Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Johnny Mathis Interview




Johnny Mathis at a recording session in the 1960s, Photo courtesy of Columbia Archives.
Saturday, July 22
Johnny Mathis: The Voice of Romance Tour 2015
With the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Heinz Hall, Downtown. 8 p.m. 
412-392-4900

Frank Sinatra might have been The Voice, but Johnny Mathis has The Voice. A few months shy of his 82nd birthday, Mr. Mathis sounds as youthful on the phone as he did on the recordings he made in the majestic-sounding Columbia 30th Street Recording Studios, starting in the late 1950s. Mitch Miller, the head of Columbia Records' pop music department, has gone down in history as one of the squarest figures in the music industry. Back then, though, he was right on the money, taking this self-described "jazzer" from San Francisco and pairing him with lush, orchestral arrangements.

Mathis was discovered at the Black Hawk by George Avakian, who ran Columbia's jazz department. The 19-year old singer soon made a life-altering decision, scrapping a chance to join the USA Olympic Team in favor of a trip to New York to record an album. Johnny Mathis - A New Sound in Popular Song (1956) paired him up with arrangers like Gil Evans, Teo Macero and the Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis for a set that included "Star Eyes," "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "Babalu." Listening back today, it's impressive to hear his distinct vibrato with some often swinging charts, and to hear him cut loose on "Angel Eyes," normally taken as a dark blue, cry-in-your-cocktail number. But the album only had moderate success. Soon Miller took over, trading the bands for the orchestras of Ray Conniff or Ray Ellis. And Mathis never looked back.

In advance of Mathis' appearance this weekend with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I spoke with to him this past Monday. When I asked, "How are you," at the top of the call, he replied, "Old!" He then left fly with the first of many laughs I heard during the talk. We covered a myriad of topics, from his voice to current recordings, to his experience with Mitch Miller and the way the acoustics of the Columbia Studio helped him to deliver an important note in one of his biggest songs. I only wish the audio would be included here. His speaking voice sounded as crisp as his singing voice and he often emphasized his words as if they were lyrics.

I saw you perform here five years ago. Within a few syllables I was completely blown away. So I wonder - how do you keep your voice in such good shape? Is there some regimen that you follow?

I was wondering that. I'm 81, I'll be 82 in a couple months. My voice teacher was really my godsend. My dad insisted that if i wanted to sing - and he was a singer, a very good singer but he had a big family so nobody ever heard him other than us. He insisted that we find a voice teacher. I said, "Dad, I don't need a teacher. I can sing!" But he was adamant about it. and fortunately we found a wonderful woman who taught me.

In some ways she might have been the catalyst not only because she taught me about the physical proprieties of singing - how to keep your throat open when you're singing, how to support your tones from the diaphragm, that sort of thing - which most opera singers know backwards and forwards. But she was an opera singer and she insisted that that's what would help me over the years. Just learn how to do it so you won't injure your vocal chords. And of course she was absolutely right.

As you were starting to perform, did you feel like you were coming up with your own style? Jazz musicians are always told, "Find your own voice." Your style with the vibrato - was that something you came into on your own?

The vibrato is a natural, physical occurrence. Ask Eartha Kitt. You can't control it. So no, I never thought of anything like that. Other than the fact that I didn't really like it. I thought it was girlish sounding, or something. I started singing at such an early age. Under [my teacher's] tutelage, I got a chance to go to the opera quite a lot. Living in San Francisco, I got a chance to meet a lot of singers who came through at the local jazz clubs. There were a myriad of jazz clubs in San Francisco.

I listened to all these people. Along the way I was concerned about my vibrato. But I learned over a period of time how to control it. And then [laughs] I forgot about it and said, "Well, that's the way I sound!"

I was listening to some new stuff that I'm doing with Babyface [Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds]. A lot of popular songs of the day. There it is! That vibrato that I've always been hearing. But you get used to anything. [laughs]

What songs are you working on? You're going to call it The New American Songbook right?

Yeah, Clive Davis is an old pal of mine. He was of course, for many years, the president of Columbia Records. He still advises me on a lot of things. He is the guy who decided he would like to produce my new album, he and Babyface. They came up with the songs. And a lot of them are good songs. It was kind of hard to find good songs in today's market that I really wanted to sing. But the kids like what they like, and of course that's the way that we grew up too, playing the songs. They came up with the Keith Urban song, "Blue Ain't Your Color." Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Wow! That's got to be great.

I love that! It's quite a project! We did "Hello" by Adele. "I Believe I Can Fly," R. Kelly. "Once Before I Go," Peter Allen. "Remember When," Allen Jackson. "Run to You," a Whitney Houston song. They're all songs the public are familiar with. It goes back to when I first started making albums at a very young age. I did it with Mitch Miller. We also sang songs that the audience were familiar with. Most of the songs I chose in the beginning were popular standards. You know I started singing int the '50s and '60s and there were a lot of novelty songs. Very much like nowadays. But that's kind of what I fall back on when I do my concerts. People like to hear songs that are familiar to them.

