I. Wonderful, Wonderful
“A new sound in popular music,” heralded the back cover of Johnny Mathis’ 1956 debut album. That self-titled release on Columbia Records introduced a voice that’s now instantly familiar: expressive, rich, creamy, seductive, and tender, with a clarion, controlled vibrato that set it apart from any other tone in the golden age of American song. As Columbia’s George Avakian realized, Mathis’ natural instrument was perfect for jazz – capable of navigating the form’s delicate contours, interpreting each melody line in a youthfully fresh yet faithful manner. Few vocalists, let alone one of barely legal age, could have held his own as Mathis did with collaborators like Gil Evans, Manny Albam, and Teo Macero. Yet Mitch Miller, the label’s all-powerful head of Pop A&R, saw a different path in Johnny’s future. The Sing-Along leader ushered in a new direction for Mathis as of the singer’s sophomore set, Wonderful, Wonderful. Since then, those superlatives have never been in doubt as Mathis brought his heart and soul to the realm of pop. Yet as pop changed, the singer did, too – while never abandoning his artistry. A remarkable new box set from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings celebrates the singer’s art from 1956 to the present day, taking in jazz, pop, rock and roll, R&B, soul, gospel, country, disco and beyond – all rendered with what one album described as “Mathis magic.”
The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection is a staggering, 68-disc collection rounding up on remastered CD every one of the artist’s original LPs for the label between Johnny Mathis (1956) and Sings the Great New American Songbook (2017) and in the process, chronicling a life in music that has few parallels. Perhaps only Tony Bennett comes to mind, and even that all-time great artist’s output is, by his own design, less eclectic and all-encompassing than Mathis’. This impressive set is the culmination of a recent campaign by Legacy that has also yielded The Complete Global Albums Collection (2014) covering the period of 1963-1967, and The Singles Collection (2015), comprising every one of Johnny’s Columbia non-LP sides. Taken together, these three boxes represent virtually every note released by Mathis in an over 60-year period, including outtakes and two unreleased albums: the CHIC-produced I Love My Lady and the Sergio Mendes-helmed The Island. This set brings 13 albums to CD for the first time, and many more for the first time in the United States. It also boasts bonus tracks, both on select individual albums and on a newly-curated collection. What it reveals is that the history of Johnny Mathis is, put simply, the history of American music in the second half of the twentieth century.
II. HeavenlyWhile Johnny Mathis is looked upon as an anomaly in the Mathis catalogue, it’s far from it, as the singer recorded songs by writers who would recur in his future – among them, Sammy Cahn, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and the up-and-coming Bart Howard. On this LP, Mathis was one of the first artists to record the latter’s “In Other Words (Fly Me to the Moon),” and he would champion Howard’s rarefied work for years to come. The debut LP also established the singer’s ability to blend standards with contemporary fare – something he continues to do through this very day.
Guided at first by Mitch Miller, Mathis moved into the pop world with aplomb, releasing a string of beloved, best-selling albums with some of the finest producers and arrangers of their time or any other. Wonderful, Wonderful (which, ironically, didn’t feature the single of the same name, though it can be found on The Singles) teamed him with the master of lush strings, Percy Faith, with whom he would craft 1958’s Merry Christmas, still one of the most beloved and successful holiday albums of all time. Live It Up! and I’ll Buy You a Star paired Mathis with the brightly swinging charts of Nelson Riddle. Johnny’s Mood was his first collaboration with Glenn Osser, an unsung hero whose sympathetic charts for ballads on releases like Heavenly and Faithfully played a key role in earning the singer the appellation The Voice of Romance. Those two albums’ ethereal title songs, incidentally, were penned by the young Burt Bacharach with lyricist Sydney Shaw; Bacharach and Mathis had previously been associated via the 1958 film theme and single “Warm and Tender,” written by Bacharach and Hal David. The music of Bacharach, too, would reappear throughout the singer’s career.
