With a spot on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team well in his grasp, Johnny Mathis decided his best interests lay in a recording studio rather than a high-jump pit.
It was nearly 60 years ago that Mathis, who turned 80 last month, decided to forgo a promising track and field career and instead head to New York City, make a record and eventually become one of the top singers of all time.
“It was kind of a bittersweet moment for me,” said Mathis, who will perform at Proctors in Schenectady at 8 p.m. on Friday. “It was frustrating because I had all this going on in the same week. I had the Olympic trials in Berkeley and I also had a chance to go to New York and make a record. But to tell you the truth, it didn’t really take me long to decide. I guess I knew I wanted to be a world-class singer more than a world-class high jumper.”
By 1957 he had appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and in 1958 the release of “Johnny’s Greatest Hits,” just two years into his recording career, hit the Billboard charts and stayed there for 490 weeks, a record until Pink Floyd and “The Dark Side of the Moon” surpassed that mark in 1973.
With songs like “Chances Are,” “Wonderful! Wonderful!” and “It’s Not For Me to Say,” Mathis is the third most popular solo artist of the 20th century, trailing only Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra in record sales.
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
HOW MUCH: $120-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
While his career plateaued a bit in the late 1960s due to the popularity of rock ’n’ roll bands, 21 years after his first No. 1 record (“Chances Are” in 1957) he hit No. 1 again in 1978 with “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” a duet with Deniece Williams.
He has always been in demand on the concert tour and that hasn’t changed much in recent years. Mathis performed at Albany’s Palace Theatre in 2013 and 2012, and was last at Proctors in 2010.
“I don’t tour as much as I used to, so these days I try to cut it down to two or three shows a month,” said Mathis last week from his home in Los Angeles.
“That keeps the quality up, and fortunately I know what people want to hear, and I am able to reproduce all the songs that I had success with early in my career.”
Sounding the best he can is obviously still very important to him.
“One of the attributes that anybody who is on stage a lot has is knowing the importance of making it seem ordinary and effortless,” Mathis said.
“There are some songs that I used to sing that I don’t anymore, and yes, I am concerned about the quality of my voice. But I know what I can handle, and songs like ‘Chances Are,’ ‘The Twelfth of Never’ and ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’ are numbers I still feel very comfortable singing.”
Mathis was born in Gilmer, Texas, the fourth of seven children. His family moved to the San Francisco area when he was a young boy, and after graduating from George Washington High School, he earned an athletic scholarship to San Francisco State University, where he cleared 6-51⁄2 in the high jump.
“When you’re young, you fiddle around doing things that you like and you’re good at, and for me most of my activities revolved around school,” said Mathis.
“After my studies, music and the choir were very important to me, but I also liked sports and was very good at high jumping and running the hurdles. I even played a little basketball once in a while.”
His singing ability gave him some opportunities to delve into the world of musical theater, but that kind of work, as well as the movies, wasn’t for him.
“I did one operetta by Leonard Bernstein in college, and I was interested in doing more musical theater but it just didn’t happen,” said Mathis.
“The foundation of much of the music I’ve recorded all my career was based in Broadway musicals. But it seemed like I was too busy recording, and as for the movies, I made two and they were small parts. Twentieth Century Fox gave me a call once and told me to come down to the studio; it was just a short ride from where I live, and that experience was enough for me.
“I got a little taste of what making movies was like, sitting around, and I hated it. It was very laborious and tiring. So I knew it wasn’t for me, but I do get a kick every time they use one of my songs. That’s always neat.”
While he considers Billy Eckstine, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole among his favorite singers, Mathis said he actually preferred listening to the female singers of the 1950s and ’60s.
“The guys were kind of locked into what they were supposed to be doing, and all the girl singers back then were very flexible,” he said. “The guys had one sound and that was it. The girls were all over the place and I liked it. I thought to myself, ‘I could utilize that a little bit.’ ”
Mathis, who refers to his “two wonderful parents” as the biggest influence in his life, is an avid golfer and continues to play at least twice a week. He has registered nine holes-in-one.
“Yeah, isn’t that amazing,” he says, laughing. “I had a real affinity for golf and I used to hang out with some of the top pros. I got pretty serious about the game, and I still love it. But I’ve lost my edge. I’m just not that good anymore. It’s a frustrating game, but I do still get a kick out of it.”
Mathis has lived in the same house in Los Angeles for nearly 50 years. He remains single, refers to himself as a “homebody,” and has no intention of sharing his personal life with anyone. At least not soon.
no biography yet
“I guess, before I leave this earth, I’ll sit down with somebody and write a book,” he said.
“I think I do have some important things to say, and there have been many offers. But, I don’t think it’s the right time yet. I’m still very concerned that when people come to see a performance, I want them to think about nothing but my singing. The minute you write a book all the other stuff becomes important, and I don’t want to deal with all the other stuff.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]