I wanted to ask you about Mitch Miller. Throughout history he's gotten a bad rap but he had a vision that really worked for you. What was your working relationship like with him?

The thing about Mitch was he was a classical oboist for one of the symphonies in New York, I can't remember which one. But he was absolutely adamant about wanting, as most classical musicians are...their whole life is spent learning their craft. And very few of them make a lot of money. Including Mitch Miller, so he wanted to make money.

So somehow he became head of popular music at Columbia Records. He worked with all of us: Vic Damone, Rosemary Clooney. And they were very boisterous about his ability. And he had none! He hadn't a clue as to what to do in the studio. BUT, he wanted to make popular songs. So he would give us these songs to sing. Most of them were trivial. I'll never forget Rosemary, when he gave her [starts singing Clooney's classic "Come On-a My House"]. But it ended up being a hit record for her. So we had that little thing going on with Mitch.

I was 19 years old, maybe 20 at the time. I was looking for somebody to guide me. George Avakian - God bless him, he's still alive and almost 100 years old now [NOTE: Avakian turned 98 this year] - signed me. We tried a little bit of jazz orientated first album that didn't impress anyone, other than some vocal pyrotechnics here and there on my part. We met Mitch Miller and I said, "Yeah, let's do something." So he came up with a pile of songs and handed them to me. It was as tall is I was. I picked out four songs. "It's Not for Me To Say," "Wonderful Wonderful," "When Sunny Gets Blue," and a song a new kid brought him, "Warm and Tender" by Burt Bacharach.

That was what I did in the studio. Mitch was there. He did nothing but stand next to me while I'm singing. While I'm singing, if you can imagine that, patting me on the back to [speaks rhythmically] make. Sure. That. I. Sang. On. The-beat. Be-cause. Jazz. Music. Does. Not. Sell. [We both laugh.]

And I was a jazzer, you know? He had to knock that out of my head. that's what he did. He was next to me and he went, "Sing. On. The-beat. Don't. Do. Anything. Otherthanthat." We got lucky.

And I've nothing but good things to say about Mitch. Other than all of the things that you've heard are true. Everybody hated him. Rosemary hated him. Tony Bennett hated him. Vic Damone hated him. Because he didn't know what he was doing and he got lucky with me.

Was that at a time when you didn't dare stand up to Mitch? Did you feel like you needed to listen to him?

I listened to anybody who... people who didn't even know what they were talking about, I listened to them. I was a kid! Wide-eyed, And also I have a very flexible voice. I could do whatever they asked me to do, vocally. It wasn't a big deal. I'm a jazz-orientated singer. Jazzers don't care what you do, you just do it! I was good fodder for them.

Mitch was just one of the many people..... I'll tell you this: I thought I was going to have more oversight when I went into the studio. But when I was singing and making my recordings, everybody was adamant about getting the instrumentation correct or hearing the sound of their voice right. But absolutely zero kind of help that I could get vocally. It was nonexistent. It just was not there because I guess they felt that if I was a signed, contract singer that I knew what I was doing. But I certainly didn't. And I needed all the help I could get. and the first person that gave me any parameters about singing was Mitch Miller.

Prior to that, would you be waiting for feedback, only to be told, "Great! Let's go to the next song"?

Well, mostly I listened to the people who did the charts, some of the great jazz artists were on my first album.

Like Gil Evans and Teo Macero.

And John Lewis, of the Modern Jazz Quartet. They were very nice and they were concerned about getting the arrangement done. Not a peep as far as what to sing or how to sing it. I was really quite on my own. All my great vocal heroes at the time - you have to remember that I was 13, 14 years old when I was heard by George -they were all girl singers. And jazz singers. I was really unstructured as far as singing on the beat, and singing with an orchestration. I was all over the place, and that's the way the first album turned out. I would sing pretty well and towards the end of the song, I would think, "Ahhh, this is BORing!" Then I'd go [yells out a high note], running off the melody.

Most of my vocal heroes at the time were girl singers. Chris Connor, June Christie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne. For some reason, those were the voices that I liked. I tried to emulate them.

I copied what I thought I really liked as far as vocalizing on a song. If I liked one person's rendition of i then ...[that's what I emulated]. As far as "Angel Eyes" was concerned, I remember falling in love with a version I heard which was quite different from the way the song was written. But you were guessing all the time! I never had anything I was adamant about when I was making those first recording.

George Avakian... was just interested in the fact that I was very young and I sang jazzy stuff. Because he was the head of jazz at the time. Eventually the fact of my youth and my inexperience showed up on that first album. I was really kind of happy when Mitch gave me some direction, vocally. [Laughs] And then it got kind of boring [for Mitch]. I said, "Now I know what to do!" And he wouldn't go away. Finally he did.

