Johnny Mathis

10 October 2011

The singer talks candidly with Alan Jackson about his battle with alcohol, dealing with racial and sexual prejudice – and posing naked for Playgirl .

He’s a familiar sight in West Hollywood, browsing the fresh produce aisles of the grocery stores (he loves to cook) or, as now, in a hotel lobby en route to or from its gym (he loves working-out rather less, but believes needs must).

‘After all,’ says Johnny Mathis who, in gym gear, looks considerably younger than his 76 years, ‘when you’re on stage singing romantic songs, you should look the part.’ Spotted as a teenager, he’s entertained audiences for almost 60 years and remains that most old-fashioned of stars, one for whom artistry is all.

The trials of fame 

‘I quickly lost interest in the fame side of things. I come from a track-and-field background [he was training to be a physical education teacher when offered his first recording contract], and athletes don’t generally subscribe to party culture. I’m pretty reticent in social situations and don’t have an appetite for the red carpet.’

Such diffidence has hardly harmed Mathis’s career. As a young man, he focused on his USP – that yearning, golden voice, with its controlled, at times melancholic, delivery. A Certain Smile (1958), Someone (1958) and Misty (1959) were his first UK hits and he enoyed a run of hits during the mid-Seventies, too, culminating in the 1976 Christmas chart-topper, When A Child Is Born. To date, he’s sold 350 million records.

Inspired by jazz 

Ironically, he never wanted to be a balladeer. ‘I was all but carried kicking and screaming into the studio to record some of the music I would become so well-known for.

‘I grew up in San Francisco which has a big jazz scene and from the age of 12 my dad would take me to hear Ella, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan... and Lena Horne – Oh, I just worshipped her.

‘Often, I’d listen to early recordings and go, “Uh-oh, I’m trying to be Lena again.” In time you learn to accept that some things you can do, some you can’t.’

His true idol was chosen not just for his voice but for his humanity: ‘Nat “King” Cole, in addition to having an incredible voice and being one of the best pianists I’ve ever heard, was such a good man. That he could have that wonderful talent and still be so kind and gentle, humble even, was an inspiration.'

A drinking crowd

Such an example is valuable in an industry where so many fall casualty to excess. Mathis concedes he himself was not immune. Alcohol dependency became an issue in the Eighties. ‘It just got in my way,’ he says. ‘It affects everything you do. You only want to be around other drinkers. You’ll sit for hours, drinking and talking nonsense. I’d go on stage and wouldn’t remember what I’d done. The only people I could ask were musicians, and they wanted to keep their jobs so didn’t argue. It was a bad period for me but I was fortunate. I came to my senses in time to save my career.’

For Mathis, recovery came on the night he attended a party with Nancy Reagan. During the course of the evening he confided that he would love to be able to stop drinking. ‘“Stay right here,” she told me. “There’s someone you should speak to...”’ Almost before he knew it, one of her friends who had contacts with addiction experts was organising his entry to rehab.

The golf course 

That was 22 years ago, but has he fallen prey to another? ‘Well, I am pretty serious about my golf,’ he chuckles. ‘Over the years it’s been a salvation, providing me with a comfortable environment in which to socialise. If anyone wants to know the real me, they need to be there when I’m involved in a golf game or sitting around discussing athletics, which I’m passionate about.’

It’s his willingness to talk openly which encourages me to mention a different kind of self-exposure. Is it true he once posed nude for Playgirl? ‘Yes! I was probably drunk when I did it! I’d hired a PR girl full of these great ideas. Next thing I know, I’m standing naked by the pool at my house with a photographer.

‘“What do I do now?”’ I asked and he told me to put my foot up on a stool then turn a little to the left. I followed his instructions and in doing so exposed myself. Luckily, I sobered up in time to stop it. I mean, there are certain people you’d love to see that way and others you very much wouldn’t. I definitely fall into the latter category.

Racial discrimination 

‘I know the shot’ll crop up,’ he laughs. ‘Everything surfaces on the internet eventually.’ Back to music. Lena Horne and Nat ‘King’ Cole prevailed in the face of often undisguised racism. Did he himself experience prejudice?

‘I know what they went through – some absolute horror stories – but thanks to their paving the way I didn’t suffer the same thing. But when you get to be a celebrity, some people make a big deal out of the fact that perhaps you’re different in some way. That can be very difficult.

‘I pretty quickly realised that I was going to have to listen to a lot of stuff about myself which, though probably mostly accurate, had no real bearing on what I do professionally. Small discomforts, comparatively, but even so...’

Not a big deal 

Mathis first made incidental mention of his homosexuality in the early Eighties, though he’s never been a banner-waver for gay rights. Is he saying it was the area in which he experienced prejudice? ‘Well, there was a time when it was perceived as such a negative,’ he says, choosing not to remind me that he subsequently received death threats ahead of concerts in the American south.

‘Then Elton and others came out and it became “What’s the big deal?” I got over that a long time ago but I used to be concerned people would think it made my music not as good as that of others.’ As if. The plaudits continue to pour in – last year’s country album, Let It Be Me, was Grammy-nominated. Is there nothing he can’t sing? ‘As I haven’t been to the UK in a while; then I called a British golfing buddy and he suggested songs by Rod – but they were all rockers.’

Stewart has strayed into Mathis territory with his Great American Songbook albums, so why not a reciprocal gesture? ‘Maybe if I were younger... Mind you, my guitar player and I made a little recording of me singing Maggie May. Just don’t expect to hear it on tour!’

Visit Johnny Mathis' official website here

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