Johnny Mathis was still a teenager when he was discovered by a jazz producer who, after meeting the young singer, sent a telegram to executives at his label, Columbia Records, that stated: “Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.”
That was nearly 70 years ago, and that college sophomore has indeed gone “all the way” — and then some.
With a string of hits, including ballads like “Chances Are,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” and “The Twelfth of Never,” Mathis became known as “the voice of romance.” With eight Christmas albums, Mathis is also often referred to as “the voice of Christmas.” He has recorded nearly 80 original albums over the course of his career.
The singer-songwriter is bringing his smooth sound to the Providence Performing Arts Center on Sept. 23 and, in a recent phone call from his home in Hollywood, asked to tell those coming to the show: “I love them, I love them, I love them.”
Mathis, who will turn 88 on Sept. 30, said that while he doesn’t tour as frequently as he used to, he still gets a thrill singing and being on stage.
“I never even think about quitting singing,” he said emphatically, with a playful hint of indignation at the question. “I’ll never stop singing. I may stop traveling, you’ve got that right — but I’ll just sing all the time anyway; even if it’s just singing around my house.”
When asked about his longtime, loyal fan base, Mathis is quick to clarify that “I don’t think about them as fans. I think about them as my friends.”
Born in Gilmer, Texas, Mathis is the fourth of seven children. When he was young, the family moved to San Francisco.
“My dad, being the kind of man he was, said ‘Son, I think we’re going to get out of here while we’re alive,’” said Mathis, explaining that his mixed ethnicity was not always accepted in the South. “So we went to San Francisco for a wonderful, wonderful life.”
An accomplished high school athlete, Mathis received an athletic scholarship to San Francisco State College (now University), where he broke classmate — and future Celtics and NBA legend — Bill Russell’s high jump record, with a mark of 6 feet 5½ inches. He was planning to try out for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, but Columbia Records wanted him to record his first single — “Wonderful, Wonderful.”
He chose to record the single and hasn’t looked back, selling millions of albums worldwide and putting out a string of hit songs stretching from the 1950s through the 1980s.
“I’ve been very fortunate, and my voice has held up all these years. I’m looking forward to the next performance,” he said. “I also take care of myself, since you have to be healthy to do this.”
A golf enthusiast, Mathis said he used to play every day.
“Unfortunately, I’m at an age where most of my golfing buddies have passed on or aren’t able to play anymore,” Mathis said. “Nowadays, I get up in the morning and go with a couple of my friends to the gym and do a 45-minute workout and come home and watch TV and relax. I’ve gotten to the point where I do just enough not to overtax myself physically.”
Mathis said he is also a healthy eater and enjoys cooking — a skill he learned from his parents, both of whom worked in the culinary field.
“I come from a large family and my parents cooked morning, noon, and night for all of us, and they made their living cooking for people who paid them to cook for them. They were fabulous cooks,” he said. “So I learned how to cook from a young age. I also learned to make sure that I didn’t eat too much because I have to go on stage and look [good].”
When asked about the recent passing of his friend Tony Bennett and other contemporaries over the years, Mathis said while it’s sad, “it’s part of what life is and I’ve learned to live with it … to count my blessings, stay as healthy as possible, and think good thoughts.”
His concert in Providence is part of his “Voice of Romance” tour, as well as a pre-birthday celebration. He said fans — er, friends — can expect a varied set list.
“I have some songs that people want to hear because they were popular at one time, but I also throw in crazy stuff, like songs in different languages [including] French, German, [and] Italian,” he said. “I took voice lessons with a wonderful lady named Connie Cox and she explained to me that singing in languages was part of what music was all about.”
And while traveling has lost some of its luster after all these years, Mathis said knowing he will be on stage at the end of his travels makes it all worthwhile.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my friends and having a good time,” Mathis said. “I can’t wait.”
For information and tickets, go to ppacri.org
Juliet Pennington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.