Nobody can sing like Johnny Mathis. Nobody. His timeless voice has wrapped itself around decades of memorable hits, including “Chances Are,” “Wonderful Wonderful,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” “The Twelfth of Never” and “Misty.”
To celebrate his upcoming 80th birthday, Columbia Records is releasing a four-CD box set of Mr. Mathis’s best-loved songs titled “The Singles.” In advance of that, the intensely private singer discussed finding joy in music, who he listens to and his favorite songs of all time.
Question: Do you often look back on your career?
Answer: I look at the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly. [laughs] I started so young, and I have been recording since I was about 19. A lot of the stuff we did was kind of hit and miss. A few years later I got a handle on it.
Q: When you listened to the songs on the box set, was there anything that surprised you?
A: I was kind of surprised at some of the songs. They are really charming. When I listen to it, I kind of remember certain aspects of what was going on musically at the time in the country.
Q: How do you choose the songs you sing?
A: In the beginning a lot of the songs were given to me because the record company thought that was the way to go. They rarely made a mistake. They gave me the best musicians to work with. Then they told me I could choose what I wanted. I started to record albums. I had a lot of success with my albums because of the people I recorded with: Percy Faith and Glenn Arthur and Ray Conniff. Don Costa.
Q: Who were your favorite people to collaborate with?
A: I loved Percy Faith because I think he he was the most inventive of all with his sound. Then, later on in life, I met the fabulous Henry Mancini. He and I became pals, and we worked together for 20 years almost. I miss him greatly. I am a product of all these wonderful arrangers that I met along the way and worked with.
Q: Were you ever interested in writing your own songs?
A: [laughs] I remember vividly flying back from South America, and I think they gave us a couple drinks. [laughs] I decided I was going to write a song. I had never written before and [have] never written since. [laughs] It was one of those things where you say, “Well, I think I can do that. That doesn’t seem like it is so difficult.” But of course there is so much to songwriting. I’ve been surrounded by so many gifted people that my efforts in songwriting were not needed.
Q: Of all the songs you have sung, do you have a favorite?
A: The song that I keep telling people is my favorite is “Misty,” and there is a reason: When I was about 12 years old, my dad used to take me to a jazz club called The Blackhawk in San Francisco. Of all the great jazz musicians I saw, the one that stood out the most was Erroll Garner. He wrote several songs, but the one that sticks in my mind was “Misty.” To this day that is my favorite moment — when I get to sing “Misty” in my live performance. It gives my performance a bit of sophistication.
Q: How is the voice these days?
A: I was very fortunate at the very beginning of my career that my dad instigated … that I should find a voice teacher. I said, “What for?” I didn’t have any idea what the voice teacher was going to do. Thank God my dad did. I studied with a voice teacher until I was 19.
That is the thing that has kept me in good shape over the years. I haven’t had too much trouble other than once in a while laryngitis from screaming too loud at football games. I’ve very lucky that I’ve maintained most of my voice.
Q: Some singers draw from pain as inspiration. You seem to find inspiration in joy.
A: When I wake up in the morning, the only thing that pops into my head is that I’m going to have to sing. I’m so grateful that I like the sound that comes out. I’ve been very lucky in that respect. I still enjoy the physical aspect of finding songs that I’m not familiar with and finding a way to introduce them to the public.
Q: What is next for you musically?
A: The next thing I’m doing is a series of songs which are very contemporary. It’s kind of a difficult task for me because most of the people who write songs recently write and perform their own songs. Some of them are great songwriters and terrible singers. [laughs] You have to try to find something that you can perform. I have about four or five. We’re gonna need maybe three or four more before we start recording.
Q: How will you be spending your upcoming 80th birthday?
A: You got anything in mind? [laughs] I don’t know. I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing. And to be relatively healthy. I have no idea what I’m gonna do, and that is kind of the fun part of it. Most of the things I’ve done have been instigated by the people I’ve met along the way.
Q: Do you ever see a time in which you’ll retire?
A: Not yet. It may happen, but I hope not. I kind of enjoy what I’m doing. I just played golf yesterday with a buddy, and I played so badly that I don’t think I can do anything really well except sing.
“The Singles” box set will be out Sept. 25.