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Mathis, Johnny (b. 1935)  
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With more than sixty gold and platinum albums to his credit, Johnny Mathis is one of the most successful recording artists in the world, trailing only Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley in the number of albums sold. His interpretations of romantic ballads have brought him fame and wealth, but he is notoriously reticent about his own romantic life.

Although he has acknowledged his homosexuality, he has refused to discuss it in any depth, and its effect on his art and life must remain speculative.

Born John Royce Mathis in 1935 in Gilmer, Texas, he grew up in San Francisco. The circumstances of his family were modest. His father Clem was a limousine driver and handyman, and his mother Mildred a domestic worker. Both parents encouraged him to develop the musical ability that he showed from an early age, but Mathis acknowledges in particular the role of his father.

When Mathis was eight years old, his father bought a used piano for him. The elder Mathis, who had been a vaudevillian in Texas, began to teach his son vaudeville routines, introduced him to the music of such singers as Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald, and urged him to participate in church choirs and talent contests.

When Mathis was thirteen, he met Connie Cox, an opera singer and voice teacher, who was so impressed with his singing that she offered to give him free voice lessons. He studied classical technique for six years and credits Cox with teaching him to sing the soft, high notes that are a signature of his style.

After high school Mathis received an athletic scholarship from San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University). He competed on the track team, setting a school record in the high jump. His impressive athletic performance earned him an invitation to participate in the 1956 Olympic trials.

The very same week, however, brought the opportunity to sign with a recording company. Mathis decided against trying to make the Olympic team but maintained an interest in his sport. He sponsors the Johnny Mathis Invitational track meet, which has been held annually at his alma mater since 1982. In 1997 SFSU chose him as the Alumnus of the Year.

During his college years, Mathis developed an interest in jazz and began to work in local clubs. When he appeared at the Black Hawk nightclub, Helen Noga, the co-owner of the establishment, quickly recognized his talent. She undertook the management of his career and secured bookings at more clubs in the area.

One such appearance, in 1955 at a San Francisco gay bar called the 440 Club, found George Avakian, a record producer at Columbia, in the audience. Although impressed with Mathis's potential, Avakian did not sign him immediately. He did, however, return to San Francisco the following year, at which time he offered Mathis a contract to record an album.

The debut album, Johnny Mathis, a New Sound in Popular Song (1956) did not do particularly well. The "new sound" was flavored with the jazz style of the music that Mathis had been performing in California. He was soon, though, to discover another sound that would propel him to stardom.

Following the release of the first album, Avakian brought Mathis to New York, where he continued working as a jazz singer, performing at various clubs and concert halls, including the Apollo Theater.

Avakian, however, felt that Mathis needed to take a different direction to achieve greater commercial success. He therefore brought Mathis together with producer and arranger Mitch Miller.

The pairing proved inspired. In collaboration with Miller, who was known for his lavish string arrangements, Mathis began singing romantic ballads. His first such recording, "Wonderful, Wonderful," was a Top 20 hit in 1957. He released five more extremely successful singles that year, including the chart-topping "Chances Are."

In 1958, he released an enormously popular album, Johnny's Greatest Hits, which held the number one spot on Billboard's pop chart for three weeks and remained on the chart for a record total of 490 weeks. The album included such standards as "The Twelfth of Never," "It's Not for Me to Say," and "Misty."

Mathis's career skyrocketed in the 1960s. He put out three or four albums a year throughout the decade and was much in demand on the concert tour. His rigorous schedule--with as many as 101 consecutive one-night shows--took a physical toll on him and caused him to become addicted to sleeping pills for a time.

In 1964 Mathis decided to take charge of his own career. He left his previous manager, Helen Noga, and started his own company, Rojon Productions. The break with Noga was rancorous, but they later reconciled their differences.

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Johnnie Mathis in concert at the Chumash Casino, Santa Ynez, California, in 2006. Photograph by Dwight McCann.
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