“I love music. It’s a big part of my life,” Johnny Mathis says in a call from his Southern California home.
“That’s the thing that motivates me in life: music. It always has. I’m absolutely thrilled to do what I do at my age.”
That age is 80.
On Thursday he’s performing in a benefit concert at Tacoma’s Pantages Theater.
That Mathis still sings — and sings well — could be a testament to many things: his workout regimen, his diet, his golf game. But the legendary singer still has the same voice he had when he was singing in 1950s San Francisco nightclubs.
Most male voices become more robust and rounded with age, Mathis says.
“But mine has sort of stayed there where it was. It’s kind of an oddity. Most men are baritones, and I grew up as a quasi tenor,” he says.
Mathis and his music are cultural icons. His hits have been the soundtrack — both literally and figuratively — for countless American moments.
Mathis can’t recall the number of albums he’s put out over the years, many of which have gone gold and platinum. He’s been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame on three occasions for his hits “Chances Are,” “Misty” and “It’s Not for Me to Say”.
And it all began with a busted up piano.
THE CITY BY THE BAY
Mathis was one of seven siblings who grew up in a small apartment in San Francisco.
“One day my dad came home with what looked like a pile of wood. He spent half the night putting it all together and woke us up in the middle of the night playing piano,” Mathis said.
Mathis, who was about 4 years old at the time, had no idea his dad could even play piano.
“That was the beginning of my music. I sat next to him and listened to him sing and play the piano. He took me under his wing,” Mathis recalls.
Later, Mathis’ father found a voice instructor for his teenage son. On the weekends, Mathis would sing at local clubs.
Though Mathis actively pursued singing in his teens, he made time for another passion: athletics. He was a star high jumper, hurdler and basketball player.
It was through athletics that he met fellow high jumper, future Boston Celtic and future Sonics coach Bill Russell. Their friendship continues to this day.
“I learned a lot about living my life in a public way from Bill,” Mathis said.
Mathis is still athletic today, working out five days a week.
“It helps me now because I’m old,” he says with a laugh. He’s also an avid golfer.
“I used to plan my performances around the availability of my golf game. I used to run all over the golf courses and then I’d say, ‘Oh yeah. I have to sing tonight.’ ”
HITTING IT BIG
Mathis set a college high jump record that could have qualified him for the Olympics. But when Mathis was discovered by a music executive his path in life was set.
“One day this guy from Columbia Records heard me sing and that was it,” he says.
Soon, hits “Wonderful! Wonderful!” and “It’s Not For Me To Say” were alerting the public to the young singer. They also pegged him as a crooner of love songs.
“I got nailed as a romantic singer the first few recordings I made. Once you get that label it kind of sticks with you,” Mathis says.
Over the years he’s delved into many musical genres, but the romantic label stuck.
“Everybody thinks of me as a romantic singer, and I guess it’s not such a bad thing,” he says.
Mathis’s desire to own the rights to his own music prompted him to start his own record label in 1967 — Jon Mat Records — long before it became fashionable.
“You have to have a little leverage. I couldn’t have done if I hadn’t been successful with my first recordings,” he says.
Today, Mathis keeps a paced performance schedule.
“It’s all a matter of how you wake up in the morning. You call the office and they say, ‘Well, we have some requests for you to sing here and there.’ And depending on how I feel I’ll say, ‘No, I’d rather play golf.’ But, that’s a luxury you can only have when you’ve been singing as long as I have.”
Ask Mathis who he listens to and he’ll name a variety of artists: Beverly Sills, Quincy Jones, Gladys Knight. He’s less forthcoming on contemporary artists.
“It’s difficult for me to get my ear around a lot of the stuff because I grew up listening to these incredible voices. Most of the young kids these days are winging it pretty much. They are not singers in the classical style. They want to interpret. It takes a little getting used to — the vernacular they use. And the names of the songs. I go, ‘What’?”
But he tries. He’s currently working on a project for music producer Clive Davis.
“He wants me to do some current stuff. But, it’s tough. I had to get over my little prejudices about the lack of a melody and the choice of phrases and words.”
Mathis says he’s found five or six songs he likes and will soon be heading to the studio. Staying current is something he’s been able to do his entire career.
“Just when everybody says, ‘My goodness. How long have you been singing?’ Deniece Williams comes along and we have a number one record: ‘Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.’ That was after about 40 years. And I’ve had a lot of success with Christmas music.”
In 2013, Mathis once again had a hit with Jim Brickman on “Sending You a Little Christmas.” It reached No. 4 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.
For the first couple of decades of his career, Mathis kept a secret from the public and even some of those closest to him.
“I had a few hurdles to get over in the beginning of my career (which) nobody, other than myself, were aware of. One of them was being a gay man in a very public lifestyle that I was going to have,” Mathis says.
Mathis compared the fear of being outed to “a big blade that was going to come down and cut your head off.”
And it wasn’t just the public he was concerned about.
“That was the thing that you always walked around concerned about. Over the years I never knew if my parents knew, or my friends knew. It was all uncomfortable.”
In 1982 he came out publicly. The bold announcement brought death threats and criticism, but it was also a relief.
“It took a great weight off my shoulders,” Mathis says.
Today Mathis says he is, “absolutely over the moon” with the strides in public acceptance.
“It’s a joy to be able to live your life in a completely relaxed way.”