Johnny Mathis is always singing — even on the golf course.
“I was just calling my — the guy at the office, and I was on the golf course,” Mathis said early this week from his home in Hollywood.
“I started singing this song written by Bart Howard — he wrote this song called ‘In Other Words,’ which was sung by Peggy Lee, who changed the title of it to ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’ Years ago, Bart was very kind to me when I was just starting out, and he wrote some wonderful songs. I was just trying to jog my memory and find the name of it.”
At age 77, the velvet-voiced crooner — known for hits such as “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” “Chances Are” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” that have since become standards in American popular culture — isn’t performing or recording as much as he used to.
His next show, at the Palace Theatre tonight, will be followed by just one other date, in Atlantic City, N.J., on Saturday. The rest of his schedule through this year is full of quick two-shots like this, followed by longer breaks in between outings.
“Usually I end up singing two concerts in one week, and then have a few days off — maybe, a week and a half, two weeks off — and then I go out and do it again,” Mathis said. “It’s a very comfortable kind of situation, and I don’t have to do as much as I used to. I used to have to try to make a living with this, and thank goodness I don’t have to do that anymore.”
Where: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
When: 8 tonight
How Much: $76, $56, $36
More Info: 465-3334, www.palacealbany.com
But Mathis still loves to sing, whether its in a concert hall or on the golf course. And he wants people to know it.
“I do have to remind people that I still sing on a regular basis,” he said. “I’m still excited about music and all the wonderful things it has done for me in my life.”
He is constantly searching for ways to keep up his interest and excitement. Part of that is his professional vocal training — for six years, from ages 13 to 19, he studied under San Francisco-area vocal teacher Connie Cox, exchanging vocal lessons for housework. Through Cox, Mathis studied everything from vocal scales and control to classical and operatic singing styles, giving him a leg up on his contemporaries in the pop music world.
“One thing that it does for you is it kind of keeps your interest level up,” he said. “I love listening to people like Beverly Sills or Richard Tucker, all the great opera singers, and then I love to listen to good singers of popular music, or good R&B singers that have these extraordinarily gifted, God-given sounds they make.
“I get a lot of inspiration from listening to them, and it’s also helped my repertoire over the years,” he added. “I did kind of an iconic religious album when I was about 22, 23 years old [1958’s ‘Good Night, Dear Lord’], and each — on the Jewish holidays, they’ll play my versions of ‘Kol Nidre’ and ‘Eli Eli,’ and a couple other songs of the Jewish faith that I did. It just kind of rounds out my musical, you know, attitude — that’s the thing. The whole idea is to just stay interested, keep a level of interest up so that you want to do what you do.”
Even after 57 years in the business, Mathis continues to push his voice in new directions. In 2010, he released his first country-influenced album, “Let it Be Me: Mathis in Nashville,” which as the title suggests was recorded in Nashville with producer Fred Mollin and features guest spots from Vince Gill and Alison Krauss. The album, featuring songs such as “Crazy,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Southern Nights,” along with two arrangements of “What a Wonderful World,” landed Mathis his fourth Grammy nomination.
“My dad was born and raised in Texas, and he was a good singer, so the first songs that I heard from my dad were kind of country and western in flavor,” Mathis said.
“But usually when I want to record, I go to someone, like Phil Ramone for instance, who just passed away recently — he was a dear friend of mine, and a great innovator in the world of producing music for recordings. And I just kind of say, ‘This is what I want to sing; how can you help me?’ And they help, according to their backgrounds. . . . I really depend upon the guy who’s actually doing the producing to kind of steer me in whatever direction he wants to do, because I can’t possibly think of something to do after 56, 57 years of doing this — it kind of boggles the mind.”
He’s currently working on a follow-up album, once again with Mollin and the same band that performed on “Let it Be Me,” this time tackling Christmas songs — a genre that Mathis has almost become synonymous with over the years. So far he’s recorded with Billy Joel, Celine Dion, and once again with Gill and his wife, Amy Grant, tackling Christmas songs both new to him and familiar from his back catalog.
“First you have to try to find something you haven’t sung, which is kind of difficult for me because I’ve sung so much Christmas music,” Mathis said.
Oone more time
“I found some new stuff, but of course when I ask Billy Joel what he wanted to sing, he said, ‘I want to sing “The Christmas Song.” ’ And I’m like, ‘I must have recorded that three times already; here we go again.’ But I sang it again with him, and he brought his expertise and incredible musicianship, and it really sounded completely different from everything I’ve sung before. . . . It doesn’t matter if I’ve recorded it already; it sort of takes on a different approach when you sing in tandem, and I love singing with other singers.”