In this incredibly fertile period, Mathis would revisit his jazz roots in a new, intimate setting on Open Fire, Two Guitars (1958), accompanied by just Al Caiola and Tony Mottola on guitar, and Frank Carroll and Milt Hinton alternating on bass. That platter, designed for late-night listening, is a masterwork of restraint, and far from Mathis’ only adventurous record. Good Night, Dear Lord (also 1958) is a stirring and stunningly reverent exploration of spirituals and gospel crafted with arranger-conductor Faith, ranging from “Ave Maria” (in both its Bach and Schubert settings) to “Kol NIdre.” It’s still one of the most vivid examples of Mathis’ voice at its purest.
After Johnny’s rip-roaring romps with Riddle, he called on Don Costa for a return to a dreamier sound with the trio of Rapture (1962), Johnny and Romantically (1963). The versatile Costa earned his bona fides as an influential arranger of pop, rock-and-roll and R&B for a variety of artists including Paul Anka, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Ferrante and Teicher, Bobby Rydell, Connie Francis, and was branching out into “adult” pop for Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin. (One rising star who would play a major part in Johnny’s career was looking up to Costa as he imbued sophistication into his youth-oriented pop records: the Jamaica-born, Philadelphia-raised Thom Bell.) When Johnny’s Columbia contract ended in 1963, he decamped for Mercury Records with the promise of creative control and ownership of his masters. He formed the Global Records production company, and there, Costa would continue working with Mathis, as would Glenn Osser.
III. I’m Coming Home
As a result of the switch to Mercury/Global, The Voice of Romance jumps from 1963 to 1967, a four-year period of seismic shifts in pop culture and music. The youth market was stronger than ever, the singer-songwriter was on the ascendant, psychedelia was in the air, rock-and-roll was ceding to just plain “rock,” and The Beatles had changed everything. Contemporary material had never exited Johnny’s repertoire, and his Global period saw him tackling songs by Bob Lind, Marcos Valle, and his old friends Bacharach and David. His 1967 return to Columbia, Up, Up and Away, continued in this comfortable groove, with Glenn Osser handling the charts for a breezy version of Jimmy Webb’s title song, a chart-topper for The 5th Dimension, a gentle reading of Tim Hardin’s folky “Misty Roses,” and a trio of well-chosen tunes from Leslie Bricusse’s big-screen musical Doctor Dolittle.
As of 1968’s Love is Blue, however, the emphasis inched away from the Hollywood or Broadway showtunes and classic pop to velvety treatments of top 40 hits. Columbia’s new president, Clive Davis, saw in Johnny the potential to reinvent other vocalists or bands’ current favorites in his own, proven style – the practice the artist had started himself at Mercury. Hit singles were less likely to emerge from this setting (as the songs had already reached hit status for their originators), but Mathis’ LPs were consistent high sellers – a testament to the high quality of this string of albums in which Johnny worked with arranger-conductors like Robert Mersey, Ernie Freeman, and Al Capps, and producers including Jack Gold and Richard Perry.
The majority of the new-to-CD albums on The Voice of Romance are from this period, including a rare U.K.-only set, 1968’s The Music of Bert Kaempfert. Johnny’ sublime celebration of the German composer of “Strangers in the Night,” “Danke Schoen,” and “Spanish Eyes” was recorded in Germany for the European market. Its belated U.S. release dropped one track from the U.K. edition (“It Makes No Difference”) and was packaged as a tribute to Burt and Bert: Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bacharach & Kaempfert. The inclusion here of The Music of Bert Kaempfert (with “It Makes No Difference”) marks its standalone U.S. debut.
Previously unreleased bonus tracks have been appended to a number of albums from the 1970s into the following decade, including the Cher hit “The Way of Love” on Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet (1969); “Caroline” on Close to You (1970); The Lettermen’s medley of “Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on Love Story (1971); four cuts including The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” and The Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” on You’ve Got a Friend (1971); Mickey Newbury’s “Remember the Good” on The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face) (1972); two tracks (one a demo by producer Jerry Fuller) on Song Sung Blue (1972); Dave Loggins’ “Pieces of April” on Me and Mrs. Jones (1973); and more on The Heart of a Woman (1974), Feelings (1975); Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1977), That’s What Friends are For (1978), The Best Days of My Life (1979), Different Kinda Different (1980), Friends in Love (1982), A Special Part of Me (1984), and The Hollywood Musicals (1986).
