It’s a difficult statement to complete. How to describe one of the most remarkable voices in popular music? Johnny Mathis continues to enjoy a singularly wonderful, wonderful career – one spanning seven decades, over 350 million records sold, more than eighty albums, and a host of million-selling singles including “Misty,” “Chances Are” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” Longtime readers of The Second Disc can no doubt imagine how privileged we feel to be able to inaugurate our new Second Disc Records label in conjunction with Real Gone Music on March 10 with the music of Johnny Mathis.
Life is a Song Worth Singing: The Complete Thom Bell Sessions celebrates the perfect partnership in song between Mathis and Philadelphia-based songwriter/producer/arranger/conductor Thom Bell, best-known for his work with The Delfonics (“La-La Means I Love You”), The Spinners (“I’ll Be Around”), The Stylistics (“Betcha by Golly Wow”) and Deniece Williams (“Too Much, Too Little, Too Late”). We’ve filled you in on the details, but just in case you missed it, this new 2-CD collection features:
- The complete I’m Coming Home album (1973) featuring the original versions of “I’m Coming Home” (later recorded by The Spinners) and “Life is a Song Worth Singing” (later recorded by Teddy Pendergrass) plus Mathis’ silky reinventions of “I’m Stone in Love with You” and “Stop, Look, Listen to Your Heart”;
- The complete second album collaboration, Mathis Is… (1977) featuring the original version of “Loving You – Losing You” (later a hit for Phyllis Hyman) and a new recording of The Spinners’ “Sweet Love of Mine” written by MFSB guitar hero Bobby Eli and Vinnie Barrett;
- Ten bonus tracks including rare singles, two previously unreleased instrumentals revealing the full splendor of Thom Bell’s orchestrations, the 1991 Mathis/Bell reunion track, and Mathis’ interpretations of “Betcha by Golly Wow,” “Break Up to Make Up” and “You’re as Right as Rain”;
- Remastering by Sean Brennan at Battery Studios, NYC; and
- New liner notes based on my recent interviews with, and featuring fresh quotes from, Johnny Mathis and Bobby Eli!
This release marks the worldwide CD debut of Mathis Is… and everybody at The Second Disc and Real Gone Music couldn’t be more proud to reissue for the first time this lost classic from two of the most significant figures in American popular song. For this occasion, we’ve dusted off a never-before-published Reissue Theory column that digs deeper into Mathis Is…, and hope you enjoy this preview of what to expect in two weeks when Life is a Song Worth Singing: The Complete Thom Bell Sessions arrives in stores!
Much had changed in the Philadelphia soul scene between the release of Johnny Mathis’ first collaboration with Thom Bell, 1973’s I’m Coming Home, and that of 1977’s Mathis Is… In 1975, many key players in Philadelphia International Records’ “house band” MFSB had decamped Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s enterprise for Ken and Joe Cayre’s upstart Salsoul Records label. Salsoul, of course, was at the vanguard of disco – a genre that owed much to Philly soul and its trademark blend of the elegant and the funky, the lush and the rhythmic.
Much had changed for Thom Bell, too. Bell – Gamble and Huff’s partner in Mighty Three Music but not in Philadelphia International – had blazed his own trail as an independent producer. The first-ever recipient of the Grammy Awards’ Producer of the Year statuette, he had worked his sophisticated, soulful magic on a broad range of artists including The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Ronnie Dyson, Little Anthony and the Imperials, New York City, The (Detroit) Spinners, and Dionne Warwick. By 1977, disco was on the rise – a trajectory which would explode with the release that December of Saturday Night Fever – and Bell had moved cross-country, to Seattle – far from the Philadelphia nucleus of the sound he and the talented musicians of MFSB had created.
Following I’m Coming Home, Mathis had collaborated with a variety of producers and arrangers including John Florez, Johnny Bristol, Jack Gold and Gene Page. Like its predecessor, Mathis Is… would remain a rarity in Mathis’ discography as the vision of primarily one composer, arranger, producer and conductor in tandem with the artist himself. Any fears that Mathis and Bell would have altered their style to get in step with the changing sound of music would have been immediately assuaged by the first notes of the shimmering opening track, “As Long as We’re Together.” Though Bell was writing not with longtime lyricist Linda Creed but with a cadre of collaborators including his brother Tony and nephew LeRoy, his beautiful, rapturously seductive melodies – which he once described as “Bacharach strange,” referencing their musical complexity so effortlessly navigated by Mathis – were wholly intact with no nods to disco. Philly veterans like Bobby Eli, Jack Faith, Don Renaldo and Bob Babbitt played on the LP alongside West Coast pros including Lee Ritenour to bring Bell’s intricate arrangements to life.
Mathis Is… naturally played to the artist’s gifts of communicating romance in song on ballads like the stately “Lullaby of Love,” with its billowy cushion of strings, and the sweet, tropically-flavored “I’ll Make You Happy” with its showcase for Gary Coleman’s vibes. (Tony Bell, not Thom, arranged the latter.) “Heaven Must Have Made You Just for Me” recalls the most soaring of Thom Bell’s ballads for The Stylistics, though expressly tailored to Mathis’ voice rather than Russell Thompkins, Jr.’s tender falsetto. “I Don’t Want to Say No” is a mature, dramatic ballad rendered with Bell’s trademark sweeping strings and brass.
“Loving You – Losing You,” inexplicably not the major hit it deserved to be, has Mathis deftly turning swagger into vulnerability over an irresistibly driving and funky melody. Mathis and Bell also pick up the tempo on the slinky “Hung Up in the Middle of Love,” while “World of Laughter” has the laid-back, loose sound of Philly swing. Bobby Eli and Vinnie Barrett’s yearningly lovely “Sweet Love of Mine,” arranged by Tony Bell, closes Mathis Is… on a felicitous note, giving the singer an opportunity to reflect on a past relationship with confidence and the hope that it will blossom anew.
With the Tuesday, March 10 release of Life is a Song Worth Singing: The Complete Thom Bell Sessions from Real Gone Music and Second Disc Records, you’ll have the chance to revisit Mathis Is… in splendidly remastered sound courtesy of Sean Brennan at Sony’s Battery Studios. We can’t wait to share the classic soul of Johnny Mathis and Thom Bell with you.