I think he was in the studio on occasion after that, when I did my first few albums. Actually I remember he was. Because Percy Faith hated him. Percy did my first few albums. He was a wonderful, wonderful composer and arranger. He was an artist in residence on the label at the time. So he was doing a big favor to accompany me with his orchestra at the time. And it was a big boost to my career at the time. God bless Percy Faith.

The Columbia 30th Street Studios - everything I've heard out of that place sounded wonderful. As you were recording it, did you get a feel for how rich it made the sound?

Absolutely. It was a church, and the record company bought the church and turned it into a recording studio. And it was absolutely the most wonderful place to sing in. I remember how Mahalia Jackson loved it. Because I used to follow her. For some reason, we got booked one after another. she just loved it. And I did too.

I did so many things in that studio that I could've never done any place else. For instance, the high note  in the middle of my recording of "Misty," I started singing in the hallway. And I walked into the studio [singing], "Onnnnnnnnnnnnn my own." [In the studio you could do] all sorts of crazy things like that! Because you felt so comfortable with the sound in the studio because it reverberated. And singers love to sing when the sound is reverberating.

I'm going to remember that every time I hear the high-note in "Misty" now.

Ha ha ha! I started in the hallway!

And back then, everything was recorded completely live with everyone in the same studio, right? You didn't do overdubs did you?

No, we didn't. And I did four songs in three hours for 20, 25, 30 years. Get or no get! You know - sometimes you didn't "get it" but it came out anyway.

I was wondering about that because I was looking at the discography on your website. 1964 was an especially big year because you have seven albums come out. I wondered if you did more than one album in one session. But you said it was...

Four songs in three hours. It was always that way. I'll never forget it. And God bless [arranger/conductors] Glenn Osser and Percy Faith and all the other extraordinary arrangers that I've worked with over the years. They had to come up with these ideas, you know? So many of the songs were standard songs. Quite beautiful, but very well known songs. So they had to do their take on a song better than [what had been] recorded thousands of times. I give them a great deal of credit. And they were working with a young, unknown singer!

But things took off within a few years, right?

Yeah, and after the success of my single recordings, [pauses] I had all my knowledge of songs instilled in me by listening to all these jazzers over the years that I had mentioned to you earlier. And they sang all standard songs. So all of my repertoire at that time, being so young, was all the songs I had heard all these jazz singers sing - Ella, Sarah, all the rest. That was my trunkfull of songs.

Then when I asked to make albums, Mitch was at a loss because he didn't know any of these songs. At least he sat in the studio and listened. Because when people like Percy Faith, who was a working artist himself, had a very little patience with someone like Mitch Miller who knew nothing about what he was doing. Shot in the dark all the time, all the time. He was quite a little bit intrusive and not very polite about it.

He was just looking to find successful songs. It didn't matter the quality of songs, or how it came about, or how it was recorded. But he was very much interested in making money. Which isn't a bad idea. A lot of people are that way. But Mitch was doing it with very little knowledge of what he was talking about. That's what got under the skin of all these learned musicians. He was a wonderful musician. He certainly knew nothing about making records.

After awhile, getting into the 1960s, would you be the one who picked everything - the concept for the album and the songs?

Yes. Along the way, I met people like Bob Prince, who very early on was in the studio as a young, aspiring producer. [Prince arranges and plays a few songs on A New Sound In Popular Song] He was also a wonderful musician. And he liked my singing. He helped me in so many ways. He was my liaison between the record company and the orchestra that was going to accompany me on my next project. I always have to remember to give him credit because I was at the mercy of the people who were in this building that I had never met. But they were the business people of the record.

So when it was time for me to make an album, because basically that's what I did a lot. The single records were kind of [the case where] I'd run in do something but I never thought too much about it because the songs were all new. They were all written by local songwriters, [who gave] me a little idea about the song. But other than that, it seemed that because I could really learn some of these songs really fast and go into the studio, record them according to their likes. The writer was always there saying, "Okay, that's very good. I like that."

One final, off-the-wall question. Since you came up in an era when albums were popular, do you have a preference in the vinyl vs. digital debate? Do you prefer records to CDs?

Oh, gosh. I never thought about it too much. There are people who have brought it to my attention, the differences. But I really don't. I know when I hear music and it's reproduced beautifully.

The only thing I noticed was the early recordings that I did at the studio in New York, the old church, how wonderful [it sounds]. And I never, ever was able to reproduce that sound or hear that sound on my voice after we stopped recording there. Everything sounded very flat. They lost the roundness because, of course, it was a church. Evidently it was just the right amount of reverberation in the walls and what have you. Because we've never been able to get that sound again.
*

By that time, we had hit the 30-minute mark. I still had a handful of questions (any artists you listen to that might surprise your fans?; will you please sing "When Sunny Gets Blue" this weekend?) but they'll have to wait for another time.



2 comments:

Kathleen Baxter said...

Can we get to hear this interview?? A UK. Fan!��

shanleymusic said...

Thanks for checking it our, Kathleen. Sorry, no audio. That would require a bit of editing, which I can't do here.