Iconic crooner Johnny Mathis still has insecurities about music
RICH LOPEZ | Staff Writer
In a career tenure exceeding 50 years, Johnny Mathis has touched many with his singing — witness his three Grammy Awards and a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records for having sold 350 million albums worldwide. It’s enough to make a man an icon.
You wouldn’t know it to talk to him. Without much ego, Mathis doesn’t deny or disparage his accomplishments, but neither does he relish them. It’s only when someone brings up his achievements that he thinks about what he’s done in the world.
“Once in a while, I’ll get an inkling of it,” he says. “The only time I get euphoric about my career is when people with extraordinary circumstances in their lives — illness, deaths, stuff like that — say how my music has helped along the way. You try to live up to some of this stuff and so you take care of these God-given talents. It can be a little humbling.”
When Mathis steps on the stage of the Meyerson this week for two concerts with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, it marks a homecoming of sorts. He was born in Gilmer and his memories of Texas include the same heat that Dallas has been beaten with this summer.; some things never change. Surprisingly, what has also remained the same are doubts about his own talents. The voice stuff, he’s got down; the rest — he’s working on those.
“I’ve always been insecure about not being a better musician,” the silk-voiced crooner admits. “I’m always a bit hesitant about my talents mostly because I wasn’t playing piano lessons or how to read music. I didn’t learn about harmony and theory and I was never good at that. That did tend to make me reticent in everyday life.”
That reticence extends to other areas. After famously coming out in the early 1980s in a interview with Us magazine, he soon after retracted it, due, he later explained, to death threats. When he later discussed his views on homosexuality, he said that some of his reluctance was generational.
Now, though, he has good humor about it, and with a quiet air of class, he stands for that community that felt they had to hide to get by.
“It was hard enough for my [gay] fans while growing in the business,” he recalls. “They treaded pretty lightly but they knew about me. I had their blessings and everybody pretty much knew what was going on. I never had any issues really with it but everybody then took it as their own business.”
He doesn’t go into any specifics about the current state of his private life, joking, “I’m 75 — what’s there to talk about?”
Last year, Mathis released Let it Be Me: Mathis in Nashville. Known for his jazz and pop standards like “Chances Are” and “Misty,” this collection of country classics may sound like a departure for Mathis, but he has made those tunes his own working in his sophisticated signature style without stripping away the heart of each track. The collection was a sort of tribute to his father.
“I was jazzed to be able to do those songs,” he points out. “My dad was born and raised in Texas and he was a singer and piano player. He would sing these songs and those were the first songs I remember hearing. Plus, I’ve always been a fan. I play golf with Larry Gatlin and Vince Gill and we’re all sort of on the same page musically.” (The album earned him another Grammy nomination for best traditional pop vocal album earlier this year.)
With all his superstar friends, awards and concerts, Mathis doesn’t forget he’s a Texan. At one time, he might have, but a different sort of pride has surfaced within him.
“ I love that I was born in Gilmer,” he declares. “Because we were poor, we just had each other. I always thought I wouldn’t tell anybody I was from Texas because I thought it sounded ragtag. As I grew, I discovered a certain sophistication about it. Then I became proud of the fact — of who I am, what I am and where I’m from.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 19, 2011.