Singer Johnny Mathis’s suave ballads helped him survive the dominance of rock in popular music, and his signature style propelled him to stardom across generations.
Johnny Mathis was born in 1935 in Gilmer, Texas. He sang in a jazz band while in college, and won a recording contract after an audition in San Francisco in 1955. Mathis scored his first No. 1 hit with "Chances Are" in 1957, and became known for his distinct rendition of popular Christmas songs. The year 2016 will mark his 60th anniversary as a recording artist.
Johnny Mathis was born on September 30, 1935, in Gilmer, Texas, the fourth of seven children. The family moved to San Francisco when Mathis was young, and it was there that his love of and aptitude for music began to develop. When Mathis was 8, his father brought home a piano and taught Mathis his first song, “My Blue Heaven.” The talented boy sang in the church choir and at school and community functions, until he took a step to the next level with a vocal teacher, with whom he worked for six years.
In 1954, Mathis began attending San Francisco State University, where he studied English and physical education. A gifted athlete, Mathis set a high jump record while at San Francisco State of 6 feet, 5½ inches, only two inches shy of the Olympic record at the time. In his spare time, though, Mathis spent more and more time in a nightclub called the Black Hawk, performing with a jazz band. The club owner invited a Columbia Records executive to hear Mathis sing, and in response to the performance, the executive sent a now-famous telegram back to his New York City office: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts."
Mathis signed with Columbia but continued his studies at San Francisco State while plans were being made in New York for his debut album. In 1956, Mathis was invited to try out for the Olympic team, but Columbia wanted him to go to New York as a run-up to his first recording session. With his dad’s help, Mathis decided to forgo an Olympic career and instead pursue a career in music, and in March 1956, he went to New York and never looked back.
Mathis's first record was called Johnny Mathis: A New Sound in Popular Song, and the jazz-inspired album didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The record label soon made an adjustment to Mathis's style, and his next album found Mathis singing what would become his signature song: the romantic ballad. During his second studio session, Mathis recorded “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not for Me to Say,” songs that would go down as all-time fan favorites. “Chances Are” followed and became the crooner’s first No. 1 hit.
But what really launched Mathis into the public consciousness was his 1957 appearance on TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show. After that, Mathis's albums were all smash hits, and his style, at once familiar and all his own, would help him sell millions of records. The following year, Mathis's greatest hits album was released, and it became one of the most popular albums of all time, spending an unfathomable 490 continuous weeks (about 9 1/2 years) on the Billboard albums chart.
With a hit in every decade of his recording career, and his popular Christmas recordings a mainstay each season, Mathis has spanned generations with his smooth vocals. He has performed for heads of state around the world, and in 1972, Mathis was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He has received the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' Lifetime Achievement Award and the Society of Singers' Ella Award. Mathis is also a member of the Pop Music Hall of Fame and the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame.