Mathis works hard toBy Tim Ryan
keep voice primed
THE most important thing a performer has to do, says Johnny Mathis, "Is make sure you can do what got you there professionally."
He trains as hard to keep his singing quality in shape as he trained as an athlete, running track and high jumping in high school and college in San Francisco. And what you get is a crooner who after four decades and 105 albums -- the new one will be released in January -- has a voice that sounds as smooth, soothing, and reflective as on "Chances Are" in the late '50s.
In a phone interview from the Hollywood Hills home where he's lived for 38 years, Mathis said, "You have to keep your level of consistency so people will want to keep coming back."
And have they. Mathis, who at 64 looks at least a decade younger, performs about 40 concerts a year -- including tomorrow night at the Blaisdell -- works out five days a week, avoids alcohol and adheres to a strict diet.
"Singers after age 45 start to see their voice deteriorating; it's a natural process," he said. "When you make your living singing it's a constant process to maintain the voice that people are accustomed to hearing.
What: Johnny Mathis and his 30-piece orchestra
When: 8 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Blaisdell Arena
Cost: $25, $32.50 and $40
"You're like an aging athlete. As hard as it is to keep (the voice) in shape this year, it may be twice as hard next year. I used to play 36 rounds of golf, then do two performances a night. No more."
Beverly Sills quit singing at 50 because she no longer liked the sound of her voice, Mathis said. "She knew what it was supposed to sound like. When that happens to me, I'll just play a lot more golf."
As Mathis' physical regimen changed over the years, so has the way records are made. He used to record four albums a year, he said, completing "four songs in three hours with a live orchestra and there were 12 songs on the album. We'd work three days in a row to get it done."
No more. Today, an album takes as long as five months to complete because producers' and artists' schedules are so busy with several projects at once.
Now when Mathis shows up to sing, he said, "I just put my voice on the rhythm track and they add the instruments later. I keep singing until they get what they like."
And there are recording devices to correct any voice deficiencies.
"They go through the recording note by note and fix anything that is slightly flat or sharp," he said. "I've never heard myself sing so in tune. No one sings perfect like that."
Mathis describes the process as "strange and laborious; not fun at all." And it's why he prefers performing live.
"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I weren't able to sing live in concert," he said.
When you see Mathis in concert he's impeccably dressed -- usually formal wear in the first half; sweater and slacks after intermission. His banter with the audience is sincere; the singer and orchestra in perfect sync. He works hard to make the event as enjoyable for him on stage as for the audience.
It wasn't always like that. There were years when Mathis suffered stage fright, and was at best a reluctant interview subject, answering questions tersely.
"I used to get so nervous it affected my performances," he said. "I was so shy to the point that I might not even look at the audience or have my back turned a lot of the time on stage.
"I wanted to always do my best, (but) it's just not possible to be 100 percent night after night. As the years went by, I came to terms that some nights were going to be better than others, and the best I could do was continually strive to maintain a level of consistency that was acceptable."
Mathis still suffers from nervousness but it's far more middle class.
"I think about all the people who hired baby sitters and drove miles to hear me sing," he says. "I know they have expectations and I'd better be prepared."
Mathis hit the charts in 1956 when, at 19, "Wonderful!Wonderful!" became a Top 20 hit. The next year, he had five more hits, including the No. 1 "Chances Are," "The Twelfth of Never" and "It's Not For Me to Say." In those two years, Mathis had become a phenomenon with a popularity rivaling that of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. (He has 20 Top 40 hits to his credit, and Billboard magazine named him one of the top five artists of the past four decades.)
"That was very long time ago, but so much fun and fanfare," Mathis says. "It was really overwhelming."
Mathis was far from done. In 1958, he hit gold again with "A Certain Smile," "Winter Wonderland," "Someone," "Misty" and "My Love For You." And his appeal to the adult market ensured album success. "Johnny's Greatest Hits" stayed a record 490 weeks on the U.S. chart.
For five decades Mathis has been responsible for making romance blossom. His music was the slow-dance of choice, and might well have played a role in creating countless numbers of baby boomers.
"Now that's a dubious honor," Mathis said, laughing. "So many fans come up to me and tell me about children conceived to my songs and always the question: "Do you know what I named my son?'"
"I guess that's why there are so many Johnnys."
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