During the seventies, Mathis released two of his most striking and soulful albums: 1973’s I’m Coming Home and 1977’s Mathis Is, both produced, arranged, conducted, and largely written by Philly soul architect Thom Bell. Like Mathis, Bell (a disciple of Teddy Randazzo, Don Costa, Burt Bacharach, and Johnny’s friend Henry Mancini) blurred genre lines with his inimitable fusion of pop and R&B. The perfect marriage of Mathis and Bell yielded some of the most impassioned works in either artist’s canon such as the softly yearning “I’m Coming Home,” dramatic “Life is a Song Worth Singing,” beguiling “Foolish,” and infectious “Loving You – Losing You.” Both of the Thom Bell albums saw Johnny make the singles charts, and his 45 RPM “comeback” (had he ever left?) was sealed with the chart-topping Deniece Williams duet “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” included here on 1978’s You Light Up My Life. Their subsequent full-length duets album, That’s What Friends Are For, adds three bonus duets including the previously unreleased Jeff Barry production of his and Bruce Roberts’ “So Deep in Love” from the 1982 sessions that yielded Mathis and Williams’ theme to television’s Family Ties
IV. All About Love
As the sound of pop changed again in the 1980s, “cover albums” such as those recorded by Mathis became increasingly rare. But Mathis had always been interested in exploring new sounds, and the eighties saw him release some of his finest and most diverse recordings, including a tribute to his early hero Nat “King” Cole with Nat’s daughter Natalie on the 1983 tribute Unforgettable (receiving its U.S. premiere here), a grand tribute to The Hollywood Musicals with Henry Mancini in 1986, and his third holiday celebration and first since 1969, Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (1986). He also found many contemporary songs to be ideally suited, and tackled some he’d missed the previous decade, like Vinnie Barrett and Bobby Eli’s “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” (A Special Part of Me, 1984) and Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” (Once in a While, 1988).
Concept albums were the order of the day for the consummate singer beginning in the 1990s. In a Sentimental Mood: Mathis Sings Ellington (1990) was ambitious and rewarding. Better Together: The Duet Album (1991) reunited Johnny with singing partners like Deniece Williams and Dionne Warwick, as well as with Thom Bell on the Patti Austin duet “You Brought Me Love.” The Ellington tribute was followed by similar songwriter salutes to modern-day tunesmiths like Michel Legrand and the Bergmans, and Diane Warren. Savor the hidden treasures, too, on albums like 1996’s All About Love, on which Burt Bacharach contributed two new songs, and Carole King and Gerry Goffin reunited for “I Will Walk Away.” The 2000 Mathis on Broadway emphasized modern theatrical fare, like “Seasons of Love” from Rent and “Our Children” from Ragtime. 2010’s Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville took Johnny to Music City for subtly modernized versions of chestnuts like the title track and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Mathis’ most recent LP, Sings The Great New American Songbook, truly proves that “everything old is new again,” as the artist got a little help from Clive Davis to return to the milieu of his seventies work for a spin on today’s biggest hits, from Adele to Bruno Mars…all graced with that unmistakable Mathis magic
V. Something to Sing About
For many, the biggest thrill on The Voice of Romance will doubtless come from the unreleased material, the centerpieces of which are two shelved albums making their debuts. The most famous of this pair is I Love My Lady, slated for release in fall 1982 but unheard in full until now. (Four tracks have surfaced over the years on various anthologies.) Written and produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of CHIC, the project was a natural extension of Mathis’ work with Thom Bell, once again pairing the timeless vocalist with a producer(s) at the vanguard of R&B who had been influenced by the singer. When Johnny entered the studio with CHIC, he was no stranger to dance or disco rhythms via such songs as “Gone, Gone, Gone” and a revival of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” both from The Best Days of My Life.
