Hearing Johnny Mathis speak for the first time comes with surprises. The biggest is how much his speech sounds like his singing. That silky aural cloud that made all of America want to make out in a ’57 Chevy — that once floated “Chances Are,” “It’s Not For Me to Say” and “Misty” into nearly every suburban living room — is instantly recognizable as Mathis conveys his thoughts in sing-songy sentences peppered with giggling (seriously delightful, Dalai Lama-level giggling).
Mathis, 82, phoned the Light from his home in Hollywood to discuss his voice, his legacy and the concert he’s performing at Copley Symphony Hall on Sunday, Sept. 22.
The other big surprise was his requesting that half of the following questions be repeated. (As explained by the representative who patched him in, Mathis has lost much of his hearing over the decades.)
Q: Do you think your hearing loss is more a result of your age or standing in front of orchestras for 60 years?
A: “My doctors have told me over the years that my hearing would be impaired because of all the loud music. But all I do is tell people, ‘Say it again!’ (giggles)”
Q: Has age intruded upon your ability to perform live at all?
A: “Well, I’m very lucky. I’m 82 years old and I’m still healthy enough. I still go to the gym five days a week and exercise — very early in the morning, before I go to the golf course or wherever I’m going. It’s helped me out a great deal, because I can stand on stage and I’m not fat-looking, because people don’t like that (giggles).”
Q: What can people expect from a Johnny Mathis concert in 2019?
A: “All kinds of stuff. There’s so much, my goodness! (giggles) I’ve got something in front of me, let me see… ‘Life is a Song Worth Singing,’ ‘Stoned in Love With You,’ ‘ It’s All in the Game,’ ‘It’s Not For Me to Say,’ ‘Chances Are,’ ‘Gina,’ ‘Let Me Be the One,’ ‘I’m on the Outside Looking In,’ ‘Misty,’ ‘Too Young’ and ‘To the Ends of the Earth.’ And then I sing some songs from when I was touring in Brazil and I had to learn some songs in Portuguese. I try to find out what the people like to hear.”
Q: But do your fans even show up to hear specific songs or to hear your voice singing anything? I imagine you could sing the phone book to your fans with no complaints.
A: “Most of the people who come to see the performance mention the fact that they like to hear my voice. Sometimes, they tell me I sing songs they’ve never heard before and they’re glad I did. And so, at this point in my life, I can sing some of the songs I heard my dad sing a thousand years ago. My father was my big hero. He and my mom raised seven kids. Dad was a singer and he’s the reason that I sing today.”
Q: Many people probably don’t realize you were headed for a career as an Olympic high-jumper that was sidelined by your music success.
A: “I was supposed to go to the trials that were being held at UC Berkeley. But it was a long shot because my mind wasn’t really on the Olympics. My mind was on the fact that, the same week, I got my first opportunity to go to New York and make my first recording. So my dad looked at me and said, ‘Son, you don’t want to give up this opportunity to make your first recording, do you?’ So there went my athletic career.”
Q: Do you ever talk to your alternative-universe self and ask him what happened if you chose the Olympic trials instead? And, if so, which Johnny Mathis is happier now?
A: “I take it as part of what you did in different parts of your life. I have nothing but great memories about my athletic abilities at that time — except that now, I have realized how extensive (the damage done) was, because I had some problems with my hips. But now I have brand new titanium hips and I can last for another lifetime (giggles).”
Q: If you Google your name and Frank Sinatra’s, you get almost no results. There are no photos of you together, no quotes from one of you about the other. For a crooner as successful as you were from the ’50s through the ’70s, that seems a bit unusual. Other than Frank being 20 years older, is there a reason?
A: “Oh, Frank was a little more outgoing. He was kind of a man of the world and I was kind of a reclusive young person. And he was not one of my great heroes. I listened to songs that my dad would bring into the house. Most of it by some pretty fantastic singers — Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstein, Nat King Cole — so I didn’t miss out on anything.
Q: How much racism did you encounter when you toured in the ’50s?
A: “I went a lot of places that I shouldn’t have gone, because they just didn’t like black people. But fortunately, because of my early success, I didn’t have to go anyplace I didn’t want to. So I learned where I would be uncomfortable as a person of color, and then I didn’t go there.”
Q: Why do you think your audience has always been predominantly white?
A: “I don’t know, don’t know. Haven’t a clue. I don’t know what my audience is thinking, other than whether they like my singing or not.”
Q: Has reaction to your coming out two years ago been as positive as one would suspect? It’s not like it’s still the ’50s.
A: “Oh yeah. People go, ‘Oh yeah, oh.’ No big deal (giggles).”
Q: Do you think about retiring?
A: “Never. I’m going to go until they kick me off the stage (giggles).”
Q: What would you most like to be remembered for?
“As a good guy. Sang pretty good. Made a lot of records. And a pretty nice guy. Yeah! (giggles)”
IF YOU GO: Johnny Mathis will perform 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22 at Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B. St., downtown San Diego. Tickets are $53-$135 through the box office (619) 235-0804 and Ticketmaster (800) 745-3000, or visit copleysymphonyhall.com or ticketmaster.com