation without damaging his career an iota. One might credit Mathis with bravery for taking a stand years before coming out became commonplace, but if bravery is to occur, fear must first be manifest—and fearless honesty comes as naturally to Mathis as hitting a toe-curling high note.
“I'm a very truthful person, and that [decision] never made any difference in my life,” says Mathis. “They were asking me about it, and so I told them. And then I asked them back why they'd ask me something like that in the first place. It was all kind of silly and funny. As I got older and became a little more politically correct, I realized that it could have had a negative effect on my life if I had let it. But I'm completely happy with everything that's ever happened to me. If you're negative about anything, it's all over before it starts.”
Mathis is 68 now, his voice still a lush marvel sent here and preserved by a benevolent, holy being. He's slowing down, performing a handful of dates when he dang well feels like it and releasing a new album once every few years. He doesn't have much of a public presence; you won't see him kibitzing the talk-show circuit or turning up on The Hollywood Squares. When Mathis surfaces, you can bet it's because he wants to, rather than out of any sense of obligation or yearning for publicity.
“I'm a rare bird in that I'm uncomfortable with the celebrity part of this,” he says. “I like the music. I like to perform, and I like to sing and interact with my musicians—that all has a life of its own. Then when the celebrity part comes in, it completely takes me for a loop; I don't know quite how to deal with it. So I save singing for when I really want to do it; I don't do it as a chore. And lately, I'd say in the past 10 years or so, I've been singing less and playing more golf.”