Quiet Legend

Iconic crooner Johnny Mathis still has insecurities about music

 

2007-Pose-1
MATHIS EASY | For years, Mathis refrained from talking about his being gay, calling it a ‘generational thing.’ Now he laughs that, as a septuagenarian, there isn’t much to talk about anymore.

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

 

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.

—  Kevin Thomas

Latin flair

comedy
MUY FUNNY | Dan Guerrero works for laughs while being gay and Latino in his one-man show.

Before he could write ‘¡Gaytino!,’ Dan Guerrero first had to find his roots

rich lopez  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Growing up gay and Latino can be a tough hand to play. In a culture that revels in religion and machismo — hell, the word “machismo” is Latino — coming out poses pitfalls.

But Dan Guerrero lucked out. With some artsy upbringing by a musician dad and a not-so-practicing Catholic background, Guerrero’s closet was easy to open. In fact, it was harder for him just to be Hispanic.

“Los Angeles never made me feel like I was good enough,” he says. “I fell in love with musicals in junior high. I wanted to hear Julie Andrews in Camelot! Who gives a rat’s ass about mariachi?”

His dad might have given one. He was famed musician Lala Guerrero, the father of Chicano music who popularized the Pachuco sound in the 1940s (the beats most associated with Zoot suits and swing dancing). While Guerrero appreciated his father’s legacy, he established his own identity by moving to New York to become an actor. That didn’t work out so much, but becoming an agent did.

“It was kind of by accident, but I ended up being an agent for 15 years,” he says. “I got into producing and I loved it.”

Although he stepped away from performing, Guerrero finds himself back onstage Friday and Saturday at the Latino Cultural Center with ¡Gaytino! The autobiographical one-man show is part comedy, part cabaret, with Guerrero recounting in lyrics and punch lines his experiences growing up gay and Latino, life with father … and having to rediscover his roots after moving back to L.A.

“The main reason I did the show is, I wanted to know more about my dad and my best friend. I was already fabulous,” he laughs. “So I don’t think of this as my story. I wanted to embrace his legacy and celebrate him and our lives, but also tell of being a born-again Hispanic.”

In L.A., Guerrero rediscovered his heritage. While still working in entertainment, he noticed a lack of Latinos behind the scenes. He started a column in Dramalogue to change that, interviewing actors like Jimmy Smits and Salma Hayek and producing shows that spoke to Latin audiences.

And then came ¡Gaytino!

“Well, the word itself hit me first so I trademarked it. Then it was madness as I set about writing it,” he says.

When the show debuted in 2005, Guerrero hadn’t performed in 35 years. He was a different man, no longer a young buck with nothing to lose and untarnished optimism. He was a behind-the-scenes producer and casting agent. He was — gasp! — older.

“I remember thinking, ‘What am I gonna do? What if I forget my lines?’ I’m an old codger,” he says. “But I got onstage and it was like I had did it the day before. Performing is just part of who I am.”

With his successful day job (he once repped a young Sarah Jessica Parker), a healthy relationship (32 years this November) and irons in many other fires, why bother with the daunting task of writing a show and carrying it alone?

“It still feels like I’m breaking into show business. At least when you’ve been around as long as I have, you can get the main cheese by phone,” he answers. “But really, I had something I wanted to say and I love doing it. I’ve been lucky to stay in the game this long but it’s not by accident; it’s all been by design.”

What he loves isn’t just doing his show, but how it pushes positive gay Latino images. He’s dedicated this chapter in his life to that. Guerrero now feels parental toward the younger generation — maybe because he has no children of his own.

“I do feel a responsibility and not just to younger people, but to all,” he says. “For ¡Gaytino!, I first want them entertained, but I hope audiences will leave more educated about some Chicano culture and history and Gaytino history.”

……………………………………

QUEER CLIP: ‘BEGINNERS’

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Beginners is such a dreadfully forgettable and generic title for what is the year’s most engaging and heartfelt comedy, you feel like boycotting a review until the distributor gives it a title it deserves.

Certainly the movie itself — a quirky, humane and fantastical reverie about the nature of love and family, with Ewan McGregor as a doleful graphic artist who, six months after his mother dies, learns his 75-year-old dad (Christopher Plummer) is gay and wants to date — charts its own course (defiantly, respectfully, beautifully), navigating the minefield of relationships from lovers to parent/child with simple emotions. It’s not a movie that would presume to answer the Big Questions (when do you know you’ve met the right one? And if they aren’t, how much does that matter anyway?); it’s comfortable observing that we’re all in the same boat, and doing our best is good enough.

McGregor’s placid befuddlement over how he should react to things around him — both his father’s coming out and a flighty but delightful French actress (Melanie Laurent) who tries to pull him out of his shell — is one of the most understated and soulful performances of his career. (His relationship with Arthur, his father’s quasi-psychic Jack Russell, is winsome and winning without veering into Turner & Hooch idiocy.) But Plummer owns the film.

Plummer, best known for his blustery, villainous characters (even the heroic ones, like Capt. Von Trapp and Mike Wallace), exudes an aura of wonder and discovery as the septuagenarian with the hot younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic, both exasperating as cuddly). As he learns about house music at a time when his contemporaries crave Lawrence Welk, you’re wowed by how the performance seethes with the lifeforce of someone coming out and into his own. His energy is almost shaming.

Writer/director Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical film suffers only being underlit and over too quickly. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to spend more time with these folks.

—Arnold Wayne Jones

Rating: Four and half stars
Now playing at Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 10, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Drawing Dallas • 01.07.11

Music has always been the spice of life for late-blooming sexagenarian Bill Prather

drawing
Ebony and Ivory

MARK STOKES  | Illustrator
mark@markdrawsfunny.com

Name and age: Bill Prather, 70

Profession: Accounting

Spotted at: Lemmonwood Shopping Center

Mathematics to music: Bill Prather has had a unique life and career. Mathematics has always held a grip on this Aquarius, which led to a career in accounting as well as a life-long love of music. Born in Donna, Texas, near McAllen along the Mexican border, Bill worked at Amarillo College for 32 years, and was the organist at Paramount Terrace Christian Church for 30.

Formerly married for 26 years, Bill is the proud father of two grown daughters, and has four grandchildren. “I was so happy to come out, I came flying out of the closet!”

Activities and activism: Bill was always taught to count his blessings, and never to discriminate. Bill spent many years on the governing committee of the Federal Club, he served on the HRC steering committee, and was co-chair of Lambda Legal leadership team. He has been a Black Tie sponsor for the last 15 years, and he also volunteers for Supper Club, preparing meals for Hillcrest House.

Travel is another great love of this finely-tuned septuagenarian, and his adventures have lead him to visit 45 states and five continents (Asia and Africa are on his agenda; New York is his all-time favorite city). His latest trip was a 16-day cruise to Antarctica. “It was heck to pack for!” His voyage took him from the balmy breezes of Chile to the sub-zero temperature of Antarctica and back again, relaxing all the way.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas