A new 4-CD box set from Legacy Recordings and Columbia Records can be best summed up by the title of its very first track: “Wonderful! Wonderful!” Johnny Mathis’ simply-titled The Singles doesn’t bring together every track released by the legendary artist on 45 RPM; such an endeavor would take far more than four discs. Instead, it features the tracks originally released by Mathis on Columbia in the singles format – in other words, non-LP sides – between the years of 1956 and 1981, in their original single mixes. This amounts to 87 tracks, including a handful of bonus cuts which first appeared on compilations over the years. Better yet, 31 of these songs have never before appeared on compact disc. As such, The Singles can’t be described as a greatly expanded “greatest hits” (a type of album which Mathis, coincidentally, pioneered with the phenomenally successful Johnny’s Greatest Hits in 1958 – a record-breaking 490 charting weeks!). You won’t find “Misty” or “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” here. You will hear a number of the singer’s early hits, though, as well as an even greater amount of worthwhile non-album tracks. Think of it as The Rare Singles, and you’re off and running.
After the extraordinary run of back-to-back hits “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” “Chances Are” and “The Twelfth of Never” in 1957 – four of the six classic songs that open this collection, along with “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “Warm and Tender” – Mathis was afforded a higher degree of creative control than many of the artists on the roster of Columbia’s A&R chief Mitch Miller. Over the course of this collection, the breadth and range of Mathis’ talent, and musical tastes, is revealed.
Naturally, his skills as a romantic balladeer nonpareil were well-established from the earliest days of his career. Even then, though, Mathis showed many sides, ably assisted by the rich orchestrations of some of the greatest arrangers of the era including Ray Conniff, Ray Ellis, Percy Faith, Ralph Burns, Don Costa, and Glenn Osser. “Wonderful! Wonderful!” and “Teacher, Teacher” are as playful as “Chances Are” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” are elegant. The ravishing “Wild is the Wind” spellbinds thanks to Mathis’ exquisite performance; even David Bowie was inspired by the performance and included a rendition on his Station to Station album. Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s haunting “Warm and Tender” is atypical of the team’s later, sleekly sophisticated soul-pop, but it enthralls in Mathis’ ethereal recording.
The hidden gems during this period are many. “Let’s Love” (1958) and “The Flame of Love” (1959) are both buoyant, pretty pop confections; “The Story of Our Love,” also from 1959, is a languid ballad with equal parts country and lush romance. 1958’s “I Look at You” should warrant special attention, too, as a rare songwriting credit for the vocalist. “All is Well,” a 1960 single, is an atypical swinger from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, then crafting hits for the likes of The Coasters. Mathis is equally loose and bright on “Hey Love” from the team of Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance, also responsible for “The Flame of Love” and “Starbright.” Vance is one of the most represented writers here, also having penned songs in the 1959-1962 period with Jack Segal (“Oh That Feeling,” “Jenny,” “I Love Her, That’s Why”), Eddie Snyder (the Top 10 hit “What Will My Mary Say”) and Leon Carr (“Should I Wait (Or Should I Run to Her),” “That’s the Way It Is” and the No. 6 “Gina”).
Mathis had the cream of the songwriting crop offering him new tunes, but he also breathed new life into numerous songs from the worlds of Hollywood and Broadway. The 1958 musical Oh Captain! only managed 192 performances in New York, but Mathis’ recording of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ striking ballad “All the Time” might make you wonder why the Tony Randall vehicle didn’t last longer. Another theatrical rarity is the sweeping “You Set My Heart to Music” from 13 Daughters. The Hawaiian-set show, with Don Ameche and Keola Beamer (later a famous Hawaiian slack-key guitarist) among its cast, lasted a mere 28 performances in 1961; Mathis’ recording of “Music” has thankfully endured much longer. Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy has had a much greater life, needless to say, than either Oh Captain! or 13 Daughters; Mathis took its “Small World” to the Pop Top 20. He didn’t chart with his velvety rendition of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s gentle “How to Handle a Woman” from 1960’s Camelot, but his voice caresses Loewe’s melody with ease.
A handful of Christmas songs are included on The Singles, too, from the 1961 single pairing of “My Kind of Christmas” and “Christmas Eve” to the 1980 duets on “The Lord’s Prayer” and “When a Child is Born” with Gladys Knight and the Pips. (Plug: All of Johnny’s Christmas recordings for Columbia and Mercury made between 1958 and 2010 can be heard this fall on Real Gone Music’s The Complete Christmas Collection, a new 3-CD set for which I’ve provided liner notes!)
