It turns out the early bird doesn’t just get the worm. He also gets to keep a career that’s still going full-bore at age 82.
“I get up at four in the morning, and I go to the gym at six and usually work out for an hour,” says crooner Johnny Mathis during a recent phone call in advance of his Saturday night performance at Golden Nugget Atlantic City. “I’ve been doing it for over 30 years or so, and it agrees with me. It’s just a process I’ve gotten accustomed to. It’s helped me keep my weight down, of course, and probably [helped] keep my stamina up.”
Stamina and weight are well and good, but it’s Mathis’ silky, vibrato-inflected vocal style that has endeared him to millions over the course of 62 years and more than 70 albums. All the workouts in the world won’t matter if the voice is no longer up to the job, right?
“I was very lucky,” says the genial Mathis, who punctuates many of his remarks with hearty chuckles. “From the very beginning, my dad loved to sing, but he also instilled in me the idea that if I wanted to sing, I was gonna have to sing properly, even though I thought I knew how to sing.
“And so, we looked around my hometown of San Francisco and finally found Connie Cox, a wonderful lady over in the East Bay area who taught me vocal production from the time I was about 13. We studied for about eight years and I learned how to produce the tones that were necessary without harming my vocal cords, which has been a godsend over the years.”
Mathis added that as a member of a family with seven children, paying for those lessons wasn’t possible. “It was all done out of the goodness of her heart,” he says, “and I shall be eternally grateful to [Cox]. I worked at her studio. I cleaned her studio and ran errands for her, and that’s how I paid for my voice lessons.”
Today, he added, “I do physical exercises. You get the blood flowing to the vocal cords. I do, [sings] ‘Me, me, me’ — everything is okay.”
Mathis says that out of his entire repertoire, only “Misty” has been lowered to a more accommodating key (a common ploy for singers of a certain vintage). “The rest of them are the way they are. If I can’t sing [a song] to the end, I’ll sing as much as I can.”
In addition to a performance schedule that would challenge performers half his age, the San Francisco native who once seemed destined to compete in the track-and-field portion of the 1956 Summer Olympics (his first Columbia Records contract put the kibosh on those aspirations) has kept busy in the recording studio: Last year, he released Johnny Mathis Sings the New Great American Songbook, a collection of tunes written by more contemporary songsmiths like Pharrell, Adele and Alan Jackson. Finding suitable material, he admits, was not a particularly easy task.
“It’s very difficult to find songs I’m interested in. The Broadway songs which were a very big part of my career when I first started don’t exist anymore — My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Carousel,” he says. “A lot of the performers nowadays who sing write their own stuff, and it’s always tailored to their abilities. It’s a bit of a [challenge] for me to find songs.”
Mathis, who in 2003, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, can legitimately lay claim to Atlantic City as a second home. He is one of the increasingly few artists — Tony Bennett and Frankie Valli among them — who started headlining at the dawn of the town’s legal gambling era in May 1978 and continue to be booked in the casinos. But his association with Atlantic City predates the arrival of the legal gaming.
“I sang in Philadelphia all the time, and when I started to go to Atlantic City, I started at a bar, actually, and I was singing over the bar as the people were drinking,” he remembers with a laugh.
“It was a ‘walk-in’ place and had sawdust on the floor,” he says of the establishment whose name he couldn’t recall, “but it gave me a little bit of an insight as to what was expected of me in the future. It was fun, but I much prefer singing in the hotels I ended up singing in and which were a very big part of my career.”
With more than six decades as an entertainer in the rear-view mirror, Mathis has certainly earned a retirement in which he can focus his energies on his beloved golf. But that, he insisted, is not on the “to-do” list.
“It’s always another performance,” he says. “I’ve toured the world and I still go back [occasionally] to one of my favorite places, Great Britain. But here in the United States I go all over the place constantly and do concerts. I work with a lot of the symphony orchestras, which is exciting because you hear all that wonderful music from the large orchestras.”
“Call me up, I’ll come sing.”
- 9 p.m. Saturday, Golden Nugget Atlantic City, Huron Avenue and Brigantine Boulevard; $89, www.goldennugget.com.