It's been a year for celebrating milestones for Johnny Mathis. Shortly after turning 80 last fall, Mathis began preparing for an even more remarkable commemoration: 60 years in show business.
With a tour which brings him to Fort Wayne's Embassy Theatre this month, Mathis finds himself in pretty exalted company, with only a few peers who are still hitting the stage into his 80s. When asked if he's surprised to be as professionally active as he is after all these years, he responds by remembering how he got started in the first place.
"I remember singing as a kid, and my dad, who was my best friend, said maybe we should see about getting me some singing lessons," he recalls. "I didn't have any idea then that all this other stuff would happen. I just wanted to sing. But those lessons were what made it possible for me to have this career.
"I've never had any problems, which is what really sticks out in my mind. I've had no problems with my voice."
And a remarkable voice it is. The smooth clarity of the Mathis voice is legendary and incredibly distinctive. His list of well-known hits - "Misty," "Chances Are," "Wonderful Wonderful," "The Twelfth of Never," to name a few - are instantly recognizable as his. While he still enjoys performing and sharing music with an audience, he admits that the days when he goes on the road for months at a time are over, preferring now to venture out for one or two shows, then returning to his California home to recover.
"Once I found out that traveling was the most boring thing about what I do, I tried to figure out how to do it in a way that wasn't going to drive me crazy. It used to be kind of easy when I was young and strong physically. And nowadays you can't go anywhere directly, which means sitting in an airport for hours at a time. I've figured out how to utilize my time and think about what I'm going to do for the audience that night."
To some extent that decision has been made, given the popularity of his many hits and the expectations people have when they attend his shows. He says he once tired of singing the same songs over and over, but his audience wasn't sympathetic.
"I do try to find little things that are interesting for the audience, but they'll tell you stuff you have to do. About 30, 40 years ago, I got tired of singing 'Chances Are,' 'Misty,' 'The Twelfth of Never,' 'Maria,' and I didn't do them. Well, I heard about it. People were saying 'I came to see you and you were supposed to...' and they got kind of legal about the whole thing! I had to have a conversation with myself and say 'These are the songs that made me famous, and you are expected to sing them over and over and over.' So I will never do that again.
"It's a learning process," he continues. "I was 19 when I started making records, and I got a head full of steam and started thinking I knew a little something. But now I know I have to sing these songs people remember and want to hear. I've talked to friends who perform on Broadway, and they have to recite the same lines night after night. So as I said, it's been a learning process."
He has also learned that keeping those songs fresh is the best way to keep both himself and the audience interested.
"I've recorded a lot of my concerts over the years, and what I've come to realize is that I never sing the songs the same way. They always sound different."
Although Mathis credits his father with getting him involved in singing lessons, Mathis had some significant accomplishments in another area altogether. In fact, at the time he was offered his first recording contract, Mathis was on the verge of going to the Olympic trials for track and field. A standout on his University of Nevada, Reno team, Mathis set a record for the high jump - 6 feet, 5 ? inches - in 1955, besting a record previously held by NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell. While he still enjoys sports, primarily now a beloved golf game, and still follows the Olympics (which he was watching at the time of this interview), he says he didn't fully appreciate the opportunity he rejected in favor of a music career.
"My situation with athletics is interesting because I didn't realize how special my situation was. I didn't have any expectations for the Olympics, and I didn't get a chance to go to the trials because I had to go to New York to work on my first recordings. I know a little bit more now about something as physical as the high jump or hurdles and how demanding they are in terms of getting hurt. There are a lot of injuries. But I've gotten to hang out with people who did go to the Olympics - guys like Bill Russell and K.C. Jones - so I've been able to live vicariously and enjoy their careers. I'm still very close friends with those guys and enjoy hearing about their situations."
Mathis also understands how to protect his own health and welfare by caring for his voice. He doesn't overdo the singing, allowing his voice to recover before putting it through more performances. He says his father's determination to get him lessons with an opera singer helped him develop the techniques which has preserved his voice over time. And it allowed him to release his amazing sound.
"I remember being told to open my throat, and most kids - including myself - would just open the mouth and think 'I am opening my throat.' But no, I was just opening my mouth and had to learn how to open my throat."
Comfortable in his life in Los Angeles and his regular golf outings, Mathis sees no need to cease touring as some of his contemporaries have, content to stay close to home or settle into Las Vegas residencies. He still enjoys taking the stage and interacting with an audience and thinks he can continue to do so in the years ahead if he's takes care of himself, just as anyone in athletics might.
"I still want to continue to go out enough so I'm sustaining my career. I just don't overdo it. Vocal cords are tiny little muscles so I try not to abuse them in any way."