No music is included here from Mathis’ time at Mercury Records; (almost) all of his singles recorded at Mercury for his Global production company were addressed on last year’s indispensable The Global Albums Collection. When he returned to Columbia from his three-plus-year sojourn in 1967, the musical landscape had irrevocably altered. And as the sound of music changed, Johnny Mathis adapted without ever altering the quality that made his vocals so distinctive.
The first tracks on The Singles to feature rock rhythms originated on a 1967 non-album single: Fred Haber’s “Among the First to Know” b/w Gene Allan, Bob Feldman and Ron Dante’s “Long Winter Nights.” Robert Mersey, perhaps best known for his holiday arrangements for Andy Williams, wrote the delightfully fizzy charts for the pair. Mathis began tackling more and more contemporary material by songwriters such as singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot (“Wherefore and Why” b/w the epic “The Last Time I Saw Her,” both arranged in groovy style by Perry Botkin, Jr.), Carole King and Gerry Goffin (the sweetly loping “I Was There,” previously recorded by Lenny Welch) and Jimmy Webb (the dramatic “Evie,” also recorded by Bill Medley). “Evie,” in particular, inspired some of Mathis’ most passionate vocals. Billy Eckstine tackled “Think About Things” on his 1971 Stax album Feel the Warm; Johnny’s interpretation of the dynamic Artie Butler/Jerry Fuller tune is even warmer.
The 1970 double album Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bacharach and Kaempfert featured one disc of new recordings from the Bert Kaempfert songbook with previously-issued songs penned by Burt Bacharach. Two Kaempfert tracks here (“Don’t Talk to Me,” “Night Dreams”) didn’t make the cut for the LP; two more Bacharach tracks from roughly the same period are also essential listening: the heartbreaking “Whoever You Are, I Love You” from Bacharach and David’s Broadway musical Promises, Promises, and the team’s rather straightforward ballad “Ten Times Forever More,” which was recorded by both Mathis and Eddy Arnold before disappearing into obscurity.
Like Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini was another composer to whom Mathis continually returned over the years. His charming film theme “Darling Lili,” with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, is heard here alongside “Sometimes.” With words provided by Mancini’s daughter Felice, the lilting “Sometimes” is one of the many elegant collaborations here between producer Jerry Fuller and arranger-conductor D’Arneille Pershing. (The pair even co-wrote 1973’s anthemic “I”.) Another film maestro, John Barry, inspired the beautiful vocal from Mathis on the lovely “This Way Mary” from his score to Mary, Queen of Scots with lyrics by Don Black. Academy Award winner Black recurs on “Walking Tall” from the cult classic movie of the same name with music by Walter Scharf.
Mathis segued into smooth soul and R&B in the seventies alongside producers and/or arrangers like Fuller, the legendary Thom Bell and Gene Page. Working with producer Jack Gold, Page crafted a few charts on The Singles, including 1976’s romantic “Turn the Lights Down,” a quartet of holiday songs, and the sleek Ray Parker Jr. co-write from 1981, “Nothing Between Us But Love.” Page and Gold helmed the attractive rendition of Lionel Richie’s chart-topping hit for The Commodores and the breezy revival of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ standard “The Way You Look Tonight,” both from 1981’s The First 25 Years – The Silver Anniversary Album.
The Singles is appealingly packaged in a standard CD-sized fold-out digipak with each disc bearing the vintage Columbia label. Its 24-page booklet features both numerous picture sleeves and new liner notes by both Johnny Mathis and compilation co-producer Didier C. Deutsch, who has penned a warm, personal remembrance. Co-producer Mike Piacentini has crisply remastered each track. Next year, Johnny Mathis marks 60 years since his signing with Columbia Records. Though the simple title of The Singles has led to some confusion among fans looking for a collection of every one of his famed 45s, this assemblage of hits and rarities belongs on the shelf of every fan of Johnny Mathis – which is to say of any fan of immaculate vocals, impeccable musicianship, and the full spectrum of American popular song.
And don’t forget: Johnny’s The Complete Christmas Collection 1958-2010 is coming on November 6 from Real Gone Music (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.) while his Life is a Song Worth Singing: The Complete Thom Bell Sessions is still available from Second Disc Records and Real Gone Music (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.) !