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Johnny Mathis: After six decades, still hitting high notes

May 18, 2015

That unmistakable, smooth-as-silk voice -- the voice that has powered nearly six decades of hits, from "Chances Are" and "Wonderful, Wonderful" through last year's Grammy-nominated album Sending You A Little Christmas -- is on the phone, telling a joke.

"What am I going to be doing on my 80th birthday in September? I'm probably going to be hiding. I was a high-jumper when I was a kid, and that may help me out if I need a quick get-away!"

Johnny Mathis, speaking from his longtime home near Los Angeles, is in great spirits, discussing his upcoming appearance with the San Francisco Symphony, highlights from his long and storied career, and his roots in San Francisco. (He may have been kidding, but as a member of the San Francisco State track team in 1954, he really did set a high-jump record that lasted years.) 

Mathis grew up on Post Street, "serenaded, quite loudly, by the cable cars" and began his musical career as a youngster under the tutelage of voice teacher Connie Cox, who introduced young Mathis to the varied wonders of the local music scene.

"She took me to the San Francisco Opera, and I remember thinking, 'Gee, there are so many people on stage. It was a Wagner or Puccini production, and the chorus was running here and there. I was just overwhelmed at that young age. But I felt then like I wanted singing to be a part of my life forever."

He found a more specific calling hanging out at downtown jazz clubs. "I remember when I was about 12 years old, getting into the old Black Hawk jazz club in the Tenderloin, and sitting at the feet of Eroll Garner as he played early versions of 'Misty' on the piano. Later, after Johnny Burke set the words to it, it became my signature song. When I first released it, there must have been 40 other versions already in circulation. I was so proud that mine stood out in some way, and was even inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Singing it, for me, is a reminder of the journey of my career."

A few years later saw his legendary discovery by Columbia Records: After hearing Mathis sing at Ann Dee's North Beach 440 Club one weekend in 1954, a record company sent this telegram: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts." Then came a flock of record-breaking hits and live tours, often bringing him back to his hometown. Mathis finally made it to the San Francisco Symphony in 1971, as a star performer.

"Oh, I remember it very well. I was the narrator for Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. I remember I was  nervous. The conductor was Arthur Fiedler, you see, so it was a true honor to perform with him for a San Francisco audience. I was afraid my mouth would go dry!"

Mathis is looking forward to returning to the Symphony under the baton of his longtime collaborator conductor John Scott Lavendar. "It's such a joy to take advantage of that big, clear symphony sound," he says. "John has been my conductor for many years, and he's a very rare talent. He really knows the sound of each instrument, including that of my voice, and also pays close attention to the process of getting everything together for a performance." 

Will he be singing "Misty" when he performs at Davies Symphony Hall Thursday, July 2 and Friday July 3? "I'll be performing many of my signature songs, including 'Misty,' 'Wonderful, Wonderful,' 'Wild is the Wind,' and 'Chances Are,'" Mathis says. "And we'll perfom some music from Brazil, which has produced some of my very favorite songs, such as 'Mas Que Nada.' I'll perform another special tribute to Henry Mancini, with whom I toured for many years."

"One of the most personal songs, for me, will be 'Yellow Roses on Her Gown,' written by Michael Moore, which starts, 'I was born in San Francisco, when the bay was full of cruisers ...' As it names off places in the Bay Area, telling the story of a couple's journey through life, it resonates as a kind of history of where I grew up. It's always an immense pleasure to sing that particular song in San Francisco."    

If you go:

Johnny Mathis performs with the San Francisco Symphony 7:30 p.m. July 2-3 at Davies Symphony Hall. (415) 864-6000 sfsymphony.org