I Love My Lady melded Mathis’ romantic sensibility with CHIC’s sleek brand of guitar-driven R&B, and very much feels of a piece with the work of both artists. On the opening “Fall in Love (I Want To),” his vocals effortlessly and naturally glide above Rodgers and Edwards’ alluring musical cushion of tight rhythm and light orchestration. When he sustains one note near the song’s conclusion for over twenty-five seconds, it’s not only a breathtaking feat, but an expression of the lyric’s intense yearning. The boisterous “It’s Alright to Love Me” is driven by a shimmering keyboard riff and the chorus’ mantra of “go with the flow.” With some particularly tasty guitar work from Rodgers and tight bass from Edwards, it could have become a dancefloor anthem. The lithe, sinuous entreaty to “Take Me” is one of the funkiest items here, and on “Judy,” Johnny steps into the role of the jilted lover looking to get his girl back. He’s similarly pleading on the lovely, midtempo “Stay with Me.” The eight lengthy songs here were seemingly conceived as one album, but the moods and tempi happily vary. “Something to Sing About” subtly evokes the sing-along mode of “We are Family,” and the title song “I Love My Lady” deftly incorporates vibrant Latin rhythms and a tricky melody that would have tripped up a less accomplished vocalist. The album concludes with “Love and Be Loved.” The joyful and liberating ode is appropriate for 1982 or 2017, making it doubtless that I Love My Lady was worth the wait.
A far different album was recorded just a few short years later that, alas, met the same fate: 1989’s The Island, produced by Brazilian music legend Sergio Mendes and featuring songs by Mendes, Dori Caymmi, and Ivan Lins. Like I Love My Lady, a few tracks trickled out over the years from The Island before its complete premiere on this box set. Mathis and arrangers Caymmi and Robbie Buchanan evoked a dreamy, soft, and sensual yet contemporary update of the bossa nova on ballads (“The Island,” “Photograph”) and uptempo songs (“Who’s in Love Here,” “Your Smile”) alike. Mendes brought to the table a couple of his classic hits with Brasil ’66, and both “Like a Lover” and “So Many Stars” fit Mathis’ smooth vocals like a glove. Dionne Warwick, a onetime resident of Brazil and longtime champion of the country’s music, joined Johnny for “Who’s Counting Heartaches.” The least tropically-flavored tune on the set, it was used on Better Together following the shelving of The Island. Whether expressing yearning on “Wanting More” or wistful optimism on “We Can Try Love Again,” the beautiful music of Brazil inspired some of Johnny’s sweetest vocals of the decade.
A grab-bag disc, Odds and Ends: That’s What Makes the Music Play, brings together seventeen rarities, including five cuts from the 1964 album I’ll Search My Heart (assembled by Columbia of outtake material while Mathis was at Mercury), alternates of the singles “Wild is the Wind” and “Teacher, Teacher,” three Spanish language tracks, and four previously unreleased songs – most tantalizingly, two produced by Paul Williams’ longtime collaborator Roger Nichols in 1976, including a compelling reading of Williams and Nichols’ “Let Me Be the One.” Johnny’s 1993 duet with Barbra Streisand on a West Side Story medley and his 2006 recording of “The Shadow of Your Smile” from the 50th anniversary compilation Gold round out this enjoyable disc.
VI. Mathis Is…
The Voice of Romance is housed in a sturdy box similar in size and feel to those released by Columbia for Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Miles Davis – like Mathis, legends all. All 68 CDs are housed in mini-LP replica jackets with spines bearing the album title and number; these are color-coded by decade. A thick book includes an essay by James Ritz, and a double-page spread or more for each album with the original cover and credits. Numerous rare photos from the decades are also featured throughout the booklet. Most excitingly, every box boasts a numbered certificate hand-signed by the artist. Mike Piacentini at Sony’s Battery Studios, also this set’s co-producer, has remastered each album for optimal sound quality, and indeed, the Voice of Romance is as pristine as ever.
Since Johnny Mathis’ recording debut, virtually everything has changed about the sound of music, not to mention the music industry. But Mathis has held steadfast to his core values as an artist, and as a “singer’s singer,” as he’s happily traversed from genre to genre. That consistence of quality and variation of style makes the immersive journey contained in The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection one well worth taking for any fan or collector of American popular song. Basking in the glow of this nostalgic trip, you just might get misty yourself.