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Wednesday, October 16,2013

The ‘Wonderful’ world of Johnny Mathis

A Q & A with the venerable crooner

by Tom Helma
In 1957, I took my prom date to a midnight show by this new singer named Johnny Mathis. We were the last people to get inside, and only then because I bribed the maître d’ with 50 bucks I’d saved from my paper route. He scooped up a tiny table and walked it to the very front of the room; half the table jutted out onto the dance floor. To the people who complained, the maître d’ smiled and said simply, “Mr. Mathis’ personal guests.”

Mathis came out in a white jumpsuit with bell bottomed trousers and sang what would become his signature song —“Wonderful, Wonderful.” More than half a century later, I began my phone interview with him telling him that story. He laughed. Then we talked about his lifetime of performing, what gets him misty and finding the love of his life.

What keeps you going? I love to sing. It’s not just a big part of my life — it IS my life. My dad was in vaudeville and was my first voice teacher. I can’t imagine after all this time what else I might do.

When did you figure out that you actually like performing?

I really don’t think of it as performing. I sing all the time, off stage and on. I remember hanging out with Howard Keel, the famous Broadway singer. Like me, he sang all the time. One day we played 18 holes of golf together and sang Broadway tunes throughout the entire day.

When you’re not singing, do you live high on a mountaintop in Zen solitude reflecting on the meaning of life?

I do live in a beautiful house overlooking the Hollywood hills, but what I do?

I play a lot of golf. On the golf course, I am just one of the guys, and it’s one place where I am not on display. I am also an alumnus of San Francisco State and keep in touch with the track team there. I still see myself as an athlete.

But you don’t still do the high jump. No, when I was there, the great NBA basketball player Bill Russell was also on the track team doing the high hurdles. The basketball coach quickly vetoed that, and Bill went on to fame and glory. When I decided not to go to the Olympic tryouts as a high jumper, but instead went to New York to record, my high jump days were over. My music career literally took off.

Which one of your many famous love songs have you found to be most challenging to sing?

“Misty” begins with the highest note of the song, so there’s no warm-up. You get it right or you don’t.

Is there one song that still affects you emotionally?

There are many. I love to sing Brazilian songs, songs with a bossa nova beat.

There is an Israeli folk song that I am often asked to perform that has a deep spiritual feel to it.

Do you play from a set list? I usually arrive with backup musicians that I have been playing with for years. They know all my songs and I can mix and decide on the spot which way to go, depending on my sense of how the audience is responding.

Was there any advice given to you that you have embraced?

I like people to know that there have been a lot of life lessons, and that I have enjoyed the process of life, remembering to concentrate, keep my eye on the prize, which in my case is my music. Music has been my focus. Any problems that I might be struggling with, I just sing, and that gets me back to doing what I was meant to do — uplifting people with songs about love.

In the course of 56 years being a singer of love songs, have you found a love of your life?

No, sadly, that has never happened. Yet.

But it is never too late, is it?

Johnny Mathis

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17 Wharton Center 750 W. Shaw Lane, East Lansing $30-$70 (800) WHARTON, whartoncenter.com

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